Today was the day we said goodbye to luxury – or even basic civilization – and said hello to the deep, dark jungle. Despite the extensive research we did about various jungle tours, nothing could truly prepare us for the experience we lived through in the heart of the Amazon.
We booked our tour through Amazon Tarzan, a small company run by none other than a man named Tarzan. Well actually, his name was Norberto, but he was known as Tarzan by all, likely due to his vast knowledge and connection with the jungle. Having grown up in a small village accessible only by a 3-day boat ride down the Amazon, and having a shaman as a father, we felt this guy definitely had the right credentials to help us get to know, and survive in the Amazon. Did he look like how I envisioned “Tarzan of the Jungle?” Not at all, but his keen sense of the jungle certainly helped us not only survive a few incidents but also maximize our experience. While he typically works with a small group of 5-6 max, we really lucked out as there was no one else taking the trip with us so we had a truly private tour.
Tarzan and his driver Ne picked us up bright and early from our hotel in Manaus to cover the first leg of the trip – an hour drive out of the city, back on the one lane highway, to a small pier. From there, we met Thiago, our young and very skilled speedboat operator, who took us 45 minutes up the river and through a few narrow channels to our lodge, Pousada Jacare. During the day, the pousada appeared basic but harmless – some cabin-style rooms with no A/C and mosquito nets that we presumed would protect us from mosquitoes. But those nets proved to protect us from so much more…more on that later.
The pousada served very basic buffet-style meals – mostly consisting of watermelon, rice, and fish (poor Doug!) – which we enjoyed outdoors while watching the Netherlands-Chile match. Amazing how a lodge in a small village with barely any running water and certainly no A/C could manage to set up a satellite and massive flat screen TV with state-of-the-art sound system so that no World Cup match could go unwatched. We noticed this was a trend throughout all the little huts and villages we visited throughout the Amazon. I missed the A/C but it was great to be able to watch the games deep in the rainforest!
After lunch, it was time for our first excursion: piranha fishing (I hope they weren’t mad that I just ate their cousin for lunch). Most of our excursions consisted of getting into Tarzan’s canoe or Thiago’s speedboat; due to the fact that half the trees were under water at this time of year, traveling by boat was the best way to access these areas. This time, we were in Tarzan’s canoe so that we could better, and more quietly, navigate the narrow channels between trees in the flooded forests. Right away, we saw a few critters – a stick insect and a baby tarantula – right by where we were docked, so that definitely put me on edge for the remainder of the trip. But the fact that Tarzan was able to find these guys, and so much more, well before we could detect them, certainly made me feel a bit more reassured.
We spent most of the afternoon rowing around in silence, as we listened for sounds and clues as to where the animals might be. While the Amazon is home to a ridiculous number of animals, the size and density of the rainforest made it much harder to find these creatures that we thought. Several times, we heard some distant rustling, rowed over, sat in silence, and after a long wait, eventually the monkeys would come out. We saw two types of monkeys today – the capuchin monkey and “smelly” monkey – who came out in packs to search for food and play after the scorching mid-day sun. Smelly monkeys, which much to my non-surprise did not come up on Google when I came back to research more at home, were the local (or at least Tarzan’s) term for these monkeys that were named as such not for the way they smell but because of their keen sense of smell. Upon further research flipping through images of monkeys online, it turns out that they are called squirrel monkeys to the rest of the world.
Throughout the afternoon, we stopped at a few points to try our hands at piranha fishing. Having never gone fishing in general, I had very little expectation that I would catch anything. My only hope was that I wouldn’t get dragged into the river by one of these vicious, flesh-eating creatures. I couldn’t have been further from the truth – while there are many species of piranha in the Amazon River, the ones we encountered were relatively small – maybe about 6 inches in length. We tied raw chicken skin onto our hooks and poles, then tried to get their attention by making a splashing sound with the pole, and then played the waiting game. We could actually feel these carnivores tugging at the meat, but most times our timing was off and we’d yank the line out only to find that the meat had been devoured, and piranha gone. But it wasn’t long until I snagged the first victim – and nearly fell out of the boat after I pulled out a thrashing piranha. I also came even closer to falling out of the boat when Doug dramatically pulled a piranha out and nearly hit me in the face with it, but my fear of falling into the river and being devoured by piranhas kept me in the boat. We actually put the piranhas in a little pool of water directly below where I sat on the boat to keep them alive until we got back to shore.
By this point, the sun was setting, so Tarzan took us out into the open river so that we could catch a spectacular sunset over the Amazon. Being literally the only ones out on the river, it was so peaceful. Once the sun set, it got dark FAST (you realize these things when you are staying in a remote village), so we hurried back to shore to return to the pousada.
Unfortunately, our 4 hour expedition on the water kept us from watching the Brazil-Cameroon match that helped Brazil secure a spot in the Round of 16, but the cheering and fireworks that went off in the nearby village every time Brazil scored kept us apprised that the result was a positive one. The fireworks also helped us keep score, as everyone at the lodge took part in a pool. After the 4th firework, I knew I had it in the bag – the 4-1 victory earned me 40 reais! ($20)
Upon returning to the lodge, this was when we realized how terrifying the Amazon could really be. Scanning around our dark bathroom with my headlamp, I noticed that there was an enormous beetle near our shower drain, just a few feet from me. Naturally, I screamed for Doug to come in and save me, at which point we noticed that we had more company than the beetle. We were accompanied by two frogs, one of which was inside the toilet. I inadvertently peed on a frog!! Poor Doug was charged with the removal and purge process, but we quickly found that all of our roommates had no trouble finding their way back in through the many cracks in our room. This was the point when I redefined mosquito net into safety net, as this was where I hid behind for the majority of the time in our room. This was also the point where I saw the largest bug I have EVER seen in my life – a very colorful, very big (6 inches) beetle crawling on our wall! There was absolutely nothing we could do about preventing the situation. Thankfully, the beetle crawled right back out under the door, but we knew this would not be the end.
The scary night was not over yet…after dinner, it was time to take our night safari to see the caimans, a cousin to the alligator and crocodile, native to South America. Nocturnal by nature, these guys sleep under water during the day and come out once the sun goes down to hunt for prey (hopefully not humans). The original plan was to take Thiago’s speedboat, since according to Tarzan, “the larger caimans can be aggressive and can flip a small canoe over.” Due to a change in plans, we ended up going out in Tarzan’s canoe. Adult caimans could grow to be up to 2-3m in length. Nervous much?! We identified one in the distance by its red glistening eyes above water, but didn’t come close since Tarzan said it was a big one. Then we rowed through some marshland before Tarzan and a fellow guide LEFT US in the boat to walk into the knee-deep water to search for caimans. All I was thinking was…can’t see these guys…they can flip over your canoe…where is Tarzan?!?! Thankfully, nothing happened to us, but unfortunately, we also didn’t see any more caimans for the night. Maybe tomorrow.
Back at the lodge, there wasn’t really anything left to do but to face our fears, go back to our room, secure ourselves inside the mosquito netting inside our very warm room, and try our hardest to not move or think about the creepy-crawlies and fall asleep.
HOW WE DID IT:
Entire tour was booked through Amazon Tarzan Tours. Not only was Tarzan a terrific and knowledgeable tour guide, but he was great to work with over email as he helped us design our itinerary based on our schedule and interests. He took care of everything – pick up/transportation, lodging (which included all meals), and personally took us out for all tours.