He slowly unrolled the snakeskin and kept going as he walked past me still unrolling the scaly leather. It was massive to my five-year-old eyes.
“This was the skin of an anaconda that ate my dog,” he said.
“The anaconda went back to the water and tried to eat a large caiman for the second course of its meal. The caiman fought back and ended up killing it,” he concluded.
Since that day 40 years ago I have dreamed of seeing the Amazon where that massive dog-and-caiman-eating snake came from.
Now, I’m finally here sitting in a small aluminum boat on a moonlit night in an Amazon tributary. I’m holding a caiman on my lap.
Catching a Caiman
Just a moment ago Cacá, our guide, had pulled the reptile out of the water. He had spotted its eyes reflected against the beam of his flashlight and he directed the boat towards it. In the next moment, he was belly down on the front of the boat reaching into the black waters of the Amazon to grab this caiman. Then he stood on the edge of the boat holding the caiman high like Mufasa in the Lion King.
Cacá opened the caiman’s mouth and pointed out one of the differences of a caiman from its alligator relatives. Pushing up the thin skin under the caimans lower jaw he highlighted the fact that there was no tongue. Alligators have tongues. Crocodiles and caimans do not.
Most species of caiman are relatively small compared to crocodiles and alligators and have an average adult weight of 6 to 40 kg (13 to 88 lb). But the Black Caiman which lives in the Amazon basin can grow more than 5 m (16 ft) in length and weigh up to 1,100 kg (2,400 lb).
Our caiman was all of 16 inches but that made it easy for us to get a close look at the details of this beautiful creature.
Caiman to Git Ya
Cacá placed the caiman upside down on the aluminum seat of the boat and began to rub its belly. He said they can sometimes put the caiman in a trance this way.
This caiman was not going to sleep, but Cacá was able to hold out the feet to let us examine the webbing and view the features of the caiman. Then he passed the caiman around for those of us who wanted to hold it. While Trin was holding the caiman, it tried to wiggle out of his grasp. That caiman had some strength.
We put the caiman back into the water, and for a few moments, it just floated there motionless. Then with a powerful stroke of its mighty tail, it swam gracefully and disappeared into the darkness. I think it was channeling Jason Bourne.
Normal Life in the Jungle
Cacá (note the accent, emphasis on the second syllable) grew up on the waters of the Amazon and lives here now with his wife and young son. He has visited as far as Manaus but said that he prefers the Jungle.
“It is too dangerous in Manaus, too many drugs and fighting with guns,” he told me one afternoon as he bathed his eight-month-old son in a small tub under an outdoor shower on the deck. The cities here in Brazil do have their dangers and many locals have warned us about safety when traveling through Brazil.
“This is a good place to raise children,” he said, referring to the jungle, “it is peaceful here and much safer.”
I thought about the story he just told us of his friend who lost his finger to a piranha in the river, but I knew what he meant.
Our home this week is a little shack on his family property. His mom cooked our meals sometimes with the help of his sister.
Journey into the Jungle
A few days before Cacá’s father, Cecillano, picked us up from our Airbnb in Manaus to accompany us on our trip into the jungle.
“Taxi, boat, van, boat,” Cecillano said summarizing how we would get to his home. It made me think of our treacherous journey to the Corn Islands. That one went bus, boat, ferry, boat.
The taxi took us to the Ceasa docks on the Amazon river where we met two other couples. The six of us would be the only guests at the lodge.
To my utter delight, they spoke English and were from the USA. I have really enjoyed meeting people from all over the world on this trip but we run across so few from the USA. I’m always surprised by how different and easy it is to speak to someone from home. There is a familiarity that only comes from those of a similar culture, a little piece of a comfort zone. The last time we got to spend any time with other Americans was five countries ago, way back in Ecuador on the Quilotoa Loop (where we took a wrong turn and I thought we would die)
Meeting of the Waters
At the docks, Cecillano arranged a speedboat for all of us to get across the Amazon river. Yes, a speedboat is needed to cross the river. It is that massive.
During the dry season, the widest part of the Amazon river is 11km/6.8mi wide. During the wet season when rivers expand over three times the Amazon can stretch up to 40km/24.8mi at its widest point. The Amazon really is the greatest river in the world.
The Amazon river is composed of many tributaries that join together on their path to the ocean. It is here next to Manaus that two rivers meet creating the Amazon river. Some say the Amazon River starts here. Most refer to the Rio Solimoes as part of the Amazon giving it an origin in Peru.
The waters of the Rio Negro beneath the water taxi were dark brown like tea. From a distance, it even looks black. The water obtains its color and acidity from decomposing leaves and vegetation. In a way, it really is tea.
Halfway across the river, a line stretches down the center of the river. On the other side of the line, the water is a light muddy brown. This is where two rivers the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes meet. The waters do not mix, nor do some of the fish species. The light brown water of the Rio Solimoes is about 10 degrees (F) cooler and flows about 2 miles an hour faster than the more acidic Rio Negro.
All About Who We’re With
We transferred to a van and drove for an hour taking in the changing landscape with massive lily pads and getting know each other little bit. I was not disappointed, both couples turned out to be super cool and we seemed to click right away.
Alia and Jeremy currently work and live in Washington DC (they have a dog named Mr. Fox). Lindsey and Patrick used to live in DC and the two couples were old friends. Now Lindsey resides in Brazil where she works for the US State Department. Patrick travels the world in his job for Unsettled. By the way, if you want to work remotely from Bali for a month you should check out Unsettled, it’s pretty cool. (yes that’s an affiliate link – but commissions for 43BlueDoors help young girls rescued from human trafficking)
We turned onto a reddish-brown dusty road and in a few minutes, we came upon the Mamori river. We climbed into a little metal boat and spent the next hour and a half weaving through trees and tributaries to the Juma reserve.
Arrival at the Lodge in the Juma Reserve
With the city far behind us, we were surrounded by endless waterways and jungle. It would be so easy to get lost here. Cecillano expertly steered the boat from one waterway to the next, some not even visible until we were upon them. I can’t imagine what giving directions out here would sound like. Complicate that with the fact that the high and low seasons would be very different with some paths disappearing altogether.
We left Mamori river and veered into a wide expanse of water. Cecillano announced that we were now in Juma Lake. We approached the shore where one lone houseboat sat still partway into construction. Cecillano navigated the boat into the trees of the shoreline where a round pavilion appeared under the canopy of trees.
Jungle Alarm System
Two dogs ran to the water line barking to announce our arrival. They are the alarm system. Cacá later told me that sometimes there are problems with boats getting stolen. Since they are the sole means of getting around here they are extremely important and valuable to have. The dogs keep them safe by announcing the approach of anyone from the water. The jungle around us is so dense that the water is the only way that anyone can approach.
Cecillano showed us our lodging. Each couple had their own chalet. We walked into ours to put our bags down and were happy to see the presence of mosquito netting in good condition. I could see through the slats of wood to the ground below and through the walls to the jungle just behind our lodging. On three sides of the hut, large openings were covered with screens sporting large rips. They would allow us to enjoy any breeze that might come through the little jungle camp.
There was no way in or out except for a boat with a motor and even if we had that we wouldn’t know the way out. We all acknowledged to each other over lunch that out here we were at their mercy. The remoteness added to the mystic of it all for me and I think it did for everyone else as well.
We knew this would be an authentic amazon living experience and everyone was up for the challenge.
The Fish Were Biting
We took a boat ride to what looked like a small island in the middle of the lake. As we got closer it became apparent that there was no land in it. It was a conglomeration of tall trees and we sailed right into it, like a spacecraft going into a mother ship. One moment we were under the sun, the next we were under a canopy of trees with sunlight peeking through tiny gaps in the vegetation.
Our little boat weaved through trees still submerged in the semi-high waters. In this region, trees have bark that doesn’t rot in the water helping them survive while their roots and trunk are submerged for nearly half the year.
“Piranhas like it under the trees,” Cacá said as he steered the boat towards a branch where we could tie the boat, “we will fish here.”
He handed out fishing equipment: long slender sticks (our fishing poles) with fishing line and a hook attached and showed us how to do it. He began by using the tip of the pole to rapidly slap the surface of the water, swishing it the way you would when beating an egg. This attracts the attention of the piranhas. Normally when fishing, one would try to be quiet so as not to scare the fish away. But we were in the Amazon, fishing for piranhas. To us, nothing about this was normal.
Cacá dropped his line, with the hook that was baited with a bit of raw chicken skin. We didn’t have to wait long before he jerked the line back and pulled out a flopping red-bellied piranha.
Soon everyone caught at least one or more piranhas. We pulled them out, grabbed the fish and unhooked them. Some were too small so we threw them back in the water. Others were big enough to be passed back to Cacá in the back of the boat. They would end up on our dinner plates later.
The piranhas were sneaky too. Almost half the time, the fish were able to eat the bait without getting hooked, so we had to bait our hooks multiple times per catch.
“Think of it as chumming,” Jeremy said.
Jeremy held up his nth piranha (I think he’s the one who caught the most fish) for a picture then began the task of extracting the hook from the jagged-razored-toothed mouth of the fish.
“Ouch, he bit me!” he exclaimed.
I turned around to see blood dripping from his hand and onto his pants. He rinsed his hand in the water, very quickly as he didn’t want to give the other piranhas a chance to find his hand at the surface. Piranhas can smell one drop of blood in 200 liters of water.
Alia rinsed it further with clean bottled water, administered a topical antibiotic and then applied band-aids while he applied pressure to get it to stop bleeding.
TIP: If you do a jungle trip be sure to take a small first aid kit. Not all Amazon tours seem to have any such safety precautions including ours.
We had all stopped fishing to see the damage done by the little piranha that tried to eat Jeremy. Later when we were eating the fish we tried to figure out who got part of Jeremy’s finger.
“You have to admit, that’s pretty cool,” Lindsay said leaning over looking at Jeremy’s bleeding hand. Yes, it was pretty cool. He will have a great story to tell when he gets back home.
Swimming in the Black Waters of the Amazon
The jungle cools down at night enough to make sleeping comfortable but during the day it is muggy and the heat can at times be so oppressive that it makes you want to jump into the water. But with all kinds of things that could be lurking under the water, it is not something that one does with abandon.
One afternoon Cacá took us out on the boat to the middle of Juma Lake where we took the opportunity to jump, slide, or cannonball into the water. The tea water was so dark that looking down we could not see our feet below us. It was a bit eerie not knowing what might be swimming below or around us. It is not just the piranha that has big teeth in this river and I’ve never in my life seen such an aggressive fish.
The water was warm and refreshing.
Cacá assured us that the anacondas preferred the shallower water and said it was safe to swim in the middle where the current was stronger. He did tell us later that it was in the middle of the river that his friend lost his finger. It is only the bigger piranhas that like the faster waters.
Next week find out what happened when Cacá suddenly turned around toward us in the jungle, machete in hand, and yelled, “RUN”. Also, see a glimpse into what life might be like in the Amazon jungle.
Let us know below what opportunities you take to challenge your own comfort zone this week.