Ever since I was a child I've always dreamt of visiting the Amazon. I'm not sure if it was Disney's "The Jungle Book", the incredible illustrations in Graeme Bass's "Animalia" or my childish fascination with all things creepy and crawly, but I wanted to see the Amazon and finally my dream was going to become a reality.
We arrived in Manaus, the main departure city for Amazon tours, in the middle of the night at an ungodly hour when most hostels don’t allow check-in. Unfortunately for us, this meant our only option was to attempt our first nights sleep in an airport. We were both pretty pumped at the idea and before long sleep deprivation kicked in. After a brief, fatigue fuelled argument when I refused to sleep on the floor, I found a cleaner who lent me some spray and wipe and I managed to clean a small marble wall that doubled as both a garden edge and my temporary bed for the remainder of the night. I may be a traveller but we all have our limits and call me crazy but sleeping on dirty Amazonian airport tiles was mine!
When first light broke, we couldn’t wait to get out of the freezing cold, mosquito ridden airport so we grabbed our things and headed into the sticky, humid air outside and towards the bus station. You could practically smell the jungle hanging in the thick air!
Our hostel was basic but the staff were kind enough to let us into our room by 9am and even offered us a hot breakfast while we were waiting. Much like other visitors to Manaus, the main purpose for us being there was to organize a tour into the jungle and surrounding river regions, but on day one, all we could think about was a shower and a soft bed.
Manaus is one of those modern day tourist towns that actually has had a varied and fascinating, however little known history. The city was originally founded late in the 17th century by the Spanish however indigenous tribes had been living off the land in this region for centuries. Then during the 19th century the rubber industry boomed and inspired many Europeans to move to the area to make their wealth. “Rubber Barons” as they were known, ran rubber plantations that not only threatened the ecosystem of the Amazon basin by clearing land to plant more rubber trees, but also had a significant negative affect on the local indigenous population. Many of these wealthy barons, made their money by more or less enslaving the local tribesmen and forcing them to work on the rubber farms. According to our local guide, some 75% of the local indigenous people in the areas directly surrounding Manaus, were wiped out during the 40 year rubber boom. There are many beautiful old buildings in Manaus however it is only once you learn of the city’s dark history that some of the beauty is washed away due to the many indigenous lives lost in order to make this city the wealthy and booming town it once was.
Of course as with any riverside city, there is plenty of local seafood and an exotic array of fresh fruits and vegetables, but none of that takes the tourists eyes off the main prize; the city’s close proximity and easy (sort of!) access to vast areas of uninhabited, wild jungle and beautiful rivers, lakes and wetlands.
We had decided to do a jungle tour for 4 or 5 days but due to a few of the recent World Cup matches being played in Manaus, there was a huge influx of scammers and unauthorized tour operators throughout the city. We visited three different tour operators and decided to stay an extra day in Manaus so we could discuss our options, talk to some other tourists and see which one sounded best for us.
At the last minute our hostel told us that we couldn’t stay the extra night we needed so at 8am in the morning we were back on the computer looking for somewhere to stay. I found a reasonably cheap room on the outskirts of the city so I booked it without too much thought, before we packed our things and left for our new accommodation. We were leaning towards one particular Amazon Tour company so we decided to stop in and see them on our way to our next hotel. After a short walk and at first a confusing yet overall very clear conversation, it turned out that the first time during this trip that I have rushed in and booked a hotel room without too much thought, it also happened to be a brothel…. Perfect.
As Wade sniggered and locked this story into his memory bank for future ammunition, I hung my head in shame wondering what we would do now that we had nowhere to go. And that’s when our potential tour guides came to the rescue. They had a group leaving for a 5-day jungle tour in two hours that we had previously turned down. However, lucky for us, it was much easier for the tour guides if we left with them then and there because it would mean they didn’t need to organize a private transfer out to the jungle for us tomorrow when they had a group leaving that day already. It was a win-win situation! Instead of sleeping in a brothel for the night, we had a (practically) free extra night in the wild Amazon jungle….. and we were leaving NOW!
From our very first moments in the jungle, the wild beauty of this incredible part of the world was everywhere. As we putted down the river on our way to our isolated, almost hidden lodge, the sun began to set over the wetlands and riverbanks surrounding us. The pink sky reflecting on the glassy water was simply breathtaking. It was right at that moment that I realized I was about to spend the next four days fulfilling a childhood dream and it was also at that moment that a select few of the most catchy and repetitive songs from “The Jungle Book” began playing in my head…… and didn’t stop for the next four days!
We barely had time to settle into our lodge before we were thrown into a small boat and sent out on the river with only one torch and the stars lighting up the river for a few hours of Caiman spotting. Caiman are the local freshwater alligators found in this region and depending on species can range in size from a small alligator to the largest predator in the Amazon! After seeing crocodiles in the top end of Australia, I assumed this would involve some spotlighting of eyes, some oohs and ahhhhs and then a smooth trip safely back to land. Hahaha. No Sarah... This is the Amazon. As we spotted a Caiman stealthily pressed up against the banks of the river, our guide paddled slowly towards it. We gradually edged closer and our guide, Joshua lay down on the front of the boat and waited patiently as the small canoe cruised towards this ancient reptile. In one swift movement there was a splash of water, a cry from a Spanish woman who thought we’d lost our guide and then before we knew what was happening, Joshua held his prize above his head.
"Oh no!" He cried. "It's only small!"
This small Caiman was around 1m long and had enough sharp teeth to put any bandsaw I've ever seen to shame! While Joshua was right, this Caiman was definitely on the smaller end of the “Giant Killer Predator” scale, I personally would not be wrangling one from the dark water in the middle of the night! My new hero passed the Caiman around to each of us explaining various facts before smoothly placing it back in the water and watching this future killer swim calmly away.
That first night of action was only just the beginning; little did we realise that each day was set to be more incredible and fascinating than the last.
5am came and my alarm sounded throughout the lodge. I’m not normally much of a morning person but when an Amazonian sunrise is the reward for an early wake up, I practically jumped out of bed with enthusiasm. There is something special about watching the sunrise and seeing the light of a new day bringing life and energy to nature. So, as we sat silently in our small canoe watching the sky change colours right before our eyes, and listening to the squawking sounds of hundreds of awakening birds, I made a mental promise to wake up more often for sunrise, although this one would be hard to beat.
With the sun high above our heads, we went exploring around the river in our small canoe spotting wildlife. We saw a number of varieties of monkeys, iguanas and more birdlife than I can even begin to recall the names of. And as if that wasn’t enough, as we sat watching a flock of Cormorants take flight from a dead tree, someone spotted a pink dolphin breach the water behind our boat. This was one of those moments where we didn’t even reach for the camera. No photo would do the moment justice but more importantly we just wanted to forget everything for a minute and just enjoy this incredible sight.
It was definitely the sort of early morning that is worth the bags under my eyes and coffee stains on my otherwise clean clothes.
After a few hours of wildlife spotting, we returned to the lodge for a delicious breakfast before once again lathering ourselves in a variety of insect repelling sprays, potions and ointments and jumping back into our boat as we headed off for a jungle trek.
The knowledge and skills of indigenous tribes the world over, never ceases to amaze me. In one three hour trek through the Amazon jungle, we used the ancient skills and knowledge of the local indigenous people to find and do the following:
The trek was more beautiful, educational and fascinating than I ever could have expected. What’s more is that while learning all of this and even being allowed to play with a machete once or twice, we were also lucky enough to stumble upon a variety of monkeys, coax a tarantula from its dark hole beneath a tree and saw enough insects, bugs and butterflies to keep even my creepy crawly fascination satisfied!
Now Wade and I both love our fishing, but even more so love the never ending competition to catch the most, the biggest or just simply the best fish. So when the option of Piranha fishing was thrown at us, we both jumped at the opportunity before going on to publicly slander one another’s previous fishing attempts to anyone who would listen!
Well, let’s just say that during our 2 hour Piranha fishing expedition, our unrelenting thirst for dominance did not waver. In fact it only increased to the point where Wade almost capsized our boat in Piranha infested waters by trying to cast his line in the same spot as mine in an effort to steal my fish! But that wasn’t the only excitement.
Wade was hit in the head by a flying piranha when an overzealous Spanish woman reefed it from the river with unmatched vigour, and I got a meat covered fish hook almost a centimeter deep into my toe but nothing changed the end result.
Wade = 3. Sarah = 4. Enough said.
It was during the great Amazonian Fishing Challenge of 2014 that at one point, we looked above us and noticed that the sky had suddenly turned a particularly ominous shade of grey. Our guide gave us the option of returning to the lodge to wait out the storm or trying to find a safe place to weather it, but within a minute, nature had decided for us. Heavy raindrops began pelting down on us and the sky was no longer visible, as all we could see were flashes of lightening through the thick wall of water. It was a few seconds after one such lightening strike that our guide decided to mention that only a few years ago a group of fishermen were killed when their boat was struck by lightening. Not a great story to tell 5 tourists in a boat… tied to a tree…. In the middle of a lake…. During a lightening storm!
Photo: One of the most incredible storm clouds I've ever seen brewing overhead while we sit patiently in our
canoe in the middle of the river
Within a matter of ten minutes, the storm had passed and the Amazon burst back into life. We took off in our boat once again, this time into a new area of the river. It was like something out of a fairytale as we moved slowly and silently through the water, the only noises coming from the soft paddling of our captain and the sounds of nature all around us. This swamp-like area was a magnificent maze of trees, vines and branches, all hovering just above our heads as we moved slowly through the water. Our guide hadn’t exactly told us what we were looking for in this area and we were all beginning to wonder when we heard a huge splash. We looked around for a fallen tree or a man overboard as the splash had suggested but no, this is the Amazon and the sound was in fact a frightened Iguana who had somehow heard us and decided to bail from his tree branch high above our heads and plunge into the water below. The first time was a surprise and had us all excitedly searching the water for the skydiving iguana but after 10 or so iguanas followed suit in the next hour, we decided they were just showing off and turned out attention elsewhere. We were all sitting in silence scanning the jungle around us and looking for anything that moved but funnily enough, what our guide was actually looking for was something that barely moves at all. We pulled up to a tree and all instinctively followed the gaze of our guide high into a tree above us. Leaves… tick. Branches… tick. Iguanas…. Nope. What the hell was he looking at?? The captain of our canoe tied us off to the tree and ever so swiftly began to climb the tree. What was he doing? Finally, someone broke the silence and asked what we’d all been thinking… “What is he doing?” was the question. One word, “Sloth” was the answer.
Wade and I turned to each other at neck breaking pace with identical childish grins sprawled across our faces. One of the most intriguing and bizarre animals of the Amazon was right above us! I’ve seen plenty of pictures of sloths and heard even more (usually untrue) facts over the years but I’d never actually seen one in real life.
As our local captain continued climbing the tree, I wondered what exactly his plan was once close to it. Was it true that they only moved 1 metre a day? Is it true that they can claw out a humans eyes? Is it true that a baby sloth sounds just like a human baby?
Well, before long a few of these questions were answered. Our captain began his decent from the tree ever so carefully, as in his arms, clinging tightly to his chest was none other than a sloth! I think I almost cut off blood supply to Wade’s leg as I gripped it and whispered “I think we’re actually about to see a sloth!”. But oh no Sarah, once again you underestimated the Amazon. We weren’t just going to see it, we were going to hold it!
Our captain carefully stepped back onto the canoe, and we all sat in amazed silence, trying not to rock the boat while at the same time craning our necks to see the creature in his arms.
The sloth was so much more incredibly awesome than I had ever imagined. Oh who am I kidding, I had never even imagined I would see a sloth let alone hold one! The innocent looking creature with a smile painted across it’s face sat silently, moving only it’s deep blue grey eyes to scan the environment every now and then. Of course as always in these life changing moments, our camera decided to play up, but the one photo we did manage to get displays our emotions at that moment perfectly. I can’t guarantee that Wade and I will look this excited, emotional and proud the day we hold our first born child!
With each new day, came more wonderful and exciting adventures but our next adventure, while exciting in theory was actually causing more anxiety and uneasiness amongst our group than anything. Wade and I were both rather naively pumped while also trying to steer clear of the negativity and uncertainly of some other group members. This afternoon and tonight was our overnight trek into the jungle where we would set up camp, cook our dinner and sleep in the wild Amazon. When we first researched these tours, we found one that was a four day ‘Survivor’ style tour where the entire four days are spent in the jungle learning survival skills and only living off what you forage or hunt. I thought that sounded incredible when I first read about it. Within 5 minutes of actually setting foot in our camp for the night, I wanted to chicken out and head back to our now luxurious-looking jungle lodge! For those of you that know us well, you’d know Wade and I are not exactly new to the idea of camping or sleeping outdoors, but this was a whole new world for both of us.
Our group of 8 – six innocent, naïve, young tourists and two incredibly hardy, knowledgeable local guides – took a boat to a previously unexplored section of jungle before pulling into a reed covered bank where there was no clear path and barely even any sunlight reaching the ground through the thick trees. We had all packed a small bag with a change of clothes and any essentials for the night and the guide had provided the rest. Two young Aussie guys on our tour clearly had no idea what they were in for as they had both purchased matching satin ladies blouses, one with a cheetah pattern and the other with a more giraffe style to it as their ‘jungle attire’ for the night. It wasn’t long before they stopped being the jokers and became the joke as the humidity in the jungle was unbearable in normal clothes let alone a satin blouse made for a lady half your size!
We trekked to our campsite and were relieved to find that our guide Lucivado had actually been keeping a few small details to himself all this time. For starters we didn’t have to kill our dinner (phew!) and secondly, there was actually a low, thatched roof hut already built for us to hang our hammocks in! This was a relief as we had all assumed we would be hanging our hammocks in the open which was not a welcome thought considering it rained most nights. The hut was only just big enough for our 8 hammocks and barely tall enough for the men to stand up under. Half of the group hung our hammocks while the other half gathered firewood.
Lucivado had a machete and I was drooling at the thought of chopping some wood with this razor sharp tool before showing off my finely tuned fire making skills! Again, I had forgotten one minor detail. We were not in the dry Australian outback. We were in the wet, rain-every-day, Amazon jungle. After an hour of collecting wet wood, I think we went through three lighters before caving in and asking the pro’s for help! Again their ingenuity and general skills in this harsh environment never ceased to amaze us, and before long we had a brilliant fire all set up with two roast chickens and a huge pot of rice cooking over the open flame.
I thought Lucivado was joking when he said our next job was to find plates and cutlery. He had brought the food from the lodge, why couldn’t he have brought plates and cutlery too! Within minutes he had identified a young palm tree and a tall bamboo-looking tree and cut from each only what we needed for the group. The palm leaves were folded and secured with a small twig to form a plate and the bamboo-like bark was used to carve rough ‘jungle’ spoons. While most of the group chewed the fat around the fire, I insisted on Lucivado teaching me how to carve the spoons and then spent the next half hour quizzing the group on whether a particular spoon was Lucivado’s or mine. Nine times out of ten, they could pick it… Damn!
It was around this time, as the sun had set and we were all sweating in the evening humidity that rather than the hard work being done and us relaxing for the night, the hard part had only just started.
As most people would assume, the Amazon has its fair share of deadly creatures big and small. There are the obvious ones like the Black Caiman, Black and Spotted Jaguars, plenty of snakes and spiders but then there are also the less obvious such as the Poison Dart Frog, Electric Eels (yes they are real and can actually cause a heart attack in a human due to their 600V shock!) and of course the famous parasitic Candiru or Urethra Fish as it is colloquially known. All of these creatures DO exist in the Amazon and all are deadly and frightening in one way or another. During our night in the jungle, it was more or less guaranteed that we would be surrounded by all of these (with the exception of jaguars as they are extremely rare and difficult to spot). But if you ask me, I’d take a day in a cage with any of these before I would ever face another swarm of Amazonian mosquitos! My blood has been taste tested by mosquitos in a variety of countries by now, however the mosquitos in the Amazon are quite simply unlike anything I've ever seen before. They are ferocious, unrelenting and I am sure they have undergone military training. I swear at one point I even saw one bypassing traditional blood sucking methods and trying to hook me up directly to an IV drip! The day we left for this tour our guides told us to avoid black clothes and bring plenty of thick materials to best avoid the mosquitos. Almost every item of clothing between us is black and we only have a pair of thick pants each. If preparation is key…. We were screwed from the start!
Every ten seconds someone would feel the need to top up their dose of DEET by coating their clothes, skin and any other nearby surface in insect repellant. However the scent of the repellant was clearly causing more distress to our fellow humans than it was to the mosquitos as they buzzed around us incessantly. The constant buzz of mosquitos near ones ears caused conversations to constantly be interrupted by a Tourette’s-like expletive or slap to the face. The mosquitos were biting through clothing thick and thin to the point where regardless of the heat, I took to wearing my thick winter raincoat/snow jacket purely because I didn’t think they would get through it…. But they did.
Finally our delicious fire roasted chickens were ready. I have never eaten such deliciously moist, tender chicken in my life. I barely even tasted the variety of bugs that had taken their last breath as they flew towards the fire only to end up as the ‘special crispy spices’ on our delicious chicken.
With full stomachs from our jungle dinner, we sat around the fire listening to stories by Lucivado our English speaking guide and “The Capi-tan” our Portuguese speaking co-guide who regardless of the fact that we didn’t understand his stories, had us all captivated by his husky voice and vivid facial expressions.
Before long, everyone became far too frustrated by the mosquitos to continue sitting in the sticky night air so we all retreated to our mosquito-covered hammocks under the seemingly protective thatched roof hut. Dilemmas abounded as soon as we reached our hammocks. How does one get under their mosquito net without mosquitos getting in? Does one remove their shoes before or after getting into their hammock because the mosquitos were biting through socks? It’s too hot for clothes but if there is even one mosquito in your hammock you’ll be eaten alive by the morning… what to do, what to do! And finally, someone asked the question “Lucivado…. How much weight do you think this hut can hold??”.
Everyone laughed as we swayed side to side in our hammocks, 3 hung on the first beam, 3 on the middle and 2 on the last. Lucivado didn't answer our question, and slowly the laughter died off as we all closed our eyes and attempted sleep.
I think it was around 2 hours before someone whispered “Is anyone awake?”.
Five eager voices replied “Yes!”. Other than the guides, no one was sleeping and all were being kept awake by mosquitos one way or another. Wade had a small swarm inside his mosquito net and somehow I was being bitten through both my hammock AND mosquito net.
I remember checking my phone around 2am and then drifting into a light sleep for around 20 minutes before being suddenly woken. CRACK!
We all heard it. Our thatched roof shelter had just made a clear and loud cracking sound from one end…. Luckily not ours! Lucivado, our trusty guide offered simple advice “Don’t move and go back to sleep”. This would have helped only no one had moved in the first place and none of us other than himself and the Capi-tan had actually been asleep anyway!
It was about an hour before the next concerning CRACK and then another 1-2 minutes before the entire beam broke in half and a section of our shelter came crashing down, taking three innocent people and their hammocks to the ground with it! Those of us who hadn’t fallen broke into a fit of laughter! The funniest part was that the guys now lying on the slightly damp, insect covered floor of the jungle, in their hammocks all refused to get out of them simply for fear of the mosquitos. Eventually Lucivado convinced them to get up and them proceeded to do something that made us all question his previous displays of intelligence and limitless jungle knowledge. With the help of those who had fallen to the ground, Lucivado tied their hammocks onto the same two beams to which our hammocks were attached. I don’t know if it was sleep deprivation or the early signs of malaria setting in, but we all giggled and muttered that this probably wasn’t a good idea, before all three relocated tourists, jumped into their hammocks and again attempted sleep.
This time, the suspense was not nearly as drawn out as the first time. CRACK! Everyone broke into a fit of laughter (except for one English girl who was becoming increasingly perturbed by the whole scenario). Obviously, the movement of human bodies in an uncontrollable fit of laughter didn’t help our situation and this time there were multiple large cracking sounds before we all plummeted to the ground in a pile of thick wooden beams, thatched roof and human bodies. In hindsight it was lucky no one was injured but at the time, Wade and I just found the whole thing hilarious!
We begged Lucivado to let us stay lying on the ground in our hammocks, surrounded by the remains of our hut until the sun came up and would hopefully take some of the mosquitos away with it. We were supposed to stick around for the morning, cooking breakfast on the fire and then doing some more jungle trekking but then he offered for us to quickly pack up camp and head straight back to the lodge instead. Someone checked the time and realized that if we left now, we could drop all of our things back at the lodge before heading back out for a sunrise over the river. Everyone except Wade and I opted for a shower and bed, so Wade, myself, Lucivado and the Portuguese speaking Capi-tan headed out for a romantic Amazonian sunrise to reflect on our Jungle experience. Once again, it was stunning and as we sat on the calm morning water, deliriously tired and scratching every centimeter of our mosquito bite covered bodies, we simply enjoyed the moment and had a good laugh at the hilarity of the previous night. I was now convinced that no one would ever be able to tell us that we had a “typical” Amazon experience!
Our last days in the Amazon were spent doing some more wildlife spotting and visiting a local indigenous family to see their way of life. The local family was lovely and welcomed us into their house with a variety of interesting bits and pieces already on display in anticipation of our arrival. Wade was gob smacked by the sheer size and weight of the Black Caiman skull they had and I thought the Anaconda skin was the coolest part of our visit…. Until they brought out an actual Boa Constrictor they had caught the previous week! The Boa had been stomped on by a local farmer’s cattle and had a significant kink in its… tail? It was so great to see the respect that the locals have for the wildlife that they live amongst as they showed us the enclosure where they were keeping the Boa until it recovers from its injury.
We also saw the traditional methods for making one of the main foods in their diet, farofa. Farofa is a dry, crunchy, carbohydrate made from the Manioc plant. Finally we tasted some natural Açai berries straight off the tree (VERY average!) and then jumped back into our boat and headed off wildlife spotting once again.
We began by motoring into a new section of river that slowly became more and more narrow. Pretty quickly, we found ourselves surrounded by thick reeds that looked as if they could comfortably hold the weight of a person without sinking. Lucivado eventually instructed the Capi-tan to cut the motor and he began cutting branches off nearby trees to form long handled forks. He passed these forks around the boat before telling us that we were actually stuck in the reeds and our only way out (seeing we now couldn’t use the motor for fear of damaging it!) was to all stand up and on the count of three, use our forks to slowly push the boat forward through the reeds. This may sound simple but believe me, it wasn’t! With over 500kg worth of people in our boat, each push moved us around 1 metre. I can only describe this experience like standing in a boat with 8 other people and using hockey sticks to try and move yourselves across a football field…. Stupid! Before long, we actually looked like we were in a worse spot than previously.
After 15 hot, sweaty and muscle burning minutes, we eventually eased our boat out the other side. We all laughed and high fived as Lucivado and the Capi-tan looked on with bewildered glances. This was just another day in the Amazon for them!
As our time in the jungle neared the end, we were relieved at the thought of a warm shower and an hour without slapping mosquitos but also sad in the knowledge that our time in the wild Amazon jungle was almost over. Of course, the jungle is full of surprises and our last one was the icing on the cake. As we motored back towards our jungle lodge to collect our bags, a huge Black Caiman sat silently in the water ahead of us. We circled it twice and watched in awe at the sheer size of this creature as it just went on with its day knowing that we were in no way a threat to the largest predator in the Amazon basin.
I simply cannot express enough how wildly beautiful and interesting this part of the world is. It exceeded every expectation I had and in the end it defeated me. I loved our time in the Amazon, but it was also brutal. By the last day of our Amazon adventure, I would not have spent an extra night at the jungle lodge for love nor money! It was hard work and tiring in so many ways and our bodies had the scratches, bruises and bites to prove it. But within a day of leaving, I missed it and pined to go back. This is a part of the world that should never be underestimated or taken for granted and we both feel so lucky to have spent time in the Amazon with such a wonderful, skilled and knowledgeable group of guides.
As we returned to Manaus, it was not only a nostalgic moment for leaving such an incredible, wild environment, but suddenly for Wade and I it hit us that this also meant the end of our time in Brazil. After 54 wonderful days in Brazil, it was time to move on. We flew out in the middle of the night and watched the lights below us disappear as we headed to our next destination…. Cartagena, Colombia!
* As always, plenty more photos from the Amazon can be seen on our Photo Albums page. Please check them out and leave a message below if you have any comments, advice or suggestions on how to improve our blog.
THANKS FOR READING!
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.