From Manaus into the Amazon Rain Forest

A two-level river boat with a smaller boat alongside floats on glassy river water at the verdant shore.

On the river near Manaus. Photo © Jorge Luis Cardosode Andrade, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

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.

Presidente Figueiredo

Located 107 kilometers (64 miles) north of Manaus on the road to Venezuela, Presidente Figueiredo is a small town that has become a favorite ecotourist getaway. Although the surrounding region is replete with rain forest, creeks and rivers, and caves containing prehistoric paintings, the main attraction is 100 waterfalls that have won the town the nickname of Terra das Cachoeiras (Land of Waterfalls). Tributaries of the Rio Negro, the water of these numerous cascades is a striking jet-black color. Diving into the pools and opening your eyes underwater is an intense experience. So is splashing around and getting a pummeling massage amid a setting of rocks, ferns, and tropical forest that is downright Edenic. Among the best falls closest to town are Suframa (11 kilometers/7 miles), Iracema (12 kilometers/7.5 miles), and Santuário (16 kilometers/10 miles). If you don’t have a car, you can easily hire a taxi or moto-taxi to reach them. For a guide to navigate walking trails, get in touch with the tourist office (tel. 92/3324-1308), who can recommend guides.

Aside from cachoeiras, Presidente Figueiredo is known for its cupuaçus. Should you miss the annual Cupuaçu Festival (late April–early May), stock up on jellies, liqueurs, and candies made with the ambrosial fruit at Praça da Cultura (Box 5, tel. 92/3324-1494, 8 a.m.–10 p.m. daily).

Accommodations and Food

Although Presidente Figueiredo can be enjoyed in a day, if you want to relax and soak up the falls in a more leisurely fashion, it’s worthwhile spending the night at one of the half dozen simple pousadas in and around town. Hotel Maruaga (Rua Uatumã 205, tel. 92/3324-1100, R$120–150 d) is a nice homey choice right in Centro. Guest rooms are a bit small but bright and tidy. The garden has a decent pool and patio, and the restaurant serves good food. The pousada staff can organize outings to falls and caves as well as forest hikes.

Getting There

Getting to Presidente Figueiredo is easy via BR-174, basically the only paved road heading out of Manaus. If you want to rent a car, the trip is a scenic one. Aruanã (tel. 92/3236-8305) offers five buses daily from Manaus’s Rodoviária (2 hours, R$17). Tour operators such as Viverde (Rua das Guariúbas 47, Parque Acariquara, Manaus, tel. 92/3248-9988) and Amazon Mystery Tours (Rua Ajuricaba 962, Vila Pazuela, Casa 4, Cachoeirinha, Manaus, tel. 92/3308-9073) also offer day trips here; expect to pay around R$180 pp including meals.

Up the Rio Solimões

The muddy river that stretches west from Manaus all the way to Brazil’s border with Peru and Colombia is known as the Rio Solimões. Although it is actually more of a café-au-lait color, the Rio Solimões is known as a “white” river due to the fact that its waters are laden with a high concentration of rich soil. During the wet season, when the river floods the surrounding land, it leaves highly fertile silt deposits that encourage plant, animal, and insect life. The ramifications for ecotourists are twofold: While you’ll tend to see more wildlife along the Rio Solimões than along the Rio Negro, you’ll also have to fend off more mosquitoes.

Traveling upstream by boat along the Rio Solimões, there are several areas that offer stunning expanses of prime rain forest with the possibility of viewing wildlife. Only a half-day journey from Manaus is the area surrounding Lago Mamori, where you can glimpse lots of birds, caimans, and pink river dolphins, and the piranha fishing is great. Farther along, and more remote, is the Lago Juma.

Reserva de Desenvolviment o Sustentável de Mamirauá

By far, the hottest eco-spot along the Rio Solimões is the Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentável de Mamirauá. The largest protected area of várzea (Amazonian forest that is seasonally flooded with “white” river water) within Brazil, the reserve is monitored by the Instituto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável de Mamirauá (Estrada do Bexiga 2584, Fonte Boa, tel. 97/3343-4672, 8 a.m.–noon and 2–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–noon, Sat.), whose mission is to combine conservation and scientific research with the creation of sustainable employment and lifestyles for local inhabitants. Apart from traditional fishing and agriculture, an increasing percentage of the local caboclo population work as guides and forest patrollers. Their efforts have not been in vain: The forest is in pristine condition, and exploring its jungles, rivers, and lagoons will give you the sensation of having returned to a primordial Eden. As a result, Mamirauá is one of the best places to see wildlife. Aside from caimans, pink dolphins, sloths, and myriad birds and monkeys, if you’re lucky, you might even get to see the very rare scarlet-faced uakari monkey. Located at the confluence of the Solimões with the Rio Japurá, the reserve is close to the town of Tefé, which also happens to be the last outpost of civilization along the Solimões.

Visiting the reserve on your own involves a long boat trip to Tefé or a far speedier and more expensive one-hour direct flight from Manaus. Tefé itself is a lazy little river town with two pretty main squares. Aside from staying within the reserve at the more expensive Pousada Uacari (see Michael’s article on Jungle Lodges in the Amazon), you can also base yourself in Tefé. Owned by a multilingual Dutch-Brazilian couple, the Pousada Multicultura (Rua 15 de Junho 136, Juruá, tel. 97/3343-6632, R$65–90 d) is a simple but welcoming place that’s a 15-minute walk from the center of town. Even if you don’t choose a room with a beguiling view of Lake Tefé, you can ogle the scenery (and Skype envious pals via free Wi-Fi) from a rooftop café. The owners offer all sorts of services, ranging from the advance purchase of airplane e-tickets and boat tickets (highly recommended despite the 15 percent service charge) to organizing guided outings to the Reserva and other natural attractions as well as to indigenous communities. Both the pousada and the Instituto Mamirauá are excellent sources of information and can help you (even before you actually arrive in the Amazon) plan an interesting trip.

From Manaus’s Estação Hidroviária, slow boats to Tefé (R$100 hammock, R$300 cabin for 2) leave at 8 a.m. Monday–Saturday. The journey takes around 44 hours. The return trip (departures at 5 p.m. Thurs.–Tues.) takes 36 hours. From Manaus’s Porto Moderna (Rua Barés 3, Centro, tel. 92/3622-6047), AJATO speedboats (around R$220 including lunch and dinner) depart at 7 a.m. Monday and Wednesday–Saturday and arrive in Tefé 13 hours later. Boats leave from the Porto Moderna behind the Mercado Municipal. Currently, only Trip offers daily flights to Tefé from Manaus. Schedules change, as do fares. In all cases, it’s wise to purchase tickets in advance.

Up the Rio Negro

The dark river that flows into Manaus from the remote reaches of northwestern Amazonas is known as the Rio Negro. Its somber hue is actually more dark reddish-brown than black, yet it is known as a “black” river due to the fact that its waters are filled with rotting vegetation from low-lying forests. The abundance of decaying organic matter results in a high level of acidity. As a result, its waters don’t have the same fertilizing properties as “white” rivers such as the Solimões. A bonus is that the high acidity kills insect larvae, which results in a low instance of mosquito attacks.

Arquipélago de Anavilhanas

The most fascinating easily accessible destination along the Rio Negro is the Arquipélago de Anavilhanas, access to which is via the town of Novo Airão. The second-largest freshwater archipelago in the world, the archipelago boasts upward of 400 islands. During the dry season, many of them are fringed with beautiful white-sand beaches. If you don’t mind sharing with flocks of wild birds, you’ll have them completely to yourself. Should you want to go swimming, you’ll very likely find yourself frolicking with schools of friendly pink dolphins. While checking into the luxurious Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge (see Michael’s article on Jungle Lodges in the Amazon) is an ideal way to take advantage of the region’s myriad attractions, a cheaper alternative is to shack up in Novo Airão itself. Amid a lush estate overlooking the Rio Negro, Pousada Bela Vista (Av. Presidente Vargas 47, Centro, tel. 92/3365-1023, 80–100 d) offers simple wood-paneled guest rooms with air-conditioning. Bonuses include an on-site restaurant-bar and private river access.

Meanwhile, the next best thing to setting up house in the Amazon is to rent the only room at Mirante do Gavião (Av. Antenor Carlos Frederico 77, N. S. Auxiliadora, tel. 92/3365-1732, R$150–180 d). Occupying the second story of a wooden tree house–like structure, this aerie-like room with a splendid view is like something out of childhood fantasy. While the first floor boasts a kitchen and bathroom, upper levels are given over to contemplating the scenery with the aid of hammock-strung verandas. In conjunction with Expedição Katerre (tel. 92/3365-1644), an experienced local ecotour operator, the owners can organize all sorts of river excursions at your request.

Getting to Novo Airão is fairly easy. From Manaus’s Porto São Rãimundo, speedboats (3.5 hours, R$20) leave daily. From the same port, you can also take a ferry (40 minutes) across the river and catch a collective minibus or van to Novo Airão; or if you have a car, simply follow AM-70 for 75 kilometers (47 miles) and then turn onto AM-352 for another 100 kilometers (62 miles). Alternatively, from the Rodoviária, Aruanã (tel. 92/3236-8305) offers two daily bus departures (5 hours, R$30) at 6 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.

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1 Comment

  1. Robin Doohan says:

    I’m travelling to Brazil September 2015 and my first point of call is Belém.
    3 friends are interested in a river boat trip of about 3 days and wondered what is offering and at what cost?