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Manaus, Brazil: Gateway to tours of the Amazon

  • This 2013 photo shows the maze of waterways, large tracts of open and forested land and vast skies making up the immensity of the Amazon in Brazil, about 100 miles from the city of Manaus. Manaus, a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games, is also a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

    This 2013 photo shows the maze of waterways, large tracts of open and forested land and vast skies making up the immensity of the Amazon in Brazil, about 100 miles from the city of Manaus. Manaus, a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games, is also a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

  • This 2013 photo provided by Jeremy Hainsworth shows Hainsworth on the right and a guide on the left holding a boa constrictor in the Amazon jungle in Brazil, about 100 miles from Manaus. Amazon guides will seek snakes and other creatures in the jungle to show to visitors on tours. Manaus, a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games, is also a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

    This 2013 photo provided by Jeremy Hainsworth shows Hainsworth on the right and a guide on the left holding a boa constrictor in the Amazon jungle in Brazil, about 100 miles from Manaus. Amazon guides will seek snakes and other creatures in the jungle to show to visitors on tours. Manaus, a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games, is also a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

  • This 2013 photo shows Gero Mesquita's Ararinha Jungle Hotel lodge in the Amazon in Brazil, about 100 miles from the city of Manaus. Guests can choose from individual huts or beds or hammocks in a communal sleeping area above the lodge dining room. Manaus is both a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games as well as a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

    This 2013 photo shows Gero Mesquita's Ararinha Jungle Hotel lodge in the Amazon in Brazil, about 100 miles from the city of Manaus. Guests can choose from individual huts or beds or hammocks in a communal sleeping area above the lodge dining room. Manaus is both a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games as well as a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

  • This 2013 photo shows a visitor on a tour of the Amazon in Brazil displaying her first piranha catch as guide Shane Zammette, who provided beef for bait, looks on. The tour takes place about 100 miles from Manaus, Brazil, which is both a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games as well as a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

    This 2013 photo shows a visitor on a tour of the Amazon in Brazil displaying her first piranha catch as guide Shane Zammette, who provided beef for bait, looks on. The tour takes place about 100 miles from Manaus, Brazil, which is both a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games as well as a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

  • This 2013 photo shows Amazon jungle guide Shane Zammette surveying the shorelines for caimans and the treetops for sloths from a motorized canoe on the Amazon River about 100 miles from Manaus, Brazil. Manaus is a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games and it’s also a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

    This 2013 photo shows Amazon jungle guide Shane Zammette surveying the shorelines for caimans and the treetops for sloths from a motorized canoe on the Amazon River about 100 miles from Manaus, Brazil. Manaus is a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games and it’s also a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

  • This 2013 photo shows the maze of waterways, large tracts of open and forested land and vast skies making up the immensity of the Amazon in Brazil, about 100 miles from the city of Manaus. Manaus, a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games, is also a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)
  • This 2013 photo provided by Jeremy Hainsworth shows Hainsworth on the right and a guide on the left holding a boa constrictor in the Amazon jungle in Brazil, about 100 miles from Manaus. Amazon guides will seek snakes and other creatures in the jungle to show to visitors on tours. Manaus, a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games, is also a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)
  • This 2013 photo shows Gero Mesquita's Ararinha Jungle Hotel lodge in the Amazon in Brazil, about 100 miles from the city of Manaus. Guests can choose from individual huts or beds or hammocks in a communal sleeping area above the lodge dining room. Manaus is both a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games as well as a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)
  • This 2013 photo shows a visitor on a tour of the Amazon in Brazil displaying her first piranha catch as guide Shane Zammette, who provided beef for bait, looks on. The tour takes place about 100 miles from Manaus, Brazil, which is both a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games as well as a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)
  • This 2013 photo shows Amazon jungle guide Shane Zammette surveying the shorelines for caimans and the treetops for sloths from a motorized canoe on the Amazon River about 100 miles from Manaus, Brazil. Manaus is a host city for some of the top tournaments at this summer’s World Cup games and it’s also a gateway for Amazon tourism, with many outfitters and tour companies using it as a base for organizing river and jungle trips. (AP Photo/Jeremy Hainsworth)

The Amazon guide raised his hand in the steaming forest and looked at me at the end of a line of six hikers.

“Do you want a machete, Jeremy?” asked the guide, Shane Zammette. “Jaguars always attack from the rear.”

I spent the next half-hour watching the jungle around me before maneuvering myself into the middle of the group.

It was a moment that brought home the reality of the paradise around us. Amid the tangle of tropical plants and colorful birds, there were also jaguars, poisonous spiders, termite mounds and caimans lunging into waters infested with piranha. Human visitors must take care.

I quickly learned it’s essential to survey a shoreline before leaping to land a canoe because you might step on something dangerous. I also found myself watching my every movement as I cleared my way along forest paths. By shifting a branch or vine, I could have found myself clutching a spider or a snake. Any unthinking move could prove fatal.

With those lessons in mind, visiting the Amazon is an experience that dispels myths but also brings respect and awe for the largest rainforest on the planet. Indeed, say guides, much of what draws people to the Amazon is the chance to venture into one of the world’s great unknowns.

“The Amazon was or is a mystery to a lot of people,” said Wolf Wink, a German who moved to Brazil to realize his dream of being a jungle guide. He now works under the name Lobinho da Silva or Little Wolf of the Forest. “The people who come here are interested in the culture and the nature. It’s different than all other places in the world.”

Our group stayed at a lodge operated by Amazon Gero Tours, one of a number of companies operating from Manaus, a city of 2 million people. In addition to being a gateway for Amazon tourism in Brazil, Manaus is also one of the country’s 12 host cities for the World Cup soccer games taking place June 12-July 13, and it’s likely to attract crowds of soccer fans for some of the tournament’s top matches, including England-Italy and Portugal-U.S.

Manaus is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Rio Negro and the Solimoes (the upper Amazon) River. The Negro’s waters are brown, while those of the Solimoes are whitish, and the point where they flow together is easily discernable. As we set off on the first leg of our journey to a jungle lodge, our speedboat slowed so we could see our hands move between the two waters’ colors and feel the difference in temperature of the Negro coming overland while the cooler Solimoes flows from the Andes mountain range.

Landing on the other side 15 minutes later, we traversed a ramshackle dock and dodged food hawkers under the watchful eyes of dozens of vultures sunning themselves on the beach. Trudging up a red-earth bank, we made our way to vans idling in a town seemingly carved from a South American version of the Old West and drove for 90 minutes to a muddy dock. Here in an afternoon downpour, we deposited our bags into motorized canoes and set off for the lodge through a maze of waterways used as roads by the region’s residents who live, work, go to school and attend church at the jungle’s edge.

Once settled in, it’s off piranha fishing with beef used to bait hooks under the guidance of Zammette, a Guyanese transplant to Brazil.

“Every time I come out here, I see something new,” Zammette said. “It gets better and better.”

I almost jumped on a 10-foot caiman while landing a canoe to look for sloths.

A day earlier, we almost tipped when we hit something in the water, the canoe rising up and leaning heavily. The shore was 40 feet away through piranha-filled waters. The four of us each admitted we were terrified, grateful to be alive. “Some people get scared,” Zammette said. “They’re scared of almost everything. As we continue everyday doing our tours, it helps them conquer their fears.”

Zammette said the biggest thrill people have, should they dare, is spending a night sleeping in the jungle. Hammocks are slung between posts among trees and food is cooked over an open fire. Darkness descends fast near the equator.

“Animals can come around,” Zammette said. “You just lie there and listen to the jungle. You don’t know what sound is what.”

Indeed, a visit to the Amazon is a trip into the soul of Mother Nature, magnificent and deadly. It is a spiritual experience, not just something to be checked off a bucket list.

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