I have recently spent some time in Brazil and I can safely say that it was one of the best holidays I have ever been on. The people, the beaches, the food, the wildlife, the drinks (in particular the caipirinhas) all add up to make your trip truly amazing. I really wanted to get to the very heart of Brazil and I figured there was no better way to do it than join the Grand American Adventures tour on a Cruise through the Heart of the Amazon finishing with some downtime in Rio.
Hopefully it will inspire you to make this incredible journey yourself, if not for the vast wildlife, for the delicious caipirinhas (if you can't tell these are a firm favourite of mine).
What words dance across your mind when you think of the mighty Amazon Rainforest?
Excitement? Wildlife? Lush green forests? Natural beauty? These were a handful of the words baiting me ahead of my boat trip down Brazil’s famed Rio Negro. A route so deep into the forest we would see no planes, boats, tourists or other signs of human life apart from local villagers who have forged their livelihood from the land.
Impressions of Manaus
Flying into the jungle city of Manaus with a population of over 2 million, we landed on a runway surrounded by thick forest and sticky humidity. Whilst in the taxi to the hotel, my mind questioned whether Manaus was prosperous enough to keep swallowing the jungle inch by inch, or if the forest boundaries would reclaim sections stolen by the city, as seen in Africa’s Congo where crumbling towns disappeared into a sea of greenery.
But this is unlikely to happen with Manaus; a buzzing city of dilapidated grandeur where young kids tout the streets and groups of men swat the heat with a cold drink. Strolling through the down town markets amongst a sea of colour and frenetic sights and sounds typically associated with markets, I began to find the city's rhythm. I always maintain that a market where locals shop, buy fruit and vegetables, and fish when it comes in fresh off the boats is the perfect introduction to a new place.
The old and new of Manaus stand proudly side by side; the glory of historical events against the backdrop of a future promise. Buildings boasting ornate plaster work and gold leaf versus those held together by twisting vines and tree trunks where the jungle refuses to surrender.
The following morning having met our guides and 11 travelling companions in reception, we boarded motorised canoes and made our way towards the Tucano, an 18 passenger boat with ornately crafted wooden cabins and viewing deck, whilst still small enough to manoeuvre the tributaries off the main Rio Negro. Departing Manaus we set sail for our 8 day exploration of wildlife, birdlife, the intricacies of the forest and thriving ecosystems within. What struck me initially apart from the raging heat were the magnificent vacuous trees stretching towards the heavens, rising out of the black waters of the Rio Negro.
The forest of the Rio Negro goes by the name Igapó, a word used in Brazil for blackwater-flooded Amazonian forests. These forests and similar swamp forests are seasonally inundated with freshwater and have learnt to survive, flooded by the acidic waters of the Rio Negro for six months each year. It is strange to see trees, plants and the forest stretching towards the light from the depths of the black water. Although there was generally a clear path of the Rio Negro, at times it appeared to be a flooded wasteland hidden below the dark waters, busy gathering important life-giving silt and minerals once the waters had dissipated.
Into the wilds
There are two choices for boat trips from Manaus, the first being on the Amazon where wildlife is in abundance but with a heavy flow of traffic, tourists and mosquitos. The other is the Rio Negro where there is little human traffic and due to the high acidity of the water there are few mosquitos and not as much wildlife, I chose the latter. That is not to say that I didn't see everything I wanted to because I did and I finally got to see a sloth, I could now finish the tour happy. Having travelled down the Amazon previously and seen how easy it is to see wildlife, I enjoyed the thrill of scouring the small water channels and through the sunken waterways with binoculars for the prize wildlife sighting. Throughout the course of the eight days we spotted more sloths, birds of all sizes, shapes and colours, monkeys, gigantic camouflaged iguanas, caiman sunning themselves on the water shores, snakes slithering through tree branches and pink and grey dolphins, which playfully observed our actions each day.
As electric as wildlife spotting was, for me the most incredible aspects of the trip (beside the guides who could not be faulted with their knowledge and uncanny ability to see animals through the scrub) was the forest itself. Spanning as far as the eye could see and a powerhouse of activity and noise, the forest actually breathed and gave off a silent hum which could be felt through the body. The fact it has learnt to survive flooding for six months at a time is astounding. Every day we would strap on the gaiters and walking boots to forge our track under a carpet of greenery. This is when the forest came alive thanks to the knowledge of our guide Sousa that I nicknamed ‘Dr Doolittle’, due to his ability to replicate bird calls.
The rebirth of the forest
Seeing the various canopy layers and how each tree works to support those beneath was incredible. Where trees had fallen with rotten trucks, these acted as a catalyst for new growth of ferns, mushrooms, vines and an integral chain in the survival of the forest, as well as the animals that live within it. We came across a Bullet Ant nest, which is used in one of the most bizarre coming-of-age rites. In the indigenous tribes for a boy to become a man they must fit the young boy with a glove made of Bullet Ants and he will need to withstand the pain which is said to be excruciating. Each ant is 2.5 cm long and packs a punch, rather him than me!
We saw tarantulas coaxed from their nests, whole trees absorbed by ants, birds nesting high above but the most memorable aspect of these walks was simply to hear the forest alive with all manner of noises, all living in harmony, in the stifling heat.
Early each morning we ventured out on a motorised canoe trip as the forest came alive with bird song and the dawn swallowed up the remnants of the previous night. Mid-morning was a daily forest walk followed by an afternoon canoe trip in amongst the flooded forest, followed by a night canoe trip in search of the elusive caiman who reign king under the security of the darkened sky. It was on these night excursions the air was rife with the sounds of the forest, mating calls of frogs filled the air and stars swarmed and dotted the heavens. On top of this we stopped at three small villages where due to the infrequent tourist visits, the genuine kindness from the locals was obvious and I felt privileged to have the opportunity to see people who have learnt to live with the land instead of trying to conquer it.
Highlights of my time on the Rio Negro include the caiman fishing canoe trip where these jaw-toothed critters mocked and stole bait, the ‘meeting of the river’ where the brown of the Amazon and black of the Rio Negro Rivers meet revealing an almost straight line with an eight-degree temperature difference, and drinking fresh coconut juice with an uninterrupted view of one of the most splendid mirror-image sunsets. Of course on a trip such as this, the experience of the guides and staff are key and I believe were instrumental in making this a magnificent trip. They delivered information with passion and were faultless in the enjoyment of all on board.
For anyone looking to truly get off the ‘beaten track’, a term used all too frequently these days, or for an unforgettable and experiential trip I cannot recommend an exploration of Brazil's mighty Rio Negro enough!