Thursday, August 25, 2011

Juma Lodge, in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest

I’ve been told many times that “getting there is half the adventure” but never was it more true than traveling to Juma Lodge in Brazil.  Two airplane trips, two van rides and two speedboat rides were the ticket to get to this jungle accommodation. It was rainy season and the Amazonas jungle was flooded with 15 meters of water, so high speed boats would be the preferred method of transportation, just about everywhere we went.

Amazon River - courtesy
Flying over the equator, getting closer to our first destination of Manaus, Brazil, I watched dozens of high-speed motorboats ply the waters of the Amazon River. From my 10,000 foot perch, it was entertaining to watch the small boats careening left and right through the treetops which now appeared as small islands dotting the flooded jungle.  Watching in awe as these little boats skimmed the surface at top speeds, never slowing down for blind corners; little did I realize that’s what I would be doing in just two short hours.

Landing at Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes International Airport in Amazonas, I collected my backpack, and met up with my English-speaking guide just outside the customs area. I was one of nine people who would be making the trip to Juma Lodge. After everyone arrived, we proceeded outside to his van and drove to the shipping port where we would catch our first boat.

Haulys Karnopp was to be our guide for the entire trip to and from Juma Lodge. A young Brazilian, he has made a career of learning all he can about the wonders of the Amazon. From plant and insect identification or caiman catching to survival training, it’s his constant quest to learn more and more about the natural wonders of this part of the world.

Typical Amazon water taxi

Arriving at our first boat dock, we discovered that the most common form of conveyance was a water taxi, a long, low-slung metal motor boat, capable of holding probably 16 people on eight bench seats, row-boat style. To get you to your destination post haste, these little boats boasted 75 HP engines. At full throttle, the only speed our boat’s operator knew, we merely skimmed the tops of the white caps as we began to cross the six mile wide confluence of two rivers.

The Rio Negro and the Solimoes meet at Manaus, joining to form the Amazon River, which then flows out to the Atlantic Ocean.  After only a five minute ride, our boat’s captain killed the engine and we started to drift in the area known as “The Meeting of the Waters.”   On one side of the boat was deep, dark black water from the Rio Negro. On the other side was much lighter water from the Solimoes. 

Meeting of the waters - courtesy of
Because of differences in temperature, PH balance, water flow and mineral content, a natural phenomenon occurs and the waters do not mix together. Instead, the two flow side-by-side for five miles downstream before they begin to combine, forming the Amazon River. 

As we sat there adrift, pondering this improbability of nature, we noticed a quickly approaching tree trunk, fully three feet in diameter, mostly submerged and heading right for our starboard side. With no more than five seconds to spare, our captain fired up the engine and we made a quick diversionary maneuver to avoid being broadsided. 

Sitting just 16 inches above the water level, you begin to realize just how wild this river really is, and how most anything could be lurking in your path. At the speeds we were going, had we not noticed this log, we would have certainly launched ourselves completely out of the water upon impact.  Comforting thought. 

Without further incident, we arrived at the other side and after disembarking via an improvised gangplank, we arrived on the southeastern shore. Another van was waiting to take us closer to our destination, passing some interesting giant water lilies, where we took the opportunity to stretch our legs. 

Boarding boat number two where the road ends.
Leaving the paved highway, we followed a dirt road until it dove down an embankment and became submerged for the next quarter mile or so. At this point, our second boat met us to make the final leg of the journey to Juma Lodge. 

Wasting no time, we boarded the boat and set off for our destination. We couldn’t tarry as the sun would be setting in one hour and we couldn’t travel at night. It was to be a sixty minute ride and once we hit open waters, we took off at top speed. 

Just as I had witnessed from the air, we were now that little boat I had watched with fascination, as it slid left and right around blind corners and through dense vegetation. As the boat cornered at high speed, the sides of the boat were literally inches above the river level. This boat was powered by a 115 HP Yamaha outboard and we were wasting no time. 

It was a fantastic way to cover the last leg of the journey. Most of the time, the waters were flat as a mirror and we cruised effortlessly, closer and closer to our destination. As the sun began to set, beautiful shades of blues and pinks in the sky were reflected by the waters. Even the animals seemed to be greeting us as their hoots and howls got louder and more distinct as we slipped further and further into the jungle. 

Almost there, as the sun set over Rio Juma
Just as the sun dipped below the horizon, we completed our 110km trip and pulled up to the Juma Lodge dock in the Autazes Municipality. Grabbing our bags, we walked up to the main reception area. With authentic babaçu tree leaf thatched roof and screened-in walls, the reception area was ready for us with a celebratory drink and keys to our private cottages. 

Lighted walkways to the cottages
Being built in the area of the jungle that regularly floods each year, each cottage and all the connecting walkways are actually built on stilts – some 15 meters above the ground. As it was rainy season (June) when we arrived, the water level appeared to be only two to three feet below the floorboards. 

In this area of the jungle, the river flows rather slowly, but it was interesting none-the-less to watch various flora and fauna drift past your cottage as though you were on a floating carpet ride.

Checking into my private cottage (#20) at the end of the boardwalk, I opened the door to find a wonderfully spacious accommodation with two beds, a large bath with waterfall shower and an outside deck area complete with table, chairs and a hammock.  My room was one of the four new cottages which actually had hot running water.

Each private cottage has its own deck and hammock.
In order to conserve energy and fuel, 220v power operates in your rooms from 6pm through 9am, and from 11 am until 1pm. You need to plan your battery recharging accordingly. 

An overhead fan, some 12 feet in the air, and a 12 foot long by 4 foot high screened window kept the interior at a very comfortable temperature all day long. This was quite different than the mental image I had of a hot, steamy jungle. While June is hot in Cleveland, it is actually winter in South America, and the temperatures were quite mild. 

A buffet dinner was served in a large hut, centrally located among the private cottages. Each meal consisted of a choice of three or four entrees, usually a beef dish, a fish dish, possibly a pasta and some local specialty. 

Always plenty to eat and drink at the buffet.

Hanging on the walls were pictures of the lodge in each of the four seasons. Where we currently couldn’t see more than a foot or two down from our floor level, during the dry season, we would have been way up in the air on these 15 meter tall posts. 

Haulys set us up for two jungle expeditions the following day. Our first would be a hike through the forest where we had the opportunity to closely interact with Mother Nature.

We learned the difference between Tapebas ants and Bullet ants. The Bullet ants have an extremely vicious bite which produces 20 hours of excruciating pain. The tiny Tapebas on the other hand don’t bite at all and are actually rubbed into the skin as a type of deodorant and mosquito repellant by the locals.

The Goliath Tarantula on the jungle floor
We also got to “play” with a Goliath Tarantula, a spider that doesn’t use a web to catch his prey. With the long hairs on his body, he can actually sense the size and direction his intended victim.  Haulys used a short stick to prod him into coming out of his den and then blocked his retreat with a machete. Photo op time!

No less fascinating than the insects were the infinite variety of trees and plants we passed during our hike. One by one Haulys would identify them and point out their medicinal or cosmetic properties.  While many were used to cure a variety of human ailments, there was even an anti-Viagra plant which supposedly local native women would feed their husbands when they wanted some time off.

Haulys Karnopp, our excellent guide
Other trees were used for communication purposes, reverberating messages for miles through the dense jungle. Yet other trees provided fruits and nuts, construction lumber or sap to be used for medicinal purposes. Not surprisingly, someone long ago figured out the whys and wherefores for just about everything found in the jungle. By traveling with an experienced guide, we learned so much more than we could have ever expected to discover on our own. 

Our afternoon exploration was all done via boat as this time we slowly plied the waters of the igapos (flooded forest) surrounding the camp, in search of the three-toed sloth, toucans and iguanas. Our guides managed to find them all and we snapped away as he positioned the boat for best viewing angles. Beautiful Cataleia orchids could be seen growing wild on twisted trees protruding above the flooded forest. 

Juma Lodge in the middle of the Jungle
Back at the lodge I had the opportunity to review some maps and see just how remote we were. The lodge’s operators were fortunate to obtain a permit to develop a commercial venture this deep in the jungle and they take their responsibility very seriously, doing all they can to protect the environment. 

Providing their own septic system protects the river and they use filtered river water to flush all the toilets. Mineral water is brought in from Manaus whenever they pick up guests and much of their food is sourced locally. All left overs are given to the locals as feed for their livestock and a canoe could be seen each morning showing up to load the food and take it downriver to their homestead.

In addition, Juma Lodge has partnered with the Federal University of the Amazon to train local natives to raise seedlings of native trees, which Juma Lodge purchases and then uses for forest regeneration. Already 3,500 hectares of forest have been replanted. In addition, through another initiative, they are working to help the local native elders preserve the Mura language which is at risk of extinction.

Sunrise viewed from my deck, overlooking the Rio Juma
Whether you choose to come to Juma Lodge for the privacy of an Amazon hideaway or to explore the wonders of a jungle forest, you are sure to come away with a new appreciation for all that Brazil has to offer.  The waterways, the wildlife and the scenery will not disappoint you. It’s impossible to leave without a new appreciation for the diverse wonders of this part of the world.

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