The Amazon awaits you

My first encounter with the Amazon started in Ecuador on the Rio Napo River – a tributary of the Amazon, just one of the many rivers that flow into the Amazon – the biggest river in the world by volume of water and vying with the Nile River to be the world’s longest river. Some 20% of the world’s fresh water flowing into the ocean come from the Amazon and the vast river basin that feeds the River system, a land mass roughly 40% of South America.

The Rio Napo is a big river in its own right flowing around 1000 kilometres from Ecuador eastward through the jungle into the Amazon, which is just short of 7000 kilometres long while the Rio Napo river itself where I was, would be roughly 200 metres wide, very small relative to the Amazon itself downriver that can be up to 11 kilometres wide in some parts and up to 40 kilometres wide in flood times, while in the delta estuary itself can be as wide as 325 kilometres!

By way of story, I had travelled to the Rio Napo River by bus from Quito, the Capital of Ecuador, stopping at a small village next to the River, before taking a boat trip and staying overnight in the jungle in an open air lodge near a smaller jungle village. On land the guide took us to meet some of the ‘Indios’ indigenous people who lived here in the jungle where they had a small school and a number of jungle huts set up that formed the village.

The slip and slide jungle walk was fun and luckily without any pouring rains, but you could certainly feel the heat and hear both the silence and sounds of the jungle around you. Meeting the ‘Indios’ tribal people and gaining an understanding of their way of life was also very memorable too. They seemed genuinely happy to see us, but their life was no doubt a hard one.

The stay overnight in the jungle was equally memorable for the number and variety of insects that buzzed around our lodgings, though luckily we had mosquito nets. Some of the insects were huge and one in particular was fascinating as when it flew in to land, its whole body became a bright light that went out once it landed. It was like a jet landing with a much brighter light show than glow worms that you might have seen. Sometimes it is the small incidental moments that become the most memorable.

Travelling back on the boat to our original village, we passed by many people panning for gold in the shallows of the river but again the most memorable sight was when we stopped at a small bar restaurant where there was an ocelot (like a small tiger) playing on the floor with dead Boa Constrictor. I don’t remember the food, but I do remember at the bar that some of us decided that night to go swimming – that is until the Guide said a very quick – “No, No, No. Muy Peligrosa!” (Very Dangerous) He told us that at night the piranhas are in the water and while during the day it is OK to swim if the water was fast flowing, but never to swim in still water and definitely never at night!

Some of the ‘Gringos’ had also set up the tents next to the River, and again he told them to move to higher ground, as even if it didn’t rain here, it might rain higher up the River and then the water would rise metres higher in a matter of minutes and they and their tents would be washed away!

The lesson of this is certainly to be very aware of your surroundings and listen to local guides and people who know and understand the jungle and life here next to the River. 

Most people wanting to experience an Amazon adventure will do so from Brazil and there are a number of places where most tourist travellers will head to, the most popular destination being Manaus.

Manaus is the most popular destination for tourists and travellers wanting to see and learn more about the Amazon River ecosystem and the rainforest jungles.  It is a city of almost 2 million people located beside the Rio Negro (Black River) and the Rio Solimões Rivers that both flow into the Rio Amazonas. The waters of the rivers have distinctive colours to with the Rio Solimões a dirty brown colour that contrasts with the clearer blue waters of the Rio Negro. Here in Manaus you are some 1500 kilometres inland from the ocean and some 4270 kilometres by road northwest from Rio de Janeiro or around 2850 Kilometres by air flight.

In some ways the river due to its size looks more like a lake and there are also white sandy beaches at some points too. They also have a floating dock that dates back to 1902, which can go up or down with different water levels  with different flood levels and the water is deep enough in many places to allow quite big ships to dock here.

Given the vast distances, most people will opt to fly to Manaus from Sao Paulo or Rio or other cities.

Manaus is geared for tourism and there are many tour operators and tour options depending on how long you intend to stay here, your budget, stamina and the level of sophistication (or lack thereof) that you want to experience. There are River Boats with three deck levels as well as smaller craft and tours that will take you to different parts of the Rainforest to see animals, birds, insects, dolphins, craft work, different local tribes and learn more about the forests, the river, ecology, plants and other topics.

You should also note that “Brasiliero Time” is a vague reference to an actual time and if you do decide to take a river cruise on one of the Riverboats, check the boat if you can and also be prepared to sleep in a hammock if the trip involves a long journey.  Ideally bring your own snacks, water and mosquito spray too and also even toilet paper too. These riverboats are both used for locals and tourists too, so they are not all set up as luxury travel.

As with all of Brazil travel, be conscious of where your passport, credit cards and luggage are located and stay safe. With tours there are day trips but also multi-day trips too – and again it pays to find out exactly what is offered on a tour before booking. Questions such as what food and water is needed, where you will sleep, if there are mosquito nets provided, bathroom and toilet facilities, the size of backpack you should carry, what languages the guides speak  and other basic questions will all help you make a decision and have a better time. Also ask other travellers who have come back from a trek what they found and would recommend too.

Manaus is hot year round so the best months to travel here are the drier months of August, September and October, but all times of the year it is best to check the weather forecast and prepare for hot tropical weather as well as rain in preparing for your travel here.  Also it is best to have malaria tablets and bring mosquito coils, water, a hat and insect sprays too. Here in Manaus you are just 200 kilometres from the Equator – so it is very much a hot, humid tropical city.

The city of Manaus has some original older buildings, one of the most interesting being the Teatro Amazonas with its dome top atrium and the Art Nouveau Mercado Municipal markets in Centro Manaus but it is also a modern city with high rise commercial buildings, a number of museums, Botanic Gardens and an animal Zoo where you can see close up most of the animals that you hope to see in the wild rainforests too. Beside the river you will also see small houses Favelas on stilts leading back to other colourful houses behind them on the hillsides.

The Zoolόgico de Cigs is probably the only zoo in the world run by an Army, here this being the Brazilian Army Jungle Training Unit, who rescue animals and birds that they find injured or in many cases rescued from animal poachers. Here in the Zoo you will be able to see Jaguars, Tapirs, Sloths, monkeys, Toucans and Macaws and other animals that live in the rainforest. Hopefully you will also see them in the wild on a jungle trek.

There are also Museums here in Manaus that you should see to see some of the craft and history involving the Amazon and the ‘Indios’ lifestyle, craft and culture.

Manaus is probably the best place in Brazil to pick up ‘souvenirs’ related to the Amazon Rainforests and its indigenous people. Souvenirs like blow pipes, feathered items, and even wooden items may not be allowed through customs on your entry back home to countries like Australia – so be aware of this too.

Manaus in the late 1800’s up to the 1920’s was once at the heart of the rubber industry and many fortunes were made at the time, the term ‘Rubber Barons’ used to describe the men who made their fortunes from the sale of rubber from the Amazon. At one time Manaus was one of the wealthiest cities in the world as these fortunes were made and there are still some of the mansions built here in Manaus from those fortunes.

Hevia trees were scattered throughout the rainforest and one British Botanist, Sir Henry Wickham (1846-1928) is said to have taken some 70,000 Hevia seeds back to Kew Gardens in London in 1876 in the hope of learning more about these trees and their potential to plant in other parts of the British Empire.

In turn some of these seeds were then sent to the Singapore Botanic Garden, and another British botanist, H. N Ridley (1855-1956) who had taken up a position as head of the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1888, began studying in earnest the propagation of plants, including the Hevia tree and also Palm Oil Trees from West Africa.   

His study of the Hevia plants and their propagation, led him to believe that the trees could be successfully mass produced and planted as a plantation tree in Malaya. Mass plantings of Hevia plants began and in turn as the automobile industry developed so too did the need for tyres and rubber, with Malaya replacing Brazil as the main source for Latex.  

Today in Malaysia, most of the vast rubber plantations are gone, replaced by Palm Oil trees, while in Brazil, Coffee has replaced rubber as one of the countries primary exports.

During the ‘rubber boom years’ in Brazil, large scale exploitation of indigenous ‘Indios’ people occurred and de-forestation and dis-location of people living in the rainforest is still occurring, though international action has slowed but not stopped all of this.  No doubt you will hear more about efforts to save the rainforest when you are here in Manaus.

The Museu Amazȏnico is located in one of the old Rubber Baron Mansions, where you will be able to see some of the Indigenous art, weapons, ceremonial masks and other information about the Indigenous tribes, while the Museu do Seringal Paraiso is set up in another mansion estate, with a small rubber tapper hut and rubber tapping demonstration happening too at different times of the day.

Other places to see and learn more about the rainforest and its people are the Botanical Gardens (Jardim Botânico Adolpho Ducke) where there are guided tours to show and explain more about the ecology and secrets of the rainforest and also the Centro Cultural dos Povos da Amazonas. If you are looking for souvenirs the best place to see them is in the Galeria Amazonica on Praça Sᾶo Sebastiᾶo. There are other places too in and around the city centre, and no doubt if you go on a trek you will find people selling their souvenirs too.

The Manaus Tourist Information centre is located at the corner of Rua José Clemente and Avenue Eduardo Ribeiro. Here you will find information and also find out more about hiking and river tours and lodges where you might want to stay.

Manaus is the most popular destination for travellers wanting to see and learn about the Amazon, but there are other cities, towns, villages, smaller lodges and campsites in and around the Amazon and its tributaries. It is a huge river and catchment area.

Here on these pages, we have talked about Manaus only, and if you had the time, you could make a journey from Manaus all the way downriver to Belém, another big city in the Amazon delta region. Certainly this would be an epic journey.

Hopefully on these pages, we have given you some information that will be helpful in planning your trip to the Amazon.

Happy travels

Geoff Stuart

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