Exploring the Amazon’s many wonders

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Fyllis Hockman

I am a hiker. But at home in Maryland, no one uses a machete to blaze the trail prior to walking on it as did Souza, our Amazon guide. He created a path for us in the overgrown rainforest step by step. Slicing, swatting, swooping and chopping, no branch, bush, vine or twig was safe.

The hike was one of four daily activities during our eight-day adventure exploring the Amazon rainforest. We traveled more than 200 miles along the River Negro in Brazil, calling the 16-passenger riverboat Tucano our home.

For our daily excursions, we clambered aboard a small power launch that took us hiking, bird-watching and village hopping, as well as on night-time outings that dramatized the allure of the river not experienced in any other way.

Souza demanded quiet during our launch rides, using all of his senses to read the forest. He would listen for the breaking of a branch or a flutter through the trees, sniff for animal odors, scan leaves above and below for motion, or the water for ripples, and then alert us at every junction of what he had discovered. On our own, we would have heard, felt and discerned nothing.

A birder’s paradise

Souza’s most amazing talent was his ability to identify (and communicate with!) the multitudes of birds traversing the river and forest. He could replicate many of their calls precisely, imitating more birds than the most gifted comedian can impersonate celebrities.

Like a modern-day Doolittle, he carried on such a long, intimate “conversation” with a blackish gray antshrike that I think they became engaged by the time he was through. Then Souza, fickle male that he is, romanced a colorful blue-beaked trogon perched on a dead branch high in a tree.

As one of my travel companions observed, “If you don’t like birds, you might as well take the next flight home.”

Our forest walks with Machete Man also were a time for observation, not conversation. On a stop to view teca ants swarming over the bark, Souza wiped his hand across it, proceeding to rub the ants over his forearms. Instant mosquito repellant –- a handy tool in the Amazon.

At one point, I looked down and saw a long brown twig draped across a log. Souza saw a snake. I looked again and still saw a twig, albeit one that now had an eye. I stepped more gingerly.

And then there were the leaf cutter ants! A long assembly line of tiny leaves paraded up a hill, as synchronized as a marching band. A closer look revealed leaf cutter ants to be the burly carriers. Hard to believe something so fragile can carry so large and unwieldy a load as much as half a mile to its colony.

Surprised at how much he learned about himself on the trip, a fellow traveler, Ritesh Beriwal, (a 23-year-old burned-out Wall Street trainee) said, “I didn’t realize how interested I’d be in the little things, like how insects such as the leaf-carrying ants build homes. Before it was just an ant; now it’s an ant with an entire life and work history.”

Each day brought new revelations and insight into our surroundings, whether on land or water. Our visits to several villages, isolated from civilization with little if any modern conveniences, only reinforced that impression.

The Amazon after dark

Although every day was an adventure, nothing compared with our nighttime jaunts. Our post-dinner sojourns pitched Souza and his searchlight against the dark horizon, scanning shoreline and trees, desperately searching for something to entertain his eager customers.

An all-pervasive quiet loomed, magnifying whatever sounds were audible: dolphins snorting, fish jumping, caimans slithering, monkeys howling -– all vying for attention in the pitch blackness.

Eventually, the flashlight, seemingly darting randomly above, below and beyond the trees, alighted (so to speak) on a caiman lizard in the brush, his whole snout protruding for a moment before slinking away. Or perhaps instead the light reflected off a kingfisher’s eyes, temporarily blinding him so that we could drift in almost close enough to touch.

Then for an encore, we watched a spider grab a dragonfly from a crack in a tree directly in front of us -– and diligently devour it.

Whereas during the day, the trills, tweets and twerps of the birds dominate the landscape, at night it’s the croaks, caws and throaty outpourings of the frogs and caimans.

From our first launch at 6 a.m. to our final return sometime after 9 p.m., we pretty much spend our non-exploring time eating. The native foods, beautifully prepared and presented, are a pleasant surprise this far from civilization.

Waiting for the fish to bite

As much as that is a typical day, there were also exceptions. One particular day we got to “sleep in” until 6 a.m., still early enough to watch the sun pull itself over the forest, and late enough to feel the already oppressive heat seep into my lightweight, washable, bug-repellant-treated blouse. We were going fishing.

I sat with my Tom Sawyer fishing pole, thinking the Amazon’s a long way from the Mississippi. I attached the chunks of beef to the end of the line thinking this was strange bait, until I remembered our intended prey.

Watching Souza rattle the water with his pole, I remembered that being quiet was the order of the day on most fishing expeditions. Still, I followed his lead — make the quarry think there’s a wounded fish thrashing about.

Within a minute, I knew I had snagged the big prize: at the end of my line was the famed carnivorous (actually omnivorous) fish — a 6-inch piranha.

Souza held it up to a tree and used its mouth like a scissors to cut a branch in two. Just looking at the piranha’s imposing teeth, we knew it came by its reputation honestly.

Still, the predator gets a bad rap. The truth is, unless they’re starving, or you’re bleeding, humans aren’t really in their food chain.

But they are in ours. The fried piranhas we had that night as appetizers were scrumptious, their tiny bones crunchy and the meat flaky, proving the wise adage that more people eat piranhas than piranhas eat people — at least in Amazonia.

My trip was arranged through the travel company Latin American Escapes. The cost for the eight-day Tucano trip (one of many offered in the Amazon), starts at $3,450, plus airfare to Brazil. For more information on this and other trips, call 1-800-510-5999 or visit www.latinamericanescapes.com.

Fyllis Hockman is a travel writer living in Montgomery Village, Md. She happens to be married to travel writer Victor Block.