Manaus, Brazil/ Troy Media/ - Amazon jungle guide Shane Zammette raised his hand in the steaming forest and stopped the line of six hikers. "It smells like wet dog," he said. Looking to the line's rear, he asked me, "Do you want a machete, Jeremy? Jaguars always attack from the rear."
It was a moment that brought home the deadly reality of the awesome beauty around us. It was recognition that, amidst the tangle of tropical plants, colourful birds, huge spiders, termite mounds and caimans lunging into waters infested with piranha, life is a precious thing where all creatures both co-exist for survival in paradise - humans included.
Brazilian Amazon, a guide will tell you, is something that must be done with some lessons in survival beforehand. It's essential you survey the bank before leaping to land a canoe because you can land on something very surprising. Or, you could move to clear your forest path by shifting a branch or vine and find yourself clutching a spider or a snake. Any unthinking move could prove fatal. With those lessons in mind, visiting the Amazon is an experience that dispels myths but also brings respect and awe for the largest rainforest on the planet.
Indeed, say guides, much of what draws people to the Amazon is myth. "The Amazon was or is a mystery to a lot of people," said guide Wolf Wink, a German who arrived in Brazil via a stint in Edmonton to pursue his dream of being a jungle guide.
"The people who come here are interested in the culture and the nature. It's different than all other places in the world," said Wink, who guides under the name Lobinho da Silva or Little Wolf of the Forest.
Our group stayed at a lodge operated by
Amazon Gero Tours, one of a number of companies operating from the city of Manaus at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Solimões (
the upper Amazon) River.
The first leg of the journey to
Gero Mesquita's Ararinha Jungle Hotel lodge involved crossing the Amazon by speedboat, a trip that takes about 15 minutes given the river's vastness. The Rio Negro's waters are brown while those of the Solimões are more white, the point where they flow together easily discernible. The boats slow so travellers can see their hands move between the two waters' colours, to feel the difference in temperature of the Negro coming overland while the cooler Solimões flows from the Andes mountain range.
Do not urinate in the water, travelers crossing the river are warned. Tiny fish can swim up urine and lodge in your urethra - another Amazon myth apparently true.
Landing on the other bank, we traversed a ramshackle dock and dodged food hawkers under the watchful eyes of dozens of vultures sunning themselves on the beach. Trudging up a red-earth bank, we made our way to vans idling in a town seemingly carved from a South American version of the old west. After 90 minutes, the vans halted at a muddy dock.
In an afternoon downpour, we deposited our bags into motorized canoes and set off for the lodge through a maze of waterways used as roads by the region's residents who live, work, go to school and attend church at the jungle's edge.
At the lodge, guests are given the choice of private huts or accommodation upstairs in the main lodge in hammocks or beds - mosquito netting provided.
Once settled in, it's off piranha fishing, with beef used to bait hooks under the watchful eye of Zammette, a Guyanese transplant to Brazil.
"Every time I come out here, I see something new," Zammette said. "It gets better and better."
As the days progress, hikes and canoe trips uncover caimans lurking on banks, monkeys howling in the trees, snakes waiting to drop on unsuspecting prey and colourful birds erupting from trees along the lagoons and rivers.
Indeed, I almost jumped on a three-metre caiman while landing a canoe on a sloth-hunting expedition. A day earlier, we almost tipped over when we hit something in the water, the canoe rising up and leaning heavily. The shore was 40 feet away through piranha-filled waters. The four of us each admitted we were terrified, grateful to be alive.
"Some people get scared," Zammette said. "They're scared of almost everything. As we continue everyday doing our tours, it helps them conquer their fears." Zammette said the biggest thrill people have, should they dare, is spending a night sleeping in the jungle.
Hammocks are slung between posts among trees, food cooked over an open fire as darkness descends fast near the Equator.
The night is filled with the screams of birds, howls of monkeys, chirps of crickets and croak of frogs. In the water, the glowing eyes of caimans glint on the surface. The jaguar are silent. Machetes stand at hand should danger present itself.
"Animals can come around," Zammette said. "You just lie there and listen to the
jungle. You don't know what sound is what." Indeed, a visit to the Amazon is a trip into the soul of Mother Nature at her most magnificent and deadly. It is a spiritual experience, not just something to be checked off a bucket list.
Getting there, guides and Agencies:
Most travel guidebooks give an overview of reputable agencies running tours into the Amazon.
Most tour companies operate out of the Amazon from the province city of Manaus, which is reached by plane or boat along the Amazon itself.
Manaus, a city of two million, is at the confluence of Rio Negro and Solimões River and is also worth exploring. Planes arrive from all over, Brazil, northern South America and from the United States.
Agencies can also be found online through sites such as TripAdvisor. Comparisons between sites and guidebooks will provide you with the information you need as to what to see and how to see it. Contact these agencies before arriving in Manaus to get a personal feel for them and their offerings. Do not expect perfect English when they respond. Portuguese is the language of Brazil. Do not accept offers for tours from airport touts.
While many sites offer advice on what is needed for Canadians to obtain visas to visit Brazil, many are outdated and can cause unneeded work for applicants. The sure-fire option is to go straight to the website of a Brazilian consulate in Canada where the needs and process are clearly spelled out. Fees change depending on country of nationality.
Vaccinations and health:
Diseases you should be aware of if visiting Brazil include hepatitis, yellow fever, typhoid, and malaria. Visit your family doctor to find out what you need to be vaccinated against. Some diseases can be dealt with through a family doctor while others can be handled through public health services or, in larger cities, health authorities' travel clinics. The family doctor is, however, the best place to start.
While the vaccinations will protect travelers, carrying such things as anti-diarrheals and hydrating salts should be considered. Avoid tap water in Brazil. Buy bottled water for consumption to avoid local contaminants and drink plenty to avoid dehydration. Also, use tap water for brushing your teeth and avoid ice cubes in drinks. Drink canned or bottled fluids when unsure about a fluid's origin.
Jaguars are there but rarely seen.
Sloths inhabit the treetops but guides bring them down for visitors.
Boa constrictors also inhabit trees and are brought down.
Caimans (South American alligators) range from babies up to adults of three or more metres in length. They are frequently seen along the water's edge.
Piranha live throughout the Amazon's waters. Many agencies will take you fishing (perhaps using beef as bait). Your lodge staff might cook your catch for dinner.
apes such as
howler, capuchin, tamarind, spider and squirrel monkeys as well as marmosets can be seen throughout the forests. Howler monkeys can frequently be heard long before they are seen. Bird species that can be spotted include species of parrots, toucans, eagles, egrets, kingfishers, osprey, macaws,
vultures, herons, nun birds and many others. Carrying binoculars for spotting wildlife is highly suggested. An extra storage card for digital cameras is also
a good plan.
Do's and Don'ts:
Listen to what your guide says and be open and willing to learn from him or her. Make sure you know where you're stepping and where you're putting your hands as you move through the jungle. While it is beautiful, there are things that can
kill or injure you at every turn. Respect them and move among them with the awareness the education your guide can give you and enjoying the Amazon can be a fantastic experience. Make sure you have insect repellant in addition to anti-malarial pills. Take plenty of sunscreen. Hang your shoes up at night to avoid unpleasant surprises in your shoes from bugs in the morning. Bang them on the heels and shake them out before putting them on to be doubly sure. Ensure your luggage is closed when you're finished using it to avoid critters getting into it. Do not expect cell coverage or internet connections. High tech could be as advanced as an electrical wire.