The undeniable magic of the Amazon rainforest

Josh Ferry Woodard

Beneath a canopy of bustling tries lies a secret world that's bursting with of all kinds of creatures and life. Come on an Amazonian journey and discover the wildlife so commonly forgotten yet so important for the ecosystem

“Boing-boing, boing-boing, boing-boing.” Hidden within the mangroves, a choir of booming frogs greets the boat as we float towards the dock of the Brazilian jungle lodge.

Later at dinner, while I experiment with various tropical chili sauces, the resident toucan hops across the wooden counter to jab its beak at the water tap, while the lodge’s scarlet macaw slides head-first across the underside of a canoe.

It’s the first of four nights deep within the Amazon rainforest, where intense equatorial sun and 99 per cent humidity combine to create the perfect habitat for one-tenth of the planet’s plant and animal species. The Amazon’s unparalleled celebration of biodiversity offers those who visit the region some of nature’s most magical experiences.

 

A glow-in-the-dark garden

After dinner, aided by a head torch, our guide leads a group of us single file into the jungle. Even at night the dense foliage encases a humbling atmosphere of profound humidity that leaves the skin permanently wet. Trudging through sandy puddles, mindful not to fall into mammal holes or touch any of the weaponised (poisonous or spiky) trees, we follow the forest trail until, abruptly, our guide turns off the light.

The textured, pulsating sound of thousands of unknown insects is accentuated by the darkness, as we stumble at snail-pace, hand-in-hand for an anxious couple of minutes. Suddenly, as if the forest keeper had decided to switch on the lights, our eyes become accustomed to the obscurity revealing an ethereal scene speckled with bioluminescent blue, green and yellow.

The floor is dimly lit by the soft blues of magical leaves that look like little X-ray images and the faint green glow of otherworldly mushroom caps. Fireflies drift through the air, flashing their LED-like neon bulbs attempting to find a mate.

While dragging our jaws back across the forest floor towards the camp, our guide stops to tempt a humungous tarantula out of its nest. In an exhibition of insanity, he plays tug-of-war with the beast, which has a body larger than two human fists and legs thicker than the stubbiest of fingers.

 

Fishing for Peruvian piranhas

We spend the next morning traipsing through the jungle to a sandy swimming creek, where I apply nutrient-rich clay to my face and body and am photobombed by a group of children from a remote Amazonian village.

During the afternoon we cross the invisible border between Brazil and Peru by lancha to catch some of the region’s most infamous fish for dinner. The hour-long cruise takes us past the canopies of trees submerged in seasonal floodplains, kingfishers guarding the river’s edge, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sprinting of a basilisk “Jesus lizard” over the surface of the murky brown water and a sweet-water dolphin briefly surfacing for air.

After reaching the fishing spot, we drop small chunks of chicken into the water on hooks connected to bendy bamboo sticks by string. To the deprivation of our guide’s pride, the only piranha caught in the first hour is by one of the guests. However, after a strategic repositioning, the experienced Amazon hands start reeling in razor sharp-toothed fish with the regularity of the rhythmic cicada song. Pride is restored. 

In this piranha infested second spot, even I manage to pull one in. It’s small, but while eating the pantomime villain later that evening, I discover that the piranha’s incredibly strong bones make it easy to obtain the tasty meat from its spine.

I wash the day’s catch down with a zingy caipirinha (we are back in Brazil after all) and end the night on a wooden swing awestruck by the swirling galaxies and glittering constellations above.

 

A hammock camp deep in the jungle

The next day we set off on a gruelling seven-hour hike. Using a machete to slash fresh obstacles, our guide cuts a path through hanging vines and spiky-trunked trees along a barely visible trail. Followed by a troop of persistent silver mosquitoes, reflecting the punishing rays of the equatorial sun and flying in dense numbers like a school of shrimp through the ultra humid air, we climb rocky hills, trudge through sticky swamps and cross streams on bridges made from logs.

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There are over 390 billion trees divided between 16,000 different species in the Amazon. However, after a couple of hours of tough hiking, dripping with sweat and suffering from dehydration, I am no longer able to take in the rainforest’s splendour. In fact, my eyes are glued to the ground and I can barely stand up.

Luckily, our guide has a plan. He slows down and scans the lush green vegetation until he finds what he’s looking for: a wrinkly oval shaped yellow shell about the size of a coconut. He cuts open the fruit and tells me to eat the bitter purple seeds encased in sweet white pith. I’m eating fresh cacao.

The pith is sweet and sour, with a tropical taste somewhere between a melon and a pomegranate, while the inner seeds are incredibly bitter. Neither taste anything like chocolate. But raw cacao is the most antioxidant-rich food on earth and the fresh superfood leaves me feeling instantly rejuvenated.

With a newfound respect for the chocolate plant I make it another hour to a spot beside the stream where our guide builds a grill out of sticks and browns some butterflied chicken and fish fillets. Despite an obscene number of mosquitoes and other flying irritants, we enjoy lunch and even manage to spot a pair of tropical otters swimming downstream in the clear yellow water. Imitating the otters, I cool off in the water and gaze up at a sea of green in the canopy above.

En-route to the camping area we encounter an eerie caiman skull, which our guide says must have been crushed by a jaguar, the most revered of the Amazon’s 2,000 animal species. Not long later, as we approach a riverbank, we hear a loud splash. Our guide shouts “CAIMAN” and points at the water. The next thing he points at is a 3-metre long log balancing 1.5-metres above the river and tells us that we need to cross the crocodile inhabited water.

Many natural river crossings, swamps, insect bites and small monkey sightings later, we make it to the camp. As the sun sets, throwing long intricate shadows onto the dusty ground, the conductor of the ever-present rainforest orchestra instructs the invisible instrumentalists to play their natural instruments louder.

Before bed my flashlight picks out the red eyes of a southern tamandua, a medium-sized mammal with a long snout. After staring into the torchlight for a soul-searching 10 seconds, the tamandua works up the courage to continue its journey, and cautiously climbs a branch before disappearing into the world of the canopy.

During the night a vicious thunderstorm breaks out. At first, the spine-tingling guttural thunder and sharp bullet sounds of the incessant rain on the tarpaulin above my hammock create a warm relaxing sensation deep within my bones. I feel at one with the natural world. However, the unforgiving downpour creates a miniature lake on the tarp, the weight of which threatens to squash me in my hammock. I manage to escape and wake our guide, who channels the water to the ground and re-ties a knot to hold the waterproof roof high above my hanging bed.

 

Kayaking with pink freshwater dolphins

After returning to the jungle lodge the next day, and after a long read of a book, I take a kayak out to look for the fabled pink Amazonian freshwater dolphins. I paddle a short way towards the bend of the river, where I’m told the dolphins like to play in the crosscurrents and wait.

After a short while the sudden spitting sound of a pink dolphin surfacing for air announces the first of these beautiful creatures. The sounds increase in volume and intensity, as dozens of dolphins surface closer and closer to my kayak.

I float about blissfully for around half an hour, my eyes following the orders of my ears to spot the latest pale pink head or tail to leave the water. A rainbow forms above the tall green forest before an impending electric storm brings an end to this divinely satisfying encounter.

 

Catching a croc

Zipping over the night-time black glassy water in a motorised lancha, a rare breeze interrupts the unforgiving mugginess of the rainforest for an hour of lunacy. Our guide stands at the front of the boat scanning the water’s edge for shiny red eyes, his determined pose illuminated intermittently by the neon flashes of nearby electric storms.

After a few failed attempts, he instructs the driver to force the lancha into the mangroves. Now kneeling down as if readying to dive into the murky unknown, he swiftly pounces with the assured repose of a predatory big cat and pulls out a caiman. We take turns to hold the fairy-tale creature before releasing it back into the oily black river.