Thirty feet above, the penetrating
whistles of a screaming pia bird broke the intense silence,
beckoning my tour group to look up into the dense jungle canopy.
But we saw nothing, even after repeated "wee-ooh, wee-ooh" calls by
our Peruvian-born guide, Marco Dauila, who is a master field
tracker with over two decades' experience leading groups through
Brazil's beautiful yet dangerous Amazon rain forest.
I had expected
monkeys swinging from trees, giant sloths and colorful toucans but
Dauila, introducing 10 citified North American travelers to the
rain forest, patiently explained our predicament. Most of the rain
forest's animals, birds and resplendent plant life exist high in
the canopy of the forest, where there's less predators.
Then there was
the matter of camouflage: The small khaki-colored pia, likely
siting right above us, was confoundedly indistinguishable from what
seemed like a mass of tangled green clutter.
our attention to the ground, pointing us in the direction of a
hairy, black tarantula with its fangs splayed for attack at
lethally poisonous bullet ants guarding their nest and at the
life-giving plants and vine-draped trees that supply half of the
I felt engaged,
but getting so close to the Amazon river and rainforest in this way
was, at first, utterly overwhelming.
All aboard the Amazon
Luckily, I was
traveling aboard the Iberostar Grand Amazon, a flat-bottomed riverboat that
sleeps 150 in five-star comfort, with two pools and a Jacuzzi on
its rooftop as well as a stocked library and meeting room for daily
Water levels were
near the peak of their wet season rise in late May when I boarded
the ship in Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas in Brazil.
About 1,000 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, the city is in
the heart of the Amazon region and thus a great jumping-off point
for jungle tours and river cruises.
The Grand Amazon,
which made its debut in 2005 as Iberostar's first such operation in
Brazil, is the most elegant vessel to head this far into the
sailing in from the Atlantic do call at Manaus. But they don't
operate year-round and they don't venture farther inland to the
Negro and Solimoes rivers, two of the main tributaries of the
Amazon River channel that Iberostar sails on its all-inclusive
three-, four- and seven-day packages.
On our seven-day
cruise, we covered roughly 160 miles in four days on the Negro
River, turning around, backtracking to Manaus to take on new
passengers and then picking up the Solimoes River for another 140
miles of upriver exploration.
The Rio Negro
Sunday afternoon from Manaus' busy port, we passed cargo carriers
and double-decked passenger boats until, gradually, mile after
verdant mile, the riverbank became a wall of tangled, green trees
set amid flat, inky dark waters and an endlessly expansive
Sitting on the
balcony of my stateroom, I didn't feel isolated from the landscape
the way I often do when aboard larger vessels. All of the ship's 72
staterooms have balconies. All also have large, stand-up showers,
hotel-style beds, individually controlled air conditioning and TVs
with English-language programming.
When I woke up
the next morning, we were at the mouth of the Anavilhanas
Archipelago, encompassing 400 protected islands in a pristine realm
of diverse plant, bird and fish life.
An eerie mist
hung above the rainforest canopy and a feeling of unspoiled
timelessness overwhelmed me.
Before long, the
mist gave way to blue skies, distant towering clouds and a wet but
"Be prepared for
rain and sun," Dauila warned us moments before we headed out on our
first excursion. "You're in the rain forest."
We zipped along
the Negro River, our 20-person motorboat encountering smooth,
gentle waters in what felt like a giant, overflowing bathtub. We
passed forested swamps, known as igapos, and wetlands, spotting red
and green macaws hiding behind leafy branches and freshwater
dolphins breaking the water's edge before we arrived at an inlet
with a small clearing.
grow straight as telephone poles, bearing broad, glossy leaves
whose entwined greenery blocks out the sunlight and bring about
humid conditions with very little ventilation.
It's an ideal
hothouse and, according to Dauila, within one square mile there are
more than 80 species of plant life. "But just because everything is
green doesn't mean it will grow," he said, as he plunged his
machete into the mulch-like soil known as humus.
"The soil is one
of the poorest in the world," Dauila continued, removing a thin
chunk of sod.
Sand lies just
three inches below the rich, organic floor in this part of the
Amazon, a result of the Rio Negro's high acidity. Apparently,
there's a wide variety of river types -- of which I have only a
We walked slowly,
with Dauila leading us to a huge tree whose flaring buttress roots
have adapted well to the poor quality soil. Dauila's machete drew
milky sap from a rubber tree, cut away a scorpion hideout and
fashioned a shelter out of palm fronds.
At one moment he
was climbing a tree using palm rope, then he was extolling on the
jungle's medicinal uses, such as carapanauba bark for liver
ailments, ground copaiba leaves for ulcers and the milk of the
amapa tree for bone fortification.
Most fish, fruit
and fauna are known by their Native American names, said Dauila,
and much of what is known about the forest has been gained from
ancient Indian customs. Native Americans now number little more
than 300,000, only 0.2% of Brazil's population. While small groups
of isolated tribes still wander the rainforest, most live in towns
aboard the Grand Amazon, the rest of the afternoon was spent on the
water -- spotting a three-toed sloth slowly moving high in a
towering kapok tree, a pack of spider monkeys swinging across a
narrow channel and a flock of white-necked herons taking flight in
the last minutes of the setting sun.
With the river so
high, we were able to explore far off the main channel, ducking in
and out of narrow passages just wide enough for our boat to squeeze
through. It was there -- in a vast and seemingly uninhabited space
-- that the scale and beauty of the Amazon began to hit
possibly cover all the Amazon but the company does its best,
offering a variety of excursions that include numerous rain forest
treks, a swim with the celebrated pink dolphins, piranha fishing at
sunset and a visit to an Indian village where smiling introductions
break the ice and a tour of the villagers' manioc fields and crafts
shop reveals a poor but self-sustaining community.
The Rio Solimoes
is geologically very young, nutrient-rich and home to a great many
more species than is the Rio Negro. There's greater marine life
and, consequently, more human habitation along the
We saw caboclos,
descendents of Spanish or Portuguese settlers who intermarried with
indigenous Indians, fishing with nets or spears, washing clothes on
slabs of wood and tending to small gardens.
rain-forest trek in the Manacapuru River region, we dropped in on
an elderly caboclo by the name of Francisco, whose small farm is
planted with cane, jute and manioc. Most of Francisco's income is
from making farinha, a staple of the Brazilian diet. The bulk of
his time spent pressing, grating and roasting manioc roots in a
giant metal frying pan in a shed just beyond his house.
With a pig, two
chickens and plentiful fish and wild game, Francisco seemed to have
all that he needed.
People such as
Francisco who practice slash-and-burn agriculture are not a great
threat to the rain forest, Dauila told me. Activists working to
stop deforestation are actually more concerned with ranchers,
logging companies and soy farmers.
That night, on
the riverboat, we watched Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth,"
and suddenly the Amazon's precious biodiversity took on a whole new
The Amazon has
been experiencing drier conditions since 1998 as rain forest
destruction continues. But more rain forest areas are also gaining
protected status, and there's been a generational shift in thinking
that gives Dauila reason for optimism.
"We can't change
the minds of old people because they don't understand what can
happen to the world," Dauila said. "But the new generation, now
boys and girls in school, they are making campaigns."
Dauila told me
that after spending 24 years as a field guide, he wanted to devote
himself to lecturing on the deforestation of the Amazon River
"With the passage
of time, this is my project," he said, acknowledging the difficult
task of advocating for rain forest preservation.
ABCs of Amazon travel
Whatever fears I
had harbored prior to my arrival in Manaus were quickly put to rest
by the Grand Amazon's well-trained and friendly crew.
dangerous things in the river waters: piranha, anacondas and
caimans. On land there are mosquitoes, but more people have a
problem with the small fire ants, whose itchy bites can be avoided
by tucking cuffs into socks.
As for the heat,
the best antidote I found was the caipirinha, a drink made from
lime, sugar and cachaca, an alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane.
Drinks were served at the riverboat's roof deck bar. A sampling of
local fish was prepared daily by the Grand Amazon's master chef. At
roughly $200 a day, the cruise was an all-inclusive tonic that
seemed too good to be true.
to high humidity and wet weather should steer clear of the Amazon
basin from December to February, when the heaviest rains arrive.
The end of the wet season, from May to July, allows for deeper
exploration, while September to November is a great time to see
birds and turtles nesting along the low riverbanks.
As for Manaus,
the town's busy waterside markets burst with activity and give
insight into the commercial products being cultivated inside the
Up a hill, the
Teatro Amazonas opera house, with its pink facade and blue-and
gold-tiled cupola, stands as testament to the turn of the 20th
century, when Manaus was the only source of rubber in the world and
the town was drenched in money.
Tours are offered
every 15 minutes and opera performances span a two-month season
beginning in April.
offers a range of places to stay, but the city's aggressive
commercial atmosphere can be somewhat discomfiting.
More to my liking
was the Tropical Hotel. Located 10 miles northwest of town, this
five-star hotel overlooks the Rio Negro and includes fine river
beaches, a pool, tennis courts and good nightlife.
TAM Linhas Aereas offers one daily flight from Miami to Manaus, and
Copa Airlines offers service from Miami and New York connecting via
Panama City, with fares starting around $1,000, depending on
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