It had been an area that I had bypassed on my travels around South America. I had missed the opportunity in Ecuador, was too far on the coast in Peru, and had never made it south to the Colombian Amazon.
I was saving the best for last and about to head into the Brazilian Amazon. Meeting my boyfriend who I had said goodbye to in Colombia, I was about to have my own “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here,” experience. I was ready for my challenge.
The Amazon is the second longest river in the world, and like an anaconda it snakes its way from the Andes to the sea.
We were at the beginning of our 6 day Amazon adventure – a Bear Grylls survival trip and a private tour. Our adventure beginning at the Meeting of the Waters in Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas.
The Meeting of the Waters is the point where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon River, slicing the water between a tan brown and black. Each river has its own density and speed, and the difference in colour is part of the region’s attraction.
As the boat stops and Matias, our jungle guide tells us more, we put our hands in to feel the difference in the temperature.
The upper section of the Amazon River is known as the Rio Solimoes and is the strongest of the two. The darkness of the Rio Negro is a result of decay and decomposition from the leaves it picks ups from its route from the Andes. As our driver turned back on the engine, we head in the direction of the Amazon, heading to land, where we jump into a van along a dusty road, before boarding another boat to our first Amazon stop.
The Amazon rainforest is the largest in the world. Although half of this famous tropical rainforest is located in Brazil, it also extends to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, as well as the smaller countries of British Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
Being a private tour, there was just two of us plus Matias, our bilingual guide who had already taught us so much about the Amazon and what to expect. This was to be no teddy bear’s picnic in the woods.
This was the Amazon, a wild, dangerous place and there were survival rules to adhere to.
Survival rule number 1 – Know your environment
We were going to be accompanied by Alonso, a local man and guide who had lived in the Amazon all of his life. Our first stop was his house, to pick up supplies for our first night in the jungle.
We had left the noise of the city and were enjoying the solitude of the river. Birds sang to us as we sailed along the calm waters to meet Alonso, his children driving us there.
As soon as we arrived at Alonso’s house, I didn’t want to leave. This was simply paradise. A large wooden house just metres from the river, with a large balcony that folded its way around the living quarters. It was simple yet had everything you needed.
The toilet was a hole in a wooden shack located in the garden. The shower a separate room with a hose, connecting the river water to a barrel which you had to throw over yourself to wash.
I immediately felt at ease. This was eco living at its best. But we weren’t stopping. We had a camp to set up before darkness fell. Armed with our litres of water, overnight bags and plenty of mosquito repellent, we clambered aboard a small wooden boat, and continued our survival adventure into the Amazon.
A silence unfolded upon us we drifted deeper and deeper into the jungle. Past wooden houses, barely visible from the river, home to the people of the Amazon. Until we had ventured past civilisation and into unknown territory.
The vibrant green of the trees reflecting on the calm water, creasing like wrinkles as the paddle made gentle ripples, delicately parting the water.
After the most relaxing hour, the boat gently turned into a creek. We glided slowly up the bank and put our feet on the ground. A feeling of calm greeted us. An open clearing. I exchanged my wooden boat seat for that of a log and sat quietly absorbing the new energies of this magic place.
Survival rule number 2 – Always take a fishing line with you
The chatting of the guides got quieter as they ventured into the forest area, until the only sound audible was the gentle plop of the fishing line as J tried his hand at fishing. Not using a normal fishing line, it was more of a reel that you had to throw out into the water and hope that the fish grabbed onto it the other end.
Luckily we had brought along some supplies, otherwise catching and gutting our own fish would have been our only option for dinner. Judging from his current efforts, dinner would have resulted in only rice.
It was only when our guides came back that I realised we were meant to have followed them.
Survival rule number 3 – Always build your shelter first
Apparently you always build your shelter first, before it rains and before it gets dark. So whilst we had been busy – J fishing, and me watching him fish, Matias and Alonso had been busy choosing a spot for camp.
Having only camped in a tent before I was literally clueless when it came to anything to do with building. But this is where J’s scout training had come in handy and I was beginning to learn how nifty he was in the forest. Choosing a spot with trees the correct distance apart for our hammock (mine a girly pink one, and J’s a manly green), they set to work searching for large palms to place over them as shelter. In less than two hours we had our camp, and headed back into the clearing for a camp-fire dinner.
As the chicken cooked on a large stick resting over the bonfire, we lay back on the tarpaulin watching the stars twinkle above us whilst listening to the sounds of the jungle.
As we ate our first Amazonian meal of chicken and rice, Matias told us ghostly tales of the jungle. A story about the Musician of the Forest – a bird which once heard was meant to bring back luck. With a noise like a human whistling, I hoped we wouldn’t hear its cry on our Amazon adventure.
The sun had set and it was my first night camping in the Amazon. To say that I was a little scared of the dark was an understatement, but luckily I was surrounded by three men who would protect me from anything lurking in the dark.
I soon found that you lose all sense of time in the jungle. Once it gets dark, your body automatically feels tired. Although it was early, I intrepidly followed J into the forest whilst Matias and Alonso kindly cleared up dinner. My head torch streaming light into the dark forest. Balancing myself in my hammock, I hoped I would sleep…
Morning broke and the sun streamed in-between the gaps in the trees. Drops of morning dew fell on the leaves in a calming way. Sounding like rain.
I had survived my first night in the jungle. Admittedly I hadn’t had the greatest sleep being paranoid at each sound of twig breaking but seeing the torch light shining from the guide’s hammocks had comforted me back to sleep.
I parted the mosquito net and placed my feet on the ground, my hammock swaying slightly with the movement. There was no one around and I savoured the peace of just me and the jungle as I took it all in.
I wondered if I should find the others but I wasn’t sure which way out the clearing was. “They will come back for me soon,” I told myself.
I noticed a noise in the trees and put it down to birds. Matias had told us about the jaguars, the spiders and the snakes. Apparently there was one jaguar family for every 50 km. In all Matias’s years as a guide he had only seen three jaguars but that didn’t stop me from knowing that they could still be there, watching my every move.
The noise in the trees became louder. I reminded myself that this wasn’t a camp site in England. I was in the Amazon where dangerous animals lived. I noticed a huge dark mass high up in the tree overlooking our camp. My heart pounded as I strained my eyes. It was too big to be a bird. Could it be a jaguar?
Survival rule number 4 – If you are lost, stay where you are
I suddenly felt vulnerable being alone. I didn’t know what to do so I stood still, hoping that someone would be back soon.
Squinting at the trees above, the giant mass soon left and the sound of leaves rustling in the trees above changed to leaves rustling on the ground, as J appeared asking where I had been.
As I joined the others (this time remembering the way back to my hammock), Matias told me that a family of monkeys had gone through the camp. Thankful that it was only monkeys and not a jaguar, I relaxed knowing that I was fully protected by the guides who obviously knew their environment.
We put on our trainers and trekked into the Amazon about to discover more of this giant rainforest.
The Amazon is home to more than 40000 plant species. In every 100 square metres there are 250 species of plants. As we walked, Matias stopped at each medicinal tree, telling us about its properties.
We passed a tree for malaria, a tree for indigestion, a tree with a milky sap which makes chewing gum, and a tree to treat arthritis and prostate cancer. Apparently 25% of Western pharmaceuticals come from the Amazon. It seemed as though everything you ever needed was here, in nature’s backyard. Including a tree with moss which when squeezed produced drinkable water.
Survival rule number 5 – If you ever get lost find a Sapopemba tree
Trees here can be as old as 300 years with some thought to be 1,000 years old. The most spectacular is the Sapopemba tree – a big root tree which can be used as a ‘drum,’ for communication. But being a jungle telephone isn’t the only use for this amazing tree as it can also be used as a chimney to attract help if you find you are in trouble.
Picking up a large, rounded nut, Matias introduced us to the lava worm. A worm which feeds on coconut and turns into a cocoon. Knocking it against the log of a tree he broke it open. Then started a small fire and slid each ‘worm’ onto a twig to roast them over the fire. Not usually being one to eat insects (I had only ever tried a caterpillar in South Africa), the oily worms were surprisingly delicious.
We headed back to camp, bellies full on coconut-tasting worms, to lay back on the ground and wait for the stars to come out.
In the morning, Matias taught us how to make a fan for the fire. In a group we sat concentrating hard, threading each leaf through to make our masterpiece, with me finishing first. Proud of my creation, I packed my fan with the rest of my belongings as we packed up camp and set off back along the river, trying to catch some fish along the way.
Ready for part two of our adventure.
Back at Alonso’s house we were greeted by a table full of colourful food, accompanied by a glass of cashew juice (which Alonso had in his garden) to wash it down.
We were spending tonight in Alonso’s house. Taking the opportunity to bathe in a wooden room instead of the river, we hand-washed clothes, relaxed in a hammock and played volleyball with the kids.
As night drew in, the boys took the boat out for a spear-fishing trip. I didn’t fancy trying my hand at stabbing fish in the dark so I made the most of having a room for the night until the heavens opened and I awoke thankful that I wasn’t sleeping outside.
We had been gone three nights and for the second part of our trip, we were heading to a different part of the Amazon. This time instead of taking a boat, we were going on foot, trekking into the rainforest to find a spot for our second camp.
Instead of loading our backpacks onto a boat, they were snuggly fitted to our backs as we took the minimum we needed for the next two nights.
Armed with our hammocks, supplies, and tablets to purify the river water, we set off for our four hour trek. This time I had borrowed a sheet to put over me at night. Even though the days were hot and humid, the nights turned cooler and I needed something more than just my clothes for warmth.
Survival rule number 6 – Always camp on high ground in case it rains
This time we only had 2 litres of water each so we needed to find a place next to the river. I was amazed at how the Amazon provides everything you need to set up a camp; palm leaves for a shelter, bark which could start a fire, and there was even a tree which had a cord we used for tying our hammocks to the tree.
I felt happier in this camp. It was more open and there was no wandering into a dark forest to find my hammock at night. This time we were going to eat and sleep in the same spot. Being on a bit of a hill, we set up camp on the higher ground and away from any trees which looked as though they could fall. Being on high ground prevents any flooding if it rains.
By now, I was getting used to the sounds of the Amazon. Although it may have looked as though we were alone, we were never alone. As well as jaguars (which are so hard to spot), the green eyes of an ocelot was also spotted at night. We hadn’t even realised that our previous camp had been right next to a tarantula’s nest. It was only when Matias had shown us a dead one that we had realised. Walking towards us with a tarantula in his hand I had shrieked until I realised that it was dead. He had showed us the venom inside – a small mechanical part that looked just like a piece of black lego.
Survival rule number 7 – Always tell someone where you are going
I shouted that I was off to find “the ladies,” and went on the hunt for a large tree to hide behind. With each step that I took I stomped my feet loudly to warn any snakes that I was incoming.
Being in a more open space proved a bit more challenging to find some privacy. I wandered up the hill, over sodden leaves and fallen trees. I was beginning to miss having a proper bathroom but there was only two days to go. I could do it!
The spot we had chosen, although idyllic during the day, turned into an insect fiesta at night. We had trouble lighting the fire as the storm from the previous night had left much of the wood we had gathered wet.
But it wasn’t the mosquitos we had to protect ourselves from. Rather the black flies which seemed to sting when they landed on you. Usually a fire deters the insects but black flies are weirdly attracted to it. Then there were the black ants. The insects were having a feast.
Survival rule number 8 – Protect yourself from mosquitos
I was taking no precautions and wore a long-sleeved top at night and tucked my socks into my shoes. I was taking malaria tablets although there was barely any risk where we were. The biggest risk was dengue fever or Zika, the new virus that the media had been having a field day about. I constantly sprayed myself with insect repellent, swotting each insect that landed on me.
That evening, it was time for some spear fishing. Hoping to have more luck than the previous night, Matias and J set off to the water’s edge with their make-shift spear – a knife bound tightly to a piece of wood. Not being one for caymans, electric eels, or frogs, I stayed away from the water’s edge at night. I didn’t fancy having to spear a fish with dragon flies flying towards my head torch so I opted out and took refuge under the mosquito net of my hammock.
With no pillow, I used my padded bra as a make-shift cushion, and pulled my sheet over me, ready for another night in the Amazon.
I awoke at 6am to the sounds of the birds, to find that I had been sharing my hammock with a small cockroach, which I quickly brushed out.
Survival rule number 9 – Don’t go into the jungle without water and fire
The guides always woke before me and were down at the river fetching water to boil. Finishing our 2 litres that we had brought with us, we were out of filtered water and relied on our purification tablets for clean water to drink.
I filled up my small bottle and popped it into the pocket of my daypack ready for another day of hiking, crossing creeks and balancing on logs.
This time we took more breaks and absorbed our environment whilst Matias identified each sound we heard. As we rested, a group of wild pigs came running past, their hooves pounding the ground as they went.
We were following the sun and Alonso was doing an amazing job of navigating. Each time that I felt we were lost, I was told that we were only two hours away, then one hour away, as we followed Alonso and his machete through the wild forest trails.
Occasionally a tree would fall, sounding like gunshot in the distance. It is usual for trees to rot and fall. As we had sailed through the Amazon days before, I had noticed areas where trees had been cut down. Deforestation is a huge problem in the Amazon, especially near Belen where trees are being cut down to make way for cattle.
Survival rule number 10 – If you don’t feel comfortable with your guide, get another one
Our final night was bitter sweet. As much as I was enjoying the nature, I was dying for a wash. With caymans in the river, I was hanging on for our last day back at Alonso’s house.
I trusted our guides completely and being a rather feeble female, I felt comforted at night knowing they were there, sleeping just behind me.
To arrive back in Alonso’s back garden the next morning was a feeling of both relief and sadness. I was ready to go back to civilisation, back to a full buffet breakfast at the hotel, a hot shower and a comfy double bed. I had swopped my comfortable travelling life for an Amazonian adventure and I had survived!
But as our final moments in the Amazon came to a close, and we checked back into civilisation, I realised I hadn’t really wanted it to end. I’m a traveller, get me back in there.
Amazon Jungle Tours
I did this experience with Amazon Jungle Tours who were so amazing. You don’t have to be as adventurous as I was to do this trip. They also offer trips from 2 days where you can stay in a lodge and meet others, then spend one r two nights in a hammock outside. Juma lodge has so much wildlife and you can see pink dolphins and fish for piranhas.
I wasn’t solo for this trip as I travelled with my boyfriend at the time but I thoroughly recommend this experience. I felt so safe with Alonso and Matias who taught me so much about Brazil and this magical place called the Amazon.
Where to Stay in Manaus
We used the Tajmahal Continental Hotel as our base in Manaus. At the time (September 2016) it had new management and a special discount of $25 per room per night. It was 5 minutes walk to the beautiful pink Opera House and included an amazing slap-up breakfast.
N.b. The link to the hotel is an affiliate link. This is of no extra charge to you and Girl about the Globe gives 10% of all profits to children's charities. Thanks for helping x