Roaming through the Amazon jungle with its piranha-infested waters and riverbanks crawling with caiman is no longer an adventure just for the Tarzans or Indiana Jones of this world.
For a few hundred pounds and with an adventurous spirit, buckets of mosquito repellent and the willingness to smell as bad as a wild baboon for a while, tourists can now spend days, even weeks, travelling through the dense tropical forest.
And you don’t need whips, primitive knives or swinging vines to venture through the trees. Eco-tourism in the Amazon has opened the door to a whole new world of professional jungle agents, guides, drivers and cooks – all carrying state-of-the-art mobiles.
Agencies have sprung up all over Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas and offer a range of accommodation and tours through the forest or down the river. All tours come with your own experienced English, French, Spanish and German speaking guides who will take you into places normally only seen in national geographic magazines or immortalised in Hollywood movies.
There are a huge range of tours to choose from including a three day, two night floating lodge and camping excursion; an eco-discovery trip sleeping in primitive homes; a wildlife tour for ten days on a riverboat or, for those real wildlife enthusiasts, a guide will even take you camping deep into the forest for weeks on end.
In some cases, you don’t have to even leave behind the comforts of home. Jungle Hotels or lodges can be found in the States of Mato Grosse and Para in Brazil and the Amazon Eco Park near Manaus and come equipped with comfortable beds, a restaurant, bar, massage facilities and air conditioning and mosquito nets. They are more expensive (from US$230 to $595 for 2 -3 day packages) but worth the extra cost if sleeping with creepy crawlies is not your thing.
But for outdoor Kiwi-types like myself and my two travelling companions, it was the less comfortable and less luxurious option that we chose – a four day river tour on board a traditional, green and white, wooden riverboat called “Flying I” which was still wet with fresh paint.
The Flying I
We booked the tour only minutes after hopping off the plane through the highly efficient Iguana Turismo agency in Manaus run by experienced guide Gerry Hardy. The three-day tour (which cost around UK£200 (2004 prices) included transfers by speedboat, van and car to the Amazon River from Manaus, all meals plus fresh limes and ice for the daily and compulsory Caiprinihas and our own personal guide, cook and driver.
The “Flying I” had the tiniest kitchen I have ever seen (smaller than the toilet in fact) in which cook Irene squeezed herself into and fought with mosquitos, moths, bats and fussy western tastes to prepare our daily meals.
We ate pretty much the same food every day – a typical Brazilian diet of pasta, arroz (white rice), fried whole fish, feijao (black beans) fresh fruit and salad for lunch and dinner and coffee, fresh fruit and omelette for breakfast. We spent the afternoons and evenings drinking caiprinihas.
There was an engine room, a small sleeping compartment with bunk beds (for the crew), primitive ice boxes that held the meat and fruit, and our own private quarters – four hammocks slung across the top of the boat with the most impressive views of the jungle.
Our crew consisted of the very experienced guide – David Andrade da Skua from nearby Guyana who knew everything there is to know about the Amazon, our captain, “the Caiman King” Jose and his wife Irene.
Most days you’d find us lying in our hammocks, the sound of the engine puttering away as we glided down the glassy river beneath the jungle canopy, drinking freshly-made caiprinihas and watching caiman slide gracefully into the water, flocks of birds flying across the tree tops and pink and grey river dolphins surfacing beside our boat. . . absolute heaven.
But there was no time to turn into sleepy, Amazon-dwelling two-toed sloths because every day David would announce a new death-defying activity. These ranged from a four hour walk through the thick jungle, dodging poisonous Bush Master snakes, tarantulas and giant poisonous toads; piranha fishing in file off the side of our tiny canoe or, much to our horror, caiman hunting in the pitch black night.
Blind from the darkness and slightly inebriated from drinking caiprinha, we would leave the relative safety of the houseboat, climb into our flimsy canoe made from three pieces of wood and silently glide beneath the jungle canopy, the darkness punctuated by the sounds of shotguns being fired by the locals left, right and centre. “For handbags,” said Jose sadly. I shuddered to think how many caiman the locals were killing.
Although the heavy foliage was oppressive and quiet, you always felt as though you were being watched. We were also in constant danger of sinking as the canoe was only held together by glue and old socks (I kid you not) that had been stuffed in the holes and cracks to stop the amazon river from pouring in. And just to add to the hilarity, the motor kept conking out.
We did catch one caiman – well, Jose caught the caiman. After an hour of dazzling the wee silent beasties with our torches and sneaking up on them only to watch them disappear beneath the water, Jose suddenly started shouting, bent over the front of the canoe and with his bare hands, hauled aboard a thrashing, small and very angry female caiman. We immediately tried to run in the other direction – not easy when there are five of you on a tiny canoe in the middle of the Amazon River in the pitch black.
David held the poor indignant creature by her throat while we pointed our torches at her, took lots of photos, touched her skin, poked her fat belly, looked into her teeth and tried not to capsize the canoe with our enthusiasm. We then let her go and she made a belly flop sound in the water before sliding off into the darkness.
Piranha hunting was a whole different kettle of fish. Although the ones we caught were tiny, they could still devour your finger in seconds. There was lots of screaming and piranhas being flung in all direction as we hauled them into the canoe. A couple of these tiny snappy fish were pulled so sharply from the river that they sailed through the air, over our heads, and landed on the riverbank behind us. Flying Piranha.
We passed some of the most impressive scenery in the world, thick foliage filled with birds and monkeys and saw sunrises that would take your breath away. At Lake Mamori, about 60km south of Manaus, we tied the boat to an old tree stump in the middle of the lake and took the canoe through a water forest – trees which were actually growing in the water, their trunks and roots disappearing into the murky depths. We also saw yellow canaries, toucans, white herons, king fisher and giant water eagles.
From April – June, during high water season, the main rivers rise by 14m enabling you to navigate at treetop level through igapos (flooded forests).
At Lake Mamori, we met an Amazonian farmer and his eight children who lived in a malocca – a one room, open-sided communal house with a low roof woven of dried palm leaves and supported by poles. His menagerie of dogs, chickens and pigs slept under the floorboards.
He told us how his neighbour, the preceding night, had lost two pigs to a jaguar which had crept under the floor while the family was sleeping and taken the animals. It had left one of the half-eaten pigs behind and the farmer was ready with his gun in case the animal returned.
We also heard other stories of Amazon children, especially the indigenous Indians, being attacked by caiman and anacondas – the latter would squeeze people to death against a tree or drown them in the river. I thought living in London with its rats, foxes and dogs was bad enough. Over here, they’re battling giant snakes, killer cats and hungry reptiles on a daily basis.
Teeny Weeny Fish
It was these stories that prevented us from swimming in the river, wandering off on dry land or even dangling our feet in the water. There were no showers on board the houseboat and, as inviting as it looked, swimming in the river was as deadly as flinging piranha around the place. Not only because of caiman and killer fish, but also because of one particular teeny weeny fish that we learnt could swim up your urethra if you peed in the water. It would then need to be surgically removed. And there were no hospitals in the rainforest.
But none of this seemed to scare the locals. One afternoon, after pulling angry, snappy piranha out of the water and watching Caiman as big as submarines cruise along the river bank, David announced brightly that we were all going for a swim.
“This is the safe part of the river,” he said, before doing a massive dive bomb off the back of the boat. “There are no caiman or piranha here.”
The warmish, brown water was a welcome respite considering we hadn’t washed for days but I didn’t stay in long. I jumped up to my neck, splashed around for a nano-second and then literally ran out of the river and into a nearby canoe. The sight of caiman and stories of giant anacondas swallowing children whole, and jaguars swimming across the river and jumping into the canoes of locals, was enough to keep me on the boat. I certainly didn’t want a wee fish swimming up my lady garden either.
At night, the jungle dripped with humidity and everything, hammocks, clothing, hair, skin and insect repellent became wet and sticky. We saw flocks of bats, the brightest stars and clouds of giant mosquitos that took an instant liking to my flesh. Nothing could stop them, not even the three bottles of repellent and one bottle of “paint stripper” that the locals swore would stop them from biting. I stopped counting the bites once I reached 50.
Turkeys With Mohawks
The jungle was also surprisingly noisy – even for this London dwelling city girl.There was the ghostly but incredible roar of hundreds of Howler Monkeys sweeping across the treetops, the loud ribbits of very very large frogs, the nose-blowing sound of pink dolphins surfacing and the insane screeching of Ciganas – buzzard like turkeys with mohawks that crashed into the trees like drunken yobs and sqwarked their heads off at every inopportune moment.
The Amazon might be synonymous for being cool, silent and deadly, but these Ciganas were anything but.
We were taught how to imitate the sounds of caiman by emitting short sharp gulping noises and splashing the water – which were answered by about six large beasts surrounding our boat. In the forest, we saw Capuchin and Squirrel monkeys and possibly a two-toed sloth which could also have been a large brown nest. We made crowns from jungle flax, a whistle from a small branch, drank water from a vine and nearly stepped on a black scorpion carrying a whole lot of babies on her back.
David showed us our Amazon Indians used plants for spears and others as graters and how they rubbed tapiba, tiny ants over their bodies to smell like earth and water while out hunting.
Not all tours were as successful as ours. One night we met a whole canoe-load of Spanish tourists who had been in the forest for four nights and had only seen one caiman. It was all we could do to stop ourselves from gloating and pointing like small children.
Leaving the jungle four days later and being thrust into the hustle and bustle of Manaus with honking horns and bright lights was like being woken suddenly from a long deep sleep and finding yourself and your bed in the middle of a rave. I longed to be back in the jungle. . . even if I had become the unofficial Mosquito Decoy of the Amazon.
But I felt worse for the person I ended up sitting next to on the plane during the next leg of my Brazilian trip from Manaus to Fortaleza in the North. Not only did I stink to high heaven, but I seemed to have attracted one lone mozzie that flew around my head the whole trip. I had taken a part of the jungle with me.
If you plan to do lots of travelling around Brazil, it’s best to buy an air pass BEFORE you leave home. This enables you to fly to three or four different cities a half the cost of paying for a flight in Brazil. Check with your travel agent.
Don’t forget to take a good torch with you into the jungle. These are not only useful in the dark, but are very efficient when out Caiman hunting. There are several stops at tiny village markets en route from Manaus to the jungle where you can buy torches. Check with your guide first.
This article was published in The Daily News, New Zealand – December 2006.