More than soccer in Brazil: Bugs, blinding rain keep Amazon visitors on guard


By Joe Tash

There are two things every traveler to the Brazilian Amazon should know about — sudden, ferocious downpours that can turn you and your belongings into a sodden mess, and tarantulas.

Our family of three traveled through Brazil in June and July to experience the 2014 World Cup in this soccer-crazed nation, and also see some of the country’s famous sites. Since our first match was in Manaus, a city of about two million people in the middle of the vast Amazon region, we decided to book a three-day, two-night stay at a jungle lodge on the Rio Mamori, a tributary of the Amazon River.

After only two days in Manaus, where we watched Switzerland dispatch Honduras, 3-0, at the gleaming white Arena Amazonas stadium, I was ready for the relative peace and tranquility of the jungle. Manaus may be located far from any other city, but it’s no sleepy outpost. Giant video screens were set up in the plaza next to the city’s historic opera house, where fans from many nations cheered on their teams.

After each day’s matches, Samba orchestras with dozens of musicians and drummers played late into the night, as the crowds sang and danced. Our hotel room overlooked a busy street where impromptu street cafes had been set up.

A van from the Dolphin Lodge arrived at our hotel promptly at 8 a.m. on our third day in Manaus. A small man with a shy smile introduced himself as “Mo,” and said he would be our guide. (We later learned he also owned the lodge.) We loaded our bags into the van, which took us to a ferry landing, where we boarded a boat to take us to the far shore of the Amazon River. Along the way, we stopped at the “meeting of the waters,” where the murky whitish-brown water of the Amazon and the dark, coffee-colored water of the Rio Negro come together.

The waters don’t mix because of their differing temperatures, flow rate and acid content, Mo explained.

Then we boarded a VW bus for a bumpy ride over a dirt road, to the riverbank where we climbed into small, open motorboats for the final leg of the trip to the rustic lodge. Mo and his crew carefully balanced luggage and passengers so the boats wouldn’t tip.

We threaded our way through trees, vines and vegetation in the flooded forest, an area that is landlocked during the Amazon’s annual dry season.

As the river widened and we picked up speed, a light rain began to fall, which quickly became heavier. Since our bags, which included laptops, cameras and other electronic gear, were exposed to the elements, Mo pulled up to a wooden house on stilts at the edge of the river.

The gracious couple welcomed us and our bags inside their two-room, tin-roofed dwelling. “I know everybody around here,” said Mo, who had grown up on area’s waterways.

After the squall passed, we hopped back in the boats for the short trip downriver to the lodge. But Mother Nature wasn’t quite done with us. A few minutes from our destination, the skies opened up and we were drenched with sheets of rain. Although it felt exhilarating to be rushing along the river in a driving rain, our clothes and bags were soaked. Luckily, I had covered the bag containing my laptop with a plastic poncho, and it survived.

Over the next three days, we were introduced to an astonishing variety of flora and fauna, including tree sloths, monkeys, river dolphins and electric eels, all of which call the Amazon basin home. We also saw many types of birds, such as hawks, herons, toucans and vultures.

We hiked through the jungle, fished for piranha with bits of raw beef for bait (the sharp-toothed fish outsmarted our family, stealing the meat but avoiding the hooks), and trawled the riverbank in the deep blackness of night, looking for the red eyes of caiman, a reptile resembling a crocodile. When Mo spotted one about two feet long, he snatched it up and allowed us to hold it for photos, instructing us to grasp it by the neck and tail to avoid its snapping jaws and sharp teeth.

Then, of course, there were the hairy, eight-legged denizens of underground warrens in the forest. During our trek, Mo showed us the holes where tarantulas lurk, driving one from her lair by inserting a long twig. That was disconcerting enough.

But on our last night at the lodge, we were sitting at the long wooden dinner table when my 17-year-old daughter cried out, pushed back her chair and tumbled over backward. I thought she had seen a small spider, which terrify her. Instead, the group of us watched in horror and amazement as a tarantula the size of my fist scuttled away along the floorboards. The creature had apparently fallen from the rafters onto my daughter’s lap. She was fine, although shaken, with a story to tell. Mo said nothing similar had ever happened during his nine years of running the lodge, and we took him at his word.

According to National Geographic, the tarantula isn’t particularly dangerous to humans in spite of its fearsome appearance. Although its bite is painful, the tarantula’s venom is weaker than that of a typical bee.

The next day, we took the reverse journey back to Manaus, after crowding into Mo’s brother’s living room — in a stilt house just up the river from the lodge — to watch Brazil’s thrilling victory over Chile in penalty kicks, triggering fireworks and jubilation.

Visitors to Brazil with an affinity for wildlife will surely be rewarded by a trip to the Amazon. Just make sure to bring your rain gear, and watch out for the spiders.