As much as I ended up loving Rio de Janeiro, I almost skipped it completely because I didn’t even want to go to Brazil in the first place. It only ended up on my itinerary because of a really good flight deal from São Paulo to Africa. Once I’d put it on the list, I realized I wanted to do something a little different and set my sights on an intense three-day jungle survival course in the middle of the Amazon.
The organizers suggested I come spend at least a day or two at an eco lodge getting used to the climate of the jungle especially after having recently only been in cities and Antarctica, so I booked one full day at an Eco lodge before my training would begin.
Flying in to Manaus
I flew immediately from São Paulo into Manaus, in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest, though in hindsight it would have been a much easier and shorter journey to have ventured in from either Ecuador or Colombia earlier as they were closer. After a couple of hours’ sleep, I packed a small bag and put the rest of my stuff in storage and set off by riverboat for the three hour journey into the jungle.
As we entered the Lower Amazon River, I got to see one of the coolest things I’ve seen on my travels: the meeting of two rivers. As we floated in from the Rio Negro, a dark almost-black river, we collided with the Amazon River or Rio Solimoes, which being the color of a good latte was in marked contrast. For a stretch of almost seven kilometers the rivers meet but don’t meld for a number of reasons. The first is a slow flowing warm river, flowing at 2kmh and bearing a temperature of 28C while the other flows much faster at 6kmh but feels almost frigid to the touch at 22C as you run your hands from one river to the other.
The phenomenon ended up being one of the big natural highlights of my trip I was fascinated with, but eventually my boat driver dragged me from endless exclamations as we continued to make our way to the lodge. In December, the low season, it rains considerably less and the water levels for the river are fairly low; you can see the water marks on trees easily another fifteen feet up.
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Eco Lodges – No Comforts I’m Used To
I had been cautioned to not expect much from Eco lodges in the rainforest: no wifi, no tv, hopefully light. When we finally pulled up in the sticky heat, I was pleasantly surprised by its quaintness but definitely glad of the warning. It was charming but bare bones rustic. I settled into my room quite happily, snug under my mosquito net that protected me from bugs the size of my leg before having to fight my way out again when there was a knock on the door.
A grizzled Brazilian man stood there and asked me if I wanted to come along on a sunset canoe ride around the area, and maybe some piranha fishing. He didn’t have to ask twice. I rolled myself in bug repellent and set off with a group of Portuguese tourists he had, thankful to be included.
We set off in an old wooden canoe outfitted with an electric motor. The Amazon was hot and sticky but the animals were out in abundance. We saw herons and incredibly, a toucan flying from one low outcrop to another. Toucans are incredibly hard to see in the Amazon at this time of year, the guide told us. I felt glad I’d come along, reveling in the beauty that is the Amazon.
Until my feet got wet.
Our Canoe Was Filling With Water
Not the best feeling to have when you’re in a boat. I looked down to see our canoe filled with about an inch of water in the back. I looked back at my guide and he shrugged. The people in the front hadn’t noticed. My guide didn’t seem phased so I continued to enjoy the scenery until he handed me a cup with which to scoop out the rapidly filling canoe. I laughed with a bit of hysteria as we kept on going, me violently scooping water out of the canoe as it continued to fill. The noise from the engine drowning out all my efforts, leaving everyone in the front blissfully unaware of our impending doom as we sunk deeper into crocodile-infested waters.
If I die before my jungle survival course, the instructor is going to be annoyed.
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Time for Piranha Fishing
Eventually we made it to the shore where thankfully there was another metal canoe (with no holes!) we could use and we quickly set up for piranha fishing. I’ve never been a great fisherman because it requires patience and skill, neither of which I have in any sort of abundance. If you’re like me, piranha fishing is your sport. Plus, I feel you get a certain amount of cool points for fishing for the most dangerous fish out there.
Piranha fishing is remarkably simple. The guide cut up pieces of raw meat (we used chicken) to use at bait. You slide it onto your hook and then drop it into the water before using your rod to forcefully strike the water above where you’ve dropped the bait. This makes the piranhas think an animal has just fallen directly into their water. You have to loop the meat once through the hook and then again, hiding the point deep in the meat or they’ll get it off the hook amazingly quickly. They’re smart little fish.
Eventually, I got the hang of it and caught my first piranha. It was bigger than I had expected, and when one of the girls pulled up hers a while later, mine was easily three times to size. I had gotten the big, lazy piranha. Or maybe King piranha, but knowing my skill, I’m betting on the former. Getting piranha off the hook is a great deal harder than I expected because they have razor sharp teeth designed to strip flesh from the bone. You have to grasp behind their jaw and hold very firmly as you work the hook out. I got it out without bloodshed – though one of the guys later ended up rather bloodied for his effort – but immediately dropped my piranha to the canoe floor where it flopped angrily trying to eat our toes. There was a lot of screaming. A lot of it might have been me.
Since I don’t eat fish, I had to chase that one around before finally getting a good hold that allowed me to keep my body parts and tossing it overboard, back to freedom.
After catching a half-dozen of them, we set back toward the lodge before night fell. The guide leaned over to help me from the canoe and smiled warmly at me. When I threw a questioning look his way, he replied, “When I met you, I thought you wouldn’t survive the jungle course, but now I’ve changed my mind.”
That made one of us.