Piranha Fishing. Caiman spotting at night. Sleeping in a hammock in the jaguar-infested jungle. When I read about the activities available on our Amazon jungle tour in Brazil I started to feel a little nervous. Does my travel insurance cover getting eaten alive by Piranhas? Just how dangerous will this experience be?
Along with a few nervous butterflies I was also incredibly excited – we had the opportunity to delve into the depths of the Amazon rainforest and experience it with all of our senses. Even if I did end up as a jaguar’s breakfast, at least I would die doing something amazing, right?
We flew from Rio de Janeiro to Manaus, a huge pocket of civilisation right in the middle of the rainforest. Manaus is where you will find all of the Amazon tour operators so that you can book your adventure into the jungle.
We booked our experience with Amazon Backpackers Tours and I would recommend them. They offered us transport from the airport into Manaus, which was convenient. Also, they are flexible with their tour offerings so you can choose the amount of days and the activities you want to take part in.
Our tour began bright and early in the morning as we were picked up from our hostel in Manus and taken to a smelly fish dock, then onto a boat to see the Meeting of the Waters.
The Meeting of the Waters
This natural phenomenon is a bit mind-blowing and I still can’t figure out how it works. Our boat stopped at a point where two rivers, the Amazon River and the Rio Negro, flow next to each other without mixing at all. There is a distinct line where the water changes colour, from the brown sludgy colour of the Amazon to the dark water of the Rio Negro.
Apparently because of the speed, water density, temperature and acidity of the waters they will flow alongside each other without diluting or mixing – kind of like how the tequila, orange juice and grenadine will stay unmixed in your Tequila Sunrise. (Except I wouldn’t want to drink from this muddy river cocktail.)
We took a boat, a van, then another boat deeper into the jungle. By the time we arrived at the lodge we were far from civilisation and totally disconnected from the world. Our lodge was just a simple wooden structure on stilts perched on the river bank.
Of course, no matter where we go in the world Lee always manages to find the dog and make friends with it. These two became immediate BFFs and I love this photo because they are making the same facial expression.
After some lunch our first adventure was piranha fishing. I was a little hesitant – what are you supposed to do if you catch a fish that would bite back at you given the chance?
Equipped with a wooden stick, a piece of fishing wire and a plastic cup of raw chicken chunks we paddled our row boat out into the shallows of the river. It didn’t take very long, soon I felt a tug at the line and I pulled a squirming piranha into the boat – while screaming in terror as it flopped around.
Our tour guide laughed at me as I cowered in the corner of the boat then scooped up the fish and deftly held it with its mouth open so that we could see the sharp teeth. Yikes!
We caught quite a few piranhas as well as a big juicy trout that we would keep and eat for dinner that evening. I was glad that it would be me biting the piranha and not the other way around.
Cruising for Caimans after Dark
After dinner when the sun goes down in the Amazon it gets dark. Really dark. There are no street lights or neon signs, so as your eyes adjust you will only have a faint silver glow of the moon on the water. So doesn’t it sound fun to head out on a tiny wooden boat into the river with only a flashlight and search for alligators?
I know you’re thinking that I don’t know the difference between “fun” and “completely insane” but that’s what we did. Caimans are small crocodilian species that inhabit Central and South America and although they may be little they still have bite.
We paddled through the dark water as our tour guides scanned the river’s edge with their flashlights. Every now and then you would see a pair of eyes glinting back – a caiman hiding in the shadows.
Our tour guides got close enough to one of these beasts to pull it into the boat so that we could touch it and hold it. This one is just a baby, but it will grow to be up to 2-3 meters long or larger and I sure wouldn’t want to be holding it then!
Trekking in the Rainforest
The next morning we got up early to go trekking in the rainforest before it got too hot. Our tour guide knew the jungle like it was his own backyard and he pointed out all of the strange plants and their functions, such as a large hollow tree that acts as a drum and when hit makes a sound loud enough to hear miles away and vines that you can slice open for a stream of fresh water. We touched the sap oozing from a rubber tree and rubbed tiny ants into our skin for natural insect repellent, but the oddest moment was when we ate maggots.
Now, I have eaten a lot of bizarre things on my travels, from alpaca to snake to guinea pig, but raw maggots are the weirdest by far.
“Hakuna Matata!” I said as I closed my eyes and popped the squirming grub into my mouth. It had the texture of an overripe grape, the smooth skin giving a little resistance as I bit down – then the juices filling my mouth.
They come from a beetle that burrows deep into the coconut itself and lays its eggs. The grubs live their entire life eating nothing but coconut meat around them, so these soft, squishy inch-long creatures actually tasted exactly like coconut!
Sleeping Overnight in the Amazon Jungle
Now that we had fished for piranhas, handled live caimans and snacked on maggots, we were feeling pretty at home in the Amazon Jungle. It was time for the final challenge – sleeping in a hammock deep in the rainforest. With no buildings or lights to protect us from the wild animals, we would essentially be hammock-wrapped human burritos for a hungry jaguar. I tried not to think about that as we floated down the river deeper and deeper into the wilderness.
On our way we spotted several pink Amazon River dolphins leaping in and out of the water.
Be warned, although many tour agencies will use cute and adorable bottlenose dolphins photo-shopped pink on their brochures – the real pink Amazon River dolphin is not a pretty creature. In fact, they look like a terrifying prehistoric beast.
We set up a net to catch our dinner and were lucky enough to snag some big juicy fish.
When we arrived at camp we set up our hammocks before it got too dark, then made a fire and cooked the fish over the flames. It doesn’t get much fresher than that!
When the sun went down the sounds of the rainforest were incredibly loud – it was like an entire zoo of birds, insects and reptiles was buzzing, squawking and clicking all around our camp. Walking away from the camp in the night for bathroom breaks was a terrifying foray into an unknown darkness.
We stayed up around the campfire drinking cachaça for a while, but before long we were all exhausted from our day of trekking and fishing and we retired to our hammocks.
I didn’t think I would be able to sleep with the cacophony of the jungle all around me. However, I sometimes use a “rainforest sounds” app to fall asleep when I am on a noisy night bus or when Lee is snoring – so my brain has associated rainforest noises with sleep and the real life version of the app soothed me right into a dreamless slumber.
Back to the Real World
The next morning we packed up camp early and started to head back to the lodge, stopping at a local farm on the way to learn how to shoot blow darts.
I didn’t want to leave the jungle and I could have happily stayed for more days. My original nervousness about the beasts and creepy crawlies of the Amazon had been replaced with a fascination with this unique ecosystem. Home to 10% of the known species in the world and 20% of the bird species in the world, it’s lush, diverse and extremely important to the health of our planet.
If the Amazon is one of your travel dreams, don’t think twice about it – book a trip. There’s no end to the adventures you can have when you leave the city behind and live the jungle life for a few days.
Would you dare to sleep overnight in the Amazon jungle? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!