Boating Through the Flooded Forest of Anavilhanas in the Brazilian Amazon

Climbing in trees makes me feel like a child again (©Coen Wubbels)

I feel as if I am looking at a scene in the cartoon of Jack and the Beanstalk. The tree trunk is a good three meters wide, and as I look up, I see that the tree divides into three immensely thick branches that reach high into the sky, as if they are on their way to heaven. We can’t climb to heaven, but we can go around the trunk, scrambling over the buttresses protruding from the water. It is a balancing act; it is also a combination of stretching my legs as far as I can to reach the next buttress, and squatting to carefully descend to a lower part. I feel like a child again, playing in the woods.

This passage is clear, but sometimes Valmir has to search long for an opening through the forest (©Coen Wubbels)

This is a macucu tree, which together with other vegetation characterizes Anavilhanas National Park in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. These trees are part of a so-called igapó, a flooded forest. For six months a year all vegetation is submerged. How does it survive, you may wonder. I have no idea, but it does. The forest contains a totally different type of vegetation than on (dry) land. For example, eighty percent of the fruits growing here are poisonous to humans, but not to animals.

The park encompasses part of the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River, and includes 400 islands. Due to its unique vegetation the park is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Central Amazon Conservation Complex 4”.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to know what a flooded forest looks like.
  • You like exploring caves, climbing trees, or sitting in a boat watching the world go by.
  • Good for anybody who likes to explore nature.

Growing Up in the Rainforest

There are a couple of small communities in the park (©Coen Wubbels)

My guide, Valmir Borges, loves talking about the region he grew up in. His father was a rubber tapper and they lived deep in the rainforest, just north of where we are boating now. He grew up with a barter system. Every once in a while a vendor would arrive by boat and his father would swap his harvested latex for the family’s necessities such as manioc, coffee and sugar.

His mother died young and Valmir was sent to relatives in a town, where he went to school, tried out the army and became a guide for sport fishing. The past couple of years he has focused on eco-tourism.

“All this is still primary forest. It has been a park for 40 years. For years it was closed to tourism but it was opened up in 2008 under strict surveillance of IBAMA (Brazil’s organization that oversees all regulations with regard to flora and fauna),” he tells us.

From Boating to Hiking

Valmire tells me that a  tarantula bite isn’t poisonous. But when it jumps you can inadvertently inhale a couple of its hairs, which may cause a long disease. (©Coen Wubbels)

The second part of this boat trip has nothing to do with boating but everything with hiking. We step ashore and take a moment to stretch our muscles. As we hike inland the forest grows thicker and sunlight disappears. Vermelinho, as Valmir is generally known, points out tarantula nests in the ground and teases one of the spiders to come out of its home.

I carefully watch my step because I am anxious about the tucandera ants – major ants with humongous teeth (believe me, no exaggerated adjectives here). According to Valmir, indigenous people use them to stitch wounds. They pick up an ant, put its teeth over the wound and let it bite so that the skin comes together, and then pull off its head. The ants are also used for ceremonial purposes during which men allow themselves to be bitten by numerous ants without crying out. The more sensitive the spot on your body you choose to have this done to, the more courageous you are.

Under the boulders the temperatures are pleasantly cool (©Coen Wubbels)

Amidst a landscape of trees and plants there suddenly lies a collection of boulders, as if they have been hurled from heaven. In Brazil such a place is aptly called Cidade de Pedras (City of Stones). Many boulders have tumbled on top of each other, creating caves. As we crawl down among them we feel how the humidity increases, due to the many water sources, and temperatures become pleasantly cool.

We return to the boat and sail back to Novo Airão, winding around islands and finding our way through parts of flooded forest. We fall silent and attain some meditative state induced by the constant humming of the engine. There is no wind, no waves, no unexpected turn. The water is pitch black and nowhere have I seen vegetation along the shore so clearly reflected in water as here. I have to look carefully to see which part is vegetation and which part is reflection. The sight is mesmerizingly beautiful. A couple of egrets glide over the water, right in front of the boat.

“Look, dolphins,” Vermelinho points out and stops the engine so we can watch them in silence until they disappear out of sight.

No need for words here, is there? (©Coen Wubbels)

Practical information on Visiting Anavilhanas National Park

  • Best time to organize a boat trip is June-September. October and November are dry months and boats most likely can’t sail upriver.
  • Valmir Borges operates from Novo Airão, a guide I like to recommend because of his thorough knowledge of the region, his pleasant companionship and care to work according to the norms of eco-tourism (phone: 929-238-9113;
  • You’ll find other guides / tour operators in Novo Airão as well as in Manaus (a 180-kilometer drive), probably your base from where you’ll explore the Amazon River and Rainforest.

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