Our collection was right on time for our Amazon tour. We were taken to the tour providers office first, to pay for the tour and be divided up into groups for transport to the lodge. Unfortunately we had chosen a terrible day to start, being part of about 30 people heading to the lodge that day. Other than a few other typical travellers like us, there was also a tour group from Italy, and a church group from the US. All this made for a bit of a disorganised and cramped transfer.
The first stage is a minivan to the port, then a speed boat that takes you to another town across the river, via the "Meeting of the Waters". This is where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões meet. The Rio Negro, as the name suggests, is dark in colour, while the Rio Solimões has a milky brown colour. The rivers run side by side, without mixing, for 6km due to differences in speed, temperature and pH levels. It's quite a bizarre sight!
After reaching the next port, we took a very cramped, hot and uncomfortable mini bus for another hour, then another speed boat to the lodge. The trip took nearly 4 sweaty hours in total. With such a large group arriving things were quite disorganised at the start, and we weren't shown to our room until after lunch, being a buffet of rice, beans, farofa, salad, fish and fruit (this would form the majority of our diet for the next 4 days). We were just pleased we had a room, as another couple were downgraded to the dorms due to the lodge overbooking!
The lodge, our home for the next few days, consisted of a dining hut (floating on the river), a dorm and some private huts of varying sizes on the banks of the Rio Negro. It was positioned right near the entrance of an area called Lake Juma, where the river floods in and around the forest. The water here forms a lake, with numerous estuaries. As the waters are still quite high at this time of year, the water floods parts of the forest, so for the most part you can't see the river or lake banks, giving the feeling that the entire forest is under water.
We had a few hours to relax at that point as our first activity wasn't until 3pm. We utilised the time by jumping off the pontoon for a swim in the river which was a huge relief from the dripping humidity, though not so relaxing in the fast flowing and orange stained water. Despite rinsing the water off we still left orange stains on our towels.
For our first excursion, we motored around the lake and river in search of wildlife. We spotted quite a few birds, and before long some pink river dolphins! We watched them for some time, though had a lot of trouble getting a decent photo as they pop up so quickly and there is no way of anticipating where that might be.
Next we tried our hand at some Piranha fishing! Thanks to Hollywood, we expected catching these little w***s would be a piece of cake. Just haul them into the boat as they attack everything that touches the water. Apparently, it's not quite so easy. We tried two fishing spots, near to grassy banks, with absolutely no luck (there was 12 of us trying!). At the third spot, our guide Titan caught one pretty quickly so we though we were in luck.
We all sat there dangling our rods with bits of chicken guts on the hooks for quite some time before the first group member snagged one. He ended up snagging 3 in the end, while one other girl caught 1, and the rest of us nada. We both had so many bites, and lost a lot of bait, but we just couldn't get them to catch on the hook!
After a quick pitstop at the lodge, we were back in the boat upon nightfall for Caiman spotting. Our guide Titan took care of the catching while another guide steered the boat, and he managed to nab a small one on only his second attempt! Shining a torch into the banks of the river to catch the eyes, he then reached in and grabbed it around the neck with ease, then gave us all a bit of show-and-tell on the boat. This was a Spectacled Caiman, and only about 18 months old. After a bit of a Caiman anatomy lesson we were all able to have a hold and "make some nice pictures" just like the tour description has promised.
After dinner (no need to repeat the menu), we spotted another group being shown the Black Caiman, so we were also able to have a look at that one and take some more happy snaps.
We were up at 5am the next morning and in the boat at 5.20 to watch the sunrise. Titan killed the engine and we sat floating on the still, peaceful waters with the distant calls of Howler Monkeys. Despite a cloud covering the point where the sun came up, we still saw some lovely colours and enjoyed the bearable early morning temperature.
After breakfast (eggs, bread, fruit), we set off for our jungle trek. We took the boat to the shore of Lake Juma, then set off on foot. As we entered the jungle, the weather closed in. We could hear the faint, low rumble of thunder, and as the clouds came over, it became so dark it could have been night time. We could hear the rain beating down but under the thick jungle canopy we stayed perfectly dry!
Titan, expert wildlife spotter, showed us monkeys (Howler and Squirrel), birds and frogs. Fortunately we didn't see any snakes or (alive) spiders. As we walked, surrounded by enormous palm fronds, mean looking spiky trees, vines and huge trees, Titan explained all the fruits and nuts of trees we passed, some familiar and some not so familiar to us.
Titan showed us how roofing and other handicrafts are made using the central frond of the palms. Cutting one off, it looked more like a spear than a palm frond, but after a quick shake it quickly took familiar form. The leaves on this central piece are a bit like plastic, and by twisting them at the stem, they form the perfect roofing material or material for weaving into a nice fan.
Titan cut open the nut of one tree, showing inside some cavities where the nuts were, some of which had been replaced by a larvae. This larvae feeds on the nut then eats its way out turning into a firefly! One of our group members, Sidney, was brave enough to try the larvae, which he said despite having a squishy exploding texture in your mouth, tasted just like coconut!
The Amazon, as most would know, contains numerous natural remedies, some of which we also found. We placed our hands on an ants nest, letting the tiny ants crawl up our arms, before crushing them into our skin to form a defence against mosquitoes, and licked the bark of a tree containing quinine, the bitter-tasting antimalarial used in tonic water. After a quick Tarzan swing on a vine, we were soon at the end of our trek, and returned to the lodge for lunch.
That afternoon we set off for our night of camping. We left the lodge around 3, and took about 2 hours to reach the camp as we passed a few estuaries spotting more birds and monkeys on the way. The boat pulled into the shore and we all unloaded the supplies for the night then took to collecting firewood and setting up the hammocks before it got dark.
There were two shelters at the camp which we spread the hammocks amongst, then put up the mosquito nets over the top (a necessity as there were a lot of mozzies!). A few nets had holes which we managed to repair as Lindsay had fortunately left a little sewing kit in the backpack that we took for the night.
Once we were set up it was time to start on dinner. Titan cut two palm trees at the top into 4 sections, creating a fork that two butterflied chickens were wedged in, cooked over the open flames. It was succulent and delicious! Some caipirinhas were also made using a bucket, a bottle of Caipis and a few limes we had nicked from someone's tree on the way to the camp.
Soon after dinner we climbed back into the boat and floated around in the middle of the lake looking at the stars and enjoying the mozzie free air. We stayed for about an hour until everyone's butts were numb and people were getting tired, then returned to camp. On return someone suggested horror stories, so a few ghost stories were exchanged. Titan told of how a few different people had reported seeing the same ghosts both at the camp where we were staying and at the lodge. Spooky!
Everyone went to bed soon after, climbing into our hammocks for what turned our to be an unexpectedly cool evening. Most of us survived the night except for two girls from Luxembourg and Denmark who ended up sharing a hammock as they were scared.
After returning to the lodge for breakfast across the still and foggy lake as the sun came up, we set out on our next morning activity. We saw Squirrel and Howler Monkeys along the way, then arrived at a riverside family home. The family had a small Manioc farm, used only for supporting the parents and the families of their 11 children!
Titan showed us how they process the roots, first being socked in the river, then grated, then squeezed of all moisture, dried and toasted. This process is very important as the root contains a form of cyanide, which can obviously be very harmful if not removed before consumption.
We saw more dolphins on the way back to the lodge for our lunch break, and upon return enjoyed a swim and a shower, as well as some time reading in a hammock. A lot of our group members had only booked for a 2 night stay, so we farewelled them after lunch before our afternoon activity, canoeing.
We expected this would be a nice relaxing activity, but it turned our with 4 fairly inexperienced paddlers it was quite hard work! It was nice being out on the water without the sound of the outboard. We managed to spot a Macaw, and a Toucan also flew over head. Despite a few difficult moments where Titan had to drag our boats through shallow patches, we made it through the flooded forest and watched the sun go down as we returned to the lodge.
That night, a new group of tourists had arrived and they were being taken out hunting for Caiman spotting as we had done on our first night. We thought it would be fun to tag along and see another Caiman. The first trip we did it took less than 10 minutes for our guide to catch one. This time we had 2 other guides, and it took them for... ever.... to catch one. We spent what felt like hours on the boat, occasionally spotting one that would disappear as we drew close.
Eventually they were able to pull one out of the water, which was a bit bigger than the ones we had held previously so at least that was exciting! Given we had taken so much time, we returned to the lodge with it before the show-and-tell session, discovering the rest of the staff were about to send out a search party since we had taken so long!
On our final day we went in the boat to an area with rubber trees to learn about the rubber process. Titan cut gashes into the trees, which soon started seeping their white sap. After tasting some of the sweet sap (yes, you can eat it!), some tin cans were wedged into the bark for the sap to collect in. While we made some fans with the palm leaves and built a fire, the sap was left to collect.
Once the fire was going, we retrieved the sap we had collected. As it was late in the morning (the sap runs more earlier in the day), we didn't have much to work with, so Titan made the only thing he had enough sap for, a condom! Using a smoothed wooden mould, the rubber tree sap is poured over the top, then heated over the smoke from the fire, in a process that's repeated until all the holes are filled and the sap becomes harder and, well, rubbery.
We all joked around with the thick and dirty condom for a while, then returned to the lodge to prepare for our departure after lunch. On the way we had the best display we had seen from the Pink River Dolphins, who played around the boat for a while, though they were still so hard to photograph!
The journey back to Manaus was a little easier than the trip out to the lodge with far fewer people, and we were able to check out the "Meeting of the Waters" again.
We had a fantastic time in the jungle, and while we didn't get to see a Sloth(!), we saw lots of amazing animals and some stunning scenery. With no internet access and a fairly relaxed schedule, it was also nice to have some downtime and just soak up our surroundings, despite the mosquitoes in the evenings and dripping in sweat 24/7.