The Amazon guide raised his hand in the steaming forest and looked at me at the end of a line of six hikers.
“Do you want a machete, Jeremy?” said the guide, Shane Zammette. “Jaguars always attack from the rear.”
I spent the next half-hour watching the jungle around me before manoeuvring myself into the middle of the group.
It brought home the reality of the paradise around us. Amid the tangle of tropical plants and colourful birds, there were jaguars, poisonous spiders, termite mounds and caimans lunging into waters infested with piranhas.
Visitors must take care.
I quickly learnt it’s essential to survey a shoreline before leaping to land a canoe because you might step on something dangerous.
I also found myself watching my every movement as I cleared my way along forest paths. By shifting a branch or vine, I could have found myself clutching a spider or a snake. Any unthinking move could prove fatal.
With those lessons in mind, visiting the Amazon is an experience that dispels myths but also brings respect and awe for the largest rainforest on the planet.
Indeed, guides say, much of what draws people to the Amazon is the chance to venture into one of the world’s great unknowns.
“The Amazon was or is a mystery to a lot of people,” said Wolf Wink, a German who moved to Brazil to realise his dream of being a jungle guide.
He now works under the name Lobinho da Silva or Little Wolf of the Forest.
“The people who come here are interested in the culture and the nature,” he said.
“It’s different than all other places in the world.”
Our group stayed at a lodge operated by Amazon Gero Tours, one of a number of companies operating from Manaus, a city of two million people.
Manaus is at the confluence of two rivers, the Rio Negro and the Solimoes (the upper Amazon) River. The Negro’s waters are brown, while those of the Solimoes are whitish, and the point where they flow together is easily discernable.
As we set off on the first leg of our journey to a jungle lodge, our speedboat slowed so we could see our hands move between the two waters’ colours and feel the difference in temperature of the Negro coming overland while the cooler Solimoes flows from the Andes mountain range.
Travellers are warned not to urinate in the water as they cross the river – local myth claims tiny fish can swim up the urine stream and lodge in the body.
Landing on the other side 15 minutes later, we traversed a ramshackle dock and dodged food hawkers under the watchful eyes of dozens of vultures sunning themselves on the beach.
We made our way to vans idling in a town seemingly carved from a South American version of the Old West and drove for 90 minutes to a muddy dock. Here in an afternoon downpour, we deposited our bags into motorised canoes and set off for the lodge through a maze of waterways used as roads by the region’s residents who live, work, go to school and attend church at the jungle’s edge.
Once settled in at the lodge, Gero Mesquita’s Ararinha Jungle Hotel, it’s off piranha fishing, with beef used to bait hooks, under the guidance of Zammette, a Guyanese transplant to Brazil.
“Every time I come out here, I see something new,” Zammette said. “It gets better and better.”
As our days progressed, hikes and canoe trips uncovered caimans (South America’s alligators) lurking on banks, monkeys howling in the trees, snakes waiting to drop on unsuspecting prey and colourful birds erupting from trees along the lagoons and rivers.
Indeed, I almost jumped on a three-metre caiman while landing a canoe to look for sloths.
A day earlier, we almost tipped when we hit something in the water, the canoe rising up and leaning heavily.
The shore was 12 metres away through piranha-filled waters. The four of us each admitted we were terrified, grateful to be alive.
“Some people get scared,” Zammette said. “They’re scared of almost everything. As we continue every day doing our tours, it helps them conquer their fears.”
Zammette said the biggest thrill people have, should they dare, is spending a night sleeping in the jungle. Hammocks are slung between posts among trees and food is cooked over an open fire. Darkness descends fast near the equator.
I didn’t sleep much as the night was filled with the screams of birds, howls of monkeys, chirps of crickets and croaks of frogs.
In the water, the glowing eyes of caimans glinted on the surface.
The jaguars were silent.
Machetes stood at hand should danger have presented itself.
“Animals can come around,” Zammette said.
“You just lie there and listen to the jungle. You don’t know what sound is what.”
Indeed, a visit to the Amazon is a trip into the soul of Mother Nature, magnificent and deadly. It is a spiritual experience, not just something to be checked off a bucket list.
If You Go
MANAUS, BRAZIL: Gateway to Amazon tourism reachable by plane or boat. Do not accept offers for tours from Manaus airport touts; best to research tour companies beforehand.
VISAS: Brazil requires visas from citizens of many foreign countries to be obtained before arrival. Check requirements with a consulate in your country of origin.
HEALTH AND SAFETY: If you’re visiting the Amazon, consult with a physician about health precautions. You may want vaccines for hepatitis, yellow fever and typhoid; you may want to take prophylactic medication to guard against malaria; and you may want to bring anti-diarrhoea medication. Avoid tap water, including in ice cubes and for brushing teeth. Bring insect repellent, sunscreen and rain ponchos. Use mosquito netting when you sleep and hang up your shoes at night to keep creatures out – give them a good smack before you put them on.
AMAZON WILDLIFE: Jaguars are there but rarely seen. Sloths and snakes may be elusive but guides often show them to visitors. Caimans (South American alligators), monkeys and birds are frequently seen.
COMFORTS OF HOME: Don’t expect mobile phone coverage or internet connections if you’re travelling to the Amazon – or hot water or air-conditioning. Electricity might be as high-tech as it gets.