I leaned over the back of the small riverboat with my underwear in hand, a bar of eco-friendly soap at the ready, and hoped the piranhas wouldn’t be attracted by the act of scrubbing out my unmentionables in the Amazon River.
My feet wore cheap plastic flip-flops I bought at a thrift store in the small fishing village of Maraa, a 24-hour speed boat ride from the city of Manaus, Brazil. I wore an ill-fitting tank top that I picked up at the same little store, and it seemed the only thing I did buy that actually fit right was the baseball cap.
I had purchased four pairs of underwear at the same store. They didn’t fit at all, so I was left with one pair of panties and my swimsuit bottoms. In addition to a swimsuit, a spare tank top, leggings, and the sundress and light sweater I wore on the plane to Brazil, these ill-fitting, cheap clothes were all I had to navigate 9 days in the Brazilian Amazon jungle.
My luggage — filled with the best jungle gear and insect-repellent-treated technical clothing — didn’t make it to Manaus in time. All the name-brand hiking pants, wool socks, long-sleeve SPF 50+ shirts, and solar chargers were trapped in customs. All that planning for gear I would need to survive these nine days along the Japura River tributary of the Amazon went to naught, and I was left scrambling to find at least one other set of clothes to wear in the deep jungle for 9 days.
I had booked this 9-day extreme camping adventure in Brazil’s Amazon as a gift to myself for my 50th birthday. This was no comfortable luxury cruise. Every night, we would sleep in hammocks and spearfish piranhas for our dinner. We pooped in the underbrush and bathed in the river, and if we were lucky, we might even have coffee in the mornings.
This was the Amazon I wanted to see — the wild, untamed, and mostly uninhabited wilderness — before clear-cutting, climate change or industrialization made it impossible to experience.
And, while I didn’t expect to rough it to that extreme, I did discover that far-flung and remote unspoiled jungle. I also learned that I really don’t need all those things I thought I did — both in the jungle and in my own life.
Best Laid Plans
When I booked this trip, I searched terms like “roughing it in the Amazon,” “Extreme Amazon Adventure” and “Non-tourist Amazon Trips.” I stumbled across the trip we eventually booked (more about that later), and sent in my money. I convinced three of my friends — Emily, Risa, and Rob — to join me on this wild trip, and we spent the months leading up to it ordering jungle gear, reading about the shots and medications we would need, and dreaming of jaguars and howler monkeys.
I rarely ever check a bag, but this time I did, thanks to having to pack utility knives and more bug spray than I care to admit. Never again. Of all four of us, only Emily carried on her gear, so three of us were left without the packs of clothing, chargers, bug sprays, headlamps, knives, and god knows what else.
We went through customs in Sao Paulo, Brazil, before boarding the flight to Manaus. Somewhere along the way, our luggage failed to make the same flight.
Our tour began the next day promptly at 1 p.m., and the next flight that our luggage was on landed at 3:30 p.m. At that moment, when you realize nothing can be done about delayed luggage, a sort of calm acceptance comes over you. You enter damage-control mode and make a list of the bare necessities you can live off of in the jungle. You laugh about it. You give thanks that you had the foresight to wear your hiking boots on the plane and had at least one change of clothes in your carry-on.
For that first day on the 24-hour boat ride from Manaus west to the tiny fishing hamlet of Maraa, I wore the same sundress I wore on the plane and the hiking boots. As we pulled away from the bustling noise of Manaus, which is the capital city of Brazil’s Amazonia district, the dismay over our delayed luggage fell away as we caught our first glimpse of the Amazon.
About Japura River
Our journey from Manaus started on a tributary of the Amazon called the Rio Negro (Black River,) which starts in Colombia, and our home for the next nine days would be on the Japura River, a wide flat stretch of water that remains largely uninhabited west of the village of Maraa.
Our English-speaking guide Samir is a jolly fellow with a hyper sort of enthusiasm for the Amazon, but as we huddled in the back of the speedboat taxi, which includes 48 seats and a large open deck area, he warned us of the dangers in this untamed country.
“In some parts, you can’t even wash your hands in the river. Too many aggressive fish are attracted by movement and, if it’s a piranha, he can easily take off a finger.”
With that dire warning, we settled in for a 24 hour trip to Maraa, and the scents of the jungle wavered between the cloying perfume of flowering trees to that murky smell of mud and dead fish.
The further away we traveled from Manaus, the more remote the area became. Lines of fishing huts dwindled to only a handful here and there. Dolphins breached as an orange fire sunset peaked, and I already felt dirty and mossy from the humidity.
When we arrived in Maraa, the last village before we truly entered the remote area of the Japura Amazon, I managed to scrounge up another tank top, a stained long sleeve shirt, a pullover sweater, a cheap pair of plastic flip flops, a hat, and a package of underwear. Luckily, my friend Emily had an extra pair of long pants I could wear and most of the bug spray and toiletries that are necessary.
We left Maraa on a tiny open-air chug boat and watched as small gray dolphins bobbed along the river while macaws flew overhead as we puttered two hours to our first campsite.
Days Of Discovery
I woke that first morning to find our guides Bibi and Macais cooking up the small fish they managed to spear for us the night before. We set up our hammocks in the dark that night, spotted a small tree boa nearby, and loaded up in canoes to watch our guides spearfish in the dark. Samir, our English-speaking guide, explained that we would spend the morning fishing for piranha before heading out to a lake deep in the jungle that, until two years ago, didn’t exist on a map.
Fishing for piranha isn’t as hard as one might think. Using cane poles that Bibi and Macais carved out of regular old tree branches, attaching a fishing line and baited hook, all one has to do is slap the water with the tip of the pole. After two or three good slaps, you agitate the water and wait for these aggressive toothy monsters to take the bait.
At first, we seven adventurers were terrified of the jungle, especially as we set up camp in the dead of night, imagining caimans and jaguars and fer-de-lance snakes lurking everywhere. By mid-day, I had eschewed the cheap flip flops to wade barefoot along the shores to fish for piranha.
The rest of our trip brought us to Parica Lake, a giant body of water nearly 100 miles from the Colombian border that was only included on a map two years ago, where we spent several days with Mr. Jose, the last of the Katukina tribe to live traditionally on the lake. We climbed acai trees to help harvest the berries, hiked through deep jungle to drink water from vines, and peer at jaguar prints in the mud, and every day, we lured piranha to our bait.
To shower, we jumped from the back of the boat into the lake only to scramble out as fast as we could before curious piranhas came to nibble at whatever was making such a commotion.
Mr. Jose told us stories about Brazilian myths and how he killed a jaguar as we ate river fish in his large hut, the walls covered in silent, unmoving Brazilian wandering spiders. We rescued small little caimans from fishing nets and woke to the sounds of braying dogs and the eerie roar of howler monkeys in the distance.
We learned to balance on half-submerged logs or dig holes in the jungle to relieve ourselves, and after a few days, even the nasty, unrelenting biting black flies weren’t as torturous as they once were.
I wore the same clothes for 3 days at a time, washing my underwear or bikini bottoms each day. The package of underwear I bought in Maraa didn’t fit, so they were useless. Most days I was barefoot, my feet turning as dirt-caked and rough as our guides’ feet.
My hair lived in a ponytail and braid. My skin was crusty with bug spray (a must in the Amazon!) and I smelled like something moldy and dank most days. In many ways, I was happier than if I had 10 days worth of clothing and gear to worry about and lug around.
What I Didn’t Need
Within a day or 2 of our Amazon adventure, I felt strangely free. That acceptance that I had to navigate this strange and feral jungle with only the barest of clothing and gear was almost euphoric, and the memory of all that technical, bug-treated clothing and solar chargers seemed laughably unnecessary. It’s funny how a person can adapt to what they do not have, and, on the flip side, appreciate so much the little they do have.
In those days, I reveled in the simple things. The feel of freshly-river-cleaned socks and the fact at least one of us had bug spray took on the joy akin to having a new car. It made the fact that I had just ended a 26-year relationship, sold the house I had lived in for 17 years to move to a small two-bedroom apartment, and starting over not so sad or scary. After all, if I could survive and enjoy 9 days in the Amazon with only the bare necessities, I could survive this new chapter in my life too.
When we finally returned to Manaus, dirty and exhausted, our luggage and gear were waiting for us at the airport… just in time to fly home.
Pro Tip: Always bring at least one extra change of clothes and shoes as well as your necessary medications in your carry-on. If possible, don’t check a bag at all and plan to buy items like knives or bug spray when you reach your destination. I will never again check a bag on an international flight unless I absolutely have to.
If You Go
I’m not sure I would recommend the tour operator we used. The whole experience with him was shady and unorganized, and our tour guides relayed disappointing information about his company, Amazon Deep Jungle Tours. I didn’t mind the haphazard organization of the tour, but if you’re looking for a strict itinerary and more professionalism, this company may not be the one for you.
For more rustic “survival-style” excursions, Joshua’s Amazon Expeditions also gets high reviews.
Brazil has a number of unusual places adventure travelers should experience: