Literally and geographically speaking, there can be no farther place on Earth from the Philippines than the Amazon jungle. Yet there are also fewer places that would interest any traveler, being the largest and most biodiverse rainforest in the planet. On a recent trip to Brazil, I made it a point to spend a week in Amazonas, one of the states of Brazil encompassed by the jungle.
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After two long-haul flights from Manila, I arrived in Sao Paulo only to travel four more hours (and cross one timezone) by plane to reach Manaus. This is the largest city in the Amazon and the staging off point for jungle adventures.
The heart of the forest
As it turned out, Manaus is a charming city in its own right, with a history intertwined with the rivers that run through it. Although thousands of kilometers inland, it has always been connected to the ocean with the Amazon River itself: a river so vast that large ships can reach Manaus and beyond, all the way to Leticia in Colombia and Iquitos in Ecuador.
Manaus is also the site where the Upper Amazon, known in Brazil as Solimões, meets with the Rio Negro to form the rest of the Amazon River. Being the confluence of those rivers and the trade they carry, Manaus became one of the wealthiest cities in South America in the late 19th century, thanks to a “rubber boom” that saw the region holding a monopoly of all the rubber in the world.
While the boom was a bane for indigenous peoples, it created “rubber barons” and transformed Manaus into an opulent city, of which the Teatro Amazonas, constructed in 1896, is an enduring souvenir. Today, the opera house with its distinctive dome painted in Brazil’s colors—yellow, green, and blue—serves as the major landmark in Manaus. It is also an active opera house, and perennially voted among the world’s most beautiful.
Actually, when you’re in Manaus, a city of over 2 million inhabitants, there are very few visible signs that you’re at the heart of the rainforest, save for the countless stores and commercial enterprises that borrow from its illustrious name, and perhaps the heat and humidity. Even so, the city’s cuisine is distinctively Amazon, featuring the bounty of the forest and the river.
First of all, there are the fruits, from the world-famous açaí (still my favorite) to the exquisite cupuaçu (the texture of guyabano with a hint of durian) as well a host of others with varying degrees of familiarity outside the region: guaraná, taperabá, acerola. Within the vicinity of Teatro Amazonas, the Skina dos Sucos juice bar specializes in these drinks: which I quickly turned into a morning ritual.
And then, there are also the freshwater fish, most popularly the pirarucu (the world's largest freshwater fish) and the tambaqui. They also have river shrimps. And there’s the tucupi soup, with mildly-anesthetic jambu leaves that leave an unforgettable mouth-tingling sensation.
For culinary reasons alone, it’s worthwhile to stay in Manaus for at least a couple of days.
From the river to the creek
But of course, one does not go to the Amazon and not plan to see the Amazon itself, which is why Manaus is but the starting point. After having recovered from my jetlag and had my fill of açaí, I booked a jungle trip with Amazon Gero Tours, one of local operators with offices within the vicinity of the Teatro Amazonas. Our destination was the Paraná do Mamori. (Paraná means “river.”)
The first stop, as I would later find, is the “meeting of rivers,” a dramatic sight in which the two rivers meet but do not mix. For several kilometers, the dark waters of the Rio Negro run along the light-brownish waters of the Amazon. Later, I would learn that there are various other such meetings along the course of the world’s longest river.
After crossing the river, we traveled by a van for another three hours. Only after then did the highways and cleared lands give way to rough roads and forest, indicating that we were getting close. But to get to the lodge itself, we had to take yet another boat ride! All the mileage, in land and water, served to further remind me of the vastness of the Amazon. While I did not see any of the fires, I saw the ranches, the felled trees that speak of the taken-for-grantedness many locals ascribe to the Amazon: one for which humanity may ultimately pay a heavy price.
Unlike the road trip, the final boat ride left no room for dull moments. In fact, even while waiting for the boat we were already greeted by a number of pink river dolphins that were amazingly common! And then, as the boatman took me and the other backpackers to the jungle, he pointed to some caimans—basically Amazonian crocodiles—which again proved to be present in every corner!
The birds, too, were everywhere: parrots, eagles, shrikes, vultures, kingfishers, and many more. Amazed as I was of their grandiose sizes and variety, the boatman did not even deem them worthy of mention.
After 30 minutes in the river we reached Ararinha Jungle Lodge, with wooden huts accommodating the people who have come all over the world to catch a glimpse of the Amazon.
Into the jungle
That day, one of the guides, Michel, announced that he will be leading an overnight camping trip to observe nocturnal wildlife. I happily signed up for the opportunity. Hammocks in tow, we would be traveling by pumpboat further upstream.
The river was teeming with piranhas and other fish, some of which would accidentally jump into our boat. We caught sight of more caimans—some measuring several feet—and even had a fleeting encounter with an anaconda! As with most of life’s best moments, these encounters are elusive to the camera.
The campsite was, in many ways, no different from the ones we have in the Philippines, but in the Amazon it seemed that there’s much more wildlife. Within our vicinity, Michel easily spotted some scorpions and spiders; the trees and branches were teeming with beetles, giant ants, and other fascinating species.
As the night descended, the inexorable heat gave way to a pleasant, breezy coolness, giving me my most relaxing sleep in months.
The following day, we met some of the locals involved in cultivating the açai and cupaçu palms, finally giving me a picture of where my favorite fruits come from.
Back at the lodge, lunch was served with some of the local fish and acerola juice, as the travelers awaited yet another afternoon of activities, from the spotting of jungle birds to trekking in the endless expanse of forest.
Beyond the animals we saw, other fascinating creatures await in parts of Amazonia: from otters and sloths to jaguars and colorful macaws. And of course, the indigenous peoples have their myriad stories to tell.
Unfortunately, I could not stay longer. Life must go on, like the river itself.
Getting there. There are several daily flights to Manauas from Brazil’s major cities (e.g. Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro), taking around four hours per way.
Arranging a jungle tour. From Manaus a number of tour operators offer trips of various lengths. For the above trip I secured the services of Amazon Gero Tours.
What to bring. Weather can be very hot and humid. Bring clothes accordingly, and don’t forget your insect repellant.