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A really wild safari on the Amazon's Rio Negro

A short hop from the city of Manaus, the tea-black waters of Brazil’s Rio Negro, a major tributary of Amazon River, offer the perfect taster experience for those seeking an accessible rainforest adventure.

A fisherman casts his net into the Rio Negro, Brazil.

Photograph by AWL Images
Published 1 Aug 2021, 06:09 BST

“Jack!” call my companions. “Jack, are you here?” I turn and see the sign: ‘Dear visitors, for your safety, do not hang your arms or legs outside the boat.’ Jack may not be home, but it seems he might be in the area.

Jack’s full name is Jacaré — Portuguese for ‘alligator’ — and he’s one of the black caimans resident in Brazil’s Anavilhanas National Park. Jack is usually partial to the company of humans — he sleeps below a monitoring post here on the Rio Negro — but he’s not the kind of guy you want to get too close to. At up to six metres long, these are the Amazon’s biggest reptiles, and they divide their time between basking on the baked-mud banks and bathing in the world’s largest blackwater river.

Often, Jack pops his snout above the plant-darkened waters and meanders over to size up new visitors. Today, it’s not to be — and I’m not unhappy about that. I’ve spent the past 48 hours kayaking in anaconda-inhabited waters and hiking through the jungle in snake-proof gaiters, and today is our rest day — boating along the Rio Negro to swim, grill giant tambaqui fish, doze in hammocks and, with any luck, spy pink river dolphins.

“And finally, drifting between islands, frogs croaking like a kazoo chorus, I see two cold eyes flashing red in the torchlight, apparently levitating above the water.”

That we’ve done all this in just three days is all thanks to our hotel, Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge. We’re only 120 miles — a three-hour drive — upriver from the Amazon hub city of Manaus, but we’ve been plunged into a full-on jungle experience. Downriver, near Manaus, the Rio Negro’s black waters swirl into the lighter Solimões River at the famous Meeting of Waters, joining to become the Amazon proper.

But this is the Amazon in all but name; one of the many tributaries that run like veins through the Amazon Basin. Anavilhanas is an archipelago of more than 400 islands dotted about the wide river, all perfectly reflected in the super-still, opaque-glassy water. Lush-leafed trees become bushy pompoms; dead stumps are stretched to infinite spears. Cleaving through the mirror in a kayak feels like entering an Escher drawing.

Heading into the archipelago, we take a small boat downriver, before climbing into kayaks to navigate
a shallow creek. During the dry season, says guide João, much of this would be walkable — not that you’d want to walk, what with the caimans sunning themselves on the beachy banks. I scour the water for eyes amid the tendrils and trunks of a half-submerged forest. Are there caimans here, I ask? “Not now – but there are anacondas,” grins João, brandishing a machete. We glide through the water — he paddles,I watch for suspicious ripples — but there’s nothing, just an ethereal stillness.

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Wildlife here doesn’t give itself up easily — neither the jaguars nor the anacondas that, at different times of the year, nest under the floating bar deck. For now, with João’s assent, we jump in and swim, and it’s as warm as a bath. Here in the Rio Negro, it’s all about the detail: the lobster-clawed beetle at check-in; the speckled toad sitting outside my jungle-swaddled cabin; the supermodel-slim snake dangling from the restaurant terrace, where we gorge on feijoada bean stews and the fleshy white pulp of the cupuaçu fruit. On a moonlit boat trip, João’s torch picks out a slow-blinking sloth, an Amazon tree boa, wrapped around a branch, and a pinktoe tarantula with eight hairy legs and eight tiny paws, each seemingly wearing a dainty pink shoe.

And finally, drifting between islands, frogs croaking like a kazoo chorus, I see two cold eyes flashing red in the torchlight, apparently levitating above the water.

“It’s a caiman,” whispers João, turning the boat. The Rio Negro is silky still. The full moon sparkles silver on the water. And, just like that, the eyes disappear.

Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge has three-day, all-inclusive packages from £456 per person. Humboldt Travel has four nights at Anavilhanas as part of a nine-night Brazil trip, from £3,620, including internal flights and transfers, most meals and activities, but excluding international flights. anavilhanaslodge.com  humboldttravel.co.uk

Published in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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