The world's second largest river begins in Iquitos, high in the Peruvian Andes. It curls across the belly of South America and decants at Belem on Brazil's Atlantic coast. Coursing a whopping 4,000 miles, it is longer than the continental United States is wide.
The Amazon is more than big, though. It has a thousand tributaries and carries one-quarter of the planet's free-flowing water, more than any other river in the world. One-third of our oxygen supply is hooked up to the dense, fragile rain forest that flanks it.
Like some colossal continental vascular system, the Amazon snakes through the densest jungle landscapes. (From a plane, it really does look like a gigantic serpent -- sinuous, slithery and menacing.) The vegetation around it conceals the remotest out posts of civilization, where piranha fishing is as routine as yawning.
When I first flew over the Amazon in 1969, I was a minor part of a major political mission to Latin America for the U.S. government. High-level members of our group were selected to visit Manaus, perhaps the Amazon's best-known city. As low woman on the totem pole, I was not among them.
Having already glimpsed the river from the air, I actually was grateful to trade Manaus for margaritas. I sipped several, comfortably ensconced at a hotel somewhere in Colombia while the others went off on our nation's business -- 1,000 miles upriver in Brazil.
Maybe melodramatically, I envisioned them trekking to Manaus through mist-shrouded jungles, millions of mosquitoes and tribes aboriginal man-eaters. I even imagined Manaus' reputedly opulent opera house set amid vine-choked jungles rotting with decay.
My returning colleagues reported nothing of the sort, even though Manaus is one of the world's most improbable cities. Carved out of the jungle by wealthy rubber barons in the 19th century, it is now a stately port city. Its Teatro Amazonas (the opera house) is an architectural jewel, with mahogany floors and crystal chandeliers brought from Europe piece by piece. Nowadays cruise passengers even attend performances.
These days Amazon cruises seem as ubiquitous as the river's piranha. Options include tiny expedition vessels, upscale adventure ships or super-luxurious liners. All offer lecturers interpreting local culture and wildlife in the rain forest's "enchanted canopy."
Expedition ships emphasize nature, frequently using inflatable Zodiacs to explore the surrounding rain forest and observe its abundant flora and fauna. The 100-passenger Explorer, for example, is small enough to maneuver narrow channels and backwaters. It also offers comfortable (though small) cabins and spacious public areas. On board, life is family-like and casual. Specialists in botany, ornithology, marine biology and local culture and lore steep passengers in the Amazon world.
Ships such as Sun Line's 620-passenger Stella Solaris blend adventure with superb food, gracious service and big-ship amenities. The Stella Solaris is homey and comfortable, offering unusually large inside cabins. Lecturers include Capt. Loren McIntyre, National Geographic's chief consultant on South America, who discovered the Amazon's most distant source. He recounts his journey for passengers.
At the luxury end, Seabourn's 204-passenger Pride is the most elegant ship on the Amazon. Its brand of yacht-like cruising offers all-suite staterooms; each is 277 square feet with sitting room and picture window.
* Next spring, Abercrombie & Kent introduces four Amazon cruises aboard the Explorer. An 18-day journey begins in Belem, at the mouth of the river. It travels 2,000 miles to Iquitos -- as far as any expedition vessel can go. Stops include Manaus and small, seldom-visited Indian settlements.
The cruise features exploration of local farming methods in Cuxui Muni, and Zodiac excursions to the site of one of the world's largest and rarest plants, the gigantic, saucerlike Victoria amazonica waterlilies. Lecturers include botanist Bruce Nelson of Brazil's National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus and Dr. David C. Oren, head of the division of birds and mammals at Belem's Goeldi Museum. It departs March 19 (fares from $4,590). A 16-day reverse itinerary departs April 20 (fares from $4,140). A 10-day trip from Iquitos to Manaus departs April 3 (fares from $3,175); an 11-day reverse journey departs April 12 (fares from $3,425). For information, call a travel agent or (800) 323-7308.
* Stella Solaris makes four Amazon cruises. A 14-day voyage departs from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Jan. 2. En route to Manaus, the ship visits six Caribbean islands and explores a backwater Amazon tributary. This departure, a Theater-at-Sea celebration, features Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson and Sandy Duncan aboard. Fares, from $3,740, include return airfare from Manaus to Miami. This itinerary repeats Jan. 29.
Stella Solaris' 13-day voyage from Manaus to Fort Lauderdale navigates 1,000 miles of the Amazon and calls at four Caribbean islands. Fares, from $3,660, include airfare from Miami to Manaus. For a limited time, this Jan. 16 departure offers two-for-one fares. A Feb. 12 departure has an optional three-day extension, concluding in Galveston, Texas. For information, call your agent or (800) 872-6400.
* Seabourn Pride's Nov. 21 departure sails into the Amazon Basin, cruises the Breves Narrows at the head of the Amazon into the Anavilhanas jungle archipelago and stops overnight at Monte Dourado. Fare from Barbados to Manaus (13 days): $10,275; from Manaus to Fort Lauderdale (16 days, departing Dec. 4): $12,600. For information, call your agent or (800) 929-4747.