Most people’s ultimate destination is not Manaus itself but the Amazon rain forest. From Manaus, you can get a taste of the rain forest with day trips, but if you want to get away from civilization (and the distance it takes to “get away” is constantly increasing), experience “virgin” forest, and see some wildlife, the best way to do so is by taking a longer tour or excursion into the rain forest, with the option of sleeping on a boat or in the forest itself at a camp or jungle lodge, known as a hotel de selva. Depending on your interests as well as time and money constraints, there are several options available.
The famous piranha is omnipresent, and piranha fishing with a bamboo pole and a chunk of beef as bait is a classic activity few visitors can resist.One way is to book an excursion with a specialized ecotourist agency based in Manaus. An average tour lasts 2–6 days and usually includes typical outings such as hiking in the forest and canoeing through igarapés (narrow creeks) and igapós (temporarily flooded forests) in search of wildlife. Guaranteed sightings include flocks of birds and frolicking schools of pink dolphins. Less frequent are monkeys and sloths. Almost impossible are jaguars. The famous piranha is omnipresent, and piranha fishing with a bamboo pole and a chunk of beef as bait is a classic activity few visitors can resist. The best times for viewing animals are around sunrise and sunset. However, as you can tell by the symphonic screeches, squawks, grunts, shuffles, and ribbets, nighttime is when the forest really comes to life. A popular (and somewhat spooky) nocturnal pastime is looking for caimans with a flashlight. They are quite easy to identify by their glow-in-the-dark eyes. As proof that these reptiles have a softer side, your guide will inevitably grab a baby caiman by the neck and invite you to caress its spiny carapace.
Many tours also include visits to the homes of local caboclos (mixed descendants of Indians and Portuguese) who live in stilt houses along the river. Many are quite poor and have little contact with the rest of Brazil. These visits can be interesting—watching milky latex being heated over a fire to become rubber and manioc being pounded into the farinha (flour) that is a main food staple—and sometimes a little exploitative.
You’ll want to make sure of your guides’ qualifications: Most guides work as freelancers, and it’s nice if they not only speak English but also know something about the Amazon’s flora and fauna instead of improvising as they go along.Accommodations on tours may vary greatly. They can range from basic bunks on a boat, and hammocks or tents in the forest, to a night at an exclusive jungle lodge with air-conditioning and gourmet meals. Make sure you know what you’re getting for your money. Consider how much roughing it in the wilds you’re prepared for. You’ll want to make sure of your guides’ qualifications: Most guides work as freelancers, and it’s nice if they not only speak English but also know something about the Amazon’s flora and fauna instead of improvising as they go along. It’s also worth confirming the type of transportation that will be used to explore smaller waterways—noiseless motors or old-fashioned paddle canoes are better than noisy and polluting motorboats that scare off wildlife.
Another way of exploring the forest is to book yourself into one of the many jungle lodges that have increasingly sprung up along banks of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões. Lodges sell packages (usually 2–6 days) that include rain forest and river activities along with meals and sometimes transportation from Manaus. Lodges range from basic rustic to eco-chic and are generally fairly pricy. Keep in mind that your exposure to locals will be minimal. Aside from the jungle lodges’ owners and guides, most of your companions will be other environmentally minded gringos. Finally, given that boats are the main means of transportation in the Amazon, you can very easily hop one and go wherever you want. Regardless of whether you splurge for a luxury riverboat for well-heeled ecotourists or string up your freshly purchased hammock alongside those of Amazonenses traveling downriver in the direction of Belém, adventure is guaranteed.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.