Go Surfing With Dolphins and Eat Fried Piranha on This Cruise of the Brazilian Rain Forest

There's no better way to come face-to-face with rare birds and exotic creatures than a journey down the Amazon River.

Cabaliana Lake, Brazil
An afternoon expedition on Lake Cabaliana, which branches off the Solimões River, during high-water season. Photo: Tom Fowlks

The oropendolas sounded like a dripping faucet.

We couldn’t see these dark, yellow-tailed birds in the dusk, but their calls seemed fitting because we were gliding through a world of water. My wife, Kim, and I were deep in the Amazon rain forest. We were propelling our stand-up paddleboards along a narrow channel of Brazil’s Rio Negro. The forest on either side of us was flooded. The sky, finally clear after hours of rain, had burned to a dusky rose over the tops of the trees.

Rio Negro, Brazil
The Rio Negro, the Brazilian river that flows into the Amazon near the city of Manaus, floods the surrounding rainforest for much of the year. Tom Fowlks

“Listen!” Kim said, then pointed. A toucan, perched on the limb of a tall ficus tree, cried out a piercing, flutelike note. Its silhouette seemed mostly made up of its huge bill. It felt like a miracle that it didn’t topple forward. Then we heard a sudden racket: a dozen scarlet macaws sailed overhead like a volley of arrows.

“It’s going to be dark soon,” I murmured. “And the guys on the boat said they saw a big caiman.” A caiman is basically Brazil’s version of a crocodile.

“I know,” Kim replied, but kept paddling up the creek, farther from safety. She was in thrall to the forest. A few minutes earlier she had guided us into a gap in the trees, where a troop of capuchin monkeys dropped figs on our heads. Now I looked over my shoulder to make sure there wasn’t a monster caiman rippling behind us in the last light.

Orange Line

We were 130 miles upriver from Manaus, the jungle capital where the Rio Negro merges with the Solimões River to form the Amazon. We had flown to the city a week before for a 12-day river voyage with Amazônia Expeditions, a Brazil-based company that specializes in customized tours of the region’s waterways. The trip was organized by Ian Miller, a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and his wife, Robyn, a floral designer. They had assembled a loose group of friends, mostly from Denver, for a voyage to see some of the most diverse wildlife on the planet. The Dorinha, our compact, triple-decked boat, was made especially for the Amazon Basin. It had a dozen cabins and a dining room finished in teak and mahogany; its open upper deck was lined with hammocks. It towed four canoes with outboard motors, which we used for excursions every morning and often at night.

We had spent the first few days of the trip on the busy Solimões, visiting villages, squeezing up small tributaries, and bird-watching on remote lakes. Then we returned to Manaus and headed up the wilder Rio Negro, whose water is dark with tannin from the thousands of square miles of trees that border it. Once we’d motored for 50 miles, we rarely saw a soul. This was the Amazon rain forest I’d always dreamed about.

The Amazon Basin has long been steeped in myth. Think of Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s film about a would-be rubber tycoon’s obsession with building an opera house in the jungle, or English geographer Percy Fawcett’s doomed quest to find the ruins of an ancient civilization, as recounted in David Grann’s The Lost City of Z and its movie adaptation. Today, it’s difficult to separate the real from the imagined. After centuries of exploration, the region is still little understood. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that it contains millions of species, most of which have not even been identified. Its forests produce 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen. They are under growing threat of deforestation, and scientists fear that they may be lost before we even come to know them.

Orange Line

Before daybreak on the morning after our paddleboard adventure, a week into the trip, a recording of Pavarotti singing in La Traviata blasted over the ship’s speakers. This is the way Captain Moacir “Mo” Fortes likes to roust his passengers. It means you have 20 minutes to hit the canoes. I looked out of the porthole. We had traveled all night, and somewhere along the way Captain Mo had turned up a side channel and entered a broad lake. I could see the first ruddy smudges of dawn over the trees on the far shore and the shapes of small islands scattered across the water. The whole country seemed to echo and thunder with the sound of howler monkeys greeting the day.

I met Captain Mo on the lower deck. “Are we going bird-watching?” I said. “Or looking for monkeys or sloths?”

“No, Pedro,” he said, with a gleam in his eye. “We are going fishing.”

I soon learned that he meant fishing for piranhas.

The crew tied the Dorinha to a tree at the edge of a tributary called the Igarapé Água Boa, which now, at high water, looked nothing like a river. During the seasonal flooding, which lasts from January to June, it had expanded and spilled over the shorter trees. We climbed aboard the canoes and slipped along the western “shore” — the tops of the taller trees. Mo said the water was probably 15 feet above what was, in dry season, the riverbank.

Scenes from Amazonia
From left: An iguana in the trees near Lake Cabaliana; dawn breaks on the Rio Negro, which runs along the border of Anavilhanas National Park. Tom Fowlks

Mo showed us how to bait our lines with pieces of raw chicken and then bounce the bait off the riverbed. My meat never got there. I would feel a fierce tug, but when I jerked upward I would discover that my bait was gone. I’d heard what piranhas can do to a dead cow, and I shivered thinking that we had swum off the side of the boat the night before.

But Kim had the touch. She began bringing up one red-bellied piranha after another. Their little teeth were razor sharp. After she caught more than a dozen, Mo looked at her with the respect one great fisherman gives another. That evening, after a slightly nervous swim, we dined on a piranha fry. The fish were bony but delicious.

Orange Line

It was hard to believe that this flooded world, with little dry ground anywhere, was a seasonal occurrence—and that the animals and plants had evolved to live with it. We saw swimming snakes, turtles sunning on logs, flying squirrels that sailed through the lower canopy, and squirrel monkeys leaping from tree to tree as if they were taking a stroll.

Squirrel Monkeys in Amazonia, Brazil
Squirrel monkeys along the banks of the Rio Ariaú, a branch of the Rio Negro. Tom Fowlks

Kim and I had packed inflatable paddleboards and a fly rod. Her fishing prowess inspired me. Why couldn’t I paddle out into the flood and fish off the board? It would just require a little balance.

The next day — the eighth of our trip, and the fourth up the Rio Negro — I paddled along the edge of

tall woods, wondering where I would be if I were a peacock bass. Most likely I’d be hunting the smaller fish hiding in those islands of brush, I thought. I moved into them and found myself in a maze of broad-leaved thicket that had trails and clearings like meadows — except that it was all water.

I tied on a fly made of a clump of feathers the size of a sparrow. The guy in the fly shop in Denver had said, “Down there, when in doubt, go big.” I began to cast. A squall of dusky-headed parakeets flew just over my head, which certainly never happened on my local creek. I dropped the fly just off the brush. Something jerked it hard. I told myself to keep my balance, remembering that I wasn’t standing on the bank of a river but a moving board. The fish hauled me toward the trees. I yelled with glee. I fought the fish for 20 minutes, but when I brought it in I was shocked to discover it was a small peacock bass. I was working the hook out, marveling at the fish’s crimson lower fins and green flanks, when I heard a crash a short distance away. I thought of the 15-foot caiman we had seen on the river at lunch. I began to hurry toward the boat, hoping I could remember where it was.

Related: 10 Wildlife Trips Where You Can Get Up Close With the World’s Coolest Animals

That night we had a dance party on the top deck. One of the crew hauled out an electric keyboard. Clouds massed and covered the stars as House of Pain’s “Jump Around” echoed over the forest. The bartender kept pouring caipirinhas. Michael Mowry, a Denver public-art consultant, spun with his wife, Amy, a real estate developer. Claire Antoszewski, a physician’s assistant from Santa Fe, jumped around with John Hankla, a dinosaur paleontologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. Kim and I danced until we were dizzy. I wondered what the howler monkeys, trying to sleep in the pitch-dark forest, thought of our party.

The next morning we anchored just off a white-sand beach on the main river and took turns diving from the top deck. A few of us did backflips off the roof. Others just swam around in the black water, happy to be in a place few people had ever seen. Before turning the Dorinha around and cruising back to Manaus, Captain Mo turned off the engines and let the ship drift. On a hot, windless afternoon we anchored off a sand island in the middle of the river. Some of the crew and the other passengers played soccer on the sandbar. But I had begun to love paddling, so Kim and I launched the boards and headed upstream along the right bank.

Thick, ropy liana vines hung down into the water, and sprays of orchids — some cream-colored, some rose — flourished on the limbs of the trees. We saw a giant ceiba tree with buttress roots like low walls. We saw blue-and-gold macaws flying and black-crowned night herons crouching on branches. But mostly we just glided to the rhythm and soft plashes of the paddles.

Ceibo tree, Brazil
A guest on a river cruise by Amazonia Expeditions, next to a ceiba tree on an island in the middle of the Rio Branco. Tom Fowlks

And then we heard the blow. Four dolphins swam to us, their pink flanks glistening. These were botos, the famed Amazon river dolphins, which, according to myth, can seduce the men living along the river. They were so close we could see their patterns of fine bluish freckles. They circled back and passed us again and chuffed and breathed. I felt a surge of kinship with these water-loving creatures.

A few heavy raindrops made rings on the black river. The shouts of the soccer players drifted to us on a fresh upstream breeze. In a few minutes the sky would crack open with a downpour that would make it hard to see and almost hard to breathe. But for now all was peace. We turned around. The dolphins cruised upstream, heading deeper into the heart of the forest.

How to explore the Brazilian Amazon

A number of small cruise lines navigate the great river and its tributaries, with excursions by land and water that offer a close look at rain-forest wildlife. Consider hiring a travel advisor who can expand your visit with further adventures throughout South America.

Getting There

Most Amazon cruises in Brazil depart from Manaus, in the state of Amazonas. There are several flights per day to Manaus from major cities, including Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, as well as nonstop flights from Miami on the Chilean airline LATAM.

Tour Operators

Locally owned charter cruise company Amazônia Expeditions has been navigating the Amazon for 37 years. The team excels at small-group cruises tailored to passengers’ interests, such as botany or sport fishing. (Cruises for up to eight people from $2,350 per group per day.)

Amazon offerings from conservation-minded tour operator Wildlife Worldwide include group river safaris and bespoke private itineraries that take you to see the region’s animal inhabitants. Tack on a transfer to the biodiverse Pantanal, a wetlands region in southwestern Brazil, for a jaguar-tracking trip. (Nine-day trips from $3,690.)

Travel Advisors

Rio-based Brazil specialist Paul Irvine (800-690-6899; paul.irvine@dehouche.com) is the founder of the South American travel firm Dehouche and a longtime member of the A-List, T+L’s collection of the world’s top travel advisors. He can plan custom riverboat itineraries, with stays at Brazil’s best rain-forest lodges, and a variety of post-cruise extensions, like a transfer to Trancoso to experience Bahia’s beaches and Afro-Caribbean culture. ($800 minimum daily spend.)

Mary Curry (406-540-1901; mary.c@adventurelife.com), an adventure-cruise specialist on the A-List, can organize itineraries that put a river excursion in the context of a broader South American expedition. Her team at Adventure Life can book a small-ship cruise supplemented with a visit to Iguazú Falls, Machu Picchu, or the Galápagos Islands. ($200 minimum daily spend.)

When to go

Irvine notes that fluctuating water levels mean the Amazon changes dramatically from season to season. The rainy season, with intense showers, runs from December to April. River levels are highest between January and August, allowing access to small tributaries and secluded swimming holes. But the drier season, from September to November, is best for fishing, hiking, and visiting the region’s white-sand river beaches.

What to pack

Curry encourages travelers to take precautions against mosquitoes. Bring strong repellent, pretreat clothes with Permethrin spray, and get antimalarial medication from a doctor. Plan on taking light, loose-fitting pants and long-sleeved shirts in light colors. Evenings are cool, so pack layers.

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