Cruising the Amazon: Brazil’s Wild Rio Negro

From swimming with piranhas to searching out mystical pink dolphin, an Amazon cruise is quite an adventure.

Rio Negro Brazil rain forrest
The banks of the Rio Negro, Brazil. Flickr/Amauri Aguiar

The Rio Negro, I am told, is a river like any other.

This is Brazil, the jungle, so it keeps tropical fish.  It’s an air force base for brightly colored birds.  And like the Amazon, which it empties into, it supports our boat.

But the Negro that I know a little now isn’t made of water.  It’s a river of beer.  It is lightly fermented thanks to the compost of leaves and insects along its banks.

Drinking a glass is one thing that isn’t tempting during my week-long cruise here on The Tucano, a riverboat run by Ecotour Expeditions.  Negro means black, and we get intimate with its cocoa richness when we take showers and brush our teeth.

Rubber trees rio negro
Rubber trees near the Rio Negro in Brazil. Flickr/V.T. Polywoda

Our boat trip into the jungle begins in the city of Manaus which, if you ask it, will tell you about the days when rubber was still harvested from trees.  Plantation owners tapped into their fortunes near the town and gave it dashes of elegance and art.

The Tucano, which is moored here, looks like a model of a Mississippi steamer.  A bath toy at first glance, it has room enough for nine elegant cabins which are paneled with forest woods and polished up carefully with wax.

One of our guides, Edivam Regis, explains our route.  We are heading upriver on the Negro because it is wilder and less settled than the Amazon itself.  Guide number two, Alzenir Sousa, a local who was born in the jungle, goes to work in the dining room setting up a vegetable quiz.

Lychee rio negro brazil amazon
Lychee nuts along the Rio Negro. Flickr/Malcom Manners

A table is laid out with alien blobs.  Blobs that have been picked from trees that we are floating past.  Not one of us can guess the names.

This red pincushion, says Sousa, contains a lychee nut.

(Whack!  Sosa is correct.)

This bowling ball, Sousa insists, is, in truth, a pod of Brazil nuts.

(Crack!  Like a piñata, nuts and shells spill out from inside.)

The Tucano’s two canoes are loaded up at 6am for our first morning ride.  The sky is low and soft.  Here are dots of insects buzzing low, and V’s of bird wings I have never seen.

A screech shoots from a palm where two of the birds have landed.  “Festive Parrots,” whispers Edivam.  “Festive,” he says, “because of all this noise.”

Festive, I think, because they are a party green.

Over the canoes comes a flying rainbow.  No body.  Just a beak with wings.

Toucan!

rio negro amazon toucan brazil
A toucan along the Rio Negro, Amazon, Brazil. Flickr/Susanne Nilsson

Froot Loops cereal got it wrong.  Their box bird is fat and jolly.  This guy is arrow lean.

Now come dips and drops of monkeys at the tops of trees.  Suddenly a blast of breath from near the canoe.  A river dolphin pops up.  It is pink as sunrise, and swims along with us back to the boat.

That night Sousa tells us a story.  It is dark on deck and there is only silence, his soft voice, and stars.

“The dolphin,” says Sousa.  “There is the gray one.  And there is the pink like you see today.  Nobody like the pink one.  But they respect him.  The Indians do not kill him, they do not eat him.  This is like eating a person.”

You can hear our breathing as Sousa explains.  The Indians, he tells us, say this:  “The pink dolphin can become a human.  He will wear white clothes and a straw hat.  He may appear at a party.  He may come up on board.”

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