Skip to Content

A literary tour of the Amazon

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online on October 14, 2005

Sarah Anderson continues her literary travels as she ventures into the rainforests of the Amazon in Brazil

An invitation to the Amazon Rainforest was something I couldn’t resist. On our first night, we stayed at Augustu’s Hotel in Altamira, south of Belem at the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil – the only hotel in town with a swimming pool.

While there, we watched the last day of the annual Amazon Olympics between several Indian tribes, many of whom succumbed to heat exhaustion – this made me feel slightly less wimpish as I dissolved into pools of heat.

Meals were enormous: at the Churrascaria Casa Nova (tel: 91 515 2964) you’d help yourself at the ubiquitous buffet and men carrying skewers with beef, chicken, sausages and fish would repeatedly come round to fill up your plates.

After lunch we left Altamira and sped south along the Xingu River by motor boat. Initially I wasn’t sure how I would be able to cope with four hours in an open boat in the boiling heat but soon I was reminded of Henry Walter Bates’ remark that “There is something in a tropical forest akin to the ocean in its effects on the mind. Man feels so completely his insignificance there, and the vastness of nature” (The Naturalist on the River Amazons).

It was both soothing and peaceful to be on the river and conducive to thought: “Perhaps, then, this was what travelling was, an exploration of the deserts of my mind rather than of those surrounding me?” (Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques).

It was however hot. Every so often we stopped for a swim in a place that we were assured had no crocodiles, piranhas, anacondas or sting rays – all of which, bar the anaconda, we saw at various times. When we reached Tataquara Lodge, on an island on the Xingu River, both owned and run by The Amazon Rainforest Foundation, it was dusk.

We just had time to see our rooms (each with its own loo and shower) before darkness fell. We met in the massive living area for a welcoming caipirinia, a mixture of cachaça (sugarcane rum), lemon juice and sugar. The dining area is in the middle and the kitchen with an open fire at the far end.

The profits from this eco-friendly lodge, which was built from wood found on the ground and treated straw and has no electricity, go straight into the Amazoncoop; eight Indian tribes belong to this co-op and use the lodge on their way up and down the river. In Altamira the Co-op also has a brazil nut oil factory, a green pharmacy and an internet provider –the profits from all three going straight to the Indians.

Much of what we ate, including piranha, is either caught in the river or grown on the property: “If I could sing, I would sing the banana. It has the loveliest leaf I know … A world could not be old on which such a plant grows” (H.M. Tomlinson, The Sea and the Jungle).

As there is zero light pollution the stars are magnificent and the only noises are those of the jungle. However the howler-monkeys that start yowling at dawn are as loud as the carnival in Notting Hill that I had left behind.

After one night we travelled a further five hours up the Iriri River, often having to get out and pull the boat due to the low water, and spent the night in Laranjal with the shy but friendly Arara (Macaw) Indians who had only had fleeting contact with white man until the 1970s.

A Kayapo village, Kararao, is only a couple of hours down-river from Laranjal: a fatal mistake had been made in using the Kayapo as trackers since “In Arara mythology, the Kayapo were the incarnation of malevolent spirits who had destroyed the primordial order of the cosmos and were sent to earth as the tribe’s persecutors. Whites now came to be identified with the Kayapo” (John Hemming, Die if You Must).

I had my leg painted in the traditional way by a Kayapo woman when we stopped at Kararao on the way back, and whatever vegetable dye was used seemed to protect me from the ‘piums’ that seemed to invade every other part of my body.