By Marc Korn
May 15, 2008
It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a dar um jetinho” (can do) attitude. Like plan a trip to the Amazon… in the 48 hours before leaving! That’s what I did last December. In this story I want to share my experiences of this trip with you, the good – and the one thing I would do differently.
I first visited Brazil 3 years ago and I loved it… the people, the food, the culture… everything! I’ve been back 5 times now and I’ve studied Brazilian Portuguese at language schools in New York City ever since that first visit. As a biologist I especially enjoy traveling to wildlife areas – of which Brazil has so many – the Pantanal, Chapada Diamantina, Fernando de Noronha, the Amazon – to name a few.
Christmas vacation week was fast approaching and I had no plans. Work was… well… the corporate world can be a trying place at times. Getting away would be great. But the logistics were somewhat daunting… could I get plane tickets and reservations a few days in advance of one of the most heavily traveled weeks of the year?
The answer was… yes! The night of Wednesday, December 19th I purchased tickets from New York to São Paulo (using frequent flyer miles) and Friday night I left for Brazil. In the 48 hours before leaving I reserved a hotel in São Paulo, purchased round trip tickets from São Paulo to Manaus, reserved a room at an ecoresort in the jungle, obtained and filled a prescription for Malarone and packed. All that and more accomplished in 48 hours and, for the record, I worked a full day on Thursday.
For me, finding a really good naturalist guide is the key to successful ecotravel. So I was really pleased when I came across an article on the Guardian newspaper’s website about an ecoresort with a great guide. The Guardian was my favorite newspaper during the years I lived in London and the article was published about two weeks before I planned to leave – on the date of my birthday.
Ecoresorts in the Amazon are, of course, all inclusive (the nearest McDonald’s, or Habib’s to be more culturally a propos, is a long paddle away). Activities are programmed for you and where I stayed they included: piranha fishing, a guide-led rainforest walk, a tour of a Caboclo home, a visit with a local Indian tribe to see traditional dances, caiman-spotting, free time in the city of Manaus and a trip to the very cool “Meeting of the Waters.”
Piranha fishing involved lowering a hook baited with a small chunk of raw beef into the river and beating the surface of the water with the tip of the rod. While I had no luck (piranha are very skilled at eating around a fishing hook), my party overall caught about 10 fish over 2 or 3 hours. Everyone asks if you can eat piranha and the answer is yes – they can be grilled or made into the popular caldo de piranha – a soup I’d love to try some day.
Highlights of the rainforest walk included encountering a tarantula in situ (yes, this was one big, hairy spider), eating Survivor-style a white wriggling grub that lives in palm fruit and tastes like coconut (if the Guardian’s travel reporter can do it, so can I!) and seeing the infamous tucandeira ant, whose bite is said to cause its unlucky victim 24 hours of acute pain and fever. Male Amazon Indians prove their manhood by submitting to the bite of this ant repeatedly throughout their lives (learning of this made me think… perhaps corporate life isn’t so bad after all).
Manioc is a staple in the Amazon (and throughout Brazil). Preparing some varieties of manioc involves a little twist that sets them apart from wheat and corn, because the unprocessed root contains high levels of cyanide. An interesting aspect of the Caboclo home tour (Caboclos are individuals of mixed Indian and European descent) was seeing how manioc is processed. It’s a lot of work! The root is ground, mashed and excess liquid is wrung out. Then it is boiled. Only after the cyanide-containing liquid layer is poured off can the manioc be used in cooking.
Watching the Indians do traditional dances felt a little tourist-kitchy to me, but talking with the Indian chief, who spoke fluent Portuguese, was kind of cool. One of the things he said was that the whole tribe traditionally lived in one large lodge or dance hall, but because of the influence of what he described as “white” culture, many couples now want their own sleeping accommodations.
The eyes of caiman (relatives of alligators) reflect light, making them easy to spot at night by shining a lantern along the surface of the river. Having done caiman-spotting in an area of the Pantanal where the caiman were larger and more prevalent – I wasn’t expecting to experience anything new. But I was in for a surprise. After steering our motorboat beside one of the reptiles our guide, who was fully dressed, asked me to hold the lantern and immediately jumped into the river. A minute later he clambered back onto the boat with a somewhat unhappy looking caiman in his firm grip.
Two sites I’d long wanted to visit in Manaus are its famous fish market and opera house. The market has a great variety of fish including one of largest of fresh water fish, the pirarucu, which can weigh in excess of 400 pounds. The opera house was built in the 1890s, when Manaus was a very wealthy city due its rubber plantations. The market for rubber collapsed in the 1920s when the British successfully cultivated rubber trees in Asia and synthetic rubber was introduced. Seeing Christmas decorations along the main shopping streets of this jungle city gave me the same incongruous feeling as I used to get when I lived in Southern California and saw Christmas decorations on palm trees in Beverly Hills.
O Encontro dos guas, or the Meeting of the Waters, is a really unique phenomenon. Imagine a river with a line down the center. On one side of the line, the water is black – on the other yellow. This is the sight that greets you a few miles downstream from Manaus. There the Amazon tributary, the Rio Negro, merges with the Rio Solimes. The waters of the two rivers are very different in color, pH, temperature and density, and as a result the rivers flow together without merging for 10 miles or so. Pink Amazon dolphins are a common sight in this area.
The downside of my trip was customer service-related, you might say. I contacted the ecoresort I eventually stayed at directly to ask about availability, but booked through a Manaus travel agent (www.viverde.com.br) who offered a significantly lower price for the same package. They didn’t like this at the resort, and they let me know in many ways. To me, treating someone discourteously who has traveled quite a long distance to stay at your resort is a bad idea, but my hosts viewed this differently.
I was surprised this trip could happen with only 48 hours advance planning, and more surprised that everything worked so smoothly (with the one exception I mentioned, which was not a timing issue). The Amazon is interesting in many different ways and a trip to there, planned 2 or 200 days in advance, is well worth taking.
You can contact Marc via firstname.lastname@example.org.“