Amazon Region - December 2014

My first destination on that trip was Belém.

Technically, Belém is not beside the Amazon River.

But as Macapá and Manaus are, and as the official 'Amazon Region' in Brazil (named Amazônia Legal) is made up of nine states, of which only one is called 'Amazonas' and which includes Pará, where Belém is located, the definitions are sufficiently vague and wide reaching to claim that the places I went on the trip are all in the Amazon region.

Like a lot of places in that part of Brazil, Belém is living its 'third life'. Many cities there started out as a military 'beachhead' for exploring and exploiting the mainland, so there tends to be some fortress from the 1600s or 1700s around. Usually, in that area, Portugese, but basically by 'whoever got there first'.

Then, in the second half of the 1800s, the rubber trade boomed and the cities started to flaunt their wealth and tried to copy European cities and culture. The most famous example of this is probably the opera house in Manaus, but, for example, Belém has one of these as well.

Belem Opera House

After 1910 (roughly) the rubber boom ended and the cities went into a bit of a decline.

But now, the Brazilian economy is booming again and the old cites become the cores of large, modern cities.

And, like in other cities, which used to have a strong seafaring industry that no longer exists (whether it's ship-building, trade or large fishing fleets), the former industrial harbor areas get converted into modern facilities - often shops, art galleries, cafes and restaurants, with the former run-down areas nearby becoming the trendy and affluent living spaces later.

Belem harbor cranes Belem harbor cranes

Belém is well into this process with the former loading areas turned into a river side promenade and the former storage houses nearby being converted in handicraft stores, event locations and food places.

Food area at Belem harvour

I didn't have much spare time in Belém, so there were only two tourist things I managed to do. The first was a quick visit to a small botanical/zoological park (Parque Zoobotânico) in the city.

White Heron at Parque Zoobotanico Sloth at Parque Zoobotanico

That was surprisingly interesting, as the hastily organized tour also included a bit of a 'behind the scenes' view of stuff that is currently being built or renovated (like the fish and reptile house, which is about to get some audiovisual information system) and parts of the 'animal nursery'.

But the visit need to be cut short to go to the harbor again and do a sunset boat trip.

Sunset cruise

As, this close to the Equator, the sun sets quite early all year round, the boat tours also leave early (5:30 pm), leaving not that much time for sightseeing before that.

Ships and boats in Belem Ship in Belem Ships and boats in Belem Ship in Belem

Many of the ships and boats around Belém are used for tours to and along the Amazon River or for going to Macapá.

The boat trip allowed for about 40 minutes of daylight sightseeing and then it was time for some sunset pictures across the river bay.

Belem sunset Belem sunset

Next day, I took the plane to Macapá.

I had considered renting a car, as Macapá and Belém are 'just' about 330 km apart (which, given the general distances in Brazil, is about 'next door'). But the region is not well served with roads. The 'street route' between the cities is about 6000 km, going through three other countries.

The basic economic reality is: Roads are not built for cars.

They are built for trucks.

The main purpose of roads is not to transport people, it's to transport goods. That private cars and busses can use the roads as well is a welcome bonus at best.

And with all the rivers in the Amazon region, there is a very extensive transport system in place already. So why build roads when you can ship goods?

The region is also suffering from lots of annual flooding, which makes the maintenance of roads costly, but doesn't make much of a difference to ships.

As a result, highways are rather recent additions, and the road network is still kind of limited - the bridge crossing the river in Manaus was only opened three years ago...

In any case, I flew to Macapá.

Macapá doesn't have an European style opera house from the rubber boom area, but it has a more impressive fortress than Belém.

Macapa fortress, outside view Macapa fortress, outside view

According to the sign it's called 'RTA CZA E SAO JUÉ de Macapa', but the proper name is 'Fortaleza de São José de Macapá'.


And showing a picture of the sign is somewhat unfair, as the actual fortress is in a very good state and well maintained - it's just the sign that's in a derelict state.

Macapa fortress entrance Macapa fortress entrance

Within the fortress walls, there is a wide, mostly grassy outer ring, formed like a four-pointed star and an inner square, a couple of meters lower, that contains eight buildings (not counting the gate building at the entrance).

Macapa fortress Macapa fortress Macapa fortress Macapa fortress
Macapa fortress Macapa fortress Macapa fortress Macapa fortress Macapa fortress

Even on a slightly cloudy day in late autumn (the fortress is (barely) in the northern hemisphere, so mid-December is almost winter, although this doesn't mean much at this latitude), doing outside sightseeing around noon is not really a good idea, so I was quite glad that the fortress also had some catacombs that were nicely shaded and not too hot.

Macapa fortress catacombs Macapa fortress catacombs

But even being out of the sun for a while, it seemed like a good idea to go for some ice-cream.

So I headed for the long pier.

Long pier, Macapa Long pier, Macapa

The building at the end of the pier seems to be currently unused, but the building at the shoreside end of the pier has an ice-cream shop - just what I needed.

From the pier you can also watch people kite-surfing the Amazon River.

Wakeboard kite surfer

At least I assume he is kite-surfing.

He might just be standing there and flying a kite. (Though the wake indicates that he is actually standing on a wakeboard.)

But the shore of the Amazon River is very shallow hand if he steps off the wakeboard, he's probably not even knee-deep in water.

Wakeboard kite surfer

The reason for flying to Macapá was neither the fortress nor the long pier (or even the ice-cream), it was to visit this:

Zero Monument, Macapa

What it is and why I wanted to go there is explained here, so I will skip over that here.

The more interesting place nearby for locals is probably this anyway:

This is the local Sambódromo, the viewing stands for the annual Carnival parade. Not a popular (or interesting) place for the rest of the year, though.

How much the place still uses waterways as roads was noticeable at some places, like on this small side arm. Any boat trip here will probably take a while, as it's presumably quite time consuming to find a way around all the ships 'parked' there.

As far as I can tell, these are operational ships and not some sort of 'house boats'.

Ships at the back of houses Ships at the back of houses

I stayed in Macapá only for a day before heading away from the coast and more to the heart of the Amazon region - Manaus.

Almost everything I assumed about Manaus turned out to be inaccurate.

I was aware that it isn't a small, sleepy backwater town somewhere in the rainforest, but a large, booming city of about 2 million people, but that's about all I got right.

The first surprising thing was the amount of lights when the plane was still about a hundred kilometers away. I had assumed that Manaus would be the one big settlement, surrounded by large areas of the uninhabited forest. But there are a lot of small towns and settlements all along the river, so Manaus is not remotely the one dot of civilization in the middle of a vast wilderness.

The weather also took me by surprise. I expected the place to be hot and humid and to be drenched in sweat the moment I stepped out of the plane.

Admittedly, my plane arrived around 11pm, so I wasn't at any risk of being burned by the sun, but the temperature turned out to be around 23°C. And the humidity was about 80%, which is pretty much the same that Berlin has at the moment.

On the way to the hotel it also seemed that there was a lot of partying going on, which also wasn't quite what I expected on a Sunday night. But along the road from the airport to the city seemed were many places with colorful lights and strobes, which clearly weren't Christmas decorations, but raves and concerts going on. So Manaus is a much livelier city than busy the industrial and trade metropolis in the wilderness that I assumed it would be.

I didn't get to see much more of Manaus, since I did arrive at the hotel around midnight and left at 8am next morning, so I didn't get to do any sightseeing, but decided to get some sleep instead.

The next morning I was heading west out of Manaus along highway AM-070.

While, as mentioned above, roads didn't play a significant part in the transport system in that area so far, they are doing so now. So there were lots of works along the road, modernizing, extending and expanding it.

AM-070 out of Manaus

And also lots of building activities on the side of the roads, building factories, houses, restaurants and also a large graveyard.

Yes, obviously a place as large as Manaus needs a graveyard and there's probably limited room within the city itself, but graveyards are not something I usually see as something that needs to be 'built', so it came as a bit of surprise.

All in all, roads and all that goes with them are starting to make an impact on the areas.

But I was heading somewhere where roads don't go, so after about 50km along the highway, it was time to change the mode of transport.

Going bu ship along the Ariau River

We followed the Ariau River by boat for about 10 kilometers.

Trivia note: 'Ariau' is a kind of sweet potato, which used to grow along the river banks, giving the river its name.

Then there was the first glimpse of the 'Ariau Towers Hotel'.

Ariau hotel tower seen from Ariau River

The hotel is a somewhat eccentric oddity, which probably seemed (and was) a good idea at the time, bit now leaves a distinct feeling of "What were they thinking?"

But then, for an eccentric oddity, there probably doesn't need to be an answer to that question that goes further than "Why not?".

The concept, back in the 1980s, when the hotel was built is to have something like mass eco-tourism.

Which probably sounded (and maybe worked) fine in 1985, but is a bit of a contradiction in terms now.

So Ariau Towers is a huge vacation place, built right into the rainforest in the middle of not very much. It has one reception/restaurant building, one 'party bar' building a bit off-site (called "Amphitheatre"), a helipad, a number of towers (currently four seem to be active) with apartments and nine 'Tarzan houses', i.e. separate suites somewhere in the trees.

And there's also one tower 'sort-of-being-built-or-demolished', where they did put up the foundations, but seemingly didn't get permission to build the apartments, so it currently looks as if the basic structure needs to be torn down again.

There's also an older tower that started to rot and that is currently emptied of anything useful and will either been torn down or allowed to collapse.

The main point is: The complex is huge. The elevated walkways of the complex, connecting the individual buildings are about 8 km long. There room for probably about 400-500 guests.

And that's a bit of a problem.

There's not that much to actually do on site - you can eat, walk along the walkways and sit around, but that's about it.

So the attraction is in the excursions, but that means that visitors are likely to stay only for two or three days, before they 'have seen and done everything' and leave again.

Which, technically, means that (assuming optimistically, 450 guests, each staying for three days), every excursion needs to be able to handle 150 people per day. But 'Caiman Spotting' or 'Piranha Fishing' with 150 people at the same time just doesn't work.

Even for someone who knows nothing about the tourist business, the place just seems way too big for its business.

And that doesn't even account for the mentality of 'eco travelers', who usually want to get the feeling of doing something exclusive, individual and unusual. An image that is hard to achieve at a place that houses up to 500 people.

Of course, now there are quite a few 'boutique eco-lodges' in the area, catering to small groups and selling 'individualized experiences', so the 'Ariau Towers Hotel' looks a lot like a dinosaur now.

But then, I like dinosaurs.

I enjoyed being at the 'Ariau Towers' a lot. But probably for reasons they don't appreciate much.

Because, in the end, it was a very personalized experience.

During the three days I was there, they had a total of five guests - me, and a Brazilian family of four.

That was great for me, since, as I don't speak Portuguese, I got my own, English speaking, guide and my own excursions. So it really was a very exclusive and individual experience I got.

But I doubt that a hotel that size can make a profit on five guests.

Admittedly, they were preparing for the main season - the walkway between two of the tours was being completely rebuilt, they put in a new floor in the 'party building', they re-build half of the rooms in one of the towers...

So they didn't (as I assumed when I did see the first of the towers being emptied and left to rot) just use the stuff that is still working as long as possible and cash in as long as they can while it is falling apart - they are maintaining and updating the place. But even if they are fully booked during the Christmas, New Year and summer season - I don't see how this can make a profit.

But then, I don't need to. But someone else is probably worrying about that.

Update: Unfortunately my pessimism turned out to be justified. The 2014/2015 season was the last one in which the hotel operated. They de-facto closed it down in September 2015 and then officially abandoned it in April 2016. And, given the climate and the way the hotel was constructed, that means the end of Ariau Towers. Another hotel might be run into financial troubles, be abandoned for a couple of years and then be renovated and re-opened, but without continuous work and maintenance on the wooden parts, even by now (2017) there's probably little left of the former hotel but a few concrete stilts. Not even an interesting location of 'lost place' explorers.

As a result, I had essentially a private guide and private excursions.

But before I get to those, first some pictures of the place.

As I mentioned, between the excursions there is not much to do. Except walking around and taking pictures.

The buildings are connected with walkways.

This is one that was currently under construction.

Half-built walkway

They usually have railings, so walking along them isn't as scary as that image above makes it look.

This is the walkway over to one of the 'Tarzan Houses'.

Tarzan walkway Tarzan walkway

The primary walkway between the landing point and the main buildings is even paved with concrete.

Concrete walkway Concrete walkway

Although, at some places, the cracked concrete slightly undermines the feeling of safety...

Cracked concrete walkway

There are also some walkways (even though they don't lead to anything interesting anymore) that look a bit like those from science fiction movies (like Star Wars or Forbidden Planet) - lacking any kind of railing or safety device...

Possibly unsafe walkway

But, on the other hand, you're in the middle of the rainforest - if you're overly concerned with safety, you probably would have stayed at home anyway.

Also, a lot of it looks worse than it is.

While the wooden construct below the bigger buildings might seem a bit rickety, the weight bearing part is really concrete. So while the outer pillars seem to have 'mangrove roots' at the bottom, they are concrete pillars dressed up as wooden trunks.

Fake wooden trunks

Even though, a lot of the construction parts are wooden.

For example, one of the 'Tarzan Houses' (essentially the stand-alone 'suites') has a terrace and a small swimming pool on it. It must weigh a couple of tons when filled with water. And the construction below is just made from wood. And not even from long, continuous logs, but from, sets of two trees bolted together.

But it seems like a safe and stable construction.

Tree house swimming pool

Well, at some point in the past, Bill Gates stayed there, so I am slightly tempted to make some sarcastic remark on the comparative likelihood of the whole thing crashing down, compared with Microsoft products.

Here's one of the towers where the lower rooms on one side have been completely removed and rebuilt (which is much easier to do on a wooden building than on a concrete one, I assume). They were just in the process of being completed for the New Year's season.

Partly rebuilt rooms Partly rebuilt rooms

On the other side, some outer walls were still missing.

Partly rebuilt rooms Partly rebuilt rooms

I was staying at tower 4 or 'Torre Bernardo Cabral' - easily recognizable by the huge statue of an Indian in front of it.

Indian statue at hotel Indian statue at hotel Indian statue at hotel Indian statue at hotel

I have no idea what they were thinking when they put it there - it makes the whole thing feel a bit Disney-ish.

A lot of the other decorations were well done, with lots of (now somewhat dated 1980's style) wood carvings and pictures.

Hotel door Hotel door Hotel door Hotel Hall

But the huge statue looked physically and stylistically out of place.

Tower 4 entrance Tower 4 Tower 4 Tower 4

If the tower looks somewhat sloped and oddly shaped, that's not just lens distortion or me not holding the camera horizontal. The floors aren't always parallel to the ground - the floor in my room had a distinct slant to one side, so at times it felt a bit like being on a ship, just without the motion.

So, being inside, it felt like being on one of these:

Ships and boats in Belem

Some more pictures of the complex and the reception/restaurant area.

Ariau Towers Hotel Ariau Towers Hotel Ariau Towers Hotel Ariau Towers Hotel
Ariau Towers Hotel Ariau Towers Hotel Ariau Towers Hotel

Christmas time was approaching rapidly, so there were lots of decorations put up. This feels a bit odd. With monkeys and parrots around, it's a bit difficult to get into the proper holiday spirit.

Christmas decorations

More relevant than being 'Christmas season' or even 'late autumn' season was however that it was low-water season. (To quote the guide: "We have only two seasons here, wet season and wetter season.")

All the elevated walkways aren't just for looks.

In the wet season, the water level rises quite a bit (up to twelve meters) and at high waters, you have to hope that the walkways stay above the water level.

I had wondered why there was a drawbridge over a tiny brook (it isn't as if they'd expect large sailing boats passing through), but when the river is high, they need to raise the bridge just for the small boats to get through.

Walkway drawbridge Walkway drawbridge

This year, some of the walkways got flooded, so they had to install bells at the 'Tarzan houses', so if someone from there wanted to get to the restaurant, they could ring the bell and someone would come and ferry them over.

There's a fair amount of wildlife to be seen, even if you don't ever leave the hotel.

Most notable are the squirrel monkeys.

Squirrel Monkeys Squirrel Monkeys Squirrel Monkeys
Squirrel Monkeys Squirrel Monkeys Squirrel Monkeys

Their behavior is fairly similar to those of squirrels in a city park.

They are generally a bit shy and avoid people, so as long as you're around, they won't try to grab your stuff, steal your food or otherwise annoy you. And they usually get out of your way.

On the other hand, they are curious, so if nobody disturbs them, they will us the existing infrastructure to their advantage - and it's much easier to go places by using the walkways and bridges than to jump from branch to branch.

Monkey on bridge

And why go down to the river if someone has conveniently placed a large container with fresh water somewhere?

Monkey at pool

Generally, visitors are discouraged to feed the monkeys (or any other wildlife), though sometimes the staff will offer some food to the monkeys. If that food happens to be a banana, the monkeys quickly lose their shyness...

Monkeys and a banana Monkeys and a banana Monkeys and a banana

The monkeys are surprisingly unaggressive, though. While they do rush madly for the banana, it's a bit like a racing event - whoever get there first gets the price. There's no fighting or biting amongst the monkeys, at least not as far as I can tell.

In addition to the squirrel monkeys, there are also howler monkeys around, though they tend to keep to the trees and branches and stay away from the buildings.

Howler monkey Howler monkey Howler monkey Howler monkey

There are also white herons stalking in the brook below.

White heron White heron White heron
White heron White heron White heron

And some other birds...

More rainforest birds More rainforest birds

Frogs as well.

Frog climbing wall

There are also termites around (which is probably a bit of a concern if your hotel is largely made from wood...)

Termite nest

And there are leafcutter ants as well.

Leafcutter ants

For some reason ("There's an ant nest up there!" is probably a good one), the ants were cutting off bits of leaves that were lying on the ground and carrying the, up a tree. So it looked a bit 'circle of life', with the tree dropping leaves to the ground and the ants carrying them up again...

There were also parrots around, but they seemed to be in direct competition with the squirrel monkeys.

Parrot Parrot Parrot

While one of the hotel staff offered the monkeys a banana from time to time, the shopkeeper sometime gave nuts to the parrots. Which the monkeys didn't really support.

So when a parrot tried to sit on some bit of roof or log close to the shop, hoping for a nut, the monkeys quickly climbed up to wherever the parrot was sitting and screeched them away.

Squirrel monkey on parrot patrol

Upon which the parrot would fly somewhere else, while the monkeys tried to climb there and drive the parrot away from there as well.

Until the parrot ended up somewhere on the top of a roof, where the monkeys finally ignored it.

Top of the roof monkey

The first boat tour was along the Ariau River and some of its side arms.

Mike, the English speaking guide gave the explanations, while Paul, in the back, was steering the boat.

Ariau River boat tour

The scenery was unexpectedly 'normal'.

When hearing terms like 'tropical rainforest' or 'jungle', I was thinking of thick green, almost impenetrable growth, somewhat looking like this:

Parque Ecológico do Cocó, Fortaleza

The picture was actually taken in a city park in Fortaleza, which isn't even close to the Amazon.

And along the river banks, I had expected huge 'stilt roots', like these:

Mangrove roots

The picture was actually taken north of Barreirinhas, close to the Atlantic coast, also not close to the Amazon.

But while there are some exposed root systems along the river bank, they are mostly spreading in horizontal direction and are not the expected huge vertical stilts and not so different from trees close to rivers in most other places. (It turns out that you almost exclusively get the 'stilts' and 'air roots' in rivers segments close to the oceans where they get tidal effects. When trees are in an environment where water the water level raises by 10 meters or more for months, those roots are fairly useless.)

It's similar with the vegetation density. The issue here seems to be a linguistic one. In modern usage, 'rainforest' and 'jungle' are exclusive - a tropical forest is a jungle when it's impenetrable (for a reasonable amount of effort and equipment) and a rainforest when you can walk through it.

So, almost by definition, the Amazon rainforest is a fairly open environment.

The tricky bit is that 'jungle' used to be synonymous with 'tropical forest', but isn't any more. So while the term 'Amazon jungle' used to be correct, the place just doesn't look like I imagined it would look like. (And also didn't look much like the more 'jungle' places I had already seen in Brazil on previous visits.)

For a while, the boat trip almost looked and felt like a tour along a river in Europe on a nice summer day. Maybe like this place in France:

Kayaking at Gorges de l'Ardeche

Or this place in Belgium:

On Lesse River

Compared to that, boating along some rivers and brooks in the Amazon rainforest looks like this:

rainforest river rainforest river rainforest river rainforest river
rainforest river rainforest river rainforest river

There are some differences, of course.

This may look like a nice green meadow, but it isn't:

Wild rice

It is wild rice, which grows partly submerged, so there's not much of a chance to have a nice stroll here.

There were also a lot of 'straw huts' to be seen.

Dried grass on trees

Turns out that a lot of the grass along the river banks doesn't have roots in the ground, but are essentially floating island of grass. When the water rises, the grass rises with the river. But when the water falls again, some of the grass gets stuck in the tree tops and dries there.

But with all this 'feels familiar' atmosphere, some things were very different.

And also allowed me to experience the effect of 'perception bias' first hand.

I always assumed that, among the crocodiles, caimans were a bit what llamas are for the camels - the smaller, almost cute versions.

Zoos and aquariums tend to have massive Nile crocodiles, huge alligators and then a basis with a couple of small caimans nearby.

So when the guide pointed at a river bank and said 'caiman', I expected to see something about a meter long, probably mostly submerged in the water.

So when I looked at the river, I expected to see something like this:

Small caiman in water

But as much as I looked, I didn't see any caiman.

And both guides continued to point to the river bank and got really irritated why I wasn't able to see it.

So I just took a picture of the water surface and hoped that I might spot the caiman later when looking at the photo.

Large caiman lurking

Only when the caiman started to move and walk into the water, I did notice the massive three-meter animal that had been lying on the shore in full view. (But after that I didn't get a good picture of it, so the bit of caiman in the image above is the only photo I got of the big one. All the other caimans I've seen where more of the size that I had expected them to be.)

Time for some more animal spotting.

Like this vulture.

Amazon vulture

And more white herons.

White heron White heron

Probably a collared forest falcon. Or a black-crested hawk.

Collared forest falcon Collared forest falcon

And another caiman. This one a bit smaller.

Caiman on river bank Caiman on river bank Caiman on river bank Caiman on river bank Caiman on river bank

The following picture contains a venomous snake:

Snake swimming by

It was quickly swimming across the river and vanished among the roots on the other side, so I didn't get any clear view of it and I have no idea what species it was. It's hard to see in the picture - it's the slightly glistening thing in the water on the left side of the picture.

While the caiman sightings so far had been serendipitous, we later went out for a 'night safari', specifically looking for one.

The process of caiman spotting is fairly simple. You take a boat along the river, shine a light towards the shore and look for caiman eyes (they are reflective - a bit like cat eyes).

Then the caiman expert goes out and tries to grab it.

Caiman spotting Caiman carrying

This one is presumably about five years old (but then, they could have equally told me that it's five months or fifty years old - it's not like I have any way to check...)

Presumably young caiman

The caiman was surprisingly calm. It didn't thrash around or tried to wriggle away.

It seems a bit like the reptilian brain just doesn't have any pre-programmed response to being handled, so the caiman gets into 'idle mode' until it gets back into a situation it knows how to handle.

Caiman, staring Caiman, staring Caiman, staring

Even when Mike (the guide) demonstrated that caimans have a third eyelid (a 'nictitating membrane') by pressing (carefully) on one of its eyes so that the protective eyelid came out, the caiman didn't even flinch.

It was also possible to feel the different part of its skin. The upper part of the animal is about as hard and scaly as it looks, so when they were still hunted for leather handbags and shoes (a practice that is strongly discouraged now), it was only a very small stripe of connecting skin between the upper and lower bits that was soft enough to be useable, making caiman leather quite expensive.

The caiman's tongue is fixed to its lower jaw (which is quite easy to see when you open the jaw, even though, in most circumstances, the anatomy of the tongue is probably one the feature to pay least attention to when looking into an open crocodile mouth...), which has the effect that crocodiles can't chew. (As you use the tongue to move the food around in your mouth and towards the teeth when you chew.)

That's the reason why all crocodiles need to kill their prey and then move it to some (relatively) safe place to eat, since the only thing it can do with anything larger than a single bite is to rip off chunks and swallow them.

Caiman tongue - and teeth

Then there was the question "Do you want to hold it?"

I'm no Steve Irwin, but then again, it didn't seem to be aggressive or that large, so why not...

Though I am not sure whether the instructions were really reassuring.

I asked what to do and the instruction was "Hold it firmly around the throat with one hand. Don't throttle it, but hold it firmly. Seriously, hold it really firmly."

When I asked what I should do if it started to move around or behave unexpectedly - whether I should try to throw it into the river, try to hand it back or whatever - the answer still was "Just hold it firmly."

So I had a good "Plan A", but was somewhat lacking a "Plan B".

Fortunately "Plan A" worked.

Caimans don't have the brainpower to figure out that I had no idea what I was doing and I presumably wouldn't be able to hold an even half-trying caiman for even a second, so it just hung there and thought the caiman equivalent of "   ".

In contrast to that (and quite visible in the next picture), my thoughts were more along the line "Someone just dropped a live crocodile in my hands. Kind of cool. But I have am sitting in a boat, on a river somewhere in the Amazon region, in the middle of the night and I'm holding a caiman. Aaargh...".

Caiman - calm, me - not so

Though I tried to look somewhat more at ease for the second picture, trying to pretend that holding caimans is a perfectly normal thing to do.

Caiman and me

After that, it was time to let the caiman loose again.

The procedure for this was interesting. The put a lifesaver vest next to the boat and then lowered the caiman onto it.

Caiman and buoyancy aid

The technique (perfected after lots of caiman handlers got bitten) seems to work due to the inbuilt caiman 'logic'.

So if you just put them into the water, they are likely to bite you, unless you're very quick. (Something probably not worth trying out.) If you put them back on the river shore, they probably just go back into the water, but they might be confused, assume you are in the way and bite you.

If you put them on a life vest, right next to the water, they will rush into the water. Once they are in the river, they are sufficiently far away that they aren't disturbed by you anymore, so they don't attack.

Next day, it was time for a 'jungle trek'.

The simple rule for that was "don't touch anything". Specifically, avoid getting near any brightly colored things, but, generally, don't touch anything else either.

As the 'jungle' was a rainforest and that was a lot less 'jungle-like' than I expected, the 'jungle trek' was mainly a 'walk in the woods', made slightly scary by what could have lurked there (snakes, spiders, scorpions - even some of the frog species can be fairly nasty).

The path was well trodden.

rainforest path

For the walks, they use a piece of rainforest close to the river, which is quite close to the next lived in area. (Essentially, we walked around in the greenish bits on the left of the picture.)

Settlement at Ariau River

There are various paths in that area, so that not every visitor walks the same paths over and over again, but they are fairly well used. This is also noticeable by the tree markings. For example, the tree on the left side is (if I remember that correctly) a myrrh tree, so it gets cut a bit to be able to get some it its resin, to gibe to visitors to smell, and over time the cuts accumulate.

rainforest path

Same for rubber trees and a couple of other plants (there was some 'natural glue' tree as well, but I forgot the name).

But there is a wide range of flora around, so the walk and the lessons (including "how to prepare leafs to be used as hut covers") were well worth it.

Leaf preparation Some berries Some berries Thorny tree

As noted earlier, the ground vegetation isn't that dense - this is a picture in a direction where there were no paths - it shouldn't be too hard just to walk through it in any direction.

rainforest vegetation at ground level

Only looking upwards, the vegetation looks denser.

rainforest vegetation above

Then it was time to go back to the boat and head back to the hotel.

Back to the boat

The activity for the afternoon was 'piranha fishing'.

Its not very hard to find places with lots of piranhas.

Some of the smaller rivers have a low oxygen content, so the fishes there tend to come up to the surface and jump for some air. So if you just look for jumping piranhas and fish there.

Piranha jumping for air Piranha jumping for air

Fishing them, however, is a skill I don't really possess.

They seem to be quite adept to just nibble the bait of the hook.

I probably put up more weight in bait into the river than I pulled out in fishes.

In the end, I ended up with a small white piranha and a small red bellied one.

White piranha Red bellied piranha

In the meantime, Mike managed to catch a black piranha and a larger non-piranha (I think it was a pirapitinga).

Black piranha Pirapitinga Pirapitinga Pirapitinga

Time to head back to the hotel.

On the boat On the boat

Somewhat unsurprisingly, dinner that evening was freshly caught piranha.

Piranha for dinner

Next morning I got up early to walk to the helipad and see the sunrise from there.

As has been noted by others before me - "There is no sunrise so beautiful that it is worth getting up early for." (Though that might exclude places on east coasts, where you don't have nice sunsets over the oceans, so the sunrise needs to serve as a substitute.)

Though, admittedly, it wasn't that much of an effort to get up for the sunrise.

The sun also sets early and there is next to nothing to do, so if you're going to bed at 8pm, getting up at 5:30 am is less of a burden than it is at home.

Amazon rainforest sunrise Amazon rainforest sunrise Amazon rainforest sunrise Amazon rainforest sunrise
Amazon rainforest sunrise Amazon rainforest sunrise Amazon rainforest sunrise

After breakfast, it was time for the main activity of the day "swimming with dolphins" (or, slightly more accurate, "drifting in the water close to dolphins being fed").

You take the boat to a little floating house with a little 'veranda' submerged in the water.

Dolphin feeding place

Then the local dolphin expert/feeder tries to attract the intention of nearby dolphins by offering some fish.

Attracting and feeding dolphins Attracting and feeding dolphins Attracting and feeding dolphins
Attracting and feeding dolphins Attracting and feeding dolphins Attracting and feeding dolphins

As long as they're fed and you keep your hands under the water, the dolphins will pretty much ignore you, so you can get very close to them (or they will get very close to you, if they think you're between them and the fish).

Together with Amazon pink river dolphins Together with Amazon pink river dolphins Together with Amazon pink river dolphins
Together with Amazon pink river dolphins Together with Amazon pink river dolphins Together with Amazon pink river dolphins Together with Amazon pink river dolphins

The only real advice you get given is to keep your hands in the water or, if you take them above of the water, close to the body.

The reason for this is that the dolphins are accustomed see a hand above the water as something that will offer them fish, so only the dolphin expert/feeder is allowed to do that.

It's not quite clear what happens if you just hold out the hand without a fish in it - whether the dolphins get frustrated because there isn't any fish offered, whether they bite the hand, because they mistake it for a fish or whether they bit the hand, fully aware that it isn't a fish, but trying to let you know that there better should be... But in any case, you just keep the hands below the water or close to the body. But then, my first interaction with the dolphins was that one was trying to bit me. I had my arms straight down into the river and even before going for the fish, one of the dolphins lightly grabbed my arm with its 'snout'. It didn't really try to bite me, just gave a small squeeze. I've no idea whether it mistook my arm for an oddly colored fish and noticed its mistake, whether it just tried to say 'hello' or whether it was just being playful...

After the initial feeding, we moved away from the small underwater platform and out into the river.

It's fun to be out there with the dolphins, although it is sometimes is a bit unexpected when one of them comes out of the water right next to you.

Unexpected dolphin

And while they are elegant and agile, they also are quite big when you're right next to them.

At one point, two of them tried to go for the same fish, one of them snapping at the other to go away and the second one splashed sideways into the river, where I happened to be floating. Being hit by a dolphin tipping over is a somewhat unusual experience, but then it's well padded and you get displaced with the water, so it's quite harmless - just unexpected.

Dolphin about to fall on me

The only thing that feels slightly worrying is that this is the same river where you have been watching caimans, seen snakes swimming and fishing for piranhas, so, ignoring the dolphins for a moment, is probably not the safest environment to swim in... (but supposedly quite safe anyway).

Me and Amazon river dolphin

I tried to do some underwater pictures, but given that the dolphins are fast, the autofocus on the camera is a bit slow, I was just pointing the camera in the direction where I assumed there would be dolphins and the river hasn't much visibility anyway, the quality isn't great, but then they're dolphin pictures, so like cats, they come out looking good anyhow.

Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water
Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water
Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water
Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water
Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water Amazon river dolphin under water

I also did a short (50 seconds, 24 MB) video of me petting the dolphins underwater.

Amazon river dolphin under water

Visiting the dolphins also marked my last part of the rainforest trip.

After that, it was back to Manaus and catching a flight home the next day.

But I managed to get to Manaus just in time to catch the last guided tour of the opera house of the day.

Opened in 1896, at the height of the rubber boom, it is pretty much a 'no expenses spared' building. Only to be closed about a decade later, when, after the end of the rubber boom, it became too expensive to maintain.

It wasn't re-opened until about 80 years later.

But it still (or again) looks impressive.

Manaus opera house Manaus opera house Manaus opera house main hall Manaus opera ceiling
Manaus opera house and balcony seats Manaus opera house ball room Manaus opera house ball room

After that there was little to do but to have dinner, go back to the hotel, get some sleep and fly home the next day.

This sign at the hotel elevator caught my eye.

Social Elevator

I'm aware that it's just an odd translation of the Portuguese phrase and would probably be better translated as "Public elevator" (as opposed to "service elevator"), but "Social Elevator" sounds either like the elevator where all the parties are or like a very fast social climber...

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