A boat trip along the upper Rio Negro: an experience delving into the mysteries of the fauna, flora and small river communities.
Matrinxã, cupuaçu caipirinha, taperebá, igapó forest, sumaúma, muiraquitãs… a handful of indecipherable, musical-sounding words hide a universe that is altogether mysterious. The words may well baffle even the most prodigious of Brazilian Portuguese scholars, despite being deeply-rooted and popular among the people of Amazonia. But not in vain: the vastness of this dense forest and its immeasurable biodiversity harbour ancient secrets, including inexplicable archaeological remains, dozens of still isolated ethnic groups and over 30 indigenous languages. It’s also home to a friendly people who are embracing river tourism, something that is slowly appearing on the international scene and has a promising future. Our proposal is a trip for small groups on a comfortable regional boat. One of the most attractive expeditions starts in the small city of Novo Airão, 180 kilometres from Manaus, the state capital of Amazonas.
The Rio Negro is the natural habitat of pink river dolphins, giant otters, alligators, monkeys and other animals that can be observed as the boat glides lazily through warm, dark waters, defying an apparently inoffensive current. It’s the river that’s in charge of the expedition. A perfectly blue sky has little meaning since it can suddenly be taken over by dark clouds interspersed with menacing lightning bolts. Between gusts of winds and claps of thunder, a storm can appear out of nowhere. But they don’t usually last long and you might be rewarded at the end with a stunning rainbow on the horizon, and the returning clarity that unveils a backdrop of islands. Navigating through these labyrinths requires not only knowledge, skill and experience, but also calls for a deep empathy to weave a symbiosis with everything that is part of the natural phenomena of the Amazon.
Aboard the “voadeiras”
The trip is generally taken aboard “voadeiras” (small, high speed motor boats). One morning will be set aside for piranha fishing – served later for dinner, stewed according to the local recipe. On another day the programme includes a dip in the waterfalls, a walk on a white sandy beach, or a look at the ruins of an abandoned town. Also scheduled is a visit to the riverside communities to discover the habits and routine of the populations that live within a totally different reality, with no internet access or mobile phone signal, and who depend exclusively on the river to get around. You should also be ready to take a long walk into the primary and secondary forest, led by a skilled native guide.
The region abounds in superlatives. The Amazon is the largest drainage basin in the world, with the greatest diversity of freshwater fish and the largest tropical forest on the planet. It’s the site of Pico da Neblina, the highest peak in Brazil, 2996 metres; and it’s also home to the two largest archipelagos in the world, Anavilhanas and Jaú, the latter recognised as UNESCO World Heritage. It takes dedication to discover just a fraction of its assets and commitment to get to know this unique culture. Going back to those mysterious words: matrinxã is a native fish that can grow up to 80 centimetres in length; taparebá and cupuaçu are fruits; igapó is characteristic vegetation; sumaúma is a huge tree that can live for a thousand years; and muiraquitã, legend goes, is an amulet in animal format, such as a fish or a turtle, made by a tribe of warrior women formerly known as Icamiabas, who were skilled archers, but had no husbands. Once a year, they would offer these adornments as a tribute to the Guacari warriors, who would pay them a visit in order to guarantee offspring. It is still believed that these animals – particularly the frog – bring good fortune to the wearers, either in the form of a necklace or interlaced into the hair of the brides.
text and photos Antonella Kahn
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