As I mentioned yesterday, I just got back from a 3 day jungle tour. The experience was very well run, I choose "Amazon Antonio Jungle Tours" http://www.antonio-jungletours.com/ somewhat randomly. Lonely Planet said they did a good job, and I had little time to research and arrange a tour. I emailed them, they responded very quickly, I signed up and went. Here's a little bit about how that went down.
They picked me up from my awful hostel at 7am. I was brought in a taxi to a bus station, where I and two others on the tour boarded the bus. 3 hours later we got off the bus at an unremarkable stretch of road, were led down a gravel driveway, and hopped on a small motorboat. We headed upriver, and an hour later pulled into the small floating dock at the lodge. We were shown around, given keys to our rooms, and had an hour to relax and settle in. Then the fun began.
Most of the time I was with the other couple that I had met at the bus station. They were an older couple (50's or 60's) from Milan, Italy, and pretty talkative. Not, mind you, that they always talked about the current conversation, they would frequently start talking part way through a story I was telling, and take the conversation in an entirely different direction. Telling a story to the Italians was kind of like wrangling cats. But good people nonetheless. After an hour or so at the lodge, we three hopped in a boat with our tour guide, Francisco, and a younger French guy who would join us for many of our excursions as well by the name of Etienne. Francisco took us out into the floating forest. As the river levels rise and fall with the rainy seasons there are large areas of land which become flooded. The trees that live in this area are adapted to this, and as I am here in the rainy season, there are many areas where we were able to paddle through calm waters while floating several feet over the roots of these trees. We did this many times throughout the few days, and the water was often so glassy smooth that it became hard to tell where the tree trunk ended and the reflection began. This was eerie and magical every single time we did this, and made for an almost hypnotic experience. Well, except for the time we did it at night, which was spooky, but that's another story.
After an hour or so of floating through these trees, we headed over to a small sandy beach on the river where we were able to go swimming. Nicola, one of the Italians, asked Francisco if it was safe to swim in the water, and Francisco assured us that there no piranhas or caimans there, and we would be fine. Francisco himself did not swim, claiming that it was too cold. For me, the water was refreshing.
There are two types of rivers in the Amazon basin, black rivers and white rivers. Black rivers are higher in acidity, and consequently there are fewer mosquitoes along those rivers, as the mosquitoes cannot lay their eggs in that water. The Urubu was one of those black rivers, and the water was very dark. It wasn't muddy water, there was several feet of visibility, but the water was very brownish red, and it felt a little like swimming in coca-cola. Still, after a hot and humid day, a dip in the river was very welcome.
Before heading back to the lodge we came to another stand of flooded trees, where Francisco taught us how to catch piranhas. This is actually fairly easy, all you need is some sort of raw meat, a hook, and a fishing line. You put the meat (in our case, small slices of raw chicken) on the hook, throw the hook about 20 feet out into the water, wait for a nibble, yank, and then pull in the piranha. I caught 5 during this time, Francicso caught 5, and Nicola caught 1 small one. Immediately he started telling stories about how big it was, and how dangerous his fish was, which got more ridiculous and more hilarious when we returned to the lodge and started talking to the other tourists. At some point my line got snagged a few times on Nicola's line, and that kind of feels like I had a bite, so I was pulling hard to bring in the fish. After the second time Francisco started making jokes about how I was fishing for the Italiani.
For dinner tonight, along with the rest of our meal, we enjoyed piranhas. And I have to say, they were delicious. :)
After sunset I headed out again with the Italians and Francisco to go caiman hunting. By now it was extremely dark, and the little bit of light in the sky was coming from the moon which had not quite yet risen. We headed into another area of flooded forest. Under the cover of trees it was almost pitch black, and Francisco used his flashlight to catch the reflection of the caiman eyes. He swiftly caught a small one, about a foot and a half long, and then talked about the critters for a while. Then I got to hold the little guy. He seemed pretty docile while we were shining flashlights in his eyes and holding him, but when we finally released him, he slithered into the water and swam away in a fashion that sent small shivers down my back. It didn't help that the landscape we were floating through was extremely dark, with tall ominous dark trees looming up out of the water. It was just light enough to see the outline of the sky, but under no circumstances would I have been able to navigate my way back to the lodge on my own at that point. Utterly spooky.
The next day we woke early to try to find some river dolphins, and we were successful. These dolphins were fairly wary of humans and kept their distance from our boat, but it was still possible to see them when they came up for air. Later in the morning after breakfast we again hopped into a boat and headed down a small river channel. The further we got into the channel the closer the trees came, and we often had to duck under low hanging branches. At one point we heard a lot of thrashing in the underbrush, and Francisco at first thought it might be a tapir. Instead it turned out to be fish spawning, and so while I held onto a tree to keep the boat from floating back downstream, Francisco hopped out and went fishing with his machete. Etienne also hopped out and started following him, at one point bringing back several fish that were missing heads, or tails, or plain clean chopped in half. What I thought was Francisco thrashing around a great deal with his machete was in fact him being pretty accurate and killing fish left and right. Francisco kept going, at one point moving far enough into the jungle that we could neither see nor hear him. We joked about having gained some fish but lost our guide. He returned shortly with a 2 foot long thin stick on which he had strung a dozen more fish that he had caught, the entire time giggling to himself that he was fishing with a machete, and quite pleased with himself.
On the way back to the lodge we stopped at the home of an Indian family that lives along the river. We were introduced to them and shown around their small farm where they were growing sugarcane and manioc, and then given a brief introduction to how to process manioc root into flour.
Any doubts that I had about being bored while being in the jungle were well removed by this time, and the adventures continued after lunch.
Around 3pm we packed up a small overnight pack, and the Italians, Etienne, and a small group of younger Germans all trekked into the forest to spend the night. Along the way I saw a spider monkey, a toucan, many species of parrots, and heard a bird that I've been wanting to identify ever since I heard it in Japan many years ago. Francisco helped me out in that regard, when I pointed it out to him when I could hear it call, he identified it as a "jungle captain," and then demonstrated how these birds act as alarms. He struck the side of a tree with his machete and immediately all the jungle captains in the near area responded to it by making their own call.
Dinner that night was slow cooked chicken and sausage over a fire, all of us helped collect firewood and construct an additional tarp tent for the extra people to sleep under. We all slept in hammocks, and I was surprised that I managed to get a fairly good night's sleep with all the noise of the jungle....and the snoring of Nicola right next to me.
Breakfast was boiled eggs, again over the fire, and a skewer of small bananas which were heated up. I had never really had hot bananas before, but those were pretty delicious too. After breakfast a lengthy trek into a denser part of the jungle to find much taller and older trees, and a tarantula or two. In parts of the jungle the soil is not rich enough to support larger trees, or is too spongy, when the trees grow too large they fall over. We made it to some impressively large trees, and saw plenty of other interesting growth along the way as well.
Eventually we made it back to the lodge, back onto a boat down the river (during which time it was raining heavily), on a bus back to Manaus, and by 5:30pm, I was safely in a new and much, much nicer hostel. I had a good night's sleep last night, and this morning I ran into Antonio, the owner of the jungle tour, and gave him copies of small versions of some of my best photos from the trip, he may use them on his website.
For me the 3 day jungle tour has been the most relaxing part of my trip so far. I didn't have to worry about anything, I just went where I was led, enjoying swimming in the river and seeing what interesting photos I could get. The new hostel has a lot of people, everyone is speaking English, so I can have conversations, and it turns out Etienne is staying here as well, so I had dinner with him last night. I met a younger Dutch couple as well during the trip and had many long conversations with them. For me, this is closer to what I think I expected while backpacking. I've occasionally spent more money along the way to do things like get nicer accommodations, and I've found that when I do that, I meet fewer people. Staying in a hostel and sharing a room with several other guys has meant that I've been able to meet more people, and that has been a welcome relief to some of the loneliness I experienced in Cayenne and Macapa. I think I'm relaxing into the rhythms of travel, and starting to enjoy myself more.
Here now, enjoy some more photos from the Amazon rainforest.
The small dock by our lodge
Jacques on a boat!
An elderly woman at the home we visited