Dolphins, alligators and tribes in Brazil's Amazon forest
MANAUS, Brazil -- The warning from our guide made clear that this "forest walk" would be anything but a leisurely stroll.
"Look before grabbing any branches because the ants bite. You will be in pain for 24 hours," said Jackson Edirley da Silva, wearing a bright yellow shirt and rubber boots. "And watch where you step. You don't want to get bitten by a snake."
Our group, about a dozen tourists, got quiet.
"Don't worry," I whispered to our sons, ages 6 and 7. "We will be careful where we step."
My wife and I had flown with our kids from Rio de Janeiro to Manaus, a major jumping-off point for Brazil's Amazon rain forest. From there, we took a boat for an hour ride up a tributary of the Rio Negro, or Black River, and then walked 15 minutes to an "eco lodge" in the middle of a forest.
Even at the edge of the forest, the sounds made a strong impression. Monkeys screeched, birds bellowed and bugs buzzed, a cacophony that felt both terrifying and calming. Ironically, we would learn that it's rare to actually see most of the animals. You are in their house, and they know how to hide.
Our cabin was sparse but had some essentials: a small refrigerator for bottled water, mosquito screens on the windows and an air-conditioning unit that combated the oppressive humidity that would cling to us upon walking outside.
Despite its worldwide fame, not to mention increasing importance as climate change becomes a global issue, the Amazon is not visited in great numbers. Amazonas, Brazil's largest and heavily forested state, which includes Manaus, was visited by just under 1.2 million foreign and Brazilian tourists in 2014, the most recent year for available statistics. By comparison, the Eiffel Tower in Paris gets roughly 7 million visitors a year.
For those who get here, it's hard to imagine disappointment. Over the course of a week, we swam with fresh water dolphins, gawked at alligators wrestled from river banks by scrappy guides, fished for piranhas and stood in awe at "the meeting" of the Negro and Solimoes Rivers (called the Amazon River in Manaus and eastward), where a difference in density and temperature means that for miles black and yellow waters flow side by side.
The food also has unique tastes. Massive tucunare fish get chopped into fillets that taste like chicken with an extra dose of zest, potato-like manioc roots are prepared with forest spices that most people have never heard of and acai berries are ubiquitous - the kids particularly enjoyed sucking on acai popsicles during the afternoon heat.
The Amazon basin, which spans several countries in South America and is nearly as large as the continental United States, has always been central to Brazilian identity, even if most Brazilians will never visit. Conspiracy theories periodically erupt about other countries' alleged attempts to take the territory or plunder its myriad resources, and pressure from international organizations to stop deforestation often draws the ire of politicians.
Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, president between 2003 and 2010 and poll leader for next year's race, once famously said: "I don't want any gringo coming here asking us to let an Amazon dweller die of hunger under a tree."
Te Batista, a boat operator who we hired two days to take us to several areas of the Rio Negro, told me tourists always ask him about conservation.
"Foreigners are afraid about the future of the forest," said Batista, who added flatly that he was not. "They worry that the cutting here will mean they die in their countries" because of global warming.
At the heart of conservation discussions are indigenous tribes, who provide windows into life in the Amazon both before the arrival of Portuguese colonists in the 16th century and today. While there are still scores of "uncontacted" tribes in the Amazon, most are at least partially connected to Brazilian society and live in ways that combine their traditions with aspects of modern-day life.
One day we visited a small village of about 100 people belonging to the Dessana tribe.
As they have for centuries, the women wore hay skirts and were topless. The men wore small woven cloths on their hips, though noticeably with tight black briefs underneath. They all had red face paint and many wore feathers on their heads and necklaces made with alligator and jaguar teeth. Recently caught fish cooked over a fire and a pottery bowl of large baked black ants were available to snack on.
Speaking limited Portuguese, a young man named Bohoka told me the tribe lived as they always had - in little huts without electricity, running water or cellphones - but with a few modern twists that included allowing tourists to visit.
"Tourism allows us to maintain our way of life," said Bohoka, 24, who showed us necklaces and other handcrafts for sale.
The village was only about a 90-minute boat trip from Manaus but worlds away. The gritty port city of over 2 million people is an eclectic mix of a colonial architecture, urban sprawl and hustle from hardscrabble touts trying to eke out a living. It reached its splendor in the 19th century when growing global demand for rubber brought throngs to the area to cut and gather sap from rubber trees. A beautiful opera house built during that time, which today hosts several shows each year, is the city's main tourist attraction.
As I chatted with Bohoka, a small boat pulled up on the riverbank. About a dozen members of the tribe, all dressed in slacks and T-shirts, got off carrying plastic bags. They disappeared into their huts and remerged a few minutes later wearing traditional clothes.
Bohoka explained they had gone to "the city," or Manaus, to buy sewing materials.
"Why couldn't they just wear traditional clothing there?" I asked, somewhat jokingly.
Bohoka laughed. "Impossible," he said. "Indians' home is the forest."
Peter Prengaman is The Associated Press news director in Brazil. Follow him at: twitter.com/peterprengaman