At the mere mention of the Amazon Rainforest our minds conjure up exotic scenes. Images come to mind of an untamed river cutting its way through a dense jungle filled with strange plants and animals. We picture primitive tribes living deep in the forest, completely cut off from civilization. Like many others we wanted to explore this mysterious part of the world to see these images in person.
There are many different ways to explore the Amazon Rainforest. Some people go on day trips, not venturing too far from the city. Others take boat trips, reaching far into the Amazon tributaries. Another option is to stay in a remote lodge using it as a base from which to further explore. This is the option we chose.
To get to any of the lodges in the Amazon Basin, would be difficult to do on your own. To reach our jungle lodge required seven different modes of transportation and took half a day. Our journey began from a small port in Manaus (read our story here) where we had what turned out to be one of our favourite foods in Brazil. The drink is called Vitamina de Guaraná. It is somewhat similar to a smoothie made with a powder from the seeds of the guaraná fruit. The powder is then mixed with a large assortment of fruits which may include avocado, mango, acai, bananas, pineapple and even crushed peanuts or cashews. It is a thick, slightly sweet drink that is very filling. With so many fresh ingredients, each sip has a different fruity taste.
At the port we boarded a small passenger boat that took us across the Negro and then Amazon Rivers. We hadn’t traveled far from Manaus when we saw a strange colouration in the water. The confluence of the Rio Amazonas and Rio Negro is called the ‘Meeting of the Waters’ and is fascinating to see. From our boat we could easily distinguish the line between the light-coloured Amazon and the dark-coloured Negro. The rivers have different compositions of sediment making the Amazon faster, heavier and cooler than Negro. This difference means their waters don’t mix immediately. Typically it takes two kilometers for the two rivers to mix. In certain conditions it may take a remarkable 12 kilometers. This convoluted line of the two colours will continue for most of that distance. Our guide said it’s as if Negro is trying to join Amazon, but the Amazon keeps pushing it away. Looking at the jagged line, that explanation seems apt.
In Brazil the Amazon River is called Rio Solimões before it reaches Manaus. Brazilians only call it Rio Amazonas after it has melded with Negro. For ease of reading though, we’ll refer to it as Amazon (or Amazonas).
On the other side of the Amazon, it became very apparent that life is much more simple than in the bustling city across the water. There was no real port or even a dock. The banks are lined with humble homes belonging to local fishermen. Our small boat pulled up to the shore where we unloaded by stepping onto the muddy shore.
We still had a long trip to reach our remote jungle lodge. We drove on one of the only roads in this area and drove past small farms and rural towns. Between them the land is crossed by several small rivers and creeks all eventually draining into the Amazon. Our trip that day was made even more complicated because a bridge had collapsed just 3 days before our arrival. Locals had been reporting the poor condition of this bridge for months and were trying to stop large trucks from using it. On that day it was filled with protesters from both sides of the argument when it collapsed. The last report we heard at least 50 people died and more are still missing. For us it meant waiting for a couple of hours in sweltering heat to cross the river and then another hour to find our next ride.
Two boat rides later and we reached the lodge that would be our base for the next 4 days. It is located in a part of the Amazon region known as the flooded forest. When we visited it was near the end of drying season. They don’t call it dry season because as our guide explained, after rainy season ends the river is slowly drying for the next 6 months until the next rainy season.
As we cruised along the river we could see lines high up on the trees from the high-water level of previous rainy seasons. Standing under one of these trees, the high water marks were far above our heads. As well as the water marks, dried grass hung high in the canopy. It is dried floating grass that rises and falls with the water levels. It’s difficult to comprehend how the water level can change so much. The difference is staggering. We then understood the name flooded forest because during rainy season all of the trees around us would look like bushes while their trunks are sitting in deep water.
Since it was drying season the water level decreased throughout the day. Trees had a wet line a couple of inches above the river. These marks show how much the water level has dropped that day.
The Amazon basin is home to thousands of types unusual plants. Unlike our trip to the Pampas in Bolivia where we saw a wide variety of animals (read the story here), our time in the Amazon was more about seeing the amazing landscapes and vegetation. We spent the next few days cruising up and down the many streams and rivers in this part of the rainforest where we saw many of the different types of trees. We enjoyed seeing the tall Brazil nut and kapok trees as well as fruit filled cashew and cocoa trees.
Along the water’s edge the floating grass makes the landscape even more interesting. The grass looks dense enough to walk on, but it’s floating on the water, not growing on land. It is this same grass that we saw hanging high on the trees from when the water levels were that high.
The Amazon basin is home to the world’s largest water lily pads. The pads of a Victorian Water Lily can grow up to 3 meters wide. You can appreciate their size in a picture below of the Northern Jakana bird walking on one.
Our favourite times of day was first thing in the morning and early in the evening when it was very peaceful. The water was so flat making a perfect mirror to reflect the green vegetation.
It’s difficult to see animals in this area because the forest is so dense, but we were lucky to see a few. Curious cappuccino monkeys were more playful in the Amazon than those that we saw in the Bolivian Pampa. But we found the reverse in the squirrel monkeys who were very shy and ran away as soon as we approached. In the water and along the banks we spotted a few caiman, but most were very small.
Both pink and grey dolphins live in the rivers. Pink river dolphins known locally as boto, are endemic to the Amazon. They are difficult to photograph because they are solitary animals don’t make graceful exits out of the water. Their small dorsal fin barely breaches the surface. The non-indigenous grey dolphins though travel in pods and tend to surface in groups more frequently. We could easily spot their characteristic dorsal fin as a few jumped out of the water, one after the other. They often seeed curious about our boat and would fish in the waters nearby.
There are plenty of birds which are easy to spot as they fly over the river. They include hawks, several types of waterbirds, hoatzins, canaries, toucans, hummingbirds, kingfishers as well as a lot of dragon flies.
Many people who live in the Amazon basin rely on the river for food and transportation. Instead of cars, everyone here has their own boat. Even the school vehicle is a boat not a bus. We were in the Amazon rainforest on the day of the federal election. All day long we saw boats going to and from the voting station held in the local school. They’d drive by on their return trip home giving us the thumb’s up to let us know they voted.
We saw fishermen working together in their small boats, but learned that they only fish for their own consumption. Ironically in Manaus it’s cheaper to buy exported fish than to buy local. So the fish sold in Manaus markets are not from this area.
We had hoped to visit an indigenous tribal village but these remote communities no longer allow visitors. They live far from medical services and tourists, including Brazilians, bring too many illnesses.
Instead, we visited our guide’s cousin’s house. They are indigenous to the area, but no longer live a primitive lifestyle. When we visited they were processing cassava (manioc) into an edible form called tapioca. In this region they grow yellow manioc which must be processed properly to remove harmful toxins. The process takes 7 days and requires about 25 people so the entire family gathers to pitch in. Tapioca is a staple in Amazonian diets.
Their garden was one of the most diverse we’d ever seen. They have cashew, cinnamon and guava trees as well as rows and rows of planted herbs and vegetables. Our guide has us take a small bite of a Jambu plant. Our lips and tongues instantly went numb. The plant is used as a medicinal treatment for some diseases such as malaria and mouth infections. Thankfully the numbness went away in a half-hour.
The most interesting tree in their yard was the cashew. We were surprised to see the large apple-type fruit with one nut growing on its end. Cashews are actually the seed of the yellow-red fruit. Since each fruit only has one seed, it makes sense why they are so expensive.
The fruits perish within a few days of picking so are only sold locally. Our guide picked a few for us to try. The taste is somewhere between sweet and rotten. It was not pleasant to our tastebuds. It is also a little astringent leaving a dry feeling in your mouth. The nut is surrounded by a caustic resin so it must be properly roasted to remove the toxins before eating. When you buy raw cashews in the store they have gone through this initial roasting process. What are called roasted cashews have been roasted a second time. Cashews are endemic to northern Brazil but have been transplanted in many other parts of the world.
After spending four days in this remote part of the Amazon Rainforest, we were keen to see the rest of the river. Our next adventure was to take a slow ferry down the mighty Amazon. Watch for that story coming soon.
How to get to Manaus
The most common base city for exploring Brazil’s Amazon is Manaus. Even though it’s the best place to use as a base for Amazon Rainforest tours, it’s not easy to get to Manaus. There is an international airport which is how most people, including us, arrive. Taking a long haul bus is possible but only from a few Brazilian cities. We looked into taking a bus from Cuiabá, but it would have taken 2 full days. The last option is to take a slow moving ferry up or down Amazon River. It’s a slow but cheap way to transport people and goods along the river. We’ll describe our ferry ride on the Amazon in the coming weeks.
Booking a Tour
There are many tour agencies offering a variety of single or multi-day tours for all budgets. Many can be found on-line, but there are also a lot of tour offices in Manaus. We found it much cheaper to buy our tour from a local agency in town when we arrived. You may need to be flexible with your dates, but we found options that would leave each of the upcoming three days so we could pick and chose which one we wanted. We ended up taking a 4 day/3 night tour to a remote lodge. Three or four days is plenty of time to get an appreciation for the area. The average cost was only R$ 400 ($75 USD) /day/person and included all meals, accommodation, guides and transportation.
Coming Next – A Slow Ferry Down The Amazon
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To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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