Magical and untouched settings by the banks of the Rio Negro
It's hard to understand, it seems like a dream. Imagine a wooden boat “flying over” the canopy of gigantic trees. And when you look down, rather than the ground or the river, what you see is the Amazonian sky. Yes, let's talk about dreams. A dream atop the Rio Negro, the calm, majestic mirror of a river, billions of gallons of dark water, capable of swelling so much during the Amazonian winter (from December to May, when the rains are heavy) that its level rises over 50 feet [15 m] higher than in the dry season. Part of the forest is submerged and, in some locales, the most you can see is the canopies of the gloriously ancient trees, like the white silk-cotton, reflecting in the faithful mirror of the riverbed.
It is a touching sort of beauty, because we're in a place that's virtually secret in spite of its immensity. It's a journey of adventure, but also a journey of the soul itself, challenged by so much nature bursting with life – there are caymans nearby, piranhas swimming in the same warm water in which people bathe, blue-and-yellow macaws crisscrossing the sky, robust capuchin monkeys and howlers hanging from branches (many females carrying their babies), magical pink river dolphins following the boat. And there's much more.
To immerse ourselves in this wild, unknown nature, we partook in a five-day expedition organized by Katerre, a company that focuses on river tours of the Brazilian Amazon. The actual expedition begins in Novo Airão, a municipality of Amazonas that's a 121-mile [195 km] drive from Manaus.
Upriver from there, in Jaú National Park, it's as if nature were unveiling a private show – on the days of our expedition, we did not come across any other groups. And there's a bonus: we had a guide who is an authentic heir of indigenous wisdom, the warrior Samuel Basílio, 51, the son of a Nheengatu mother and a Baré father, a specialist in the forest's secrets. The tour takes place aboard a ship, the Jacaré-Açu, a comfortable, 64-foot, three-story vessel with spacious, climate-controlled cabins and attentive onboard service.
The Negro has plenty of scenery along its 1,060 miles [1,700 km], stretching through Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. It is the most extensive black-water river in the world, and the second largest in terms of water volume – behind the Amazon River, which it helps form, joining with the Solimões in Manaus. The two biggest fluvial archipelagos in the world (Mariuá and Anavilhanas) are located within it. There are hundreds of islands separated from one another by mysterious canals, which the lush vegetation transforms into green cathedrals, in which the light of the sun only penetrates after it's filtered by emerald reflections. Our huge boat, the Jacaré-Açu, is unable to navigate the mazes. The way to go is by “flyer,” a kind of speedboat that's able to pass by the hideaways of caymans, monkeys, sloths, and countless birds.
Samuel guides us on an excursion on foot through an untouched part of the forest. This is a trail to be traveled with the appropriate boots, perusing the same forest first entered by Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana in 1541.
A great narrator of ancestral indigenous wisdom, Samuel shows us how, for centuries, his brothers, unclothed, barefoot men without the protection of chemical insect repellents, without weapons, without fear, have managed to survive in the forest, once called “the green hell” by white Caucasians due to the infinite traps it contains.
Glimpsing a large anthill stuck to a tree, Samuel explains that indigenous hunters needed to disguise their body odor so that they wouldn't be perceived by their prey (jaguars, monkeys, and tapirs). As such, the warriors used to plug their ears and nostrils with leaves, and hug the anthill until the ants completely covered their bodies. “The citric scent exuded by this specific type of insect would override the human scent and confuse the animals' sense of smell,” he said.
It fell upon this reporter to act as a guinea pig in this ant test. Following Samuel's instructions, I placed my hand on the anthill (please don't try this without guidance from a specialist). The small creatures soon had completely covered my hand and I felt a lot of tiny shocks – that's all. After removing the ants, my hand had that citrus smell. “You traded your scent with the ants,” the guide explained.
The hike continues on with sightings of “veiled” mushrooms, lianas with elaborate contours, blood-red roots sprouting from the ground. And we arrive at the grottos of Madadá, caves formed out of sandstone boulders in which the forest and the waters insinuate themselves here and there, a setting which must have been used by tribes as a haven from the torrential rains. The step counter on the disconnected cell phone proves it: 9,941 steps, or 4.2 miles [6.77 km] covered. It's the only moment that the phone comes in handy, being that the internet doesn’t work at all during our four nights. We return to the boat happy and exhausted from the adventure we experienced.
Nights on the river are mysterious. When the Jacaré-Açu turns off its engines, the silence is so great that it hurts the ears. Too quiet for urbanite ears. It is then that we go out for a nighttime safari. Just to observe. The sky sparkles with stars that glisten in the equatorial humidity. But we're looking for other lights that gleam by the banks of the river – the eyes of the animals of Amazonian fauna. On the flyers, we keep quiet as Samuel makes a guttural sound. Amazingly, a response comes right away, like an echo! There's a cayman there.
In the morning, with fishing rods and pieces of meat as bait, the group goes out to catch piranha, which would serve as lunch a bit later on. The Amazon region is comprised of a mosaic of conservation units. Depending on the degree of protection, fishing is prohibited year round. In other areas, the species' reproductive periods must be respected. We caught 11 fish in just over a half-hour. Unhappy with their fate as food, the piranha are pulled from the river biting at whatever appears in front of them. Some among us take pity and are unable to eat them. That means more for the rest of us, happy to have seconds.
Showers in waterfalls, swimming in the warm river water, relaxation on a white-sand beach. The incredible part is that despite the vastness of the fresh water, the area has few black flies or mosquitos of any sort – it's because the Rio Negro receives a large quantity of leaves, bushes, and trunks which, as they decompose, release acids that give the water its dark color, while, at the same time, transforming it into a natural repellent. And so we go out to contemplate the world's most beautiful sunset in the middle of the river, the golden clouds reflecting in the black mirror of the water with all the tones of green around it.
The journey marches on and we visit a riverside community to see the way of life of simple people, who practice an economy of subsistence based on mandioca-brava, a priceless heritage which the Indians bequeathed to us. The processing method is essentially the same one taught by them: after it's cleaned, peeled, ground, disintegrated, and purified, the manioc is used as raw material for excipient for medication, in the manufacturing of fabrics, paper, glue, ink, in the oil industry (in drill bits), and in biodegradable packaging. It's also used in cheese bread, in fruit preserves, hot dogs, bologna, sausage – it has over 1,000 uses.
From there, we head on in search of pink river dolphins, intelligent creatures that still inspire apprehension in the traditional populations – who say they transmute into good-looking men who seduce girls. Marilda Medeiros is the one who introduces us to the animals who live free and whom she knows by name: Moacir Junior, Curumin, Reginaldo, and others, all of them enchanting and friendly, just as legend has it.
Finally, we return to Novo Airão. City life is now within arm's reach. The internet is up and running. Little by little, we're awakened to normal life. It's nice to know that the dream is still there, almost intact, as it's been for 500 years. You just have to go.
The Katerre boat sets sail from Novo Airão on a four-night excursion that includes side-trips and meals.
The Grand Amazon, more of a traditional cruise ship, runs different tours in the region.
Located in Novo Airão, the hotel Mirante do Gavião combines accommodations with excursions.
LATAM has flights to Manaus from São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Miami, and four other cities.
Special thanks to: Expedição Katerre, Mirante do Gavião Amazon Lodge, Restaurante Caxiri Manaus.