Railson is like most 17-year-old boys. He likes to fish and enjoys hanging out with friends. But there are differences. His usual catch is piranha, the razor-toothed residents of South American rivers that can strip the flesh off animals in minutes. His house is a tiny hut built on stilts. And Railson lives in one of the most remote regions of the world — the Amazon basin of Brazil.
I met Railson on a visit to Amazonia, the massive rainforest that extends into nine countries, about 60% of it in Brazil. That jungle is so dense that sunlight never reaches the forest floor beneath the tree canopy. A tangle of vines that would prompt Tarzan to howl with delight dangles from the highest branches. The treetops themselves are alive with flowers that bloom from seeds dropped by careless birds.
Only statistics can adequately describe the size and impact of the Amazonian ecosystem. It contains one-tenth of the earth’s vegetation and animal species and one-fifth of its fresh water. The 4,000-mile Amazon River is the second longest in the world, surpassed only by the Nile, and 17 of its tributaries are more than 1,000 miles long.
My voyage aboard the motor yacht Tucano was on the Rio Negro, a tributary that anywhere else would be considered a major river. It stretches nearly 18 miles across at its widest point. An estimated 15,000 species of wildlife make Amazonia their home, but they aren’t always easy to see. Some hide in less-accessible areas of the forest. Others are nocturnal creatures that keep different hours from most people.
Even so, there are opportunities to see wildlife you’ve probably observed only in zoos, if at all. They include giant river otters, three-toed sloths and prickly porcupines. Gray and pink river dolphins cavort in rivers. The latter captivate with their rosy hue and surprise by emitting piglike grunts and horselike snorts.
More than 1,800 species of birds make the Amazon a bird-watcher’s paradise. Red-billed toucans, scarlet macaws and green ibis live up to their names in their multihued coloration. Hoatzins, their heads adorned by a fan-shaped crest, demonstrate their reputation as awkward fliers and builders of rather messy nests.
Four daily excursions in an outboard-driven launch provided closer encounters with jungle denizens. Our guide, Souza, taught us to distinguish caiman, alligatorlike reptiles lying in wait for passing food, from the logs they resemble. He pointed out long-nose bats clinging to trees on the shoreline.
Hikes through stretches of jungle, following Souza as he hacked a pathway with a machete, also were productive. We weren’t lucky enough to spot wild pigs or armadillos, which were on the “may-see” list, but Souza pointed to what resembled a narrow branch until two beady eyes identified it as a snake. And I spotted the largest and most magnificent butterflies I’ve ever seen.
The treetops came alive with the chattering of monkeys. Squirrel monkeys peered down as we looked up at them. We saw and heard golden-handed tamarins and the yipping sounds of capuchins as they foraged in the trees. These aptly named howler monkeys emitted noises that can carry for two miles.
Equally intriguing was a different kind of life, encountered during visits to isolated villages that line the riverbanks. Most houses are made of crudely hewn wood planks. Small gardens provide vegetables; the surrounding forest adds fruits, nuts and medicinal plants, and the river yields piranhas and other fish.
The majority of houses rest on stilts that keep them from being inundated during the rainy season, when the river can climb up to 40 feet. A few are floating structures that rise and fall with the water. As we arrived at each village a few people came to the river’s edge to greet our launch. Some offered seed and shell necklaces, woven baskets and other handicrafts for sale.
Encountering native Amazonians put a human face on the extent — and impact — of deforestation in the region. This is of concern because Amazonian plant life produces one-third of the earth’s oxygen. Timber and mining operations, along with soybean and other farming, have taken a toll on the forest during recent years, especially in Brazil. The recent election of Luiz Lula da Silva to his former office as president is expected to reverse this trend. He favors conservation steps to protect the land, including designating large tracts of forest off-limits for development, logging and agriculture.
Other conservation efforts include teaching people that fruit, nuts, wild game and other natural resources can provide an endless source of income over a longer period than cutting down the trees.
Vast untouched areas of the Amazonian jungle still remain to be experienced. That can mean peering at animals from a river boat, tramping through the jungle thicket and interacting with village dwellers — like Railson.
When You Go
Brazil instituted a COVID-19 vaccination campaign last year, and its federal, state and local governments have a variety of programs to mitigate the impact of the virus. Travelers ages 12 and above must present proof of a vaccination or negative test.
Latin American Escapes specializes in custom trips and small group tours to Central and South America, with a focus on responsible travel practices and knowledgeable local guides. These range from expedition cruises and cuisine and wine tours to family trips and luxury excursions: www.latinamericanescapes.com.
For information about Brazil: www.visitbrasil.com/en.