Brazil's Manaus is the perfect place to begin your trip into the jungle. Once there, grab your camera, don your raincoat and bear witness to the array of ecological delights in the Amazon Rainforest
For many intrepid explorers (and countless backpackers too) a trip to Manaus, a city situated deep in the Amazon Rainforest, means just one thing: the chance to take a jaunt into the depths of the jungle.
I’d always had high hopes for the rainforest; it had been my ambition to see it for myself ever since at the tender age of eleven, a documentary about the ecology of the Amazon and mass deforestation, had struck a chord. It was incredibly strange to be going there at last.
It goes without saying that well thought out packing is key when preparing for such adventures; walking boots, a camera, a torch, long sleeved tops, full length trousers and a water proof coat are all essentials, and under no circumstances should you forget your anti malarials and insect repellent.
We were driven from our hostel to Manaus’s port, where we boarded a motor boat. In no time at all, we had reached the point at which the almost black Rio Negro and the sandy Rio Solimoes (Amazon River) meet at an almost straight line, to bizarre effect. After a brief stop at a nearby village and a short drive, we boarded a ferry and sailed along the Amazon. Our group where a somewhat motley crew; we were joined by a pair of permanently disgruntled Lithuanian chaps, an eccentric mathematician who hadn’t been able to procure a waterproof jacket so had donned a shower curtain instead, and a lovely Israeli mother and son.
It being April, we found ourselves in the midst of rainy season, which meant most of the forest floor was submerged in eight foot of water, consequently we sailed through the trees to our jungle lodge in small riverboats, encountering all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures along the way. We saw frogs the size of your fingernail and iguanas nestled in the trees who, for some reason, would take lemming like tumbles into the water every now and then. At one point a squirrel monkey was darting about overhead. Then there was the pièce de résistance, a baby sloth. Like most sloths, he looked to be grinning from ear to ear, our tour guide Antonio whistled to test his reflexes, at which point the responded by turning his head in the appropriate direction with slow lethargy.
We carried on to the Araca Amazon Lodge, where the accommodation is simple, there was a choice of beds or hammocks and a bar nearby. We were greeted with a lunchtime buffet on arrival and then took a power nap before the day's activities got underway.
Fully rested, we embarked upon a fishing trip, we were in search of piranhas and equipped with twigs, twine and bait. Things then took a dramatic turn and us gringos watched aghast, as our tour guide's girlfriend, and second mate Yvonnie, dropped her glasses into the piranha infested waters, and dived in to retrieve them. We were later told that these particular fish were non-aggressive, but that didn’t make the feat any less bold in my eyes.
Later still, we took a night time boat trip and saw the unpolluted night sky peppered with stars. Antonio introduced us to a young caiman, which remained still and calm as he held it. Antonio is very experienced when it comes to the handling of forest animals, and it shows. He reassured us that he had grown up in the Amazon and knew how to keep the caimen from feeling threatened or afraid.
On day two, we sailed further down the Amazon, braved tropical rain, caught a glimpse of pink and grey dolphins and watched the sun set behind the canopy: this was a beautifully calm, but surreal experience. We stayed with a local self-sustaining family living on the riverside that night. The parents cooked us a lovely meal and, in return, we peeled a few maniocs and entertained their little boys with our digital cameras.
The fact that none of us could communicate with each other in words didn’t seem to matter too much, and the kids were taking snaps of their pet cat and striking poses of their own in no time. We wanted to leave our new friends a little token in return for their faultless hospitality, but were unprepared for our stay with the family (it was a bit of a last minute idea). To our dismay, all we could offer the children in terms of luxury items, was a half eaten packet of sweets, I’m sure they were suitably impressed. I would suggest anyone touring the jungle should perhaps take a little offering of sorts in anticipation of such a stay, maybe pencils, paper, toys or sweets. The families inhabiting the rainforest rarely visit the city and these little luxuries would be welcomed I am sure.
After sleeping on hammocks hung sporadically around the family home, (and being molested by ravenous mozzies all night long I may add) we woke up and took a little look around, we saw the coffee bean patch in all its glory and found a tree dispensing tribal paint.
We then set sail once again, amidst more torrential rain, and found a nice little spot to set up camp for our final night, which was to be spent in the open air. Antonio dispensed some jungle survival tips and it all got very Ray Mears for a while. He came by wielding a machete and we all pitched in to make the frame for our camp from forest wood but, to be honest, I feel I was more of a hindrance than a help. I can barely assemble Ikea furniture let alone freestyle a hammock post for ten. After a while, I turned my hand at the less taxing task of building a camp fire, there’s a lot less to go wrong where snapping twigs is concerned.
After setting up camp and hanging our hammocks, we boarded the boat once more and set off for a jungle hike. There was a lot of creepy crawlie action that afternoon, and in a brave move, Antonio picked up a female tarantula and told us the chilling tale of her poisonous properties. After a short period of being a tad lost, we found the boat and returned to camp. Dinner was cooked at the campfire and before we hit the hammock, we were warned we should check our boots for venomous snakes the next morning. I thought old Antonio was having a laugh, but nope, the next day he showed us his vial of anti venom which he constantly has on his person as, ‘these things can happen’.
Day four saw our arduous return up the Amazon and back to the port in Manaus. Our trip into the jungle had definitely been an education; Antonio was a brilliant guide, illuminating so many aspects of the rainforest ecosystem for us with a real passion and love of his work. He is also realistic about the sad extent of damage caused by mass deforestation. Cattle ranching accounts for 80 per cent of forest loss, logging practise is notoriously difficult to police, and infrastructure development along with deforestation for commercial agriculture are also widespread problems in the Amazon. It is sobering to see photographs of slash and burn agriculture in practice, particularly after seeing the rainforest first hand, and gaining an insight into all that must be lost with every square foot of the jungle that is destroyed.
How to book
We booked our trip through Amazon Backpackers (www.amazonbackpackers.com.br), a tour operator located on site at our hostel Hotel Dez de Julho. The staff were incredibly informative and approachable, our agent Shannon went out of her way to help us, she even accompanied my sick travel buddy to the doctors when we were in dire need of antibiotics and a Portuguese translator. The company are able to tailor your jungle trip, depending on how long you want to spend there. We opted for three nights and four days with an experienced tour guide.