Into the Amazon by boat

Fishermen

In ways, Railson resembles many 17-year- old boys. He likes to fish, helps with chores and enjoys hanging out with his friends. But there are differences. Railson’s usual catch is piranha, the feared razor-toothed residents of South American rivers that can strip the flesh off a large animal in minutes. The house he helps to clean is a tiny wooden hut built on stilts. And Railson and his buddies live in a tiny village in one of the most remote regions of the world -- the Amazon basin of Brazil, hours by boat from the nearest city or large town.

Piranha catch #4

I met Railson during a visit to 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 beneath the canopy never see sunlight, and are blanketed by bushes and plants that have adapted to life in deep shadow. A tangle of vines that would prompt Tarzan to howl with delight dangles from the highest branches. The treetops themselves are alive with colorful flowers that bloom from seeds dropped by careless birds.

Blue morph butterfly

Only statistics can convey the sheer size of Amazonia, the largest tropical rainforest in the world. 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 is the second only to the Nile, and in places is seven miles across. Of its 1,000-plus tributaries, 17 are over 1,000 miles long.

My cruise was in Brazil, which contains about 60% of the Amazonian rainforest. With some 15,000 species of resident wildlife, some visitors anticipate seeing herds, and hordes, of animals. Don’t make that mistake. Many larger mammals hang out far from river banks in undisturbed forest areas. Others are elusive critters, or nocturnal creatures that keep different hours than most humans.

Even so, there are plenty of opportunities to see wildlife that you’ve probably observed only in zoos, if at all. Giant river otter, three-toed sloth and porcupine may reveal themselves to sharp-eyed intruders into their world. More than 1,800 kinds of winged life make the region a bird-watcher’s paradise.

Capuchin monkey

Souza, our knowledgeable guide, could reel off their names and described their characteristics. Long-tailed Greater Ani took flight as our boat neared. Red-billed Toucan, Red-breasted Blackbird and Green Ibis lived up to their name in their multi-hued coloration. We watched several Hoatzin, their heads adorned by a fan-shaped crest, lived up (or perhaps down) to their reputation as builders of rather messy nests.

Excursions in outboard launches provided closer encounters with jungle residents. Souza taught us to distinguish caiman, alligator-like reptiles, from the logs they resemble. He used a laser to point out a group of long-nose bats clinging to a tree trunk among the shoreline.

Jungle hikes, following Souza as he used a machete to hack a path through the thicket, also were productive. We weren’t lucky enough to spot wild pigs or armadillo, which are on the “may see” list. But Souza pointed out what resembled a three-foot- long branch, until two beady eyes identified it as a snake and it slithered off. I marveled at the sight of the largest, most magnificent butterflies I’ve ever seen, a sampling of more than 1,800 species that make the jungle their home. And we came upon a lone representative of 40 species of iguana found in Amazonia.

The treetops often were alive with the chatter and scampering of monkeys. Squirrel monkeys peered down at us as we looked up at them. We heard the yipping sound of Capuchins as they foraged for nuts in the trees. Howler monkeys lived up to their name, emitting noises that can carry for two miles.

Howler monkey

Equally intriguing was life encountered during visits to little isolated villages along the river bank. Most houses are made of crudely hewn wood planks covered by a metal roof. They rest on rickety stilts that keep them above water during the rainy season, when the rivers can rise as much as 40 or more feet. Small gardens provide vegetables, and the surrounding forest adds fruits, nuts and medicinal plants.

As our launch approached each village, several people came to the river’s edge to greet us. Some shyly offered to sell seed and shell necklaces, woven baskets and other handicrafts. Then 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. It was carved out of the dense jungle 1,000 miles up the Amazon River, and reached its pinnacle during the late 19th and early 20 th centuries when it was a shipping point for rubber from Amazonian plantations to to Europe and the United States. Wealthy barons built mansions, dressed their wives in the latest fashions from France, and constructed a stunning marble opera house (Teatro Amazonas) which stands today as a reminder of those heady times. The splendors of Manaus are a far cry from the dense jungle and tiny villages that lie just upriver. The word “Amazon” still conjures up images of which legends are made. A visit to this immense, largely untamed territory is an introduction to the reality behind that legend.

Sunset from Tucano

When to go. The January to May rainy season brings heavy but usually brief downpours. That is when rivers rise dramatically, and plants and trees fruit and flower, attracting animals to the water’s edge. The high water enables small boats to reach areas inaccessible at other times of year. Launches often can transport people at treetop level for close encounters with monkeys, birds and other wildlife concentrated there.

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, and birds gather to feed upon migratory fish that lay their eggs.

The Tucano

Into the rainforest. The M/Y Tucano accommodates up to 18 passengers in air conditioned staterooms that are compact but quite comfortable. The buffet meals are excellent, featuring local produce, fish and other fare. Crew members are extremely pleasant and helpful, and the guides are eager to share their vast knowledge of Amazonia.

For more information, call Latin American Escapes at 800-510- 5999 or log onto latinamericanescapes. com