The Amazon Up Close: Sailing deep into the rainforest on a small ship
By Harvey Chipkin
“Wait a minute, I have to get my machete.” So said Edivan, our extraordinarily gifted guide as he prepared to lead us on another adventure in the Brazilian Amazon – hacking trees and bush to allow myself and my fellow passengers on the motor yacht Tucano to see birds, monkeys, sloths, tarantulas, and other creatures and plants – as well as the way life is lived in a very remote part of the world.
Edivan is a guide on the Tucano, a small vessel operated by Amazon Nature Tours that sails mainly on the Rio Negro, a tributary to the Amazon. It runs through a relatively undeveloped region because the river’s high acidity is less conducive than other waterways to large commercial agriculture. It also reduces the number of mosquitos and less welcome creatures found in greater numbers on the Amazon River itself. Still, the Rio Negro offers a tremendous diversity of flora and fauna.
Capitalizing on that diversity, the American-owned Tucano has been sailing on the Rio Negro for more than 30 years, currently offering six-night and four-night excursions. The boat is comfortable – with cabin features like L’Occitane bath amenities, good reading lamps and bathrooms with showers. There is air conditioning most of the time – interrupted for energy-saving pauses in the mornings and afternoons. The vessel has been operating since 1997 but has been fully refitted three times, the last time in November of last year.
But make no mistake. This trip is about nature – not luxury — and only those clients who are serious about understanding the role the Amazon region plays in the global ecology should be made aware of this special opportunity. For instance, it is only possible to take a hot shower for a few hours in the middle of the day and by the end of the trip, it might be necessary to hang clothes on the top deck to dry.
Most daylight hours are spent off the boat – on a motor launch or on walks in the jungle or through villages. Each morning starts at 5:30 with porridge and coffee in the dining room before the first launch trip of the day. That’s the best time to see and hear the jungle waking to the calls of toucans, macaws, and myriad other birds, as well as the haunting, wind-like sounds of howler monkeys. On our trip, as Edivan carefully recorded on a whiteboard each day, we saw many birds, animals, insects, and plants. We learned about the rhythms of the flooded forest where what seem to be a few branches in the rainy season are actually the top of a 30-foot tree that becomes exposed in the dry season.
Edivan and his navigator colleagues, Paquito and Raimundo, are wizards at spotting wildlife. One night he suddenly plunged his hand into the river trying to grab a caiman. That one eluded him – but he said he has been successful in the past. And there’s nothing to compare with the cinematic slow-motion movements of a three-toed sloth in a tree or on one occasion three sloths creeping along in close proximity to one another.
Some off-ship excursions involve land-based walks highlighted by tutorials on local plants and trees. In addition, there are visits to the ghostly ruins of a rubber plantation; to a village whose citizens live on fishing and subsistence farming; and to a working farm where we were shown how the farmers process manioc, a staple, and how they build and repair pretty much everything they need. At the end of each excursion, there was a stop at a table where handmade jewelry and carvings were set up in case visitors wanted to buy a souvenir.
After a hearty breakfast on the boat, it’s back to the launch for the mid-morning expedition – frequently involving a walk. There was even a swim in the river one morning in an area safe from piranhas and caimans – refreshing in the perennially humid air (the region is very close to the Equator).
After a copious lunch, there’s a long afternoon break during the hottest part of the day – a time for relaxation or a nap – followed by the late afternoon launch trip, when wildlife begins to become active again. A special time of day is sunset when appetizers are served on the top deck – as simple as plantains or as exotic as fried piranha fish that we (meaning our guides) caught on a memorable fishing venture.
Dinner is followed by a nighttime excursion on the launch, a favorite for some when Edivan shines his headlight into the jungle searching for a tree boa or a caiman. He and his team scan the dark for glimmering red eyes and then zoom in on the creatures.
Because of the boat’s small size, itineraries and activities are flexible depending on weather, water level, and other circumstances. If there is a rainstorm, there might be a delay in a motor launch departure. Or a launch trip might substitute for a walk if the ground is deemed too soaked from a deluge. After a while, the feeling of remoteness becomes tangible. A full day might go by without a sighting of another vessel. Once, a small craft suddenly pulled up alongside and locals exchanged a bag of limes for fuel.
WiFi and the Internet become a refreshingly distant memory. Instead, there is reading, talking to the captain in the pilothouse or just chatting in the dining salon about what we’ve seen.
Time on the boat is also spent resting for the early mornings, watching the jungle go by from the top deck –and, of course, eating. The chef, Dione, performs magic in her small kitchen – turning out delicious, colorful and well-prepared meals. The only repeated dishes are rice and beans. Otherwise, there is a surprising variety of fresh fish, meats, pasta, vegetables and salads –and always a superb desert – like a coconut cake topped with cupuaçu (a tropical fruit) ice cream. It’s a small but opulent buffet. Beer, wine and soft drinks are available and this being Brazil, the coffee is excellent.
The Tucano holds only about 16 passengers, so the trip is an intimate experience. It will sail if there are fewer passengers and the number of guides is adjusted for that. We had five passengers because of last-minute cancellations so we bonded quickly with our fellow adventurers and got to know the crew well. If there is a problem (a sticky door or a missing fork) it’s only necessary to tell Edivan once – and it will be corrected.
One passenger asked about a hammock – and minutes later two colorful ones appeared and were strung up on the top deck. That passenger spent parts of several nights sleeping as he swayed.
And there are touches that can only be described as “luxurious” – like ice-cold towels miraculously produced on the launch after a sweaty walk through the jungle; or a final night “gala” dinner when the tables are set with charger plates and bottles of wine as a local singer with a lovely voice croons bossa nova and other Brazilian tunes. Before dinner, Edivan expertly smashes those fresh limes to make the national drink caipirinhas which involves the liqueur cachaça, ice, and sugar.
The Tucano departs from a dock in Manaus, an urban center in the middle of the jungle that was the wealthiest city in South America in the 19th century because of the arrival of cars and the need for rubber grown in the jungle for tires. Reminders of that era are found around the city in structures like the magnificent Opera House – still active with concerts and opera. Every piece of it was brought over from Europe – as is the case with many other buildings.
Manaus is a bustling tropical city that is seeing the arrival of newcomers every day – from politically-torn Venezuela to the Middle East to elsewhere in Brazil. As our guide Wyllb Sena told us, it is a place where everybody can somehow find a way to make a living. A city tour is highly recommended. The idea that this metropolis of two million is 1,000 miles away from anything else is astonishing in itself.
But not as astonishing as being an arms-length away from a furry tarantula clinging to the tree on a starlit night.
Booking the Tucano
For the four-night cruise, Into the Wild Amazon, prices start at $1750 per person. The six-night cruise, Voyage to the Heart of the Amazon, starts at $3150 per person.
Those interested in hearing more about or booking the Tucano can call 800-688-1822 or 401-423-3377 or send us an email at [email protected]
Harvey Chipkin is a freelance writer who has been writing about travel for trade and consumer publications for many years. He currently contributes to TravelPulse, Agent@Home, Business Travel Executive, Hotel News Now and MediaPost. Harvey performs improv comedy regularly in New York and in New Jersey where he lives. When you do improv, you can be anywhere in the world that you want.