3/9/2023     by Guest Contributor

Under the Canopy

Swim with pale pink dolphins, hike through ancient forests and flame-grill piranhas during a day in the Brazilian Amazon. Arrive in the jungle from the city of Manaus, accessible by air via daily flights from the major international hubs of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Visit during the dry season, from July to December, for a better chance of taking jungle hikes. But visit in the wet season, from January to June, if you want to experience traversing the mangroves via canoe along the high waters.
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The sun goes down over a lone paddler on the Amazon.

Fishing for Piranha

We awoke on the verge of dawn; early enough for prime fishing hours, late enough to spot black caiman eyes tracking our progress down the river. At this time of day, a dense mist floats atop the Amazon, a cappuccino cusp to the coffee-colored waters. Our feet and our rickety boat are blurred among the thick, white wisp. The sky is as gold and the air as thick as fresh honey, and the thousands of tree species on the bank are cast black against the sunrise. But our attention is focused under the water. Our sights are set on the flurry of piranhas flitting beneath the murky surface. They’re easy fish to catch, enticed by any kind of flesh. The fish are hasty, nipping at the ends of our hooks without hesitation. It isn’t long before we collect a pile of the tiny sabretoothed predators. Most of ours are barely bigger than my palm. While everything we can catch is small, there are plenty of bigger fish to grill. There are about 1,500 species of catfish slinking through the Amazon River. Dubbed the Amazon river monster, piraiba reach up to 10 feet long. They’re imperceptible, until you drop one of the small piranhas back into the water. The thrash is over in seconds, and then enormous, slicked scales snap back below the surface with effortless force.


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Macaws grooming one another in the treetops of the Amazon Rainforest.

Amazon Forest

We leave the lodge behind and head on foot into the forest’s interior. It isn’t dark inside the Amazon, it isn’t muddy. You don’t have to fight your way through thickets or clamber between trees like a Latin Tarzan. We have space to move around in the isolated world of the forest floor, approaching colossal trees and eclectic plants that build up from the earth to the viridescent ceiling. Our guide Juan leads the way; he hacks at many of the trees we pass. Struck with the ease of a lifetime of experience, each machete cut yields useful saps, some yellow, some white, one tinged pastel pink. Juan accompanies every hit with a quick lesson in local medicine — he uses the shapumvilla to control bleeding; the leaves of the cordoncillo to numb wounds and serve as an antiseptic. He shows me saps for infertility, for curing cancer, for stemming addiction. Juan confidently tells me that they have no need for modern medicine here. Next, he passes me a hacked segment of hanging vine, to be sparked and smoked for a fruity taste and pale fume. We walk and puff on the faintly flavored stems, all the time making enough noise to ward off the snakes slinking in the undergrowth. Our hike leads us back out to the water — you’re never too far from the river, or its tributaries, in this part of the rainforest.


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An Amazon river dolphin; keeping an eye out for wildlife in, on and around the river from a perch on the prow.

Wild Dolphin Swim

We head to find a safe space to swim. The Amazon flows at different speeds in different stretches. Just as we arrive, we hear a burst of movement. Flashing its pale pink underbelly, a dolphin leaps out in an arch. It’s rare to see them jump, as normally they only partially emerge, their grey-spotted heads bobbing out of the river. We lower ourselves into the water to join it, braced for a rushing current. Mercifully, the water’s calm. I swim towards where we last spotted the dolphin, avoiding thoughts of vengeful Amazon river monsters or nibbling piranhas. Dolphins swim around me, rising one by one, playful and curious. We stay until the jungle rains arrive, doing their best to beat us back down to the water as we clamber up into the boat.


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