Into the Howling Wilderness
I have complete confidence in Alzenir Botelho de Souza. But after our kayaking guide reverses course for the second time, my faith begins to flag. We’re deep in the Amazon jungle, on an uncharted watercourse some 260 miles upriver from Manaus, Brazil. Flying around us are Muscovy ducks, snowy egrets, scarlet macaws, and channel-billed toucans. In the canopy overhead we spy black spider monkeys trailed by brown capuchins. Below us are strange pink dolphins, piranhas, and black caimans, the latter easily mistaken for floating logs when they surface. But I have to stop gazing at the natural wonders to concentrate on following Souza, who looks left, then right, then says, again, “I think we have to turn back.”
Five of us set out at 6 a.m. from our cruise ship, the motor yacht Tucano: Souza, our part-Ticuna guide, who was raised as a hunter in the rainforest; Michel, a middle-aged banker from Luxembourg; Sam, a retired attorney from Washington, D.C.; Ming, a 30-something tour operator from Malaysia; and me, a first-timer in the Amazon.
But today, our fourth day on the river, is different. We’re paddling farther into the flooded forest than we have on previous mornings. The jungle vines and branches reach out to grab us like never before, forcing us at times to lie flat in our kayaks or propel ourselves forward by pulling on tree trunks. The eerie
rumble of the howler monkeys seems somehow more ominous.
As we search in vain for a way out of the jungle and back to open water, I recall our first evening on the Tucano and the welcome-aboard remarks from the boat’s designer and owner, Mark Baker. “Tonight’s the night we really get away from civilization,” he said. “We’re leaving the lights of Manaus well behind us. There’s no law on this part of the river. We’ll be the only people out here, just about.” And then, for dramatic effect: “We’re heading into the howling wilderness.”
A sudden splash of a paddle startles me back to reality. Once again, Souza looks at us over his shoulder, gives a weak smile, and switches direction. Ming, whose subtle, biting humor has been a source of amusement to the rest of us all week, leans toward me and stage-whispers, “You know what I think? I think we’re lost.”
The Amazon rainforest, which covers vast parts of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and five other South American countries, has never been fully explored. Even the areas that have been charted can look different from one day to the next, thanks to the ever-shifting depths of the rivers. During the rainy season, parts of the forest floor that are walkable in the dry period can be submerged under 20 feet of water or more—thus, the frequently used term flooded forest.
Indeed, confusion surrounds the very definition of “the Amazon.” Some assume that the term refers to the Amazon River, but that eponymic waterway composes only a ribbon in the 2.7-million-square-mile Amazon Basin. Most cruise ships that sail the Amazon River run from the Atlantic Ocean to Manaus, almost 1,000 miles inland, but that scrappy port city is the starting point of our journey. The 16-passenger Tucano is the only ship with regular departures that goes deep into the Central Amazon Conservation Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site. No cruise ship gets farther into the Brazilian wilderness than the feisty vessel that’s set to be our home for a week on the Rio Negro, whose black waters run side by side with the café con leche flow of the Rio Solimões to form the Amazon River proper at Manaus.
The Tucano’s triple-decker profile recalls the 19th-century steamships that plied the Rio Negro during the rubber boom. On this voyage, the ship holds 11 guests, including Baker and his daughter, a recent journalism school graduate. There are also, in addition to the aforementioned crew of kayakers, a retired university president, two more bankers, and a father-daughter pair of doctors. Our plan is to head upriver and engage with nature as much and as often as possible. Aside from the daily sunrise kayak expeditions, there will be mid-morning hikes on terra firma, afternoon excursions in motor launches, and nighttime floats with spotlights to track down the jungle’s elusive nocturnal denizens.
Ironically, the main reason to choose this cruise is to get off the boat as much as possible. That’s where Souza and his fellow guide, Edivam “Eddie” de Lima Regis, simply shine. Both are superior naturalists, with 19 and 17 years, respectively, of leading tours on the Tucano. They can spot a yellow tanager from a quarter-mile away, show you how to get natural mosquito repellent from an ant colony, and point out a tree whose bark bears recent scars from a jaguar sharpening its claws.
At 6 o’clock on our first full morning, Eddie takes several of us on our maiden kayak excursion. We stay in wide water for a time, getting used to the open-top boats, then hug the shore, where we delve into inlets until we are nearly gobbled up by the jungle’s endless gloom. We spy a pair of red-and-green macaws on a treetop, their colors glowing against the cerulean sky. “Very rare,” Eddie says. On an adjacent branch sits a toucan, easily identifiable in profile thanks to its elongated orange-and-yellow beak. One of the kayakers makes a splash with a paddle, causing the surprised birds to flap furiously into the blue. Suddenly, six, eight, 10 toucans that we hadn’t noticed before are soaring above us, each one like a scythe slicing through the canopy.
The search for wildlife dips below the water, as well. One afternoon, Eddie and Souza give us bamboo rods to fish for piranhas. These flesh-eating creatures, no larger than a grown man’s open palm, are happy to dine on wounded animals that fall into the flooded forest, so Souza directs us to imitate the sounds such a creature might make. “You put some meat on your hook, slap your pole in the water, then stir it around like an
animal trying to swim away,” he says. We mimic our guides, but they land several fish each before any of us can hook even one. Although I’m the last to nab a piranha, mine turns out to be the biggest prize of the day. Its prehistoric, unblinking eyes glare at me, and its pulled-back lips reveal a row of razor-sharp teeth. The next night I eat it for dinner—bony, tasteless, perfect.
We record all of these sightings diligently, on a whiteboard outside the dining salon. This “life list” has columns for mammals, birds, insects, snakes, fish … If it moves and we see it, we catalog it, delighting in the growing inventory.
Not all our sightings are of wildlife. During one of our kayak trips, we encounter a few indigenous people, paddling slowly toward us in dugouts. They turn out to be a mother and three children, all staring straight ahead as they pass, intently oblivious to us.
At Bacaba, a settlement of just 180 souls, we go into a palapa-style manioc flour “factory” to inspect a tacho, a supersize wok in which the Brazilian staple is made. The village matriarch, Senhora Branca, escorts us among the rickety-looking homes and the shed-like church. Baker mentions to her that we saw a large group of brown capuchin monkeys near the village lagoon. “Mmm,” she says. “Delicious.”
Our most Indiana Jones–esque experience occurs at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Rio Jaú. We take two motor launches to explore Airão Velho, a transshipment center and rubber plantation that was abandoned more than 50 years ago (because the settlement had been overrun by ants, if you believe the local lore). Pulling onshore, we find an old shipping office—roof collapsed, walls covered in jungle undergrowth, Portuguese-tile floor crumbling almost before our eyes. Elsewhere, there’s an empty church where an embittered priest, according to legend, once cast a curse on the settlement. The roofless, moldering remains of a house appear to be held up by little more than the tree branches that snake through its windows. Farther from the river, past a grove of rubber trees that still bear machete scars, we arrive at an overgrown graveyard that dates to the 1880s. There is no wind here, no sound apart from the incessant buzzing of insects. If a poison dart were to zip over our heads and land with a throinggg in a nearby andiroba tree, none of us would be too surprised. We return to the boats somewhat faster than we left them.
Back onboard, between excursions, the varnish-and-brass interiors add an aura of elegance to the small en-suite cabins. The meals are uniformly hyper-local, fresh, and delicious. But make no mistake: This is, for all intents and purposes, an unadorned river expedition. Despite the boat’s solar panels, the air conditioning, hot water, and electricity are limited at certain times of day. There are no stage shows, casinos, pools, or midnight buffets. And after a day or two, sartorial concerns go out the window. No one cares if someone else wears the same T-shirt three days in a row or the same pair of shorts to breakfast every morning. I wake up in the predawn hours one day to find I have run out of drinking water. I get out of bed to fill my bottle from the dispenser on the boat deck, but stop in the middle of the corridor when I remember I’m in my skivvies—a bit too casual, even for the Tucano.
This isn’t to say we aren’t clean: Most of us take two or three showers every day, after each trek into the soupy Amazonian heat. Nonetheless, we soon begin to look like a crew of river pirates.
Which brings us back to our kayaks, lost deep in the jungle. Eventually, we make it through the nearly impenetrable trees and spot the Tucano. I can hardly believe the ship is there, and I’m a little disappointed that the other passengers aren’t shouting huzzahs and popping Champagne to celebrate our unlikely return. To say I’m relieved does injustice to the word. And yet, despite our eagerness to get back on deck, I notice that each of us paddles slowly, casually, as if to say, Yeah, we were a little lost, so what? Ain’t no thing.
Soon we’re safely back onboard, enjoying a lunch of peacock bass, chicken with onions, plantains, vegetable salad with cauliflower and hearts of palm, manioc flour (which the Brazilians sprinkle over everything they eat), and guava juice. Before we sit down, Souza stops me. “Did you think we were lost this morning?” he asks. “We weren’t lost, but the water level constantly changes, so the places where we can pass through the flooded forest are always different.” I’m embarrassed that he feels the need
to reassure me. Of course we hadn’t really been lost. Souza and Eddie are beyond reproach.
After thanking him, I take my seat. I gaze out the window at the dark jungle, which presses hard against the Rio Negro. I listen to the distant cries of monkeys and parrots. I smell the rich aroma of the food, as all my new friends dig in. I think of fishing for piranhas, exploring ruined plantations, setting out on nighttime safaris. Lost? No, Souza’s right. We hadn’t been lost—not then, not now. We are exactly where we want to be.
United Airlines flies to Rio de Janeiro and Saõ Paulo for connections to Manaus. Amazon Nature Tours schedules four- and six-night Rio Negro cruises on the Tucano year- round. amazon-nature-tours.com, four night tours from $1,750 per person, double; six-night tours from from $3,150 per person, double.