The Amazon Basin contains 6 million square kilometres of river and jungle, just over half of which lies in Brazilian territory. My trip into its depths was probably the culmination of my Brazilian travels, provoking my imagination to images of wild cats, snakes, monkeys and macaws, amongst dense jungle, giant trees and along eerie rivers. Guidebooks, tour agencies and online reviews of course dispel such unlikely notions (at least for the usual 3-5 day excursions). So what exactly did I discover during my jungle experience?
Choosing tour operators and deciding on the duration of an Amazon Jungle trip from Manaus was not the ordeal I envisioned. Referencing my Lonely Planet guidebook, Trip Advisor’s online reviews and dorm-mate reviews, I walked to the street parallel to my hostel and discussed my options with Amazon Gero Tours. They ticked all my boxes and suggested I sign up for the 3 day/2 night trip with the option to add a third night (spent camping in the jungle rather than sleeping at their lodge) if I could find someone to take me back early on World Cup Final day.
Day 1: Welcome to the Jungle
At 8am I met the four 19 year old Americans (Sam, Zane, Jonah and Tobias) with whom I shared my jungle experience, as well as the following days back in Manaus. Eleven of us boarded the minivan to the river, transferring onto a boat that took us across and along the river. Here we disembarked and waited for the next minivan that took us to a smaller river.
We completed the final leg of our journey on board two motor-powered canoes. We weaved our way through narrow gaps between trees, passing over flooded land and submerged trees. The highlight was forcing our way through floating grasses, using makeshift paddles that were fashioned by machetes from nearby trees!
We arrived about three hours later, joining the other groups for lunch, a staple Amazon diet of fruit, rice, spaghetti and some form of chicken, beef and/or fish. After lunch we settled into our room, positively crammed with beds (receiving a free upgrade from hammocks on the moored boat). Sam and I went for a swim in the lake being assured there were no caiman or piranha lurking! The brown water from the ‘white river’, Rio Madeira, was warm and tinted your skin yellow just inches below the surface, then obscuring all vision further below.
Around 3:30pm our 3-day group, which included two more Americans (Lara and Vivian), travelled by canoe along the igarapés and igapós (small flooded waterways present during the high-water period) in search of wildlife. Our first encounter was glimpsing some Amazon River dolphins. These freshwater dolphins are famously pink (or grey), but at this distance it was difficult for us to tell.
Next we discovered a group of small monkeys, again difficult to spot at first in the branches, but we settled in our canoe to enjoy the spectacle of them swinging between trees directly above. Finally, we cruised back to the lodge while admiring the setting sun and caught more glimpses of dolphins.
Our evening outing was postponed because of the bright light cast by the full moon, so we retired after dinner and one game of cards to the safety of the mosquito nets hanging over our beds.
Day 2: In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle
Our action-packed full day in the jungle consisted of four outings, the first of which departed at 5:30 in the morning. We took a short sunrise canoe trip and listened to the early morning sounds of the jungle: hearing the roars of the howler monkeys, the squawks of distant macaws and the chatter of our two female American friends!
After breakfast we prepared ourselves for our greatest jungle threat: mosquitoes. I wore a long-sleeved shirt, trousers, thick socks and walking boots for the three hour trek, dousing any uncovered skin with 50% deet insect repellent, as well as my ankles and along my shirt buttons for good measure.
Top Tip: Avoid wearing black clothing in the jungle as this attracts mosquitoes. I would suggest not tucking trousers into socks as this leaves your ankles exposed to just one layer for biting through. I also found the boniest parts to be targetted most (even through clothing) such as ankles, knees, elbows and fingers.
We set off with early entertainment including Jonah’s fetching appearance with shirt, trousers and socks tucked into each other, and the girls dealing with each other’s mosquitoes using some light spanking!
Our guide, Jean Rodriguez, led us through the jungle using his machete and his instinct, pointing out various medicinal plants and edible fruits suh as acai, found high up in the trees. He went to great lengths to forage for larvae embedded inside small nuts. There was much confusion trying to identify the exact process, but we eventually established that butterflies planted their seeds inside the nut’s shell and grew to become larvae and eventually a butterfly, or the larva died to be replaced by the nut. This may not be 100% accurate but that’s my understanding in a nut shell! Either way we had fun watching each other sample the grub! Puns very much intended 🙂
Focus was also given on practical uses, for example strong vines are used as a harness when collecting acai berries or carved as spears for hunting. Jean demonstrated survival techniques such as quickly climbing vines to escape the clutches of jaguars (though not out of reach of panthers!) and striking the thick elevated root of a tree to call for help (two or three times) with a large stick. He also fashioned various accessories including a bracelet made from strips of bark, a hat to protect against spider webs, plus a crown and a centipede weaved using flax leaves.
In terms of wildlife, we had to look to the forest floor. First Jean used his sweat to coax giant red ants from their nest (a bite from one of these would give you a nasty sting and two day fever), plus we spotted a small camouflaged frog and Jean led us to a small pond where he had found recent signs of an anaconda attacking an armadillo by the shore.
Following lunch we tried piranha fishing using flexible stick rods, string and a wire hook with chicken for bait. For fishing novices, once we got the feel of the tug signalling the bait had been taken, we flicked up our rods and (hopefully) lifted a hooked piranha into the boat. Smaller ones were thrown back and sometimes they evaded capture by stealing the bait too quickly or by not being hooked properly due to our poor technique. It was tricky! I think it was Jonah that managed to get his hook stuck in a branch, while other unexpected drama occurred when one piranha flopped over onto our section of the boat. I expected larger, scarier fish but after being shown their sharp teeth and the chunk missing from Jean’s finger I kept my fingers well away and prodded it back with my rod. It became a friendly competition – so for those of you familiar with my competitive edge, you’ll know I was thrilled when I snagged my fifth catch of the day after a long wait at the bitter end.
On our way back, we stopped at the village football pitch (a field with the cows removed, but not their excrement) and joined the game. We were split amongst the two teams of locals, trying to stay upright as we played on the slippery, sloping pitch. We walked off exhilarated, covered in mud and sweat, when the setting sun called an end to the game. Back at the lodge, we took a dip in the lake to wash and cool off. More adrenaline was released by jumping from the top deck of the moored boat into the immediately deep water!
Our final expedition of the day was night-time Caiman-spotting aboard the canoe. Again, the bright moonlight hindered our chances, but Jean used his torch to identify and dazzle the eyes of a small caiman lying in the grass. Much to our surprise Jean reached out from the front of the canoe on the second attempt and grappled with a small caiman, bringing it on board for show and tell! He described its features, allowing us to feel its scaly body and tough underside, then gently poked its eye to reveal its additional membrane eyelid. Bizarrely, Jean repeatedly bashed his head against the caiman’s causing it to bare its sharp teeth – all the while holding its neck to retain control. When asked why, he simply told us “because she doesn’t like it”!
Our next surprise was being allowed to hold the caiman. So one-by-one we nervously handled this young predator, promising Jean we’d hold the neck nice and tight. On one occasion we heard the caiman make a mixture of a growl and choking noise: proof that we were keeping our promise! For his final act, Jean laid the caiman on its back and insisted we remained perfectly still. With his free hand he stroked the caiman’s underside over and over again, trying to soothe it to sleep. After a few attempts we looked on in amazement as he released his grip for a full 15 seconds with the caiman motionless before quickly pinning it down once more when it showed signs of waking.
Back at the lodge we were denied Jean’s proposal of drinking caipirinhas as the ‘bar’ was closed, so we instead played cards to round off the night.
Day 3: The Bare Necessities
We had another early start on what I decided to be my last day in the jungle. This was down to hearing of bad overnight jungle mosquito experiences and having no guarantee that I’d make it back in time of the final’s kick-off. We weren’t expecting such exertion at this un-Godly hour but Jean had us paddling through thick grasses, making sharp turns around trees and passing below tangled branches in search of howler monkeys. When we reached our intended destination Jean was disappointed to recognise signs that the area was no longer wet enough to spot the elusive primates – although I doubt our noisy entrance would have guaranteed a sighting!
After breakfast our final outing started by finding a sloth in a tree, although Jean was not content until he’d hacked back some of the branches for a clearer photo and shook the poor sloth’s branch to encourage a reaction, however slow! We spotted more wildlife next: first the shape of a howler monkey sitting in a distant tree, then a large iguana camouflaged against the branch on which it lay.
We then visited one of the villager’s homes and were shown the process of producing their most common product, manioc flour. We took turns to help peel the maniocs (a type of root vegetable) and I had the privilege to peel the largest one of them all – an ordeal for someone so incapable of peeling anything! After that Jean showed us some of the trees and fruits that they grow, taking fruit after fruit for sampling without concern. He also showed us inside both their floating and permanent houses, taking a look at beads, guns, their catch of the day and a flat screen TV – bare necessities indeed!
Next we found one of the largest trees of the Amazon but it was difficult to truly appreciate. The tree’s trunk was (to my possibly inaccurate recollection) 3m (or 6m?) in circumference at the flooded water’s level, but Jean explained that at it’s base the trunk is 9m in circumference. I also forget the depth of the flooded water, but the tree was an impressive sight nonetheless.
Our final activity was to dive out of the canoe and swim the width of the lake back to shore. After lunch we packed up our belongings and began our return journey back to Manaus. The only injury sustained on our jungle trip (aside from many mosquito bites) came in the last 30 seconds of the canoe journey when wasps swarmed one of the American girls, Lara, (one actually got stuck in her hair) giving her a couple of nasty stings.
Summary: How ‘Jungle’ was my Amazon Jungle trip?
Reflecting on my jungle experience, I had a fantastic time filled with more activities than I possibly could have imagined: swimming, hiking, tree-climbing, fishing, playing football and cards, canoeing and peeling maniocs! Although we saw a fair amount of wildlife: monkeys, river dolphins, eagles, piranha, a caiman, a sloth and an iguana; I had (over-ambitiously) dreamt of more. Jean recommended his privately run survival trips, lasting a minimum of 10 days, if we were to come back wanting to see much more. He explained that these groups travelled deeper into another area of the Amazon Jungle, around the Rio Negro, focusing more on trekking and survival techniques. He promised that we would encounter larger wildlife including snakes and jaguars, as well as less dangerous howler monkeys and macaws. While 10 days roughing it amongst the true wilderness of the jungle would be tough to say the least, this for me would be a true Amazonian experience.
Having said that, I got a fantastic glimpse into the Amazonian way of life, particularly playing football with the visitors and even passing the daily school boat. I would also like to visit again when the floods have subsided to trek along the forest floor to feel dwarfed by giant trees, rather than cruising alongside the treetops.
So, overall, I was delighted with my first Amazon adventure and excitedly anticipate the next opportunity to delve deeper into the jungle!