After Machu Pichu, tripping into the Amazon Rainforest is amongst the most frequently ticked boxes on a backpacker’s South American ‘to do’ list. Stretching out over five and a half million square kilometres across nine different countries, there’s no shortage of locations for visitors to get up and intimate with ‘the Jungle’. Whether plucking piranhas out of the murky water, posing for photos with tarantulas or risking malaria, the Amazon provides one of the most tangible ‘I did this’ moments on the continent (with photos and stories to match) and it attracts people in droves.
More than anything you’ll encounter in the wild, the most difficult step of the jungle tour is finding yourself a decent and scrupulous operator. Manaus is seedy at the best of times and while we researched the trip we heard numerous stories about dodgy companies tying animals to trees to make them more ‘spotable’, drunken guides leading boatloads of tourists on crocodile hunts without life jackets and various other horror story scenarios. In the end we settled on the universally praised Gero Tours, perhaps the soft and gentrified option, but better reputed and better value than any other operator we came across.
We set out early the next morning for a varied commute that took us from Manaus’ surreal urban jungle to an actual one, where blaring car horns and exhaust fumes were nothing but a distant memory. We escaped the city via speed boat and were then thrown into a jeep that took us through the flooded plains south of the Amazonian capital. Theoretically the area we passed through was farmland, but the paddocks on both sides of the road were entirely submerged in water. Enormous water lilies stretched across the flooded expanse while stranded fish lay gasping on the ashphalt. Arriving at a second dock ninety minutes later, we were hustled into another waiting speedboat for the final 45-minute ride to Gero’s Jungle Lodge. The transfers had the efficacy of a well-planned drug run and despite four changes of vehicles and the rough and flooded roads, the journey was smooth from start to finish.
The lodge was more upscale than I’d expected, but still rustic enough to give the impression of being remote and jungley. As we arrived a group of capuccino monkeys swung overhead, cackling at us from the nearby trees. Dumping our stuff, we left them to their fruit and mirth and jumped into a canoe to explore the flooded forests. We came into the Amazon at the end of May, a time that corresponds with the region’s highest water levels. For animal spotting this is a good thing. The boat is much closer to tree top level providing a closer view of life in the foliage, and lacking dry alternatives, the animals are concentrated into a much smaller area. The flip side of the coin however, is that our visit also corresponded with the worst ever flooding on record in Brazil, an event that caused mass displacement and widespread disease throughout the region. But that’s a tale for another time.
The jungle enveloped us as we drifted through the narrow canals and hanging limbs. A cacophony of birds burst into song as they flew overhead, only to disappear as suddenly as they arrived. Spotting something of interest, our guide Mateus would cut the engine and a complete silence would fall upon the canoe. It was a beautiful silence, full of suspense and wonder as we raked our eyes over the surrounding to see what had caught Mateus’ attention. Sometimes he would point out a static object, a medicinal plant or blooming flower, but he mostly used these silences to highlight the numerous creatures surrounding us. With a single word and a straightened finger he would draw our attention to ‘Hawk’, ‘Dolphin’, ‘Sloth’, ‘Caiman’ and a variety of other birds, while using the same gentle tone to emphasise ‘Sunset’ as the sky flamed orange and then went pink around us.
On day two we got up early and headed into much denser vegetation to explore the jungle on foot. It was a different type of jungle to the flooded forest, more closed and menacing. We were only fifty metres from our boat when the thick overhead canopy blocked out the sun entirely and the air closed in around us. It created an eerie environment and each croak, buzz and rustle made us turn. A jaguar roared somewhere nearby and the group fell to a hush. I briefly wondered what I’d do if it rushed at us, looked for a potential tree to climb and came up short of options. It was a pointless exercise, jaguars associate groups of humans with hunting trips (as opposed to fresh off the boat mosquito-mauled foreigners) and the mysterious cat quickly distanced itself from us.
We continued on our way for another hour or so, but between the dense canopy and thick mists there was little to see. Somewhere close A toucan sung forlornly but remained out of sight. A vine snake slithered off the path the second it heard us coming. By contrast, an enormous toad leapt unabashed in front of us, but failed to win any love from the group despite its forwardness. We returned to base camp impressed by the density and immensity of the jungle but disappointed not to see many animals.
After lunch we had our piranha fishing session, one of the most spruiked aspects of the tour. I was surprised that we were instructed to wear open-toed sandals given we were supposed to drop the little buggers at our feet (our guide had a permanent scar where one had savaged his finger), but like a good boy I did as I was told. We found the piranha pool, tied some raw chicken onto our hooks, cast the rods and waited. And waited. And waited.
Despite its extreme sounding name, piranha fishing is pretty much identical to normal fishing. Nothing much happens. Between six of us, we caught three fish in as many hours, a poor return by anyone’s standards. Apparently the high water levels make it much harder to catch the fish, but perhaps our guide simply said this to console us. Either way I was happy to have plucked one of the three fish out of the water. It was no bigger than my little finger, had silver scales, pointy teeth and evil eyes. It was too small to eat so I threw it back, but it bled from its hook wound and would likely have been ripped to shreds by its brothers. The circle of life can be cruel in this neck of the woods.
That night we went caiman (crocodile) spotting, one of those counter-intuitive activities that you’d never do in your own spare time at home… Again our crew of six poured into the boat and with flashlights roaming, puttered into the nearby reeds. The guides (two are required when crocs are involved) scanned the surrounds and searched for the reflection of the caiman’s eyes on the surface of the water. Seeing two gleaming red dots near the bow of the boat, the guide lunged and we suddenly had a squirming 20cm long caiman aboard with us. Pinning its neck and holding it by the torso, the guide gave us a rundown on its biology and then passed it around so we could all have a hold. Believe it or not, it was my first time holding a crocodile and it made me pretty nervous. It was cold, wet, slimy and hard, and did its best to wriggle from my grip the moment it was in my hands. Apparently their mouths are full of bacteria and even small bites cause serious infections. I passed it on before I thought too much about the consequences of dropping it.
The final major activity of the trip was the jungle camp out, another highly spruiked aspect of the tour that most tourists have a naively romantic notion of. In the perfect world it would be an experience in a remote part of the forest where all kinds of rare and exotic animals parade past your hammock and in the morning you are woken by a spectacular sunrise and a symphonious bird song. Yet by doing the trip with a responsible and well-run tour company, you are never going to camp as ‘out there’ as you’d like… there’s too much potential for things to go wrong (i.e getting lost or eaten). We set up camp in a clearing far enough from base camp to give the impression of remoteness, but close enough to keep things relatively comfortable.
It wasn’t quite enough for me… despite beeing out in the jungle, the only difference between this and our nights in the lodge was the sheer number of mosquitos. From dusk on they attacked us relentlessly, lapping up our DEET repellent as if it were lolly-water. Swatting them away didn’t help much either, the little bastards penetrated every article of clothing, drank their fill and then made way for their buddies to have a turn. We retreated to our hammocks and mosquito nets as soon as dinner was done, slapping wildly at the rogue insects inside our nets and battling with the hammock to find a comfortable position. Dawn came slow.
Until the final morning of the trip every activity had run according to plan. We’d start on time, nobody would get eaten and at the end of it all we’d return to the lodge safe, sound and home in time for dinner. As much as I admired the guides ability to stick to the plan, it all felt a little bit too neat for my liking. The final day’s canoe trip however was the exception. It was a spontaneous trip and Mateus took us much deeper into the flooded forest than before, forcing a new route for the canoe by smashing through the branches in front of the boat. We landed deep in spider territory and found fist-sized tarantulas crawling all over the embankments. For the first time on the trip it felt like we were deviating from the script.
The major deviation came however when we tried to return to the lodge. The path we’d beaten through the reeds had closed behind us and the guide struggled to get his barings. We tried to make a new path through the branches but only managed to get our canoe edged and were unable to move backward or forward. It was stinking hot and we had no drinking water, we couldn’t move and a swarm of bullet ants crawled aboard and rushed all over our seats. Torn between boyish excitement and mild unease, it was the Indiana Jones moment I’d been chasing. Sure enough we dislodged ourselves and everything worked out fine. Things usually do.
It’s probably ridiculous for a city-boy to crave too much authenticity from a trip into the Amazonian jungle. Given my nerves in the controlled situations, I’d probably be utterly useless were I exposed to much more than I saw. That’s exactly why the tour is worth experiencing. We don’t belong in the jungle, plain and simple. Yet by taking yourself out of your comfort zone and realising how vulnerable we are, you can gain perspective that’s seldom on offer in the daily grind. More than photos and tall tales of pirahnas and snakes, perspective is the major thing we should be taking from the Amazon. As cheesy as it sounds, we’re smaller than we think we are.
If you are reading this entry because you are looking for a Jungle Tour operator in Manaus, I would highly recommend Gero Tours. You can check out their website here