A Boat Trip through the Flooded Forest of Anavilhanas (Brazil)

I feel as if I am looking at a scene in the cartoon of Jack and the Beanstalk. Amidst the flooded forest of Anavilhanas, I am looking up at a meters wide trunk of a tree that 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, and 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 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“.

Growing up in the rainforest

My guide, Valmir Borges, loves talking about the region he grew up in (I wrote about it here in another context). 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 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),” is one of the aspects he shares with me about the park and the region.

From Boating to Hiking

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). 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.

Our last stop is Cidade de Pedras (City of Stones). Amidst a landscape of trees and plants there suddenly lies a collection of boulders, as if they have been hurled from heaven. Many 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 the 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 the water as here. I have to look carefully to see which part is vegetation and which part is the 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.

Practical Information

Best time to organize a boat trip is June-September. October and November are dry months and boats most likely can’t sail upriver.

Additional Reading

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here and here.

2 thoughts on “A Boat Trip through the Flooded Forest of Anavilhanas (Brazil)

  1. Was this a day trip or do you stay overnight when you go up rivers like this? If overnight, where do you stay?

    Just found your blog, BTW, so I’m scrolling through your various posts. Quite envious of your many trips! 🙂

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