If you think travel is all fun and games.
You’ve only been as far as the corner Stop N Go.


Traveling on the Mighty Amazon, a river that is 4,000+miles (6,516 km) long, spans the South American continent-east to west from Peru to Brazil, has mosquitoes that will drive you insane quicker than a Texas chigger, piranhas, the size of the palm of your hand, that will consume you faster than a New York minute, and watch out for the largest rodent on earth, the Capyvara, who didn’t get the memo that the Jurassic Period has come and gone.

The yellow fever shot was just to remind you that things could get worse than human eating fish, itchy demon mosquitoes, and ugly snubbed nosed rats, the size of the family dog.

The plants and trees in the Amazon are responsible for 74% of all our modern medicines. The indigenous people use the Breu (tar) from this tree as spiritual protection and to keep bad karma away. This is Ruben, our guide, demonstrating how the Breu is used.

If you were asked to imagine what traveling the Amazon would be like, would you describe jungles so thick that machetes were the tool of choice? Maybe, indigenous tribes who use curare tipped blow guns to bring down their prey? How about a region that covers 40 % of South America , without roads. Or, plants that can kill you or cure you?

You’re right. Welcome to the Amazon River.

Getting there ain’t easy:

There are many jumping on points. This adventure began in Sao Paulo, but starting points vary. From Sao Paulo to Manaus (pronounced min-ow-us), a city of 420,000 people at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Solimoes, is a 4 hour flight. That is the same amount of flying time as Dallas to Seattle.

The Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes meet at Manaus to form the Amazon River. The reason the two rivers don’t mix right away is because the two rivers originate in two different places. The Rio Negro flows slower and is warmer than the Rio Solimoes, which flows faster and is cooler and denser than the Rio Negro. For almost four miles, the two rivers don’t mix. Together they are called the Amazon River.

Plan ahead:

Don’t leave home without your Yellow Fever shot. No official will ask you to prove you have gotten the shot, but your body is what needs the protection. Get the inoculation at least ten days prior to your arrival on the Amazon. If you are US, Canadian, or Japanese , you will need a Visa. Brazil offers on-line Visa application. This takes patience and costs about $60 US. Best to begin the Visa process at least 2 months in advance of take-off. Without that Visa, you will be on the next flight back home.  BTW, the Real (Brazilian currency- pronounce it just like you’re saying…it’s the “real” thing) is 4 RL to 1 US dollar. Arrive with Reals in hand. Credit cards work only in the big cities. Put your cell phones, computers, iPads away. There is NO internet connection. As our guide, Ruben, told us…don’t even waste your time trying.

The MV Desafio, a 3 mast schooner. The name means “challenge.”

Our summer is winter in South America. On the Amazon, there is one season, hot and humid. Clothing has to strike a balance between staying cool and keeping the mosquitoes from feasting on your skin. You will sweat a lot. I think these mosquitoes have become addicted to insect spray. My can of Deep Woods seemed to be more Chanel than Deet.

Lots of tour boats:

Tourism is a big industry on the Amazon. There are cruise ships and smaller boats depending on how intimate you want to get with the river. See it from an upper deck or grab it with both hands.

For me, it was dumb luck. I had no idea what I was doing. Google and I did a search and came up with Rainforest Cruises and the M/V Desafio.  The Rainforest Cruises offer approximately 13 Amazon boat options. Throw a dart. Desafio, our 3 mast schooner, translated means challenge, and that is an excellent summation of the Mighty Amazon.

Depending on the thickness of your pocket book, your options range from lower to upper deck cabin; 3  or 4 day journey. Pricing: $4,000 for two, upper deck. All meals and activities included. Air fare and alcoholic/non-alcoholic beverages not included. Cabins are air conditioned.

There is a good balance between activity and down time. Each day includes a morning, afternoon and evening activity. Grab that nap when you can.

Each meal the chef prepares a beautiful buffet for the passengers.

When the Brazilian’s brought black people from African to work on the coffee plantations, they would pack beans and dried meat in a pouch  to make their food. This dish became popular with the Brazilians. It’s called Feijoada and made from beans and sausage.

One of the many delicious desserts offered daily on the Desafio.

Day 1: Fishing for Piranha

Pick-up at Tropical Manaus Hotel at 11:00. The ship can accommodate about a dozen passengers. There is about an 8 person crew. After settling into your cabin, lunch is served around 1:30.  Ruben Silva, our guide and director, was fluent in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. He switched seamlessly from one language to another.

Our first adventure was to fish for piranhas. They go on a feeding frenzy when the water level is low and they are looking for food.

Around 4:00, it was time to fish for Piranha. This is when you begin to understand the term, hands on. We assembled on our long canoe, always wearing our life vests, and headed onto the river’s inlets. Everyone received a cane pole with a hefty hook and steel leader. Our bait was bloody chicken. Piranha fishing is a different kind of fishing. The idea is to cause as much turbulence in the water by pounding the water with your pole, then hope your chicken is bloody enough to attract the fish. They’re fast, so you have to be fast as well. There are red and black Piranha. Within an hour we had a bucket filled with fish which the chef would turn into fish soup for the evening meal. Going to the local Albertson’s wasn’t an option.

Day 2: Feeding the Monkeys

Annie feeding banana chips to a Capuchin monkey. Ruben, our guide, looking on in the background.
The Capuchin monkeys were named because their color resembled the dark cap of the European Capuchin monks.

The Amazon basin hosts many monkeys, such as the Howler, Capuchin, Mono Ardilla, and Owl monkeys. Today, we were on a quest to find the Capuchin and Mono Ardilla monkeys who spend much of their time along the shore of the Amazon. We got into our canoe. Our guide, Ruben, watched the trees. Then, instructed our boatman to pull toward the shore. Ruben began calling: “banana chip, banana chip.”  The limbs of the trees began to vibrate as the monkeys moved from the top of the tree to the lower limbs. He gave us a piece of a banana. The monkey got to the end of the limb and GRABBED the banana out of our hands. They were so fast.

Annie is feeding a Capuchin monkey. As we left the area, we soon found an area of Squirrel monkeys (Mono Ardilla). They wanted some of those banana chips also.

Bruce has put a banana chip on his head enticing a Mono Ardilla (Squirrel Monkey) to take the food off his head.

That evening, we boarded our canoe and went caiman (a member of the alligator family) hunting. In the dark of the night, the canoe glided down the river close to shore. Ruben watched intently. I don’t know how he knew or what he saw, but he would motion Paco to move the canoe to a group of grasses along the shore. Then, he would lie flat on the bow of the canoe as the canoe slowly entered the grassy area. In a flash his hand and arm entered the water. When he turned around, he would have a small caiman in hand. We passed it around to those who wanted to hold it. At the end, we released it back into the waters.

Annie holding a baby caiman from our evening of caiman hunting.

Day 3: Feeding the Pink Dolphins

The Pink River Dolphin is endangered. We took our canoe to a special area on the Amazon River where there is a group of Pink Dolphins.

This video shows how we went about “seeing” the Pink Dolphin. We could only get a video glimpse of the dolphin. The dolphin allowed us to touch it on its neck area.
The dolphin guide would take a fish and hit it against the water, enticing the dolphin to come feed. Once the dolphin comes close (they really aren’t afraid of people), we would put on the mask and submerge to be adjacent to the dolphin. At that point, we were able to “pet” the lower neck of the dolphin. The one thing you didn’t want to do is touch the head because that is where the dolphin’s sonar is located…a very protective area for the dolphin.

At the floating building is a cage which contains a Arapaima, the largest freshwater fish in the world. An interesting fact about the Arapaima is that it has lungs and must come to the surface every ten minutes to breathe. We had this fish for dinner several times and it is delicious.

The Arapaima is the largest fresh water fish in the world. The size ranges between 7 and 15 feet. We ate this fish several times during our time on the Desafio. It is delicious. This is only a plastic replica. We only saw the backs of the fish as they come out of the water to breathe. It has lungs, not gills. So, it must take air every ten minutes.

Day 4: Tatuuyas, an indigenous tribe

Our visit to one of the indigenous tribes, the Tatuuyas, was a learning experience of the past culture and traditions.

First, we hiked through the jungle where Ruben and the Chief’s son, Nioa, would point out different trees and plants and their use.

The indigenous peoples’ cell phone. Really. They use a stick to hit the trunk of the tree to communicate with others in the tribe. It has a hollow sound.

We’ve all heard stories of Curare tipped spears used for warring and killing animals for food. This is a curare vine and the stories are true.

Need a needle for sewing? Just go to the tree and pluck one off. Need to tip your spear? Just pull one off the tree.

Once we finished our walk through the jungle, the tribe welcomed us with a welcome dance.
The Tatuuya tribe performed four dances for us. Before each dance, the Chief, named Pinon, explained what the dance meant. The first dance was a welcome dance. The second was about how the male members of the tribe got their training. The third, was about the adult male and how the marriage process is done. Finally, the fourth dance was a farewell dance. At this time, the members of the tribe would take each visitor into the circle to dance. This was fun and endeared us to the people of the tribe.

Rubber from the many rubber trees that populate this area is no longer used to make tires, etc. But, the indigenous people use the rubber to make masks among other uses. They use fish scales and piranha teeth to decorate the mask. Souvenirs bought by tourists are important incomes for the tribes. This mask now hangs in my office. I love it!

Annie sitting with the leaders of the Tatuuyas tribe.

Once we finished the dancing, we had a photo op.

The Lily Pads

There is an area on the Amazon where the giant lily pads grow. The pads begin as white flowers, turn pink and then morph into a giant lily pad. The pads can support small animals, such as frogs.

The flower begins white, turns pink, then develops into a lily pad.

The lily pads can actually support small animals like frogs.

Along our river journey, we came across the nests of the Yellow Rumped Cacique (a songbird) who builds an unusual nest. Wasps build their nests near the Cacique’s nests in a symbiotic relationship.

The nest of the Yellow Rumped Cacique (Oropendolas) or song bird share a synergistic existence with wasp’s nests.

As we putted down the river in our canoe, along came the school boat…not bus…boat. Children travel to school in a boat because this is the means of travel, not roads. There are no roads along the Amazon.

The Amazon River IS the road from place to place. To go to school, you catch the boat…not the bus.

At the end of our adventure, we went back to Manaus to catch our flight back to Sao Paulo and return to the US. The Amazon River adventure was a trip of a lifetime. Visits to the Amazon can be sculpted to fit anyone’s needs and situations. Take the plunge and visit one of nature’s wonder’s of the world.

About the Author:

In 2010, Annie Coburn created FAB Senior Travel, a blog for mature and adventurous travelers. Her blog features travel articles from contributors as well as her own travels.  Annie has published five travel books targeting the greatest cities on earth: Walk Paris, Walk Beijing, Walk London, Walk NYC, and Ellie’s Grand Adventure. She recently spent seven-months living and traveling in South America.

Annie, Bruce, and the artist that made the mask I bought.

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