I’ve arrived in Manaus, Brazil — gateway to the Amazon. My guide for the four days and three nights I’ll spend in the Amazon rainforest is Billy. My first thought: “You don’t look like a Billy, but okay.” I love it when people pick out their own Americanized name, it’s always fun to see what they go with. And, his friend who will be wielding a machete and making sure we don’t die in the jungle goes by Spider-Man. Perfect.
The journey begins in a car, leads to a boat, then to a van and finally a canoe takes us deep into the belly of the rainforest. I have the cabin I’m in all to myself. At any other time this would be huge coup, no roommates! But tonight, not so much. I’m tucked under my mosquito net listening to the sounds of the rainforest, alone.
Early the next morning, Billy gathers us for our first jungle walk and he’s got a cleaver in his hand. I’m not sure that’s enough to take down whatever lives in there, but I’m going to trust he knows best. As soon as we walk into the jungle, Billy warns us to “watch out for snakes”…What?? “They like to come out after the rains,” he says. Great.
This just got real real. So now I’m walking with my head on the swivel — Look down for snakes. Look ahead for spider webs. Look side to side for animals. Look up for birds and monkeys. But, I have to say, the danger and excitement does have a seductive allure.
While we’re walking Billy is pointing at everything and telling us stories: “This plant cures this… You eat this herb to cure a poisonous snake bite… Those are capybara tracks.” He’s like an encyclopedia of knowledge about the rainforest, it’s amazing. He grew up living inside the depths of the jungle and he knows every plant, smell, sound and animal print.
Then out of nowhere Billy is crashing across the bushes and rummaging around in a plant. Uhhh, is this something we should be afraid of, what’s over there?? He’s running back over to us with his hands clasped. It looks like he caught something.
It’s a tree frog! I’m stunned! This frog is maybe an inch long, maybe. How in the world did he see this tiny thing in the tree while we’re walking at least 8 feet away from it?? Billy is super human. How he saw that, I’ll never understand.
The tiny little black frog sits on the tip of his finger as he talks about its poison. It can only kill you if the poison is in your blood, so warriors would put it on the end of their arrows. You could touch the frog, even lick it, and you’d be fine he says. Okay…I’ll take your word for it, Billy.
We keep walking down the path, then Billy slows down. He turns around to me and says, “Do you hear that?…Those are monkeys coming this way.” My response: “What? How can you hear that? I don’t hear anything.”
As he points to the sky, we hear branches crack and look up to see a half dozen dark figures hopping across the trees. They’re moving so fast! We can barely see them because they’re so high up in the canopy, but then we hear them. It’s this deep guttural hooting that echoes through the air. “They’re holler monkeys,” Billy tells us. “Wow”, I’m thinking, “this is so wild.” Plus I’m beyond impressed at Billy’s supersonic hearing, it’s like he’s Superman.
We stop at a tree on the path. Billy tells us to gather around but DO NOT touch the tree. Once we’re all around it we can see there are ants crawling all over the tree trunk. These are bullet ants, and they have that name for a reason. Their bite is so painful, it feels like getting shot by a bullet.
Billy’s tribe uses these ants in rites of passage that boys and girls must pass to enter adulthood. The rituals involve bites from dozens of bullet ants. I’m getting the heebie jeebies just thinking about it. And on top of all that you’re not allowed to cry or faint, otherwise you don’t pass and you’re Peter Pan forever. He filmed a show called Amazon Wild on the Discovery Channel as he passed through one of the rituals. Oh, Billy is legit.
We’re pretty deep into the jungle now. Every now and then it takes my mind a couple minutes to catch up with reality — I’m in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest. I’m in a scene out of National Geographic. This is crazy.
Then Billy interrupts my thoughts and asks if we want to see something cool. My mind says, “Yes, I want to see something cool! That’s what I came out here for!” but then a split second later it says “But, do I want to see something cool?…What are we seeing?” Seeing something cool can mean a lot of different things out here. I want an amazing story to tell, but do I want it bad enough to take my chances on what Billy is trying to show us?
Well it didn’t matter, because Billy’s question was a rhetorical one. He’s on the ground rummaging around again. This time he’s poking a stick inside a hole — um, you’re going to make whatever’s in that hole very mad. A couple seconds later out crawls a tarantula! Billy pinches its back, scoops it up and walks it over for us to look at. Fearless. Billy is fearless.
As we walk to our camping spot for the night, Billy has the nerve to stop us, point and say, “There’s a snake up there, I can smell it. Do you smell that kind of moldy smell?”
First of all sir, no, no I can not smell the snake. I didn’t even know snakes smelled like anything. Please stop trying to impress us with your bionic senses, we get it you’re the Amazon whisperer. Second of all, gross, why do snakes smell like mold? Third of all, wtf?? There’s a snake up in this tree, why would you tell us you can smell a snake right next to where I’m about to sleep?!?
We’re outchea now, so there isn’t much I can do. Dammit Billy!
Spending the night in the jungle means going to bed when the sun goes down. By 8:00 p.m., we’re in our hammocks underneath our mosquito nets. My first few nights in the cabin, I would close the doors, put on the mosquito net and pray for no new friends. But out here in the jungle I feel a lot more vulnerable. This is a bit scary…
I’m in my hammock under the mosquito net, with the tiniest bit of moonlight creeping through the trees. I’m finally relaxing from this eventful day, when we hear a fast whooshing sound. Leaves rustle and branches crack. It sounds like someone is being chased. I’m holding my breath. Then Billy with a calm in his voice says, “It’s probably a panther, they hunt at night.” My heart is in my throat, I have no idea how I’m going to sleep tonight. My fight or flight instincts are kicking into overdrive. Why did I agree to this???
On top of all that, the jungle at night is not a quiet, peaceful place to sleep. Nope. There is a symphony of sounds — frogs, crickets, birds. I don’t understand how people listen to rainforest sounds to fall asleep. The real thing kept me up all night. There are too many shadowy things in the night; my mosquito net is always shifting. But somehow I managed to fall asleep.
We’re up with the sun. It’s around 6:00 a.m. and we head back to the cabin for breakfast and to prep for another day of jungle realness. This time though, we’re going to be out on the water. In our canoe we drive through the river spotting animals. There’s caimans, jungle turkeys, hawks, kingfishers, canaries, herons and pink dolphins. Billy even points out a sloth in a tree (bionic vision again)…I see nothing.
None of us can see the sloth so Billy offers to give us a closer view. He pulls the boat over to the shore and we scramble up the banks. Somehow he finds the exact tree we saw from the river. Then Spider-Man comes out of nowhere and starts shimmying up the tree. Ahhh, this is where his nickname comes from.
Spider-Man is up to the treetop. He pries the sloth off the tree trunk then places the sloth back on the trunk below his feet. He starts to climb down the tree, and like magic the sloth slooooowly climbs down as well. A couple minutes later I’m looking a three-toed sloth eye-to-eye. He’s pretty adorable close up.
Then we make a stop to visit a local family that lives in this part of the Amazon. Billy shares with us that this year, the people here got electricity for the first time. And they wasted no time putting it to good use! We walk inside — there are two of the hugest speakers I’ve ever seen in a house, along with a computer, DVD player and TV. Not exactly what I was expecting to see in the middle of the Amazon, but I’m not mad at it.
As we’re trekking through the bush behind the house I ask about these pods that are all over the ground. Billy picks one up and slices it open with the machete. Inside are a bunch more tiny shells, I still don’t know what it is. Billy takes one out and keeps slicing off the shell.
A minute later he hands me a Brazil nut!** Whoa! That’s amazing. And, these things are laying around the ground? Do you know how much they charge for these things in the United States? I felt tempted to scoop up a bunch to take home. And Billy says “Oh, you can get a whole bucket of these for $20 American.” Man, I was trying to come up with an Brazil nut import scheme on the spot.
We hop back in the boat for the activity that I’ve been looking forward to most: piranha fishing! I’ve never gone fishing before, but this version looks easy enough — all you need is a stick with a string and a hook. We place bits of raw chicken on the hook and cast the line into the water. Within seconds I can feel the yank of the piranha nibbling on the meat. Billy says you have to pull it in hard and fast because the piranha eat real fast.
My first few tries I’m too slow, or my piranha are too smart. Before I can get them into the boat I see them let go of the bait and swing off my hook — “I’m not ready to die!”
With a few attempts, I get the hang of it and catch five piranha! Spider-Man is sitting right next to me helping unhook the ones I reel in. He says: “You gotta bite them before they bite you,” and he bites right into the piranha head! Spider-Man is the Amazon OG.
For the final activity of the night we head out after dark to go caiman catching. Caiman are a part of the same family as alligators and live in the Amazon. The full grown caiman on average is about 8 feet (2.5 meters) long and weighs up to 80lbs (36kg). For the first half hour we’re coming up empty handed. Every now and then Billy is out the boat and swimming with the fish (piranha to be exact) and then he crawls back in the boat.
Now we’re all looking around trying to find a crocodile to send Billy hunting for. We see two beady eyes in the darkness…it’s a black caiman. Billy is in the water wrestling with it, it’s like I’m watching Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter! He’s splashing around and then…nothing. He said it was 2 meters long (6.5 feet for you Americans), but it got away.
But on his way back he was able to catch a spare, a baby spotted caiman. He offers it to anyone who wants to hold it, I’m first in line. Holding this beautiful creature, it’s so scaly and reptilian, I love it. Why is everyone else so trepidatious about holding this cutie pie? Now I understand why Clarissa had a pet alligator, they’re pretty cute.
If you want to go, check out Billy, Spider-Man and the crew at Amazon Gero Tours. Visit http://www.amazongerotours.com
**Is a Brazil nut in Brazil just called a nut? Things that make you go hmmm.
I'm Natasha Ho, a trained chef and avid traveler. I've studied culinary traditions from cuisines around the world, and I help food lovers learn how to cook a wide variety of meals that are consistently delicious so they can have more fun, ease and joy in their kitchen.