Tiptoe through the jungle

Deepest Amazon ... giant water lillies.
Deepest Amazon ... giant water lillies. Photo: John Borthwick/Lonely Planet

Can you visit the world's greatest ecosystem without adding to its destruction? John O'Mahony finds out.

As our boat skates over the surface of the water and follows the arc of the Amazon into the lush canopy of the Mamiraua Reserve, there is an immediate transformation in the scenery. Until now, on the long journey to this isolated western enclave of the Brazilian Amazon, the river has been wide and majestic and empty. Virtually the only signs of activity were the teeming riverboats and solitary young boys fishing by the banks.

Then suddenly, as we enter the reserve, nature seems infinitely closer, more alive and tumultuous. The first sign is of botos, pink river dolphins that slide their gleaming dorsal fins out of the water just long enough to emit a splutter of exhalation before disappearing.

Then we witness acrobatic displays of scarlet macaws, looking like poster-paint explosions of red and flapping blue. The trees lining the banks crackle with fidgety squirrel monkeys, swinging and diving between branches. Even the sloths, clinging lazily to treetops, seem more lively.

But the most extraordinary aspect of Mamiraua and the stunning, floating Uakari Lodge lying in its centre, is that, in the wet season, the river breaks its banks and floods the surrounding forest. The only way forward is to switch to a small wooden canoe and paddle through trees.

In the semi-darkness, the water laps the buttress roots of the giant kapok trees, amplifying their grandeur and mystery. And somewhere deep in the canopy, a shaggy little monkey with a blazing crimson head - the rare and radiant white uakari - lights up the flooded jungle like a lick of flame.

The Amazon is idyllic: immensely bio-diverse and sublimely beautiful, an ecotourist's dream that makes it easy to forget all those statistics that mark this out as one of the most threatened regions on the planet - and suppress that niggling question of whether I should be here at all.

According to the most recent studies conducted by the Brazilian Government, the Amazon is facing one of its most critical periods, with deforestation reaching 11,968 square kilometres a year last year - the equivalent of an area the size of a football field being cut down about every 20 seconds. The threat comes from a coalition of loggers, ranchers, soybean and cane farmers (who convert the crop into biofuel). On top of that, the Government is launching initiatives that could result in large areas being flooded and dammed for hydroelectric power stations.

The primary solution to these problems is tough legislation. But many feel ecotourism also has a modest part to play in increasing awareness of the problem, both for locals and for the people who travel here, and in generating income for communities that might otherwise engage in logging and poaching.

Is it now possible to make one of the world's greatest journeys deep into the Amazon with a clear conscience and perhaps even have some small positive impact?

After trawling the web and speaking to some of the most prominent ecogroups in Brazil, including Instituto EcoBrasil, which promotes sustainable tourism, it soon becomes apparent that ecotourism is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, I earmark four ventures to visit: Guanavenas Jungle Lodge, the first jungle lodge, set up in 1980, whose literature promises "an exquisite journey to the heart of the rainforest"; Aldeia dos Lagos, a community-run eco-establishment; Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge, one of the latest and swankiest operations; and finally Uakari Lodge, three days upstream from Manaus and widely regarded as the best and most ecologically sound.

As soon as I step off the plane in Manaus, the state capital of Amazonia and the region's major city, I'm engulfed in the airport lobby by reps from jungle lodges. These include Ariau Towers, a luxury treetop "eco-hotel" where guests scoot around in souped-up golf carts. I'm relieved to be rescued by my chirpy guide, Gilton, from Guanavenas and we head east along a lonely jungle highway to Canacari Lake, a pristine outflow of five Amazonian tributaries.

During four sweltering hours on the road I witness the ravages of slash-and-burn deforestation, brown scar tissue disfiguring the canopy. We also come across lodges that have literally tacked the word "eco" to their signs.

Then we finally hit Canacari, a huge shimmering pool in a clearing in the forest. The hour-long boat journey is magical, sometimes swerving through bottlenecks of submerged trees but mostly surging through a dazzling eternity of water. Guanavenas Jungle Lodge is perched on the top of Silves Island, a green slab of forest cut to measure and positioned ever so daintily in the centre of the lake. At the gates, they're waiting for us with glasses of mango juice - perhaps the coolest, sweetest first impression ever.

I'm rather surprised by the opulence of it all: luxurious wood-panelled jungle hut cabanas arranged around a delicious blue scoop of swimming pool. The overflowing buffet in the restaurant introduces me to the exhilarating tastes of the Amazon, including spicy pirarucu, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, washed down with sticky, sweet cashew-fruit juice and finished off with homemade ice-cream made from cupuacu, an exotic-tasting Amazon fruit.

Gilton keeps everyone busy with a roster of piranha fishing, jungle hikes and caiman-trapping, blinding them with torches before lassoing them. In response to questions about whether the name-checking of eco-issues on their website is founded on solid principles, my hosts are evasive. "It's in our interest to keep the jungle intact," Gilton assures me. "If we see suspicious people or anyone who might be poaching or logging then we alert the authorities. We conserve it in that way." For anything more comprehensive, I'm referred to the owner, Aristides Queiroz, who fails to show for three planned meetings.

Silves Island does, however, host another - absolutely unassailable, bona fide - ecotourism project: Aldeia dos Lagos, set up with the help of UNESCO and run by the local inhabitants. It includes a spartan central lodge, as well as various initiatives to preserve the surrounding area. I meet its manager, a local named Heidi Neves, who tells me proudly that all profits are split with the community and help to fund preservation projects in the area.

Aldeia dos Lagos's location is as eye-popping as Guanavenas's, right on a stretch of waterfront. But the salmon-pink buildings are much more basic and, now that funding has dried up, starting to look a bit tatty.

Choosing between a luxury resort of indeterminate green credentials and a true conservation venture that offers only minimal comforts seems to typify the problem of ecotourism in the Amazon. Where is the middle ground?

Mulling over this, I head back to Manaus and then continue north to the greatest fluvial archipelago system in the world, Anavilhanas Ecological Station, a spectacular, UNESCO-listed, 100,000-hectare mosaic of dense forest and interlocking waterways.

Perched on the edge of the reserve, smothered in forest, is Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge, one of the Amazon's newest. It turns out to be comfortable and welcoming, consisting of two rows of dinky little cabanas on stilts with designer fixtures. Best of all is the chilled-out atmosphere, buoyed by a bevy of young, friendly guides and a backpacking clientele who spend the evenings in the central pavilion, sipping caipirinhas and playing pool.

It's owned by a young Brazilian named Augusto Costa Filho, whose father runs a chain of love hotels in Sao Paulo, and his partner, Fabiana. As a student, Augusto made the voyage along the Amazon and dreamed of setting up his own sustainable lodge. And while he is allowed by law to clear 20 per cent of the land for building, the reality proved painful. "We came here for a week and marked out what was to be cleared," he recalls. "When I returned to see the results, I almost cried. It had to be done to make way for the lodge but I hadn't counted on the emotional impact of seeing that bare space and the stumps. I called Fabiana and said to her: 'What are we doing?"'

I pass an immensely relaxing couple of days in Anavilhanas and particularly enjoy the thrilling opportunity to swim among clacking pink dolphins. But again, there are questions about eco-credentials.

As Augusto admits, there is no such thing as a 100 per cent sustainable lodge in Brazil. "For a start, we don't actually have the recycling facilities," he says. And contrary to statements on the lodge's website about abiding by conservation rules, they were breaking - or at least bending - the regulations, which state that the station should be only for scientific purposes.

"I suppose the principle [of taking people in] is not right," admits Augusto. "But if we didn't build this lodge the area would be in danger of much worse."

I come away from Anavilhanas impressed by the energy of its young proprietors but wondering if Amazon ecotourism is destined to be blighted by compromise. However, I'm still only halfway through my epic journey and the next leg promises to be the most enthralling: two days chugging upriver on the Rei Davi, a romantic little three-tiered wooden junk, to the tiny isolated town of Tefe and the glory of the Mamiraua Reserve. We hug the bank, at times almost able to reach out and touch the trees. Most of the areas of "deforestation" I see are clearings for football pitches, where future Ronaldinhos wave us on.

I sling up a hammock on deck with the rest of the passengers and sway gently as a blazing sunset engulfs the river in a luminous halo of gold and vermilion.

From Tefe, I take a longboat upriver to Mamiraua. The reserve was founded by Brazilian primatologist Jose Marcio Ayres, who came here in the '80s to study the uakari monkey. One of the reserve's responsibilities was to set up an ecotourism venture: the Uakari Lodge, which floats magnificently in a bow in the river.

That evening I make my first night-time expedition into the varzea, or flooded forest. As my guide, Elmir, paddles us deeper into the darkness, it's genuinely terrifying. Every so often Elmir whispers, "John, John, tarantula," or "John, a sleeping kingfisher", and sure enough, in the folds of a kapok tree I'd see a speckled ball of venomous spider as big as a fist, or a fluffy, bright orange breast. I retire to my room and I'm lulled to sleep by the creaking and groaning of the lodge as it rides the river currents.

Next day, we visit a community where locals tend cattle in floating paddocks. Rather than just gawking or taking pictures, we speak to the headman about education, worship and attitudes towards the reserve. We then take a boat to Mamiraua Lake, once a poachers' free-for-all but now a haven for manatees, harpy eagles, iguana and even pumas and jaguars.

By the last day, we still haven't seen the elusive uakari. But as we're about to head back to the lodge, I hear: "John, John ..."

On a branch, I can just make out the shaggy outline, like an Afghan coat, and a crimson head. An uakari. For a moment we stare at each other, almost face to face, before it starts and disappears. The encounter is fleeting but I have been rewarded with a glimpse of one of the most reclusive creatures in the jungle.

Uakari Lodge's eco-credentials are also pretty impressive. Power is provided by solar panels. Only managed trees were used in its construction. Local communities have input in the way it is run and get a share of the profits. It also gives opportunities to showcase the biodiversity of the varzea and promote its value to the world.

But is it all worth the long carbon trail I've spewed out to get here? I think if I'd made it no further than Guanavenas or the other pseudo-ecological lodges around Manaus, the answer would be a resounding no.

And while it is tricky to recommend well-meaning ventures like Aldeia dos Lagos and Anavilhanas without some reserve, they really do attract much-needed cash flow and demonstrate the value of the forest to locals.

And I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Uakari Lodge is one of the most astonishing eco-ventures I've ever come across, not just minimising the footprint of travellers but actively contributing to conservation of the area. Getting there involves extra effort and cost - though the riverboat option is pure, celestial joy. For the serious ecotourist, who believes that there must be a way to behold the world's greatest natural ecosystem without contributing to its destruction, this is the only viable option.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

LAN Airlines flies to Sao Paulo, Brazil, for $1810 from Melbourne and $1710 from Sydney, via Auckland and Santiago, Chile (Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney). Qantas has fares to Sao Paulo from Sydney for $2321 and $2221 from Melbourne, via Buenos Aires and a local airline to Sao Paulo. For the same fares you can also fly to Rio de Janeiro. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.) TAM Linhas Aereas flies from Sao Paulo to Manaus for $US381 ($534) one way. Australians require a $90 visa for stays up to 90 days.

Staying there

Tribes Travel organises a three-night itinerary at Uakari Lodge from 435 ($899) a person including full board, activities and transfers from Tefe; see www.tribes.co.uk.

Brazil Ecotravel arranges stays at Guanavenas Jungle Lodge from $US542 a person for two nights or $631 for three; Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge from $565 for two nights or $735 for three; Aldeia dos Lagos from $368 for three nights or $530 for five. Prices include full board, transfers, activities and tours. Phone +552132658882 or see brazil-ecotravel.com. In Manaus, the Tropical Hotel has doubles from $95 a person.

Guardian News and Media

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