All text and photos copyright 2002, Elizabeth A. Zuckerman, unless otherwise noted. Dates, facts, etc. quoted from Lonely Planet's Brazil, unless otherwise noted. Most photos are not electronically edited. For Rio de Janeiro, click here.
To visit Amazonia, you fly into Manaus and then go out on the famous river. The least expensive way to see Amazonia is to take multi-day cruises where you travel a significant length of the river from Manaus and sleep in a hammock on the boat. Eric and I decided this was just a little too rustic for us with our valuable camera and video equipment, and chose an Amazon lodge instead. Lodges cost more money, but give you a private cabin to sleep (and store your valuables), and serve as jumping off points for various day excursions. Lodge tour packages typically include several things such as jungle walks, boat rides, cayman hunting (they don't kill the cayman) and, believe it or not, piranha fishing (all of which we did). The further you get from Manaus, the more wildlife you are likely to see. Although the lodge setting is more comfortable than a boat cruise, it's still quite primitive -- no hot water, limited lighting and no air conditioning (all electricity is battery-driven). We chose the Amazon Village Lodge about 30 km from Manaus. This doesn't sound very far, but it's actually a 2 1/2 hour boat trip.
We arrived too late in the day to make the boat trip out to the lodge, and so spent our first night in Brazil at the Hotel Tropical Manaus. This was the nicest hotel where we stayed in Brazil, I believe because it was the only one I let my travel agent pick for me. It seemed very old and very modern at the same time, and was decorated just like you'd expect an old-fashioned tropical hotel to be -- with lots of heavy wood. It isn't just a hotel; it's an entire resort with a mini-zoo, orchidarium, enormous pool, and little shopping center. The first room they gave us had two little beds (we were later to find that this would be a theme in Brazil), so we had them move us to another room with one larger bed.
I really wanted to get up early and see some of the Tropical, but we were tired, as it had taken us nearly 25 hours of traveling from door to door, largely due to a long layover in Miami and the fact that it took 3 hours to get through immigration and customs in Manaus' small and understaffed airport. In the morning, it poured rain. We had a list of a few items we needed that we weren't able to acquire at the Miami airport, so we went to the little shopping center in the hotel. I had to consult my Portuguese dictionary many times in order to accomplish our shopping goals, but we accomplished them. After that the rain stopped and we had a little time to see the mini-zoo. We actually saw more animals in the Hotel Tropical mini-zoo than anywhere else in the Amazon, although they were in cages. One of the maintenance men took us around the back of the ocelot cage so we could see a baby ocelot with its mother. The mother was trying to wean the baby, and the baby kept trying to nurse, and she kept trying to stop it. They were very adorable and playful. The monkeys all seemed very human, and the jaguars seemed very much like domestic cats.
In the early afternoon, we were met at the Tropical by our guide, Luiz. Luiz took utter and complete care of us for the next several days and was just phenomenal. Being an Amazonian tour guide is not like being a San Franciscan tour guide, where you have to speak the language of your tourists and know a few San Francisco facts. In the Amazon, you have to do all that and also be constantly on the watch for jungle hazards, because you want to keep the tourists coming back! You also have to be able to predict sudden changes in the weather, and cook for your guests on day excursions. You also have to do some silly touristy things like making things out of jungle reeds, such as this crown Luiz made for us on our jungle walk. Throughout our trip, Luiz was kind and extremely helpful, and he deserves great commendation for his work. (Photo by Eric Zuckerman)
Luiz took us by van through the large industrial city of Manaus to the great Amazon River. Due to the size limitations of the boats, we were only allowed a small amount of luggage each and had to leave our large suitcases at the office of the tour company in Manaus. Then we started our boat ride up to the lodge. He showed us on a map that, east of Manaus, the Amazon River is divided into two rivers, the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes. They merge near Manaus to form the Amazon. The Rio Solimoes is comprised of brownish water, and the Rio Negro is called Negro because it's nearly black -- coffee colored. You can see Eric's feet here in the dark water. The water is dark because of humus, or plant material, in it. The current of the Rio Negro is very slow, and plants and trees grow right out of the water. The black water is very acidic, making it less hospitable to mosquitoes, so most tourists stay on the Rio Negro. Unfortunately, tropical birds eat mosquitoes, so where there are fewer mosquitoes, there are also fewer birds.
The boat captain took us by the famous meeting of the waters, where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes come together. The rivers are very different in temperature, density and current speed as well as color, so they do not immediately mix. You can literally see a line in the middle of the river where the two waters come together and do not immediately mix. Luiz said the sight is even more dramatic on a sunny day, but it was still really impressive.
Because we were in the southern hemisphere, it was wintertime in June. Luiz told us that this was a good time to visit the Amazon because it is the high water season, and many places that are navigable only by canoe in the summertime are navigable by motorboat during the high water season. It is also the low tourist season, so we felt like we were getting lots of special attention. I would highly recommend visiting the Amazon in the winter. The temperature as we traveled along the river was in the mid-70's F with about 90% relative humidity, not really any more uncomfortable than a summer day in the northeastern US. It was a bit strange, though, when we found the sun going down at 5:30 pm or so -- we felt like we had hemisphere lag as well as jet lag.
The Amazon Village Lodge was just like I pictured it -- lots of heavy wood and thatched roofs. Again, they gave us two small beds, but they didn't have any large beds, so we just had to push them together. We had a little time to lounge in the hammock outside the cabin before dinner. The meals were all very good. We got to try the fresh juice of starfruit and jackfruit, Amazonian fruits. Most of the vegetables were canned, but most of what we at consisted of the two major native foods of the Amazon, fresh fish from the river (often caught with spears), and a root vegetable called manioc. Manioc is similar to a potato and is prepared in as many different ways. Often, it is ground into a coarse flour and sprinkled on fish. Amazonian natives live mostly on fish and manioc. We were told that the life expectancy of Amazonian people is longer than that of people who live in Brazilian cities. The Amazon is, for now, a very low pollution environment, and the diet there promotes long life. We ate with Luiz and the few other guests in a central open-air dining "room." There was also a bar there, and a patio lounge. Several parrots lived on the patio lounge, and there was one, named Toquolah, who could say "hello" in English. Eric made friends with Toquolah.
After dinner we went cayman hunting. Cayman are a protected species and cannot be killed, but tour guides catch them, show the no doubt terrified caymans to tourists, and then let them go. The lodge had really comfortable motorboats for this sort of touring, with seat cushions and back rests. It was amazing to be out on the water at night, looking up at southern constellations we don't ordinarily see. We went to a cayman habitat and Salvano, the designated cayman hunter for the evening, looked around for the glowing red-yellow eyes of the cayman. Salvano found an approximately 2-foot cayman, and we all got to touch the soft stomach skin for which these animals were prized before they were protected. We got to watch how incredibly fast it moved once he let it go. Although these reptiles hold very still most of the time, they can really move in a flash!
Monday morning after breakfast, Luiz, Salvano, and a jungle survival expert took us on a walking tour of the jungle around the lodge, where Luiz made the above-pictured jungle queen crown for me. The plants are so different from North American plants, like this (dangerous) spiked plant We saw trees call abu ati, which means something like "stone wood," the lumber from which the lodge is constructed. We learned many things about survival in the jungle, such as how to get water from some plants, where quinine comes from, and how animals are trapped and tracked. We did not see very much wildlife, because most Amazonian wildlife is more active at night. Apparently, guides used to take tourists on jungle treks in the dark, but too many tourists got snake bites and the company decided it was too dangerous. We did see a tarantula! Most of the animals we saw, however, were mosquitoes, and all the DEET in the world could not stop you from getting at least a few bites. We had been vaccinated for everything we could be, but I was still petrified of getting the dengue fever or something else for which there was no vaccine. (Fortunately, this did not happen.) Eric, always a favorite of mosquitoes, was nearly eaten alive. I spent a lot of the trek brushing mosquitoes off of his back.
That afternoon, we went piranha fishing. Lonely Planet writes: "People eat piranhas a billion times more often than piranhas eat people, and the fish is reasonably tasty, if a bit small and bony. On an Amazon jungle trip you'll very likely find yourself trying to catch your own piranha lunch. You'll be taken by canoe to some propitious spot, with a simple fishing rod constructed of cane, line and hook, and a supply of small chunks of meat for bait. Pop a piece of bait onto the hook, dangle it into the water, and -- hey, presto -- free lunch! For the piranhas, that is, who will deftly nibble bait after bait off your hook without biting once. Your local companions, however, will land half a dozen of the ugly little snappers without even trying -- and these will be your lunch."
Luiz did indeed take us on such a trip. We were a group of three Brazilians and six tourists. I had never been fishing before, so the experience was wholly new to me. As the book said, we sat there in the boat for a significant amount of time, maybe 45 minutes, while the fish ate one bit of meat off of our hooks after another. You would feel the fish bite, pull up on the pole, and see just an empty hook. The Brazilians, meanwhile, caught five piranhas and a catfish. After a time, Luiz announced that we would just spend another ten minutes and then go have our fish cooked. Shortly after this, I felt a bite on the end of my hook, and yanked the pole up as quickly as I could. There was a piranha hanging from the hook, wiggling around. I couldn't believe it! I stood up in the boat to hold the fish out of the water and, without thinking, forgetting that perhaps I should mind my manners around the somewhat older crowd, I shouted, "Oh, my God, I caught a fucking fish!" The Brazilians were kind enough to get it off the hook for me, because I certainly didn't want to touch it. But I was quite, quite proud of myself. Shortly after that, Eric pulled his hook out of the water with a fish attached to it, but he flipped the line all the way over the boat and the fish bounced off the edge of the boat and escaped back into the water. So I was the only tourist to actually catch a fish!
We took our fish to a little village where a woman cooked them for us with manioc flower. Piranhas actually taste fairly good. Eric pointed out that they tasted better knowing that they could have eaten us rather than the other way around! (Photo by Eric Zuckerman)
In the village, we saw how Amazonians make rubber. They take a white, milk-like substance from a tree and heat it over a fire, turning it on a spit. The village also had a pet monkey. The monkey would climb on your head and cling to it until you distracted it with something. They would distract the monkey with guarana, a Brazilian soda. It is made from the extract of the guarana plant, similar to ephedrine, and Brazilians believe it cures many ills and promotes vitality.
The next day, Tuesday, was the day we did not have an activity scheduled. Luiz told us that for US$10 each, he and a driver, Kennedy, would take us on a boat trip to see some more of the area and have a picnic. We agreed. We went to the west, upstream, which was different from every trip we had taken before. The scenery was lovely. We went into a narrow tributary which Luiz said would not be navigable by motorboat during the lower water season. There were a lot of low overhanging branches. Kennedy would stop the boat and Luiz would cut the branches out of the way with a machete. Often the branches were too thick to cut, and we would have to duck down under them. This was actually the day when we saw the most interesting wildlife -- a bunch of monkeys bouncing around in the trees, and this sloth. Luiz said it was not full grown. It looked at us for a bit, and then fell asleep. Luiz told us that sloths only come down from trees once a week or so, to move their bowels. Otherwise, they eat, sleep and do everything else up in trees.
One of the most important skills of an Amazonian tour guide is an ability to predict what the weather is going to do next. Luiz saw some ominous clouds on the horizon and said we should go to the shelter where we would have our picnic. Predictably, it started to rain just a little bit before we got to the shelter. I looked down, away from the scenery, to put our camera in its bag, and got hit in the side of the head with one of those low-hanging branches! I was really upset, because I had paid US$300 for new glasses a month or so before the trip, and while my glasses didn't break, one of the side pieces got bent out at approximately a 30 degree angle. Fortunately, I was able to wear them, and when I got back to the US, my optician was able to fix them, but I didn't know that at the time and was really upset.
We stopped where there was a clearing on the bank and an open shelter with a roof and a firepit. I had been denying that my face hurt and saying that I was really only upset about my glasses, but eventually I had to admit that, yeah, I was kind of in some pain, and Luiz gave me some ice from the cooler to put on my face. He hung hammocks for Eric and me to lie in while he and Kennedy cooked. Heavy, heavy rain poured down, and we watched it fall over the edges of the roof of the shelter. It was soothing. Luiz and Kennedy cooked us a delicious lunch of fresh freshwater bass (cooked over an open fire) with rice, manioc flour, melons and bananas and a salad of cabbage, peppers, onions and yellow tomatoes. It was really great! The sun came out while we were eating. I was feeling better after lunch and offered to help clean up, but Luiz insisted that we lie in the hammocks while he and Kennedy cleaned up. It started to rain again, and Kennedy helped me pack up our camera equipment in plastic bags. We headed back to the lodge in a really strong downpour. Eric and I were really glad that we had invested in some quality headgear, but we didn't have good rain gear for the rest of our bodies, and our clothes got really, really soaked. Eric hung them outside our cabin to dry.
Some new interesting English-speaking guests arrived that evening. There was a couple with a serious long-distance relationship, Margaret and Ricardo -- a woman from Zurich and a man from Brasilia. They had met in Auckland, and he had gone to Switzerland to visit her, and now she was coming to Brazil to visit him. There was also a couple from London, Tally and Danny, both of whom were in medical school. Some of the World Cup Soccer games were happening while we were there, and everyone was very excited about them because Brazil was doing well. They went on to win the cup after we returned to the US.
On Wednesday, Luiz and Kennedy took us on another boat trip. The weather, fortunately, was better. We went to a nearby native Amazonian village where a family lived by growing manioc and turning it into flour. We saw them roasting and grinding the flour over a wood fire -- it looked like hot work. The family lived in a house on stilts to protect it from the river's flooding. Luiz said that the house was unusual in that it had flooring -- apparently most of the houses have dirt floors. The family had a pet sloth that was almost as big as their little girl. Eric got to hold the sloth.
We went by boat into the jungle to look for exotic birds and animals. Unfortunately, we didn't see any birds, but we did see a monkey. I was disappointed. But the trip was beautiful, anyway. It was very quiet and still when Kennedy cut the boat's motor. During the high water season, trees and other plants grow right out of the water. The black water reflected the plants like a mirror. It also reflected filtered sunlight back up onto the leaves of the trees. It was so pretty!
Next, Luiz and Kennedy took us to the village where a lot of the Amazon Village staff live. Kennedy took a break to have lunch with his family, whom we saw. The four of them live in one room, but conditions in this village were better than conditions in the previous village. For one thing, they had electricity. Although many houses were still made of wood on stilts to protect from flooding, newer buildings were built with brick and mortar. We met a man who makes boats by hand. The village had two communal facilities, a soccer field (Luiz said, "This is where we train the future World Cup champions.") and an open-air bar with huge speakers. The electricity is all on batteries, but they have enough power to run these speakers and have neighborhood parties on Saturday nights.
When we returned, we found we'd been treated to more fabulous Brazilian hospitality. We had asked to have the clothes that had gotten soaked on the boat ride dried (they had failed to dry overnight in the humid air), and they had been pressed as well!
In the afternoon, we took a swim with Margaret and Ricardo in the coffee-colored river near the resort. It was very refreshing, and I had definitely wanted to go back to the US able to say that I had swum in the Amazon.
After a nap, we took out one of the resort's canoes and were going to go swimming again. The scenery was beautiful. Unfortunately, before we got in the water, Luiz came out to warn us that the government would be spraying the area with mosquitocides and that someone would be coming to take us away in a boat. Apparently, the Brazilian government sprays the area with pesticides once a month to keep mosquitoes away and encourage tourism. So, we didn't get much of a swim. We got a boat ride, but could still smell the sweet pesticide smell. I was really upset about breathing the stuff. They brought us back as soon as the spraying was over, which was much sooner than I would have preferred, and still didn't leave us enough time to get ready for dinner. When Eric got to dinner, there was no fish left, (we do not eat other meat) but Luiz, again with that great Brazilian hospitality, had the cook fry up a plate of pirarucu (a delicious native Amazonian fish we had been enjoying) just for him. It was better than the bass everyone else had. I wasn't ready to go back to the cabin (it was hard to breathe in there), so we sat in the bar and tried a Brazilian lime drink called a caipirinha. It is made with a sugar cane liquor similar to rum, but made from white sugar cane (rum is made from molasses). It's very sweet, very strong and very good! When we went back to the cabin, the air fortunately had cleared somewhat.
Thursday, it was time to say goodbye to the beauty of Amazonia and move on to a very different environment, Rio. Luiz took us, with Tally and Danny, the English medical students, back to Manaus to the airport. Coincidentally, Tally and Danny were staying at the same hotel as we were in Rio. The boat ride was amazing. It was sunnier than on our trip out to the lodge, and the views were stunning. We saw river dolphins! They were gray, not the pink dolphins that are characteristic of the Amazon, but they were still active and jumping and fun. Unfortunately, they were very difficult to photograph. I wasn't able to get photos where they showed clearly. Luiz, ever helpful, brought us and our bags to the gate. We thanked him profusely for taking care of us the way he had. Check-in was very easy, and they had our vegetarian meals ready for the flight. In the airport, I was proud of myself for being able to order a grilled cheese sandwich in Portuguese. The airport also had Internet terminals at the gate! We were able to answer our email while waiting to board. It was very inexpensive also, costing only R$10 (at that time, about US$3.50) for the two of us for half an hour each. The airline, Varig, displays photos of different parts of Brazil on its monitors before takeoff, and we saw a picture of the Iguacu Falls. It looked amazing, much better than the pictures in the guidebook. I was really sorry I had not spent one day less in the Amazon in order to make time to see it. But it was too late at this point. If you do go to Brazil, I would definitely try to see the falls. Lonely Planet says they are "wider than Victoria, higher than Niagara and more beautiful than either."
On to Rio