For two hours, the airplane window has given the same image: gray clouds. But as we descend lower and lower, these clouds dissipate and the colors change shades. A huge green area appears. Green, nothing but green, as far as the eye can see. Only small and large rivers wind here and there between the brushwood. So there you have it, the Amazon rainforest. The planet's green lung, larger than Western Europe, the reservoir of 20% of the world's fresh water and home to more than 40,000 species of animals and plants.
Capital of the State of Amazonas and starting point for many trips to the region. Whatever the destination of these trips, a boat is essential. From the colorful wooden tourist boat to the rustic pirogue, we come across all kinds of boats on the other side of the Rio Negro, where transportation to our lodge in the jungle continues by minibus. We even see a branch of the Bradesco bank which has thrown the moorings and, for the most remote areas, there is also a floating hospital and a court.
João, our guide for the next four hours in the direction of the Juma lodge, welcomes us at the entrance of the minibus.
"Take advantage of your last moments within civilization"
he smiles at our group in impeccable English. And indeed, after just a few minutes on a country road, houses are becoming scarce. The road is more and more rugged and narrow. On the surface of a pond, I discover giant water lilies with their characteristic circular leaves, while further ahead, a group of macaws with red and blue feathers fly majestically above the peaks.
After an hour, the river leads to a large junction in the middle of the jungle: "We are going to descend here to take a speedboat which will take us to the lodge", explains João. A short time later, we rushed with din into a small narrow river, the bank of which is strewn with large trees and which widens more and more until it leads to a much more imposing stream. However, I would be unable to say which is the main river and which are its arms. The pilot skillfully maneuvers the speedboat through countless forks. As for me, I have lost my sense of direction for a long time.
The lodge sits high in the treetops. A real lakeside village accessible only from the shore by a 15-meter staircase. The materials come from the surroundings, as do the employees. When we arrive, they are renovating the roof of the reception: they cut babaçu leaves (a kind of palm tree) which they superimpose using a sophisticated technique. Everything else was made with wood from the region: Jacareúba, Itaúba or Aquariquara. Footbridges connect the overwater bungalows to each other. The latter are supplied with electricity by generators, but only from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Indeed, the lodge aims to be an exemplary eco-tourism provider. I could have left my laptop in Manaus: there is no signal here, let alone the Internet. The interior of the bungalow is however more comfortable than I would have thought: soft beds, a clean bathroom and a large hammock on the balcony overlooking the Juma river. Below me crickets sing. A little further, two birds give the impression of talking while the sun slowly disappears in the jungle. The image is so magical that it would be almost kitsch.
"Look at these marks," says our guide Nilson, showing us brown discoloration on the lower part of the reception counter. "Last year (2012), during the rainy season, the water rose to a record level, we had to close the entire lodge for several weeks." A consequence of global warming? He shrugs. "It's possible. But it is not unusual for the differences in water level between the dry season and the rainy season to be large; they can reach 15 m. This is the reason why most of the houses are built on stilts. But if it happens again next year, we will have a problem. ” According to statistics, up to 3,000 mm of rain falls each year during the rainy season, to the point that a fifth of the Amazon is completely flooded. There are also more mosquitoes, which I have not yet come across and which I have not missed. I still use mosquito repellent every day, because the Amazon is one of the areas at risk for malaria.
The weather is bright and it's been a while since our little boat has been positioned on the edge of the reeds. At five, we alternately fix the water and then our guide Jenilson, expectantly. I never imagined piranha fishing as well. However, we had followed the instructions, that is to say, hanging a piece of meat on a hook and then throwing it as far as possible. Then we waited and waited, while watching Jenilson effortlessly fish one piranha after another. But how does he do it? He smiles shyly; man does not make big speeches. He leaves that to Nilson, who encourages us with great gestures. And there, suddenly, the end of my string starts to wriggle. I have to keep calm...
In the evening, grilled piranhas are on the menu. To my surprise, they are very tasty, even if they do not offer much to eat. The star of the menu is undoubtedly the Tambaqui, which means "pacu noir" in Portuguese, a fish that can reach one meter. It is also a local specialty. For dessert, we have passion fruit mousse, deliciously fruity.
The alarm rings. Despite the sound of crickets, birds and the jungle that I first got used to, I slept very well. Let's go see the sunrise! Jenilson arrives at 6 a.m. with the boat. Unfortunately, a few clouds prevent us from admiring the sublime spectacle of nature. Hopefully we will have more luck on the jungle hike that will follow. Still by boat, Jenilson takes us between the tree trunks which rise on the surface of the water towards a shallow spur of the Juma river and we follow this arm. Once landed on the shore, we dive straight into the thick jungle. Nilson uses the machete to make our way. The road is regular but after a few minutes, we are already swimming. The 95% humidity in the air is felt. Our guide perfectly imitates the sounds of birds, shows us gigantic colonies of ants and tells us about the flora and fauna. Unfortunately, tarantula does not deign to come out of its hiding place ... but to be honest, it is not worse! The jungle also has its share of curiosities: the trunk of the socratea (another species of palm) forms stilt roots out of the ground and up to two meters high. Locals say that these "walking trees" have the power to move slowly because of their roots which die on one side and then reborn on the other. They can thus go from a place shaded by giant trees to an open place, and thus benefit from the sun.
Another day, a lunch is planned with a local family who runs a sort of "daily tote shop" on the bank of the river. You can find everything from hygiene products to motor oil to food products. Of course, customers access it by boat. The shop is simple to build and takes advantage of the practical advantages offered by the proximity of the water: the toilets with shower drain directly into the river and the remains of food are collected by the fish who live under the shop.
After an excellent meal, it begins to rain violently. We take shelter under the roof and we have patience. This is how I imagine the rainy season. Wait while the rain is pouring down. And while we patiently wait for the rain to stop, we remember the images of our night expedition. Only lit by the moon, we went down the river with dark waters in order to find caimans. With this in mind, Nilson used a flashlight with which he lit the shore. Thus, the caiman's eyes would reflect the light and betray his hiding place, without him noticing us. And indeed, something shone. With the engine off, we got closer and Nilson leaned out, arms outstretched over his head, at the front of the boat. Things then went very quickly: just before our boat hit the shore, he grabbed a young caiman at one level with his hand and bramed him in front of our dumbfounded group. Good game!
Outside, the rain has finally stopped. Jenilson scoops the boat and then we can continue shipping. Navigating leisurely, we come across different species of herons and observe the chameleons that tan near the shore. Toucans, which resemble an airplane with their disproportionate beak, swirl back and forth over our heads. Suddenly, Jenilson stops: “There, in front! In water! A pink dolphin! " Incredulous, I probe the surface of the water and, indeed: a pink dolphin from Amazonia takes its nose out of the water, then follows its forehead and its body. It seems to sparkle. Fascinating! Even Nilson is visibly moved and dives into the water to pet the dolphin, who lets himself go without flinching. A poignant moment that I have plenty of time to remember on the long journey back to Manaus.