Manaus: The Heart of the Amazon

We arrived in Manaus in the early afternoon and decided to team up with Hilary and Diane to find a good hostel. After walking through the port, we met Thomas: a charismatic native of Manaus with a great sense of humour.  Thomas recruits and refers tourists to his hostel and organizes their stay. Tours, places to eat, things to see, you name it, Thomas will help you organize it and then introduce you to 5 other people who have already done it. His grasp of the English language is impeccable, and he is exactly the kind of person we all wanted to meet upon arrival. Strangely enough, having recruiters swarm you at bus stations and ports is something I kind of miss from Asia, and it’s infinitely easier than walking around the city from hostel to hostel with a 15kg backpack on!


So just like that, we had a cozy place to stay, with a room just for the 4 of us, and were sitting down organizing tours within the hour. Sadly, Adam and I had only one full day to spend in Manaus, so we booked a day tour for the Friday and hoped to see as much of the city as possible! 
After we were hooked up with a cheap seafood dinner of local Amazonian fish, we were offered a free, private walking tour of the city from Thomas’ brother (or sister as he jokingly referred to him as).


The markets in Manaus are incredible. The less impressive fruit market was quite a sight to behold.  Truckloads of fruits and vegetables collected from the jungle, lay over huge wooden palates waiting to be bought.  A massive variety of tropical fruits and vegetables to choose from and a stack of bananas larger than I’ve ever witnessed!  Afterwards we walked over to the fish market.  The market was slowing down by the time we arrived in the evening, but at 5am, Manaus’ fish market explodes with people trying to get a deal on fish for the day. There are apparently over 2000 different species of fish to be found in Manaus, and the fish market is where you can get most of them.  Row upon row of stalls where fisherman slice up their catch and prepare the food for buyers.  Anyone can buy fish at the market, but it is particularly popular with restaurant owners buying their daily specials at the crack of dawn.

After the markets, we walked through the city checking out it’s main sights: the opera house, the university and the many beautiful plazas that are scattered throughout. I was amazed at how industrial and beautiful Manaus really is. It is a booming city with a very strong economy and is WAY larger than I would have imagined from a city in the middle of the jungle. There are over 400 factories in Manaus, many of them big name car companies and appliances. It’s even one of the largest microwave distributors in the world. Random. Manaus is a city where people from all over Brazil come to get work. It has such a huge workforce that there are always places to find a job. Before Southeast Asia began its rubber production, Manaus was the largest rubber exporter in the world. The rubber production made for an extremely wealthy economy. The place was so rich, that the women would have all their clothes shipped to Europe to get them CLEANED instead of doing it themselves, and the men would smoke cigarettes through dollar bills.  If only I could afford these luxuries!


When we arrived back at the hostel, Thomas had pitchers of caipirinhas waiting for us. It wasn’t long before we met a bunch of Colombians, Swedes and Spanish guys outside and joined them for drinks. We sat in patio furniture on the street and attempted to understand our trilingual conversations. We drank and sang Spanish songs like “La Bamba,” with the accompaniment of Juan-Carlos’ guitar, for what seemed like hours. Then we all headed out on the town till the wee hours of the morning!


When Adam’s alarm went off at 7:30am I was a zombie. We had a maximum of 3 hours of sleep, although no one really checked the time we finally fell asleep, so it could have been less. So excited for an 8 hour day tour of Manaus…
 not!  Turns out it was just Adam and I on the tour with a man that didn’t speak English. Not sure how we always end up on private tours, but it seems to be a trend for us in Brazil! I was in no condition to translate Portuguese, but our tour was amazing nonetheless!


We took a boat out to the meeting of the rivers to start. This is where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes converge to make the Amazon. Because of the amount of acid in the water, the Rio Negro is a very dark, almost black colour. Contrastingly, the Solimoes is a light brown, muddled hue. The acidity and temperature differences between the two rivers keeps them separated, and thus there is a very defined line where the waters meet that stretches for about 6km! We could actually feel the temperature differences as we traveled between the two on our boat.

As we were boating to our next destination, we FINALLY saw the elusive pink river dolphins! Adam has been talking about these pink dolphins since day 1 of our trip. They were on his trip’s bucket list before anything else in fact! So it was very exciting to see them in the wild. They are the only fresh water dolphins in the world and no one quite knows how they ended up in the Amazon. It is believed that perhaps they migrated into the river up to 15 million years ago! Their brains are 40% larger than a human’s and they are unique in that their neck bone is not fused with their spine, giving them a lot of mobility in their heads. The dolphins are a light grey colour with pink around their heads. A number of strange local legends surround the animals; it is said that the dolphins shift shapes in the night to impregnate women on land! We did spot a couple in the distance when we were on our 6-day trip, but seeing them up close was very cool!


When the dolphins swam out of view, we boated through a floating village that both survived and made a living off the river. Local fisherman caught pirarucu fish from the river and kept them in large tanks to sell them at a later date. The fish are massive!! They can get up to 180kilos and small ones are still a whopping 90kg. One of the fishermen tied small fish to a wooden pole and let us try to fish for them in the tank. They snapped at the fish, literally jumping out of the water to grab the food, but it was practically impossible to reel them in with the weight of them; however, for lunch afterwards, we got to eat the fish as part of our buffet. Which was fun, even though we didn’t catch one ourselves.

From there, we walked through the ecological park to the giant lily pads! Seems that everything is a little larger in the Amazon, and these lily pads were no exception. They got up to a couple diameters each, and were a beautiful display among the calm lake. 
 I couldn’t take enough photos of them if I’d tried!

Once we’d explored the park, and had some lunch, we visited one of the floating homes and met up with two children: a young boy about 10 and a girl no older than 5. The little girl clung onto a baby caiman, with it’s mouth tied shut, like it was her own little stuffed animal. She dragged it around without even thinking twice that she had a tiny dangerous animal swinging from her hands! Next to her, the young boy was bear hugging a sloth! The two hopped in our boat and offered us the animals to hold. Adam and I were ecstatic! The sloth was one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen. I’ve only ever spotted the animals in trees, moving around slowly and clinging to a branch for dear life. But up close, they have the most ADORABLE faces.  They have big black eyes on top of a long face and a neck that turns around almost a full 360 degrees. And they are so light! I was expecting the sloth to be much heavier than it was, but it couldn’t have been more than a couple pounds. It’s long claws wrapped around me in a huge sloth hug and then the animal seemed content to just hang out in my lap. So cool! After Adam and I played with the sloth for quite some time, we checked out the caiman. It was so little (no longer than a foot and a half from head to tail) and had huge green eyes that stuck out of its head. It felt just like a snake, but looked a little more ferocious with its teeth sticking out under its tied jaw. It was surprisingly calm however, and allowed the little girl to grab a hold of it as if it was her childhood blanket. We paid the kids a couple Reais for their time before continuing on with the tour.

Our guide then took us on a boat ride THROUGH the jungle. Because of the flooded waters, the forest was no longer walkable; instead, we cruised through the tall trees and thick forest with unbelievable dexterity in our giant boat. I have NO idea how this man maneuvered through the trees that were at points no wider than a half inch on either side of the boat, but he did it! It was a beautiful trip and a very unique way of trekking through the area!
  Photos did NOT do this part of the trip justice.


Finally, we ended our trip with more piraña fishing! Although these pirañas were much less voracious than the ones in the Pantanal, we still managed to catch 7 of them and take them back to our guide’s friend for his dinner.  
By the time we arrived back at the hostel we were exhausted! Out for an early pizza dinner in front of the opera house, then off to bed… for a nap. We only got to sleep for another 3 hours before we were up at 1am to head to the airport! Another long night with no sleep ahead of us… Great!

The Pantanal – Tropical Wetlands of Brazil

So Adam’s upbeat attitude paid off and we made it to the Pantanal as planned. We arrived 3 hours late and a man was there to greet us as planned: he only had to stand there for a few hours!
  Our tour group had apparently already left for the jungle, but the guy who greeted us said “no problem” he would just drive us the 5 hours into the middle of nowhere himself, then drive back to Campo Grande alone (yes, he is that nice). He said it would be no problem, because if we left right away he would be back in time to have a nap, and then head out to the clubs with one of his 7 girlfriends. Excuse me?


So pretty much immediately after getting off 18 hours of busses, we hop into his beat-up Fiat van and drive through the wetlands towards nowhere. We make excellent time because there is no traffic on the road, stop for lunch and make it to our checkpoint a good hour before schedule. From there we were herded into the back of a pickup truck (exactly like the death cab in Kao Sok for those of you in Thailand with us) and continue for another hour, off-roading through the jungle, towards camp.

The camp is very well put together, and much more luxurious than I would have imagined. There are tons of hammock circles covered by thatched grass roofs, a little swimming pool, beach volley ball court, a small bar, a big dining area, bungalows with dorm style beds and even a soccer field (which is totally unusable because it is filled with cows and bulls). There are a tonne of noisy parrots and unique looking birds (we even saw a great horned owl a few minutes ago). Weird looking little pigs keep roaming around our hammocks and the bugs, of course, are endless.

On our first night, after a wonderful buffet dinner, we went on a “night safari”.   We all jumped into the back of a large truck, our guide Paulo held a huge spotlight, and we drove through the jungle in search of animals!  Before we even left the camp a giant bug hit one of the girls in the chest and fell onto her lap. She started screaming and jumping around, so everyone’s flashlights quickly moved to see what was happening. There on the ground was the absolute LARGEST beetle I have ever seen in my LIFE.  The thing was a little larger than the palm of my hand, with giant pincers and thick, pointed legs! It scuttled around on the ground, freaking even the boys out, until the guide picked it up and tossed it off the side. I’m pretty sure that made everyone a little itchy and squeamish for the next hour of our excursion. Adam and I faired the best, but even the Israeli boys were a little jumpy as every few seconds another beetle hit one of us in the face or leg.
  The jungle was full of life we couldn’t see at night. Frogs, bugs, birds and what sounded like a loud dying cat filled the air with a deafening noise that almost drowned out the sound of the truck we were in! We managed to see quite a bit of wildlife in the short hour we were out. Apart from the bugs, obviously, we saw a whole load of caimans in the ponds. Their glowing eyes were actually really freaky, a good dozen of them staring back at us into the light. Next we came across a family of capybaras, the largest rodents on earth.  They are just like gophers, but are larger than most big dogs. Very weird. Then we saw a Toco toucan in one of the trees, which was really exciting. We saw a bunch of them in the bird sanctuary in Foz Do Iguassu but it was really fun to see one in the wild. We also ran across a deer (yes they are even in the Amazon!) and a fox!


The next morning we had breakfast bright and early at 7am. We then went horseback riding all morning! The horses were younger and had a lot more energy than the ones in Uruguay, so we had plenty of chances to gallop along the open meadows, and canter into lakes deep enough to get our feet soaked. The horses seemed particularly thrilled to run into the lakes and splash around for a while. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but the ride was amazing and we were out for a couple hours, messing around through the jungle.

After a short siesta and a wonderful lunch, we set out, in the back of the pickup once again, and towards the Parana River for a boat ride through the wetlands. We didn’t see as much unique wildlife as I had expected. Families of capybaras were fun to photograph, and the occasional caiman, but we did see ENDLESS species of birds. So many I can’t remember even a quarter of their names.  However, even though we didn’t spot the elusive jaguar, or catch an anteater, the scenery was beautiful, and the sunset on the way home was spectacular!

The next morning we were up bright and early for a 3-hour jungle trek. Honesty, I should have stayed in bed. I got very little sleep because Adam and I stayed up late drinking beers with the most interesting man in the world, and so, I was already not looking forward to a three-hour excursion. I also was NOT prepared for the number of mosquitoes that would be out at that time of day!  In the end, we didn’t see any wildlife because three of the guys we were with were so noisy. So instead of a wilderness trek, we hiked it through the dense jungle (at parts literally fighting through with a machete) and I was DESTROYED by mosquito bites. For all of you present for the bug bites Caitlin and I had in Thailand… This was worse. Fortunately, we made it home, and I cheered up a bit after a nice shower and a hearty lunch!

For our afternoon activity, we went piranha fishing! This was by far my favourite part of the Pantanal. We trucked out to one of the near by rivers with some bamboo rods and set up camp with a bucket full of raw steak! 
The piranhas at this time of year (end of the dry season) are starving, so it’s very easy to get a nibble. It is more difficult to pull one out, since they are very smart, and very quick! We were told to stand right up close to the river’s edge, which was slightly unnerving for a couple of reasons. Firstly, one of the guides apparently went into the river a couple years earlier and had a cut on her leg. The piranhas instantly started attacking her leg and she was lucky to get out before losing it. We were apparently fine, because they only attack open wounds, but I didn’t particularly want to push my luck.  Secondly, there were several caimans just a few feet in front of us that smelled the meat and wanted some food. Apparently, the caimans wont attack us, but this was told to us by our guide Paulo, who was making the caimans snap away at dead piranhas he held above their heads… and Paulo was missing a finger. So I’m not sure if he is the most trustworthy source.

Nonetheless, I stepped up to the water, Marcello baited my hook, threw it in and said “when u feel a nibble, pull straight up very quickly”. Before he even finished his sentence I said, “like this?” and jerked the rod straight into the air. The hook, with the meat still attached flew about 12 feet into the air, and a piranha, NOT attached to the hook flew right along side it. I’m pretty sure I must have shrieked a little as both of them flew towards me at a considerable speed. I let the hook swing past me, and the piranha landed at my feet. Everyone looked a little stunned. My memories of fishing in the past have been a lot of waiting around, and not a lot of nibbles, but this was VERY different. Turns out the piranha I caught was a baby, so Marcello kicked it back in (with flip flops on) and we tried again. All of us caught several fish in the short time we were there. I only caught the baby ones (and a tree at one point), and Marcello joked I was the worst fisherman he’d ever seen! Adam turned out to be the hero of the day and snagged two big ones to take home and grill up!

Ultimately, fishing was my favourite part of the Pantanal. If you ever get the opportunity to fish for piranhas DEFINITELY do it. It’s a little difficult to try to fish, while watching for flying hooks, trying to avoid the wasps that want the meat, and keeping an eye out for the caimans that will sneak up within a meter before grunting and giving away their position (and scaring the hell out of the fisherman) but it’s totally worthwhile. As Antoine, one of the French guys, put it “there are too many dangerous things all around!”  
At the end of the afternoon, Marcello and Paulo cleaned the fish, and we headed back to the pousada. For dinner that night, on top of the buffet, we were presented with a huge platter of BBQ piranhas! We each took one and they were pretty delicious! It’s a tasty white meat, but very bony. Kind of reminded me of crab, because it was difficult to get into, but worth the fight! Most of the meat was in the head, which freaked out Antoine and Francois when we ate the eyes and brains.  When in Rome, right?

Our final morning we went trekking through the forest again. I was unenthused to be eaten alive by mosquitoes again, but our guides ensured us we’d see more animals because the noisy Israeli boys had left.  So we dragged ourselves into the truck and drove out to a new trekking area. I came prepared with my bottle of mosquito repellant in hand, the longest pants I own, a long sleeved shirt, AND Adam’s long sleeved shirt on top of that (because he is impermeable to mosquitoes. Jerk.). It was so unbearably hot in the sunshine I could hardly handle it, but I then remembered how itchy I was and powered through. We did see more animals this time, including monkeys, coatis and hyacinth macaws (which are endangered, and only 4000 exist in the Pantanal) among many others. Day 2’s trek was much more worth it.

That afternoon, we packed up our things and headed back to Campo Grande. We waited a few hours at the hostel and caught the 23:25 bus to Curitiba. I took a Gravol about a half hour before the scheduled bus time, because the meds take so much longer to hit me than Adam; however, when our bus left 45 min late I was a total zombie. I could hardly stand; I dragged my feet towards the bus and climbed the steps. The whole bus wreaked of urine, but I didn’t care, I snuck in beside a random man, managed to put together my elaborate sleeping arrangement (the only way I can sleep on the bus) of a sleeping mask, sweater, coat, blow up neck pillow, sarong as a blanket, footrest down, purse tied around left leg, and water by my side. Finally, I don’t have to move for hours!  
We got no more than 10 minutes into the trip before the bus stopped for gas. Everyone had to get off the bus and wait at a checkpoint. I unhappily dragged my ass off the bus and found a bench to sit on to wait. My vision was almost blurry at this point I was so exhausted. I folded in half sitting on the bench, let my head hang between my legs and was half in and out of sleep while Adam watched for the bus. The blood rushing to my brain from being upside-down didn’t help with dizziness, so thankfully the bus came back only 15 minutes later. After setting up camp again, I passed out so fast. I woke up 8 hours later at a breakfast checkpoint and was the only person on the bus. My eyes were stinging from dehydration, and I guarantee I looked like a train wreck. So I washed up in the bathrooms and felt a little more human. It was 8:40am local time (the time zones in this area of Brazil are very confusing) and according to our tickets we got off at 9:00am. This was a pleasant surprise, because we thought it would be longer. Then a man came on the bus and announced in Portuguese that we were making excellent time, and we would arrive in Curitiba at 6:00 PM tonight. Excuse me?  Looks like our ticket was wrong: only 10 hours to go.