The Totes Amaze-on River Part 1

A little history…

The world’s largest river, online retailer, and rainforest were explored in what was an incredible tour lasting for 4 days and 3 nights. But before we get to that, it’s difficult to start this post without explaining some of the history that has shaped these lands. Fifteen million years ago, the Andes were formed by the collision of the South American plate with the Nazca plate. The rise of the Andes and the linkage of the Brazilian and Guyana bedrock shields, blocked the river and caused the Amazon to become a vast inland sea. Gradually this inland sea became a massive swampy, freshwater lake and the marine inhabitants adapted to life in freshwater. Marine life such as dolphins, stingray and manatees. We learned that there are eels in the river which give electric shocks to trees, causing fruit to fall into the water. The eels wait for fish to come and eat the fruit and then chow down on the unsuspecting diners! A river had previously flowed from the centre of common day Brazil to the Pacific but this continental shift caused a dramatic change in direction and the river switched direction, now flowing west to east. What always amazes me about these geological events are the time scales and how our own existence occurs in a blink of an eye of such changes.

The Amazon contains 15% of the world's fresh water (15 times more than all of Europe's fresh water), flowing from Peru, and is just a mere 200 metres shorter than the River Nile, stretching an equivalent distance of New York to Berlin. The Nile might be the longest river in the world, but it contains only a fraction of the water that the Amazon does. Also in 2011 researchers found an underground river called the Hamza, which is the longest in the world and is worth a cheeky two minute read.

As well as the river, there is of course the largest rainforest, which is known for its biodiversity and medicinal qualities. There are an estimated 390 billion individual trees belonging to at least 16,000 species, some over 1500 years old. A study in 1999 found one square kilometer (247 acres) of Amazon rainforest can contain about 90,790 tonnes of living plants. Some unbelievable facts being dropped here.

The Amazon got its name from the explorer Francisco de Orellana, who was on a mission for El Dorado (i.e. gold), found none and reported back to the King of Spain that the Greek mythical Amazons were present (fearful women warriors). This led to a mass slaughter of native Americans. A population of 5 million indigenous people in Brazil upon discovery by the west now stands at 300,000 and slaughters like this contributed.

Journey to the Lodge…

Our first stop on this once in a lifetime trip was at the meeting of the two rivers. The Rio Negro meets the Rio Amazonas and this occurs in a very visible and defined line. The slow mixing that creates this line occurs because of three factors: temperature difference (34°C vs 28°C); pH (the River Negro is quite acidic); and direction of current. This meeting point only happens because the Rio Negro was diverted all those years ago by the volcano eruption. 

I am told that life is about the journey, not the destination…well we travelled 45 minutes by car, then took a big boat across to another port to then a van to a smaller port where we got on a smaller boat to arrive at our lodge around 3 hours after departure. During this journey we saw a very fast and camera shy snake swim across the water. We also had a refreshing agua de coco and saw a hell of a lot of birds.

The GPS route to our lodge!

Day One on the Amazon

When we arrived at the lodge on the River Juma, I went for a swim in the river to cool down and wash off some of the humidity.  I definitely wasn't terrified of this infamous fish...We saw some parakeets and our first pink dolphin. Nature is difficult to catch on film and my attempts were fruitless. It’s kind of frustrating as a 21st century child because we want everything on film/recorded nowadays, especially new and exciting animals. I guess a written record will have to do. It really makes you appreciate the skill and patience of documentary photographers who spend days waiting to get a few seconds on film.

After this relaxing interlude and some lunch (to be described later of course), we went for an afternoon fishing expedition to catch the carnivorous piranha fish. Using chicken skin as bait to tempt these sharp-toothed predators to bite, it was pretty tough to be quick enough to whip them out of the water when they did. After half an hour of no success, I wisely suggested we should just eat the chicken. But then with a little more practice, we started to have a bit more success and ended up with five fish. There are seven species of piranha in the Amazon, five of which are carnivorous – we caught two different types. I say we, the closest either of us came was when I lifted a heavy one out of the water and then realised I had no idea what to do next. So the fish simply plopped back into the water. It was a reminder that, even as a well educated and apparently intelligent chap, it’s always worth thinking a few steps ahead, not just focusing on the step I am currently facing. It’s an obvious lesson but sometimes when doing a new physical activity like fishing, it can be forgotten.

The piranha had deadly teeth and they would survive on the boat for a few minutes, flapping about, snapping at our ankles and toes. One of our fellow fishermen (a southern Brazilian from near Santa Catarina) got bitten on the hand by the one he caught. It dawned on me later when eating the piranha, one of us was most likely eating an undigested (but cooked) piece of his hand. I could be a cannibal…

Sunset One

We carried on down the river and caught site of some capuchin monkeys up in the trees. These mischievous fellas were fun to watch from a distance and it was a good introduction to the nature that followed. Our first sunset of the tour was enjoyed from the boat with the luscious trees in the background. More impressive than the beautiful colours were the pink and grey dolphins that came close to the boat during the sunset. These freshwater dolphins have two types of sonar, one for day and one for night and they eat up to 10kgs of fish a day. The pink dolphin is also the only one that swims backwards. How cool! I did not catch a perfect photo, as they would come up for air for a second before disappearing and re-emerging 15 metres away. The video shows this at the end of the post. Anyway besides not capturing the moment in this fullest fashion, the actual experience was one that will stay with us for years to come. We felt very grateful and privileged to be able to watch a sunset in the Amazon, surrounded by dolphins – a truly magical moment.

The End of Day One

A very action packed day ended with an exciting night time activity – caiman hunting. Caiman are basically alligators, which are basically crocodiles. The method of detecting the creatures was interesting. Our brilliant guide Chitão used his headlamp to scan and find the caiman by the bright orange/red glow from their eyes. When you could see these devil-like red eyes staring at you from across the water, it was somewhat intimidating. And if the detection method was interesting, the way Chitão caught the caiman was unbelievable! He used his feet to hang onto the front of the boat and with each hand he reached out and snatched a caiman by the neck.  He then used his leg strength to pull himself back so people could get selfies with the terrified living fossils. Then the caiman were released and swam away quickly.

I think I’m going to call it a day there without talking about the lodge and our sleeping experience in this wonderful place surrounded by monsters, big and small. Below are the rest of our best photos. There are a good few more posts coming about our time in the jungle so stay tuned.

Read about Manaus in our last post.

Costs & Prices
Note: 1 GBP was around 4.9 BRL or 1.55 USD.
Local Hostel Double Room = £27 per night
3D, 4N stay in the Amazon at Juma Lodge = r$720 pp for private double (£147 pp)
3D, 4N stay in the Amazon at Juma Lodge = r$600 pp for dorm (£122 pp)
Fizzy Drink / Beer at Lodge = r$5 (£1)

Meeting of the Waters (clearer in the video and from the plane!)

We were lucky enough to see lily pads

Not sure what this is? Termites nest? Old tree?

Our room in the lodge

I took a lot of photos of birds so you'll have to indulge me

I am a big fan of these turkey vultures

We had a dog and a TV at our lodge. The dogs protect against boat thieves!

One of the many parakeets!

A wild cotton tree partially submerged during rainy season

Delicious piranha

Capuchin monkey

Sunset in the Amazon

A river dolphin poking up for oxygen

The still water reflection of the Amazon

Nature adapting to human electricity wires!

Our guide Chitão chilling with a caiman!

Manaus: Gateway to the Amazon

I finished work on Friday, met Katie and we took a late flight to Manaus, which is in the state of Amazonas. It was the first stop on a three week holiday around the north and north-east of Brazil and it didn’t dawn on me until the plane, quite how great this was going to be! Manaus is the capital city of Amazonas; it hosted games during the 2014 World Cup and is home to many large businesses due to its very low corporation tax. It is also surrounded by the world’s most famous rainforest. The plan was simple – spend a day in Manaus, then travel into the Amazon for a four day/3 night stay, and then have another evening and morning in Manaus before moving on. We were both full of excitement and some trepidation at the idea of sleeping in the Amazon. As a wise man (Karl Pilkington) once said, holidays aren't that appealing "anywhere you have to get a vaccination to visit". You need a yellow fever vaccination and malaria meds for the Amazon. It's the thousand other unknown tropical diseases that perhaps are more frightening... Anyway before we speak about the Amazon, we want to share our thoughts on Manaus…

The history and success of Manaus all centres on rubber. The rubber boom occurred between 1879 and 1912, during which time up to 80k tonnes of rubber was made each year. It was the influx of wealth and the building of the beautiful theatre that earned Manaus the name “Paris of the tropics”. There was a lot of wealth in the area due to the hard work of the slaves and the new money was flaunted around back in the day. It’s easy to forget that a lot of Brazil was built by slaves when you live in Rio.

We spent the first day walking around the city, taking in the sights. We saw churches, palaces, parks, the aforementioned theatre and the main plaza. The city was a lot bigger than we expected (over 2 million people). I mean, the place is built in the middle of the rainforest! The indigenous culture is still on display, especially in the market that was happening close to the port. There was some cool tat for sale and we couldn’t help but indulge. Manaus is well worth spending a day or two visiting as there is a lot to see and do.

MUSA is a museum with a treetop tower overlooking the jungle. There are three levels – 28 metres, 35 metres and 42 metres. We went to the MUSA with some new friends from the Amazon and it was definitely worth it as you get to see the forest from a different perspective. We also walked around the museum and saw some interesting (and scary) spiders and snakes.

Us with our friends from the Amazon at the top of the tower

We had two evenings in Manaus and we spent one of them in the plaza by our hostel. It was very pleasant; there were some nice restaurants and a violinist to add some ambiance and atmosphere. We liked how they had lit up the church and the dome of the theatre. After enjoying some time people watching in the plaza, we went into the theatre to watch an Amazonian dance show that was a little bizarre…but free.

It felt like an end of year performance of a university dance group. They were all very good dancers, and there was definitely a theme or two running throughout the show but it really wasn't clear. They ticked the necessary boxes of having a multimedia element and a variety of music and dance styles but unless you had read the research and dissertation proposal, the actual meaning was as clear as the Amazon river itself! I think some of the weird and honestly wonderful movements were to represent various animals but who knows which. And the random inclusion of topless women was just bizarre. Although it probably pushed them from a 2:1 to a solid first. Needless to say it was entertaining and well danced but weird and quite detached from whatever meaning there was meant to be.

Our final night in Manaus was spent at Ponta Negra, a newly built and fairly affluent part of the city. It has a beach (on the river), a nice bridge and a great place to watch the sunset (the fourth in a row for us after the jungle expedition). The area was well worth going to for a gander and a cheeky beer by the beach. It was a little bizarre having come back from sleeping in the jungle to find this place (not too far away) full of tall condominiums and a lovely boardwalk.

I think you need a full day in Manaus to get a decent enough feel for the place. An early morning start in the MUSA, followed by a carefully selected local lunch (stay tuned folks!), then a trip to the market and an evening spent in the old plaza – that would be a great way to spend a day in the city. The Ponta Negra area is worth it if you have a bit more tine and fancy a little trip to the beach.

That's about that for Manuas. Scroll down to see more photos that we thought were worth sharing.

Costs & Prices
Note: 1 GBP was around 4.9 BRL or 1.55 USD.
Rio to Manaus Flight = £83 pp
Local Hostel Double Room = £27 per night
3D, 4N stay in the Amazon at Juma Lodge = r$720 pp Cash only (£147 pp)
3D, 4N stay in the Amazon at Juma Lodge = r$600 pp for dorm

There are lots of churches in Brazil, and Manaus is no exception

Praça Heliodoro Balbi

Ponta Negra, Manuas

Another bloody sunset over the Amazon...
The rays of the sun as it set were very cool
Good old moon...
The Amazon from the plane
You should know by now how much we love aeroplane photos!
Bird silhouettes are painted on windows at MUSA to stop real birds flying into them

You could get close to the animals in MUSA

View from the MUSA platform

Unusual Praying Mantis that we found on the floor