“It’s true”, my 13-year old son said, “while I don’t know a word of Portuguese, we easily communicated through the language of soccer and fun”…and with that statement during our authentic Brazilian Amazon family ecotourism experience, I could tell that all the synapses where firing upon the realization that everyone basically has the same hopes and dreams, wants to be acknowledged for their talents, finds humor all around, and wishes to connect with others.
Connections are what keeps a person from feeling self-conscious, lonely, and small in an ever complex and changing world, and what better lesson for a teenager on the precipice of some challenging years ahead.
Brazilian Amazon Family Opportunity
We were invited, along with other family travel experts and their children, by Our Whole Village and Katerre Expeditions, to experience a week of Brazilian Amazon ecotourism on the Rio Negro on the boat Jacare Acu, which means “alligator” in Portuguese.
Truthfully, my son was not terribly enthusiastic about going to Brazil as he had just finished with school exams and was looking forward to seeing his friends at his summer camp in New England. This ecotourism expedition was a chance for the two of us to travel together – the last time was four years ago through Cyprus, Greece, Croatia, and Scotland – and catch up without the distraction of baseball, internet, and videos. In the end, he was thrilled that he had the chance to see this remote and beautiful part of the world!
Brazilian Amazon Family Pre-Trip Paperwork
Brazil is one of the few countries for which Americans need a visa and while you can get one online, the paperwork is extensive and by no means a formality. The agency checks everything, including whether your signature on the application matches the one on your passport.
Most of us on this expedition had to resubmit our applications based on the signature issue alone – so make sure your signatures match! In addition, as all of us were traveling without our spouses (or child’s other parent), there was an extra, notarized, travel consent form that needed to be submitted with the application. The process for us took 10 days total, but it can run longer so best not to wait to the last minute otherwise you won’t be leaving the United States since the visa is needed when you check-in at the airport.
Manaus Impressions – Heart of Brazilian Amazon Ecotourism
Late in the evening (and only a 5 hour direct flight from Miami), we arrived in the colonial town of Manaus in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon and were taken to Boutique Hotel Casa Teatro, a well located hotel near the main square and just down the road from the famed Arenas da Amazonia (soccer stadium built specifically for the FIFA World Cup in 2014). It’s a welcoming and comfortable hotel with a mix of bunk bed style rooms and the more traditional double rooms.
The next morning after breakfast, we had some options for exploring Manaus and our group chose to visit the Amazon Theatre (opera house), the Fish Market, and take a combined Meeting of Waters and Janauari Ecological Park tour (the area provides a chance to get out of the colonial city to see where Rio Solimoes – northern part of the Amazon River “meets” the Rio Negro).
There were seven adults and eight children in our group, ranging in age from seven to fourteen years old, who all became fast friends, especially while seeing the giant lilies and cheeky monkeys at Janauari Ecological Park.
Later, we marveled at the excitement in the air as once-again World Cup fever had begun. We were lucky to arrive just in time for Brazil’s first game. For the critical match, the team was playing Switzerland and everyone was invited to join the party in Manaus’ main square. Although the game ended in a 1-1 tie, there’s nothing like watching a World Cup match on a jumbo screen in a town square in a foreign country while people socialize, eat, cheer, groan, and a few enterprising individuals sell some home-made baked goodies, water, and soda.
Our day finished up with a proper welcome dinner at Caxiri restaurant hosted by Ruy, who owns Katerre Expeditions, Casa Teatro, and the restaurant all in an attempt to keep a high standard of quality. Given our location, fish was on the menu for most of the week and it was delicious!
Jacare Acu Impressions
The next morning, our group was driven by caravan to our boat’s embarkation point in Novo Airao, which is about 2 ½ hours away from Manaus. Katerre routinely utilizes the services of local drivers to support the small community’s economy, which for those who can speak Portuguese is an interesting treat. As we aren’t fluent, we ended up getting to know a couple of our fellow passengers better.
Upon arrival, we all marveled at how peaceful and inviting the river looked. It was this river that the children had read in school or online that there was Piranha, caiman, snakes, and pink river dolphins, and therefore independently announced to their parent prior to the trip that they were not going swimming under any circumstances.
This sentiment lasted all of 30 minutes because the river was so inviting that most of the children (save one) decided to overcome their fears and jump right in. It didn’t hurt as well that the boat captain’s young son seemingly came out of nowhere and proceeded to run and jump off the dock gleefully. Truthfully, Ruy and the boat’s captain knew the area was very safe and for the remainder of the week, they worked into our schedule lots of fantastic swimming spots.
After a tasty lunch at the floating restaurant, Flor do Luar, we all got our first glimpse of the Jacare Acu – a beautiful wooden boat, built in the old style from reclaimed wood. The boat has 4 en-suite cabins with bunk beds and 4 en-suite cabins with double beds. There is a large dining area where we had all our delicious meals and a top observation deck with plenty of room for lounge chairs, hammocks, and a small bar.
Our bunk bed cabin though not luxurious (think of camping on a boat) and a bit small for adults especially over 5’ 10” tall, well fit its purpose, which was a clean bed and shower. The water for the shower and sink was pumped in from the river (warm in the evening, not so much in the morning), each cabin had its own air conditioning unit, and biodegradable soap was provided to each of us. The crew took care to be environmentally responsible with their waste management including food preparation, water use, and energy efficiency practices.
Brazilian Amazon – Rio Negro Ecotourism Activities & Sustainable Impact
Therein started five days of gentle sailing on the Rio Negro. Each night, we docked in a different location in the Anavilhanas Archipelago or Jau National Park and each day, we explored different sections of the area.
We hiked through virgin rainforest to the Madada prehistoric cave system, fished for piranha, learned how to make a simple elastic band using sap from a rubber tree, visited a river community (proceeds from this trip directly supported this community) where we were invited to a game of soccer, paid reverence to the biggest tree on the Rio Negro – Samauma, learned about the yucca flour making process, saw a sloth, pink river dolphins and caiman up close, and swam a lot in the warm waters of the Rio Negro.
We learned how unsustainable logging has affected the Brazilian Amazon and how a combination of ecotourism and foundations such as the Almerinda Malaquias Foundation, which provides after-school care focused on ecology studies and teaches carpentry skills utilizing leftover and reclaimed wood from logging, is aiming to change communities for the better.
Our Amazing Guide Joshua
None of our wildlife viewing experiences would have been possible were it not for our guide, Joshua, who was born in this rainforest and who cultivated his instincts and “eagle eyes” for finding wildlife, including sloth and caiman. Joshua could climb trees with his bare feet and hands, find wildlife in the dark, and explain habitats and behavioral characteristics while handling wildlife.
Note: while I do not condone handling wildlife from a sustainable tourism or ecotourism standpoint, the experiences did bring about a different appreciation of wildlife for the children (and possibly adults too).
The Eco Lodge in the Brazilian Amazon
After four nights on the Jacare Acu, we docked at the beautiful and luxurious Mirante do Gaviao Lodge in Novo Airao. There are just seven suites for this unique property.
There are special viewing areas for observing birds and an expansive dining and lounging area that includes a pool. Although my son and I could not spend the night at the hotel due to our flight schedule, Ruy gave us the use of the owner’s suite to clean up and relax – a stay here definitely provides a lovely conclusion to a trip. The fact that there’s good WiFi access, after 5 days of being disconnected, just added icing to the cake. Upon reflection, the children were more happy to check out the property rather than connecting to the Internet. It was the adults who felt the pull to connect again.
Ecotourism in the Brazilian Amazon – Community Impact
Our brief stay in the Brazilian Amazon specifically benefited one of the Cachoeira river communities, which prior to this continued support, did not have proper sanitation facilities (i.e. toilet, showers) nor accommodations for visiting teachers.
While at the community, we spoke with the teachers (through interpreters) about the issues and challenges the region is facing as it relates to education, work prospects, and connectivity.
While some of our children played soccer, the other children chose to make a friend with some of the local girls who were fascinated by the “strangers” who had come to visit their community.
One of our children brought a Polaroid camera and proceeded to take photos of the young children to give to them. Others shared a science trick that turned white granules into “snow”. They all shyly laughed and played. Then, the heavy afternoon rains (so typical in the rainforest) quickly came rendering everyone so wet so quickly that they all headed to the river for a swim and some fun!
Connections again…so that a person doesn’t feel self-conscious or lonely. That’s what life is all about!
We received the media rate for the trip and review opinions are my own.
The spirit of people helping others both in their own communities and ones further away is not confined to the Brazilian Amazon. Another one of Greenloons’ eco-certified partners also takes the time to volunteer and combat the enduring images of conflict, climate change, hunger, and pollution – while providing his young children with the gift of paying-it-forward.