Despite my long-held desire to visit and experience the vast diversity of the Brazilian land mass (nearly a continent in its own right), the Amazon has always felt out of reach – so wild, sprawling and alien that it felt necessary to relegate any visit to another point in my life altogether.
Even most Brazilians are ignorant to the Amazon and its massive rainforest, given its distance and remote location relative to the more populous and wealthy South and Southeast regions of Brazil. Given the option, those with the means to travel mostly prefer to venture out of the country to Europe (London, Paris) and the US (Orlando, Miami, NY) over a trip sure to include its share of discomforts and difficulties.
With my current year-and-a-half stint in Brazil coming to a close, I resolved to ensure that a trip to the Amazon was one of my final excursions, placing it above similarly vaunted destinations like Fernando de Noronha or the Pantanal as a can’t miss opportunity.
After resolving to visit the Amazon, the choices for the intrepid traveler only get more numerous from there. First, whether to begin in the more interesting city of Belem or the more remote, mouth-of-the-jungle city of Manaus. Once in the jungle itself, the decision becomes how one wants to experience it: whether via river cruise, a chance to see much of the Amazon River itself, but likely less of its encompassing jungle and the wildlife therein, or a stay at a single or series of jungle lodges, which have been erected everywhere from just outside of the major Amazonian cities to deep into the jungle, in both luxurious splendor and more “rustic” versions, at seemingly every price point. Even the duration of one’s stay was an open question, from a short trip offering a “taste” of the jungle and minimizing the Amazon’s less desirable aspects (heat, mosquitos, etc.), to an overstay which risks succumbing to one-to-many mosquito bites, sweaty and sleepless nights, or feelings and deprivation and isolation from civilization.
As a notorious over-researcher and -optimizer, I was fortunate that my girlfriend served as a crucial ultimate decision-maker after our shared researched into the wide range of options available. We ultimately landed on a six day, five night stay across two jungle lodges (spending one night in the jungle, which I imagined would be plenty for us) led by a private guide to lead, teach, and enable our adventure (hopefully without the need to provide protection).
We arrived in Manaus on a Saturday afternoon, with a half-day to spare before our next morning’s venture into the jungle. Consulting my handy guide books on the four-hour plane ride from São Paulo to Manaus, it became clear that my interests in our arrival city were mostly food-related – including:
- The Amazon’s unique fruits, most of which are either too delicate or otherwise impractical to be transported too far from their origins, including the bacuri, sapoti, graviola, cupuaçu, etc. etc. etc., as well as tasting authentic açai, which is mostly eaten in highly sweetened and diluted forms throughout the country
- The wide diversity of fish that call the Amazon River (and its many tributaries) its home, including the pirarucu, tambaqui, tucunaré and the infamous carnivorous piranha
- Other culinary specialties of the region, such as the mouth-numbing tacacá soup
Other than seeking out foodstuffs, the other requisite destination of the Manaus leg of our trip was to the Teatro Amazonas, the ornate European-style opera house built at the height of the Amazon rubber boom almost entirely from materials imported from Europe (thankfully, excluding the beautiful lumber of Brazil, the country’s literal namesake). The beautiful opera house was most famously portrayed in the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo as the inspiration for the eponymous main character’s own opera house even deeper into the Amazon. Despite the end of the rubber boom, and the departure of its European benefactors, the Theatre continues to host an annual month-long opera festival, as well as an assortment of other concerts throughout the year (most notably to me being the White Stripes’ 2005 performance there.)
Luckily, we were able to score tickets for a performance of the Italian Opera Maria Stuarda upon a our return from the jungle, which, with little in the way of fancy clothing and sure to be exhausted from our adventure, was going to be a unique experience.
After a meal of the giant tambaqui ribs (so large that they could be easily mistaken for pig or beef ribs, with a grilled barbeque flavor to boot), it was off to bed for an early morning pickup and the beginning of our Amazon adventure.
Part 2 to come…