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Looking for the Real Amazon: Gators, Snakes, and All

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 12, 1997


Call it a stupid guy thing, if you will. But when the two young guides for our "day tour" of the Amazon Jungle challenged me to join them in the swirling, piranha-infested waters of the Amazon River, I dove right in.

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Part of it was silly male pride, no doubt. Here were two young Brazilian men, Joao and Aldo, splashing and slithering in the water like the pink freshwater dolphins we were to glimpse later in the day, taunting me to "be courageous." How could I decline?

But another impulse had something to do with the discrepancy between expectations and reality that we often encounter in places we've heard and dreamed about.

The truth is, the day trip the Monitor photographer and I took out of Manaus had, to that point, offered little of the exoticism and thrilling chill I had imagined.

So jumping into those waters - where in reality the biggest danger I faced was probably the mix of urban pollution and diesel motor fluids engulfing me - afforded some of the excitement I expected from the Amazon.

What I learned that Sunday as we plied the waters and a few earthen jungle trails from morning until after dark is simple. While there's plenty to see in a one-day "jungle tour" out of Manaus, a city of more than 1 million people, much of it is a glimpse of how human presence has altered this once impenetrable environment.

But that's something most tourists are not prepared for. "I was really disappointed in the jungle," said a young Japanese man occupying the seat next to me on a plane from Manaus to Sao Paulo. He had taken the same kind of one-day tour we had. "I was expecting naked natives and colorful parrots in giant trees," he said, "and instead they took me to a restaurant where the waiters wore white shirts and black bow ties" (quite possibly the same one we went to).

To avoid disappointment, it's probably best to leave at home the expectations of loads of squawking birds and giant snakes slinking through vine-tangled trees (we did cross a diminutive but apparently deadly Surucucu snake) and realize that the virgin jungle lies at least a day's boat travel outside Manaus.

The ideal for a latter-day Indiana Jones might be one of the week-long or longer boat trips (there are still relatively few roads) that take adventurers deep into the jungle to view the flora and fauna, and even in some cases to visit Brazilian Indian settlements. But for those without such luxury of time, the day tour offers at least a trial-size taste of the Amazon.

After pulling out of Manaus's bustling port we pass several poor neighborhoods on the river's northern banks - neighborhoods that appear increasingly rudimentary in terms of services the farther we venture from Manaus.

Then the settlements thin out to nothing and we skim alongside riverbanks that look surprisingly like parts of the southern Mississippi - flat, covered with low, tangled vegetation, the earth pottery-red. Only the occasional coconut palm and low ferries with rows of hammocks swinging on open passenger decks suggest this is not the domain of Huckleberry Finn.

We then leave the shore of this astoundingly wide river to reach "the meeting of the waters," where our tour really begins.

"The meeting of the waters" is the spot east of Manaus where the Rio Negro, on which Manaus sits, joins what in Brazil is called the Solimoes River but which the rest of the world calls the Amazon. For Brazilians, this is where the Amazon River officially begins.

The Negro reaches the spot warm, slow, and as black as its name suggests, while the Solimoes flows fast and cool and resembles caf au lait. Because of the differences in water temperature and velocity, the two mighty rivers flow separately but side by side for about five miles - creating a natural and visually stunning demarcation that tour boats love to crisscross. It is here that Aldo, Joao, and I take our dip.