Dolphins, storms, caimans, hammocks, knife-throwing: it may still be a tourist backwater, but there's nothing boring about journeys in the Brazilian Amazon
Despite its status as the longest river in the world, and the surrounding rainforest as one of the most ecologically diverse environments in the world, the Brazilian Amazon is still a relatively unpopular tourist destination. Along with superb day trips, its relative inexpensiveness and the cache of being able to say you’ve travelled on the Amazon River make it a great place to visit.
Every trip here should begin with a real experience of the river itself, and the best way to achieve this is to book yourself onto a slow ferry, either upriver from Belem or seawards from Manaus (around $100 from one to the other); the former is a longer trip, heading against the current, particularly during the rainy season, but gives you more time to catch a glimpse of river dolphins. As basic as the ferries are, there is no more authentic Amazon experience than slinging up a hammock on the packed lower deck with the locals and their piles of luggage; cabins are also available, but are about as expensive as flights and equally as atmospherically sterile. A good place to await the ferry’s departure is the Amazonia Hostel on Av Gov Jose Malcher, close to the city centre, which offers comfortable and well-equipped rooms for $15-20 per night.
One of the last few commercially operational river highways, riding the rushing waters here is like going back in time. Once the tailing flotilla of lumber barges has dispersed, the ferry will be assailed by a constant stream of canoes, paddled by children that deftly leap aboard to sell dried shrimp; at intervals along the riverbank you’ll see tiny villages, either floating or half-submerged depending on the time of year, with small herds of cattle splashing around in the shallows, waves lapping against the front porches of whitewashed shacks. Vultures wheel overhead and, if you’re lucky enough to spot them, pods of dolphins will surface in greeting.
Manaus, the largest inland port in the world, is about the river’s halfway point, and is the perfect point to stop at to get reacquainted with dry land and to organise a trip into the jungle itself. Sited at the confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro - the two streams run alongside each other for several miles, a swirling but perfectly delineated line with brown water on one side and black on the other – Manaus was once the rubber capital of South America and still displays some of that former wealth.
Most ostentatious is the main square, with the neoclassical Teatro Amazonas and walkways lined with outdoor restaurants. With luck you may come across an open-air performance underway. The rest of the city also has an air of slightly faded grandeur, particularly around the port itself, with its massive warehouses, less busy than they were once but still bustling and architecturally impressive.
The main attraction of Manaus, however, is the jungle itself, as the number of new tour agencies attests to. Several are clustered around Hostel Manaus on Rua Lauro Cavalcante, which offers comfortable, fan-cooled bunks for $12 a night, and runs its own tours as well. Prices vary according to what your expectations and requirements might be. At the lower end of the scale, three people can get a three-day/two-night tour for $400, while the highly recommended Iguana Turismo (www.amazonbrasil.com.br) run custom trips from $100 a night, staying on the beautiful, isolated Lake Juma. The agency we went with, Amazon Backpackers (http://www.amazonbackpackers.com.br) falls somewhere in the middle ground, at about $110 per night with a low-season discount, and although not organisationally perfect, was still well worth checking out. They were also very helpful in organising the next stage of the journey upriver if you are inclined to spending more time on a ferry.
The jungle experience
Regardless of which agency you choose, the experience is one you’re not likely to forget in a hurry. The standard programme involves spending most of the first day getting out to the particular patch of jungle the tour agency has staked out for itself – a journey by speedboat, van and motorised canoe. Then you meet your guide, the person who will make the experience memorable either for good or bad. Mine was a Guyanese Rastafarian with permanently bloodshot eyes called Sami, a man who bore the many scars of a hard life in one jungle or another, having even induced a sloth to maul him at one point. The great success of our trip was due mainly to his character and jungle expertise.
Our first night was spent at a rudimentary camp amongst the dense primary forest, with animals calling around us once the campfire had burnt down. A cautionary word must be said here: if you are generally preyed upon by mosquitoes, you will probably not like this part much, as the mosquitoes this deep in the jungle are huge and relentless, even puncturing mosquito-nets and clothing to get at you. If you can just grin and bear it, however, the experience will outweigh the unpleasantness.
The morning brought a nature trek through the jungle, slipping through sodden foliage, clambering over fallen trees, swinging on vines, and having everything of remote interest pointed out and explained. Back at camp, while breakfast was being made, we were also shown the finer points of knife and spear throwing - you never know when it might come in handy.
For the rest of our tour we stayed with a local family in their farmhouse just above the floodwaters, using those pleasant surroundings as the base from which we undertook the rest of our activities: piranha fishing by day, spear fishing by night (great fun, but extremely challenging), making acai smoothies from the freshly collected berries, scoping for wildlife – including dolphins that were gracious enough to do flips out of the water for us – and swimming in the cool, refreshing river water. With no electricity for miles around, being there is also the perfect opportunity for stargazing, as long as the rain-clouds decide to humour you.
After such a busy few days you’ll be reluctant to leave the jungle, having had an experience that few other places will be able to rival, but almost certainly anxious to return to somewhere with a shower and people to regale with new stories of your time out in the wilderness.