Carry on up the Amazon

I always imagined a trip to the Amazon in the heart of Brazil would be a trying experience involving soggy, insect-infested sleeping bags, a machete for hacking away at the jungle and a gun to ward off bizarre and lethal creatures.

The Amazon basin is, after all, some 2.5 million square miles of jungle, nine times the size of Texas. Parts of it are so remote that an entire population, the Yanomami, didn’t encounter a white man until 26 years ago.

The river itself winds its way for approximately 6,450 kilometres through Peru, Colombia and Brazil. It is only slightly shorter than the longest river in the world (the Nile) and it carries more water.

So much wildlife
Scientists are just now realizing that its jungle canopy—an elevated environment less explored than the ocean floor—houses half the world’s species: more than 500 species of mammals, 175 kinds of lizards, 300 other various reptiles, one-third of all the world’s birds and 30 million species of insects at last count, with millions more to be classified.

The Amazon has so much wildlife that the simple bat comes in 950 distinct species, including the vamre.

There are pink dolphins and 10-metre long fish, six-metre long crocs called caimans, a plethora of monkeys, plus tapirs, the world’s biggest rats (actually a rat cousin, the capibara, weighing in at 70 kilos), jaguars, sloths, anacondas, toucans and, well, you get the picture.

I won’t even go into the number of plant species. The Amazon rain forest—“the lungs of the earth”—produces 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen and supports enough life forms to fill a thousand arks.

Starting point
Just a five-hour flight from Miami, Manaus is a city of 1.5 million people 1,450 kilometres up the Amazon in Brazil, the starting point of our journey into the hinterland.

Built during the brief rubber-manufacturing boom around the turn of the century, the city features an elaborate European-style opera house built in 1896. Here, the two main tributaries of the Amazon—the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões—meet to form the Amazon proper.

The city has a modern airport, where I transferred to a waiting riverboat, a double-deck wooden crate straight out of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. During the two-hour 55-kilometre journey up the Rio Negro to the Ariaú Amazon Towers, the lodge that was to be our launching pad for excursions into the jungle, I had a chance to learn about the river itself from the guides.

Next page: Not remotely scary

Not remotely scary
The slow-moving Rio Negro is black—hence its name—from the high amount of tannic acid produced by decomposing vegetation.

We seemed to be chugging through Pepsi-Cola, but fortunately, the acidity is inhospitable to mosquitoes (unlike the faster Rio Solimões, which is less acidic and swarms with the pests). As a result, the risk of malaria is low, so I opted not to take anti-malarial pills and relied solely on insect repellent.

Despite the challenge of finally getting here, not to mention my concern about the number of lethal creatures living in the jungle, I was surprised to find visiting the Amazon is not difficult, not dangerous, not even remotely scary.

In fact, it can require no more hardship than staying at a wealthy friend’s summer cottage, complete with attentive staff.

Just ask Bill Gates. He had been here and liked it so much he was booked to return a week after my visit with hundreds of Microsoft guests. Or Helmut Kohl. Or Susan Sarandon. Giles Villeneuve. Jimmy Carter. They’ve all graced Ariaú’s rustic accommodations.

Lodge offers comfort
They came for the hotel’s location on the river’s edge, smack dab in the middle of one of the last great tracts of wilderness on earth. While not lavish of expensive, it offers guests a surprising level of comfort and well-designed environmental immersion programs.

Depending on the package booked, guests are taken on excursions two or three times a day to explore different aspects of the river and forest.

The lodge towers are wooden accommodation pods about four storeys high, each raised on stilts above the water and connected by wooden catwalks.

The catwalks extend to walkways passing through more than eight kilometres of surrounding jungle, some at canopy level, making it possible to explore the flora and see a lot of wildlife without leaving the grounds.

Accommodation ranges from small twin rooms to spacious suites occupying the entire top floor of a tower.

The dining hall serves sumptuous buffet meals featuring several dishes including local fish such as the six-metre pirarucú and the 1.5-metre tucunaré, or peacock bass.

Piranha eat everything
We are ferried through forest-cloaked channels in large motorized canoes by our guide, Alan, who grew up in the jungle and served two years with the Brazilian army’s jungle corps.

He seemed to know everything about the rain forest, including how to catch piranha with just a line, a hook and a cube of beef. There are 30 species of piranha, 29 of which eat meat.

“They eat fish, birds, alligators, people and each other,” Alan said.

“They eat everything.” He also told us that if we were unfortunate enough to fall into a school of red piranhas, we’d be eaten to the bone in two minutes. Incredibly, Alan took us by boat to a spot with a small crescent of white sand for a bit of swimming.

“Are you serious?” asked a lady from Edmonton. He was. None of us lost as much as a toe.

Next page: Guided forest walk


Guided forest walk
For all the magic and wonder of drifting through the igapós (flooded areas providing shortcuts from one tributary to another), perhaps the most interesting exploration was our guided forest walk. The boat dropped us in dense jungle and left us to our own resources—or I should say, to Alan’s.

Surprisingly, the jungle floor was not overgrown at all but rather open, although quite dark due to the low penetration of light. We walked on a thick carpet of decaying material, careful not to step into armadillo holes.

We learned which plants were edible, which were poisonous. We learned that:

  • The big roots of the apuí tree make excellent drums for sending SOS signals
  • The black wood of the maraja tree was good for creating fire and making blowpipes
  • By scraping the skin of a janoarí  palm, you can produce a green poultice for sterilizing wounds and promoting coagulation.

The forest even served up clean drinking water. The water vine is thick with it and acts as a filter. In fact, the forest provided everything—if one knew where to look.

What about snakes?
“And what about snakes?” one of our small troupe asked as we cast nervous glances to overhanging branches. Alan matter-of-factly ran down the list.

“You’ve all heard about the anaconda,” he said. “It grows to about 8.5 metres, lives in the water and is very aggressive. If he sees you, he’ll go for you.”

There would be no more swimming, we decided.

“And there’s a version that lives on the ground, the gibóia, but it’s so slow you can walk around him.” All eyes scanned the forest floor.

He went on to tell us about the jararacá, at half a metre the most deadly snake in the Amazon.

“You’re gone in two minutes.”

There were others, all dangerous but with slower poisons and, Alan reassured us, they usually hear you and take off.

“You never see them.” Indeed, we did not.

Strange eats
Alan found a collection of naja nuts on the ground and gave us one each. “You have to eat whatever is inside,” he challenged, with an impish grin.

Immediately, we were suspicious, but one after another, members of the group cut open the nut and enjoyed its nice, coconut-flavored meat. Mine, however, contained a massively fat larva.

“You expect me to eat this?” I said.

Alan insisted. 

“In the army, we used to live on those in the jungle. They’re very nutritious.”

I held the wiggling grub on the tip of a small twig, eyeing uneasily its tiny feet. “Can I just slurp it, like an oyster?” 

Alan was indignant at the idea. “You have to chew it or you won’t get the taste.”

Precisely, I thought. Closing my eyes, I hastily chewed and swallowed the grub. I didn’t faint. I didn’t throw up. It actually didn’t taste too bad—a bit like the coconut it had spent its life consuming.

Magical night skies
That day was ended with a night excursion looking for crocodiles. It was our first night out on the river and it was magical. More stars than I’d ever seen crowded the sky, and the water was a still, black mirror. I looked down on the dazzling reflection and had the giddy sensation of sailing across the universe.

Alan shone a bright light on the reeds of the distant shore, and the eyes of crocodiles lit up like bicycle reflectors. There are two kinds here: the tinga grows to three metres and is rather retiring; and the açu, which grows to twice that size and is very aggressive.

We paddled the boat through the reeds, trying to get a closer look. Suddenly, one of the local guides leaped from the boat into the black water. I was stunned. What had come over him? In a moment, he clambered back into the boat, proudly holding a young crocodile by the neck—just so we could touch one.