Exploring the Amazon through Indigenous eyes

Drifting Brazil’s Río Negro with an Indigenous guide reveals not just a hidden world of flooded forests, but the Amazon as seen through the eyes of the people who know it best.

Before you set sail...

Listen to Alex's story come to life in this award-winning episode of the Wanderlust: Off the Page podcast

The evening was velvet dark. The air was sweet with the scent of night flowers and filled with an orchestra of cicadas and tree frogs. Far off in the forest, I heard the whippoorwill-trill of a nightjar. Somewhere out there, close by, a jaguar was padding through the trees. She knew we were there. We’d seen her footprints in the mud, on the trail next to the river as we’d walked up; we’d smelt her acrid feline musk in the air. But jaguars steer clear of people, even on the flanks of Brazil’s Aracá, the wildest, remotest mountain in the tropics.

Here, untouched Amazon forest and river, lily-filled lakes, reed beds and swamps spread for hundreds of kilometres all around, unbroken by road or town. I wasn’t frightened, but my nerves were tingling. Tomorrow we would summit Aracá, a vast tabletop of cliffs and rock born when life on Earth was single-celled and the Amazon, Antarctica, Africa and Australia were all one continent. As we walked from the boat launch to the trailhead, its face looked as sheer and high as Ireland’s cliffs of Moher; as lonely and wild as a Southern Ocean iceberg. My muscles were tired from the hike to the camp. I’d eaten well and I was as snug as a bug in my hammock, but how could I sleep?

After two years trapped by COVID-19 lockdowns, I was in life-giving wilderness, on an adventure I had never imagined. My mind was racing with excitement.

My fellow travellers, Rob and Raphael, were awake too. I could just about see their faces in the dying glow of our campfire, staring up through the forest canopy at the shimmering stars. They, too, felt a change. Since we’d arrived five days ago from a grey Heathrow, the weight of city life had been lifted from our spirits by the presence of seemingly endless nature, our bodies relieved of all tension by fragrant, oxygen-rich air and the world’s greatest flow of fresh water.

The first morning of our voyage, during one of the rainstorms that sweep across the northern Amazon, we’d put on our trunks, headed to the open area of the boat deck and opened our arms to fat drops of the pure water that fell like beads from the sky, before warming our bodies in the rich sunlight that soon broke through the clouds. Perhaps it was then that we realised our journey along the Amazon’s Río Negro was no mere ‘jungle cruise’: it was a pilgrimage through nature; medicine for the soul. And like many such things, it had happened unexpectedly.

“Our Amazon journey was no mere ‘jungle cruise: it was a pilgrimage through nature; medicine
for the soul“
Alex Robinson

A promise kept

This trip was all thanks to Saro. I looked across at him – the only one of us asleep, snoozing with an arm across his eyes, content and peaceful as ever. I’d met him years before, on a visit to an eco-lodge a few hours from Brazil’s Amazon capital, Manaus. As he guided our small group through creeks and along trails, I’d been struck by his deep knowledge of the forest and its animals, his effortless expertise and his charisma. Tall and strong, with long dark hair and deep, peaceful eyes, he radiated the quiet power that characterises the Munduruku people, one of the Amazon’s oldest and largest tribes. After dark, we’d talk and he’d share his thoughts with a far-off look in his eyes.

“Sometimes I get sad,” he would tell me. “People who fly into Manaus for a night or two on a boat or at a forest lodge see nothing of my home’s real beauty. The Amazon is more than a forest and a river; it is a vast wild of astonishing landscapes. There are places where two rivers flow together, side by side, for hundreds of kilometres without mixing; there are islands larger than Switzerland, with beaches as beautiful as the Caribbean and flooded forests bigger than your entire country. There are lakes of lilies with leaves as large as the length a man can stride.”

And then he’d come closer and look at me intensely. “There are mountains, Alex,” he’d say, “mountains you would not believe, where even we native Amazonians rarely go; tabletop mountains that are covered in orchids and where giant waterfalls drop, pause in pools and fall again in wisps and fronds. They are like the world before humans walked the Earth.”

He once told me: “One day, when I have my own company, we will go there together.”

After many years, I’d forgotten his words. But then, on a winter’s morning when the world was in lockdown, Saro sent me an email. He’d realised his dream and built the first Indigenous-owned and -run tour company in the Amazon.

“Come back to Brazil,” he said. “I will show you my Amazon, the Amazon that visitors never get to see.”
The offer seemed too good to refuse. “But is it safe?” I asked.

“Safe and easy,” he replied. “We are going to the upper Río Negro, where there’s no gold mining or illegal logging, no bandits and no danger.”

Finding a giant surprise

What Saro didn’t mention is that it would be comfortable, too. He whisked me from Manaus airport to his gorgeous boat, the Iara, which was fitted out with air-conditioned cabins in glorious polished wood and a sun deck slung with hammocks and canoes for exploring the Amazon rivers. I would share the journey with a handful of fellow travellers, including Rob, a cartoonist from London, and Raphael, an environmental scientist based in Edinburgh University.

After showering in our en suites, we met on the upper deck for caipirinhas as the boat pulled away from the wharf onto the inky-black waters of the Negro river, the largest tributary in the Amazon river system. The sun was low and golden, glinting off the water, painting the greens and browns of the surrounding forest in a buttery light. Above us, a huge flock of Amazon swallows swept swiftly past and swooped in a murmuration before settling on what I thought was the far bank of the river. As the boat moved on, the bank disappeared to reveal an endless horizon. I had been looking at an island. The Negro spread far in front and around us, a vast flowing sea as wide as the English Channel at Dover and scattered with thousands of bird-filled islands.

“The Anavilhanas,” said Saro, chinking glasses with us. This was where we entered the largest protected area of rainforest in the world, he told us, describing our five-day voyage to the mountain that would pass through a string of huge conservation areas: the Anavilhanas World Heritage Site, Jau National Park and the Serra do Aracá itself. All of them are larger than most European countries.

The next morning, we woke with the equatorial dawn and breakfasted under a gorgeous dome of brilliant-blue sky specked with fluffy clouds. Saro introduced us to the crew: captain Carlos; first mates Jose (an indigenous Baniwa man) and Junior; Soldado, our wiry, constantly smiling mountain guide; and Dona Zi, the cook, who emerged from a kitchen that was as large as a telephone box carrying plates laden with fresh mangoes and papaya, sumptuous pastries, tapioca omelettes and jugs brimming with passion-fruit juice.

“Any bites?” I asked Rob. Like me, he’d not seen a mosquito since we’d climbed on the boat.

“There are none on the Negro,” said Raphael the environmental scientist, “the black water is full of tannin, which makes it too acidic for them to breed.”

“The Amazon isn’t just a river,” added Saro, “it’s more like a vast, flowing inland sea.” The Negro may be just a tributary, but it dwarfs most of the world’s rivers, flowing 2,250 kilometres from the Guiana Shield in Venezuela to Manaus in the centre of South America and discharging nearly twice as much water as the Mekong or Mississippi. It’s a biome all of its own, in the heartland of the Amazon wild, with an all-encompassing forest that grows over quartz-white sands, savannahs, huge mountains and thousands of smaller rivers linked by swamps, lakes and creeks.

That afternoon, after our rainfall showers, we explored further, heading up a creek that cut into the dark green of the forest and on to our second great conservation area: Jau National Park. The creek had no banks; the water simply disappeared into the trees and the half-light beyond. This was a flooded forest, or igapó, Saro told us, rising up every spring by tens of metres, reaching halfway up the tree trunks and surrounding us for kilometers. In the dry season, the water fell to expose beaches as white and fine as talc.

There was life everywhere. A gallinule with priestly-purple feathers strutted gingerly over tree roots, peering into the shallows for neon tetra and guppies. A cackling, cawing pair of metre-long macaws flew overhead, scarlet against the blue sky. A snail kite with huge yellow eyes peered at us from a bare branch. Saro pointed out a grey shape above it, resembling an old, furled sheet caught in the crown of a tall cecropia tree. It was a sloth, stationary as a shroud but for two bright eyes. With all this wildlife around, we chattered excitedly.

Then Saro hushed us and pointed into the igapó. We squinted, struggling to see into the gloom. And then, out of the ranks of tree trunks, a whiskered face appeared, bobbing on the water, a splash of white under a mouth sharp with teeth.

“Uma ariranha!” whispered Saro – a giant otter.
She was as sleek and long as an Olympic swimmer, her undulating back glistening as she disappeared under the water only to emerge a minute or so later on the other side of our boat. Suddenly, there were two more – her children, as curious as she, inspecting us with beady stares before their mother gave a sharp whoop and a bark and they vanished back into the trees.

Raphael, the environmental scientist, was astonished. They are an indicator species, he told us, predators at the top of the pyramid who were hunted to near extinction for their fur. Few people ever see them, he told me. It was a sure sign that we were in pristine rainforest.

A rare saki monkey

A rare saki monkey

A bald uakari monkey

A bald uakari monkey

Cooking freshly caught tambaqui fish

Cooking freshly caught tambaqui fish

A well-camouflaged vine snake

A well-camouflaged vine snake

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A rare saki monkey

A rare saki monkey

A bald uakari monkey

A bald uakari monkey

Cooking freshly caught tambaqui fish

Cooking freshly caught tambaqui fish

A well-camouflaged vine snake

A well-camouflaged vine snake

Reaching our peak

You wouldn’t think that exploring the Amazon in your pyjamas was possible, but the next day was so comfortable that we were still in ours by late afternoon. Zen-relaxed on the viewing deck of the boat, transfixed by the shifting beauty of the riverscapes, there was always something to see: eagles high above, river dolphins puffing and blowing off our prow below.

Huge anvil clouds shifted in, sending rain scuttling across the water and pouring in liquid ropes off the wooden awning over the deck. They passed swiftly by, leaving triple rainbows in their wake. We drifted past hamlets with huts huddled around white-and-blue Portuguese churches. Amerindian children splashed and laughed in the shallows and old men balanced like ballet-dancers on skateboard-wide dugout canoes as they cast their nets over the water.

The following morning, Dona Zi sent us out on the launch with buckets, which we filled with dark, grape-like berries that grew in bunches from trees half submerged in the water.

“Camu camu,” she announced later, handing out glasses of tangy purple juice made with our earlier harvest. “A glass of this has a full gram of Vitamin C, more than any other fruit in the world.”

Over the next two days we went deeper into the wild, leaving Jau National Park and heading north, creeping towards the distant border with Venezuela. We left the Negro for the Danube-sized Demini, where we spotted caiman – five-metre long, red-eyed relatives of the alligator – in the dark using powerful halogen torches. We cut up the Thames-wide Aracá where troops of saki and spider monkeys swung through the trees and the air was filled with chittering parakeets and butterflies as bright as clothes caught in UV light. We fished for piranha, pulling them silver-sided and gnashing into the launch. Dona Zi served them for supper ‘à la Amazon béarnaise’ – in palm nut butter and tart tucupi juice extracted from manioc roots. They were as light and delicious as Dover sole.

On our fourth night, captain Carlos moored the boat. We had reached the edge of Aracá State Park. Somewhere among the creeks that stretched north was the mountain itself. The next day, after an early breakfast in crepuscular light, we clambered bleary-eyed into the launch and sped off up the creek to a trail dotted with jaguar spoor that would eventually lead to our fireside camp. I never saw the jaguar, and perhaps it was the trance-lullaby of cicadas and tree frogs or the tinkle of water dripping off Aracá, but I eventually fell peacefully asleep.

I woke to the smell of eggs, bacon and sausage. Soldado, our mountain guide, was frying breakfast. He thrust a steaming cup of black coffee into my hands and muttered encouragement.

“Come bem!” he winked. “E um bom caminho hoje!” Or in others words: Eat well. We’ve a good walk ahead of us.

He was right. We climbed steeply out of the camp and crossed a rushing mountain stream. The water was fresh and I filled my belly and bottles with it. Then we scrambled up a steep path that cut through the tree line and emerged in a fissure in the cliff-like sides of Aracá mountain. We heaved ourselves up, rising over jutting rocks and above the trees. There was no danger of falling – the path went diagonally across the mountain face like a stairway. Dozens of orchids marked our way, sprouting from cracks in the rocks or clinging to lichen-covered branches. Sweat poured off us, and we paused every 20 minutes to catch our breath and gulp mouthfuls of water.

A final push brought us onto the meseta (plateau), revealing a view that will forever be imprinted on my mind. Below, the rainforest was cut by winding rivers that spread unbroken at our feet. Through the cleanest, brightest air I had ever seen, I squinted at an impossibly distant horizon. Falcons, king vultures, red macaws floated below us over the endless carpet of trees. To our left was a kilometre-wide canyon fed by a distant river that wound over Aracá mountain, pausing in pool after pool before plunging over the precipice to the forest below. And other than our small group, there was no sign of human life anywhere in all the vastness. Not even a jet trail in the sky. After all these years, Saro had kept his promise and shown me the real Amazon.