Pink dolphins, indigenous tribes and rainforest choirs — welcome to the Amazon jungle

Breathe in 'the world's lungs' onboard a three-day riverboat cruise, where superlatives are never in short supply

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“Being an Amazonian is not something you choose — it’s something you feel,” our grinning guide insists.

For a group of tourists currently dousing themselves in insect repellent, this is a pretty humbling thing to hear — even more so when you’re standing on the brink of the planet's biggest rainforest, known as "the world's lungs".

The mantra is the first of many from our rainforest custodian Eduardo Mendez, known as Dudu, and if anyone can dish out the pearls of jungle wisdom, it is this man. Born in the rainforest into a family of 12, Dudu, 54, has spent his life hunting, foraging and surviving in the depths of the Amazon.

Now, he guides tourists through the wilderness — though he isn’t too big for a clip round the ear from his 96-year-old mother when he returns to his village in Manaquiri.

The state-of-the-art riverboat Rio Negro Queen. Photo: Visit Brasil

Today, Dudu is wearing his guide cap onboard the Rio Negro Queen, a state-of-the-art, 50-metre-long luxury riverboat with a shallow draft steel hull allowing it to cruise in less than five feet of water. The boat is part of the Captain Peacock brand, led by Leonardo Leao and his wife Ana, who are both from Manaus, the capital city of the state of Amazonas.

This is where our ship departs from, with an entirely local crew.

Dubbed “Brazil’s first floating hotel”, with an onboard infinity pool, floor-to-ceiling windows in each cabin and a Michelin-lauded chef onboard, our vessel is a far cry from Dudu’s modest beginnings, but it is in this blend of extravagance and authenticity where the magic lies.

Previous guests on this ship include the Brazilian national football team and rock band Guns N’ Roses, but as we wave our way up the blooming River Negro, it becomes clear the real superstar is all around us. “We have something special here,” says Dudu.

And, he’s not wrong.

The Amazon is an area of superlatives. Its rainforest is the world's biggest; its river is the world’s longest; and its flora and fauna rank among the world’s most biodiverse. However, its beauty is what will break your heart.

The Rio Negro at sunset. Photo: Marcio Benchimol

The river oozes flat and dense and mystical. On either side of us, the rainforest is immense, with colours forming a natural canvas as the sun moves around the sky — the murky blue, the endless greens, the dusty pinks and bursts of orange.

This is perhaps the last truly wild place on the planet. In the words of Axl Rose: “Welcome to the jungle.”

Around two hours from Rio Bello Port on the banks of the Rio Negro, which is the largest left tributary of the Amazon River, lies the indigenous village of the Tuyuka tribe. We arrive by speedboat and an apprehensive silence falls among our group as the village chief, donning a full feather headdress and body paint, beats a drum from the shore.

Curious children mill around his feet eyeing the group shyly, though they are soon keen to pose for solemn-faced pictures in their ceremonial best. For our troop of designer-sunglasses-wearing, trigger-happy tourists, it’s a grounding experience as we’re led by the littlest tribesmen to a thatched-roofed shelter, where we quietly file onto wooden benches as the men of the tribe assemble before us.

Junior members of the Tuyuka tribe pose solemnly for tourist pictures. Photo: Felipe Gonzalez

Via Leao's translation, we learn how the tribe originates from the dense jungle between the Columbian, Venezuelan and Brazilian borders, but they relocated to the settlement near Manaus in hopes of a better life near the river. Though they currently live only a short distance from the booming metropolis, the tribe keeps its preserved culture alive and is keen to share the traditions of its ancestors with tourists.

After the almost dreamlike procession through dappled sunlight and steady drumming from boat to hut, it’s something of a shock when the group leap to their feet and wield percussion instruments like swords. The ritualistic display is followed by the chanting of Amazonian songs and vigorous traditional dancing. We are pulled to our feet as we rather clumsily join the march and the show gathers steam.

When they aren’t taking part in the festivities, the women sit together against the wall where they alternate between nursing and scolding their mischievous children, the youngest of whom is just 17 days old.

“Their lives are simple,” says Dudu, as we make our way back to the boat. “Which way is better? Who really knows?”

The Tuyuka tribe are the first of many friends we’ll make in the jungle; it’s up at 5am the next day to make our next acquaintances as we head to the Acajatuba region, more than 80 kilometres from Manaus.

We’re bleary-eyed as we pile back on to the speedboat in inky darkness and tear east across the river to watch the sunrise. It’s not just us having an early start; as the reds and oranges split across the sky, the leaves begin to tremble and the jungle orchestra begins to play.

There are 1,300 bird species in the Amazon, accounting for one-third of the world total, and it feels like every one of them is out exercising their vocal cords. Their symphony is joined by the guttural drum roll of the howler monkey, one of more than 400 animal species that call the Amazon home, along with jaguars, harpy eagles and piranhas, though it’s the Amazon river dolphins who leave us crying for an encore.

A wild pink dolphin in the Rio Negro. Photo: Marcio Benchimol

The dolphins — known as pink river dolphins or botos — live only in fresh water, with a population in the tens of thousands, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Despite their numbers, the species is classified as vulnerable in certain areas due to threats from dams and contamination.

Floating stations dotted around the river have been built to help monitor their safety and allow animal lovers to interact with them on the open Rio Negro river — which might as well be an ocean at 2,250 kilometres long and 20 kilometres wide. As we dip into the water, they appear from nowhere, bolting through our legs and jumping up to give us a good soak and some fin-to-face contact.

While drying off, Dudu tells us how the creatures have mythical status, we just nod, unsurprised at anything that might happen in a place so magical and intoxicating.

In a rainforest whose size is legendary, it’s the small things that make it so special — a beautiful sunrise, the glimpse of a monkey or a slap in the chops from a wild dolphin. "The Amazon isn't just a place," says Dudu. "It's a living, breathing thing. It's a privilege."

And, as ever, he is right.

Updated: July 15, 2022, 6:23 AM
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