Instead of the jungle cruise at Disneyland for your next vacation, why not head off to the realAmazon? Getting there is easier and less expensive than you may think. The city of Manaus, Brazil is 5200 air miles from Seattle via Miami. You don't need to outfit an expedition - just make your reservations on the Internet and you will be met at the airport for a two hour drive on a paved road to Amazonat, an eco-resort in the planet's largest forest. There are no mosquitoes, you can drink the water, and you don't have to learn Portuguese.
A Dutchman, Jacques van Egeraat and his Brazilian wife Cristina bought the property four years ago and cleared parts of the second growth forest, building a restaurant, reception area, swimming pool and 20 jungle chalets. They left the old growth rain forest intact; there are ten miles of it between the developed area and the Amazon River. Guests are treated to guided walks that range from a short stroll to six hours, on or off trail as you like.
The jungle can be a dark place since little sunlight penetrates to the forest floor. The resort's open areas provide views and sunlight. A man-made mineral water lake makes a great swimming hole and is bordered by a sandy beach furnished with lounge chairs and a bar. Amazonat was originally set up for nudists, but in November was opened to all visitors. Check what dress code will be in force during your visit; July and August are reserved for au naturel.
To call Amazonat undiscovered is an understatement. During the five days of our visit in early January we were the only foreigners. Of the 20 units, perhaps an additional one or two were occupied by Brazilian couples. Lower rates ($100 rather than $130 daily for the chalet) are in effect during the January - April rainy season. There are only about three days a year when it rains all day. More typical is a cloudburst followed by sun. Temperatures during July and August are typically 94° F, dropping to 88-75° F in January - April, with high humidity all year.
Christophe, who was born in Peru and grew up in Brazil, has guided tourists through the Amazon rain forest for 14 years and is very knowledgeable about the names and uses of the myriad species of beautiful trees in this lush green Eden. In addition to being a vital part of the rainforest ecosystem, the trees provide food, clothing, shelter, and medicines for people. We learned from Christophe that the sipo dagua provides drinkable water and the sorva lete para bebe provides protein-rich, vitamin-rich milk that the indigenous peoples of the rain forest feed to their babies. Fran tasted both liquids, which were easily obtained by gently tapping the trunk of each tree. The bark of the envira fiber tree is used for making rope and clothing. The wood of the paxiuba tree makes a good blow pipe (you blow through one end of this hollow pipe to shoot darts). Christophe removed a small piece of wood from a paxiuba and carved a beautiful blow pipe for us as a souvenir gift. We also saw the pau brasil (Brazil wood) tree after which the country is named, rubber trees, and the mahogany and angeline trees from which furniture is made. Angelines have a reddish bark like cedar, but are square at the base of their trunk, can grow to over 300 feet in height, and can live to 1000 years.
If you have a headache, try inhaling the incense-like smoke from the breu para dor decabeca tree. The pau vike is the source of cold remedies used in the U.S. and the sipo cravo yields medicine to soothe upset stomachs. The liana tree, which is a rope-like vine, is the source of the anti-malaria drug quinine.
There were also numerous fruit trees in the old growth rain forest and the second growth forest at Amazonat - banana, mango, guava, and some that were unfamiliar to us. For example, the fruit of the capuacu tree is made into a tasty juice and ice cream.
In addition to the guided walks, there are areas of Amazonat that can be explored safely on your own. These include two orchid parks (the orchids peak in March and April), several birdwatching trails, and a small lake (Bertha's Lake) with ducks, roosters, pigs, a huge turtle, and a tapir, which is a pig-like rain forest animal. There is also excellent birdwatching from the porches of the chalets, especially at dawn and dusk.
Several tame animals roam the grounds of Amazonat including two brilliantly colored macaws, a toucan, a squirrel monkey, spider monkey, and woolly monkey. They are all very friendly and playful. We saw several of their relatives in the wild on our rain forest hikes.
There are several sports facilities at Amazonat - a wading pool for children, badminton and volleyball courts, and ping pong and pool tables. We did not partake of these activities, preferring to focus on jungle hikes and swimming, but we did enjoy a professional full body massage in the open air physical fitness center, which also contained weights and other equipment found in health clubs.
The restaurant at Amazonat served three delicious meals daily, including regional and international dishes.
We sampled delicious Amazon River fish including tambaqui, piracuru, and yes, even piranha. Christophe caught the piranha for us on an afternoon boat trip that we took on the nearby Urubu River, the Amazon tributary located 14 miles from Amazonat. The sumptuous breakfasts at Amazonat (fresh fruit juice, fresh tropical fruits, cereal or eggs, a variety of breads, fried bananas, and coffee or tea) are included in the price of the chalets. Lunch and dinner cost a total of $30.00 per person per day. There is no extra charge for the guided hikes.
The ambiance at Amazonat is totally relaxing. It is a pleasure to awaken to the sounds of birds and to fall asleep to the sounds of crickets. The night skies are resplendent with stars. The owners and staff are very friendly. It is easy to disconnect from the outside world, especially your hectic schedule in Seattle.
Each chalet is named after a rain forest bird (ours was called Jacamim) and contains a sleeping area, a living-room area with refrigerator and coffee table, and a bathroom with a cold water shower. You do not need or want a hot shower in that climate. Screens allow cross-ventilation of fresh air, but keep out insects.
You don't need to worry about mosquitoes here because the soil in this part of the Amazon Basin is too acidic for them. A fan helps to cool the chalet, but the nights are quite pleasant (about 70 degrees), so we didn't need to use our fan too often. There is a porch with a hammock, picnic table, and beautiful view of rain forest. One morning, we saw toucans in the nearby trees.
Down the Amazon
From Manaus, riverboats sail 980 miles downstream to Belem, a four-day journey, or upstream 1200 miles to Iquitos, Peru, which takes a week or so. Sailing the Amazon is part of the romance, but we didn't want to spend that much time on a boat. The closest town to Manaus is Itacoatiara, 124 miles downstream. The return journey takes four hours by bus.
Part of our reason for going to Itacoatiara was the unknown. Our guidebooks either made no mention of the town or gave it two sentences. A web search revealed that the town has 60,000 inhabitants, 11 hotels, 5 banks, and industrial port facilities. Travel time from Manaus by river was given as 9 hours downstream / 14 upstream from one source and 12 hours from another.
On our first afternoon in Manaus, we went to the river port and inquired about boats to Itacoatiara. Using our limited Portuguese, we found that the RB Lima leaves at 11:00 AM on Tuesdays and Fridays. I understood the journey time to be 6 hours.
The next morning we checked out of our hotel, walked to the port, and found sitting space on the deck. The other passengers were all Brazilians and had brought hammocks to hang from the roof for a comfortable afternoon rest.
The boat pushed of from shore at about 11:15 and headed downstream past industrial areas of the city of a million people. There were a couple stops on the outskirts of town and a stop for fuel. We had a comfortable view from the top deck with the roof shading the fierce sun. Manaus is built on the left bank of the Rio Negro, the fifth largest river in the world, just above its confluence with the main Amazon. As the name implies, the Negro carries dark water due to tannins and its acidity prevents mosquito reproduction in the area. The Solinus [or Amazon] is a yellowish color from the sediments that it carries. When the waters meet they do not mix, but instead flow together for several miles, dark water on the left and light on the right. As we left the city, we were looking forward to the meeting of the waters, but a heavy rain storm came up and blue tarps were lowered to keep the passengers dry. The squall soon passed and we did get to see some of the confluence.
As we continued, the near shoreline became mostly jungle. Later we came to areas that had been cleared for farming and the boat stopped at most of the small settlements to discharge goods or passengers, giving a close look at life on the river.
As darkness began to fall at 6:00 PM we tied up at an island dock where pineapples were transferred from small boats to a larger one. We figured that we must be almost to Itacoatiara by now, and asked another passenger. He said no, there was still another four hours, no, six hours and that we would arrive at two. It had been a pleasant trip, but we were ready to arrive and this was not what we wanted to hear. As we resumed our journey, it was disconcerting to find that the ship had no electricity and no running lights. Other passing riverboats used their searchlights to see us. We continued to stop at isolated farms in the dark. After about an hour, a crew member was able to restore electricity. The lights happened to come on at dinner time, which turned out to be included in the $7.50 fare. One of us tried the rice and chicken stew with no ill effects.
The night-time voyage continued to make frequent stops, offloading ice, supplies, and empty Styrofoam chests. The sky was now perfectly clear and filled with stars with Orion overhead. We stretched out on deck chairs or benches and rested under the starlight, listening to jungle noises and observing a flying beetle similar to a firefly. The light on the deck attracted a wealth of insects, but they were non-biting.
At 3:00 AM we finally reached Itacoatiara. Most passengers chose to stay aboard and sleep in their hammocks until dawn. The boat did not tie up at the main dock, but put in at the foot of a flight of concrete stairs. We balanced down the thin gang-plank to shore, climbed the stairs, and asked the waiting taxi to take us to the Christian Hotel, one of the best in town at $28 for two. We had no reservations and were glad to get a room without difficulty and catch up on sleep.