We’ve all read about the vast biodiversity and rich natural resources of the Amazon. But to fully appreciate its riches, nothing beats a hands-on demonstration.
Or in this case, hand-on: My left hand, placed palm down (and with great trepidation) on a bulbous nest of tapiba ants, attached to an imbaubeira tree on a trail off the Rio Negro in northern Brazil. Almost instantly, dozens of the tiny creatures were scampering over my fingers and knuckles in tickley mayhem.
After what felt like an eternity — but, as video footage would later reveal, was less than six seconds — I pulled my left hand out and, following instructions, quickly smushed all the ants with my right hand and smeared the resulting detritus all over my arms and face.
The instructions had come from our quarter-Macuxi, quarter-British, 100 percent heroic guide, Nigel Kurt de Souza Atkinson, and were common practice among indigenous peoples: Tapiba ants release a scent that wards off not just mosquitoes but also equally bloodthirsty but significantly larger critters, like jaguars.
It was a typically dramatic moment in an activity-packed, five-day cruise I took, along with two friends, Adam Ellick and Nate Miller (the photographer for this article), on the Rio Negro and into Jaú National Park in January’s rainy season. At times rigorous, at others relaxing, the trip, run by Katerre Expeditions, effectively showcased the complexity of both natural and human existence in the rain forest. During that same hike, Nigel scraped a gummy, red ocher-colored substance from a goiaba-de-anta tree that can be used not just to plug a hole in a canoe, but to varnish furniture and relieve diarrhea; he showed us firefly larva that tastes like coconut should you eat it live (which I did, and it does); and pointed out a vine that produces clove-scented tea that helps you fall asleep.
“We learned all of this knowledge from the Indians,” Nigel told our group of four Americans, a Brazilian father and daughter, and a boisterous 83-year-old Frenchman. “What I know, my grandmother passed to me, and I’m trying to pass it to my sons.”
In the case of the clove-tasting tea, he passed it on to them literally. “When I wanted to go away to party,” he said, “I used to give those guys this stuff.”
A wilder, yet more comfortable, Amazon
The Amazon has been inhospitable — even fatal — to outsiders ever since outsiders named it the Amazon almost 500 years ago. These days, though, as long as travelers get a yellow fever vaccination and don’t set off on their own, death is no longer a major concern. But showing travelers the wilder side of the unpredictable rain forest while keeping everyone relatively comfortable is a tricky balancing act. It also takes money.
I had been to the Amazon many times, but as a budget traveler, taking packed riverboats from city to city, and as a journalist, visiting the small villages known as “riverbank communities.” But I felt I had never gotten a chance to appreciate its natural splendor. There are two main options for that, both pricey: eco-resorts and cruises. We chose a cruise, which meant giving up some luxury to cover more ground. You might say we traded infinity pools for infinite waterscapes.
It cost us $1,600 each to reserve a four-bunk cabin (including everything from transfers to alcohol) for the five-night trip, which struck me as a lot. But we got lucky as the boat was only half-full, landing us upgrades to individual cabins with air conditioning and private baths.
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The ship, the Jacaré-Açú, or Black Caiman, was gorgeous: a traditional riverboat that the company had stripped to its skeleton and rebuilt with elegant itaúba hardwood. The captain, Oziel Brito (known as Tito), manned the old-fashioned wooden helm as he listened to Brazilian country music. There was no internet or cell signal for days.
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As we cruised, we watched macaws fly overhead, passed rather dramatic-looking, half-flooded forests and snapped pictures of deep orange sunsets. Occasional pelting rain that would have been an annoyance in a resort became an entertainingly furious spectacle on the water, followed by a bonus rainbow. Meals were traditional and skillfully prepared Brazilian cuisine, including, most deliciously, tapioca crepes, tropical fruits and bracing coffee for breakfast and a different homemade dessert every lunch and dinner. We saw a total of two other tourists in five days.
Animal eyes, watching
Still, the trip was not about what happened on the boat, but what happened off it. One night, after a dinner of hearty tucunaré soup — hunks of tender white fish, hard-boiled eggs and potato chunks in broth — Nigel herded us into a small, canoe-like motorboat and set off down the pitch-black river. He scanned the riverbank with a powerful headlamp, waiting to spot double red dots that meant animal eyes were watching — poking their heads out of the water, staring at us from land or, should we be lucky enough to see a sloth, from a tree.
Spotting caimans — alligators’ South American cousins — Nigel headed toward the river’s edge, where brush and trees poked out of the water. He grabbed a Y-shaped branch from a tree, and spent a few minutes carving grooves into the wood and stringing a cord through them as we watched, wondering what he was doing. The result looked like a slingshot but was actually more like a noose.
We were all thinking the same thing: This guy is insane. The boat poked into the brush, Nigel hanging over the edge. Then, thrashing sounds, a dramatic pause, and there was Nigel, gently but firmly holding a small speckled caiman, maybe two feet long, by the neck, its scales glistening in our flashlight beams.
“No way,” said Adam. “You caught him with that stick thing?”
“With my hand,” Nigel replied, explaining this was a young one, nine months or so, and too small for his trap. It was a male, Nigel told us, probably one of three or four survivors out of a brood of 60 or so. To allay our concerns that we were being cruel, he explained he was using techniques approved by government environmental authorities to both capture and hold him. He also noted that caimans could handle a little stress. They were hardly a brotherly and sisterly bunch: The one he held around the neck by his thumb and forefinger had probably eaten several of his siblings. “They’re born to kill or to be eaten,” he said. “Anyone want to try to hold it?”
“He’s a little fighter,” Nigel warned.
“No problem, so am I,” I replied, an utter lie.
He had me imitate his grasp, making sure I had control before he let go. Hearts pounded, pictures were taken. Then, overeager to give it back, I released my hold before Nigel had his, and the baby caiman saw its chance. It sprang to life, wriggling out of our grasp as it chomped its teeth in the air and flew like a missile at my friends. They dove out of the way, the caiman landed on one of the boat’s benches and scrambled over the edge into the dark water.
“I hope you're still filming," I said, sprawled out in the bottom of the boat. Someone was.
A vast, roadless environment
Still, an Amazonian cruise is not about wildlife wondrously popping up around every river bend. Those interested in a Brazilian-style safari involving colorful macaws, jaguars, anteaters and river otters are better off visiting the Pantanal wetlands in central-west Brazil.
But the vast, roadless environment, and the people who live on its rivers’ edges, are amazing. Our trip included two visits to riverbank communities, where houses are typically made of wooden slats, children study in one-room schoolhouses, and diesel generators power a few tools and a communal television.
The more extensive visit was to Cachoeira, within Jaú National Park. The villagers live principally off the production and processing of the Amazon’s staple crop, manioc root, known to many Americans by its Spanish name, yuca.
Katerre maintains what appear to be friendly (and financially supportive) relationships with the communities they visit, and in Cachoeira, people seemed happy to see us. Nigel walked us through the woods to manioc fields, where we spoke to an older farming couple — the man’s calf swollen and black from a snake bite — and plucked a few tubers from the ground. We then visited the “casa da farinha,” or flour mill, and Nigel showed us the complex process of soaking, grinding, squeezing and roasting that transforms what starts as a poisonous root into flour, tapioca starch and tucupi, an acidic yellow sauce that is delicious when served with duck (a regional specialty served by many restaurants in Amazonas’s capital, Manaus).
Then it was time for a pickup soccer game. Even 83-year-old Roland took the field; miraculously, no one was hurt.
The boat routine never grew old, because it never grew routine. Every day Nigel and Tito had some surprising new activity ready. We visited the ruins of Airão, a town abandoned a half-century ago and half-devoured by jungle. We fished for piranhas — later eating our scrawny catch pan-fried for lunch.
And one day, Nigel said we were heading to a waterfall. I was skeptical — waterfalls in Brazil are a dime a dozen, and I’ve seen at least a dollar’s worth. But it turned out to be far more interesting than I thought. We headed up an igarapé — the indigenous term for the Amazon’s smaller rivers and streams — as Nigel hacked occasional branches out of the way with his machete. About an hour in, gobs of foam began floating toward us, as if a Minotaur upriver were doing his laundry. It was the first sign we were approaching what turned out to be not so much falls but a rock formation in the rapids, very cool for dipping into its pools and, more important, taking photos of ourselves beneath cascading water that we would post when we were back in social media range.
But the best part came on the way back, when Nigel’s headlamp beam alighted on two red eyes too high up the riverbank to be a caiman. It was a margay — a gato maracajá, Nigel called it in Portuguese — a small, stealthy cat that can imitate the calls of some of its prey. It slinked along the bank for a few steps, and disappeared into the woods. Though I had hoped to see my first sloth, this was a pretty good consolation prize.
On our final full day, Tito moored the boat to a palm tree on a tiny sliver of beach. The idea, I thought, was to barbecue tambaqui fish and relax, but there was one last surprise: Someone attached a body board I had not previously spotted on the ship to a little motorboat and voilà! Makeshift water skis.
We were briefly concerned that piranhas would be out to exact revenge for our fishing excursion. But the crew assured us that out in the middle of the river where we’d be “skiing,” there would be no piranhas. It was a blast — and proof that a lack of wildlife is not always a disadvantage.
Seth Kugel, a former Frugal Traveler columnist, is the author of “Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.”
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