By Victor Block
In ways, Railson resembles many 17-year-old boys. He likes to fish, helps with household chores and enjoys hanging out with his friends. But there are differences.
Railson’s usual catch is piranha, the razor-toothed residents of South American rivers that can strip the flesh off a large animal in minutes. The house he helps clean is a wooden hut built on stilts in the jungle. And Railson and his buddies live in one of the most remote regions of the world — the Amazon basin of Brazil, hours by boat from the nearest large town.
I met Railson while I was a passenger on a small riverboat in Amazonia, the massive rainforest that extends into nine countries, sprawling over an area about the size of India. The jungle is so dense that huge tracts of forest floor never see sunlight. A tangle of vines that would prompt Tarzan to howl with delight dangles from the highest branches. The treetops are alive with colorful flowers that bloom from seeds dropped by careless birds.
Only statistics can convey the size of Amazonia. The Amazon ecosystem contains one-tenth of the earth’s vegetation and animal species, and one-fifth of its fresh water. The 4,000 mile long Amazon River has more than 1,000 tributaries, 17 of which are over 1,000 miles long.
With about 15,000 species of wildlife in the rainforest, some visitors anticipate seeing hordes of animals. Don’t make that mistake. There are opportunities to view wildlife you’ve probably observed in zoos, if at all. But it’s not like an African safari.
Many larger mammals hang out in undisturbed forest areas far from riverbanks. Others are elusive critters, or nocturnal creatures that keep different hours than most humans.
My fellow passengers and I did spot giant river otter, three-toed sloth and porcupine. Souza, our knowledgeable guide, taught us to distinguish caiman, small alligator-like reptiles, from the logs they resemble. He used a laser to point out long-nose bats clinging to a tree trunk.
More than 1,800 kinds of winged life make the region a bird-watcher’s paradise.
Scarlet macaw, red-breasted blackbirds and green iIbis added brilliant splashes of color to the green background. We chuckled as we watched hoatzin live up (or perhaps down) to their reputation as builders of rather messy nests.
Hikes through the dense jungle also were productive. Souza pointed out what resembled a tree branch, until two beady eyes identified it as a snake. I marveled at the sight of the largest, most magnificent butterflies I’ve ever seen. And we came upon several of 40 species of iguana found in Amazonia.
The treetops were alive with the chatter of squirrel monkeys and yipping sound of capuchins as they foraged for nuts. Howler monkeys lived up to their name, emitting noises that can carry for up to two miles.
Equally intriguing was life encountered during visits to isolated villages along the river. Most houses are made of crudely hewn wood planks. They rest on rickety stilts that keep them above water during the rainy season, when rivers can rise 40 feet and more. Small gardens provide vegetables, and the surrounding forest offers up fruits, nuts and medicinal plants.
As our launch approached each village, people came to the river’s edge to greet us. Some offered to sell seed and shell necklaces, woven baskets and other handicrafts. We visited the tiny one-room school in each settlement, handing out supplies we had brought from home, which elicited squeals of delight.
Our eight-day voyage began and ended at Manaus, a sprawling city of 1.7 million people carved out of the jungle 1,000 miles from where the Amazon River meets the ocean. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was a shipping point for rubber from Amazonian plantations to Europe and the United States. Wealthy barons built mansions and constructed a stunning marble opera house (Teatro Amazonas) which stands today as a reminder of those heady times.
If you go …
When to go: The January to May rainy season brings heavy but usually brief downpours. The rivers rise dramatically, plants and trees bloom, and animals are attracted to the water’s edge. During dry season, roughly June to December, rivers run shallow, and white sand beaches — excellent for a refreshing swim — appear. Animal watching is good near pools of water where wildlife congregates.
For more information, call Latin American Escapes at 800-510-5999 or visit latinamericanescapes.com.