Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mamirauá, the Heart of Darkness

If Amazonia is the darkness, the wilderness, then the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve is certainly the Heart of Darkness. Except, quite unlike Conrad's book, the Heart of Darkness here is a good thing - a very good thing in fact. No skulls on fences, just a natural reserve, deep in the heart of the Amazon basin, far enough removed from the big cities, such as Manaus, to be difficult for most tourists to reach, thus remaining uncrowded and offering a pristine view of the Amazon rainforest.

The Uacari Lodge, with space for about 20 tourists, in the middle of the Reserve. There is actually quite a bit of research taking place at the reserve, and research remains its primary raison d'etre. Tourism is really just used to help pay the bills...

Well, first, as seemingly with most of my adventures these days, there was the getting there. I read about Mamirauá a while ago and had tried emailing them back in Bolivia. The response (some two weeks later) was 'get back to us when you're in Manaus.' I didn't actually want to stay in Manaus... upon crossing over to Brazil, I started calling - no luck. Eventually, I got through to a Manaus tour agency that seemed to work with Mamirauá, but they seemed solely concerned with my flights to Tefe (which were sold out), the getting me a reservation at the lodge seemed either unimportant or outside their sphere of concern - I couldn't tell. So, assuming the former and getting a bit frustrated with the whole situation (and still facing some time pressure in trying to meet Lott in Quito), I headed to the Manaus airport Friday morning (the Mamirauá packages are only Fri-Mon and Mon-Fri), bought an expensive last second ticket to Tefe (sold out?), met a group of University of Maine Business School students also heading for Mamirauá, and was off on my bumpy, propeller-powered ride to Tefe.

In Tefe, Diana, wearing her green Uacari lodge shirt, was waiting for the new arrivals. I said hi and informed her that I wanted to go to Mamirauá... today! She seemed a bit taken aback by the news. I don't think this is the sort of place where people just show up... I pointed out that I've spent two weeks trying to get a hold of her and produced her cell phone number - not so surprisingly, she didn't have the phone on her. She protested that she didn't know if they had room at the lodge. Or on the boat for the lodge! (Could you find out, please?) And wouldn't I rather spend the weekend in Tefe, then come to Mamirauá Monday? (No! straining politeness. Tefe is not a town where you want to spend a weekend. Unless you want to meditate. There won't be much else to do there). And how would I pay anyway? 15 minutes and a credit card charge at their office later, I was on the boat heading for the lodge. Funny how the willingness to pay can solve problems.

The lodge itself was quite well organized - we spent three nights there. Had a morning, late afternoon, and evening activity each day (including the morning of the last day!), got three excellent meals each day, and got to learn quite a bit about the reserve and the flora and fauna there. In the afternoon, when it was too hot to go out, some of us got to spend quality time in hammocks, while the business school group got to learn about how the reserve operates - the trip is actually a graduation requirement for them: the school organizes trips to various unusual tourist destinations (China and Russia had been among prior trips) and they get to learn a bit about how the business operates there. This seemed like a useful sort of experience to me...

One of the trips we had was to a nearby village, a part of the reserve. This being the high water point of the year, the waters were up 15 meters from their low levels - the villagers didn't seem the least bit concerned about any of this, gamely getting around by boat. We, likewise, got around by boat - if you go in, say, December, Mamirauá has some hiking trails. In June, those are paddling trails only!

The tourists are here...

We are just as much of a curiosity to the locals as they are to us, so the kids paddled over to get a look at us

The dog, on the other hand, seemed like he would've been a bit happier if the waters had stayed low!

Other excursions got us into the rainforest with a chance to see the wildlife - lots of monkeys, a few sloths, some reclusive caymans. We saw someone called a quati... The fascinating outing was the night trip in the little canoes paddling through the forest in total darkness, save for our flashlights.

Paddling through the low-hanging branches along the 'path.' Occasionally, a cayman would stir noisily in our way and reluctantly dive away...

The Amazonian flora

Not sure if this is a howler monkey or the quati...

Flying on!

And in the night trip, we saw lots of these guys - big hairy spiders hanging out on the trees all around us... No idea what they are or how dangerous they may or may not be, but certainly was a chilling site in the darkness. Another canoe apparently saw a snake just hanging off a tree as well...

My favorite trip was when we went deeper into the reserve, seeing more of the lake, lots of birds, caymans, and river dolphins along the way, as well as a spectacular sunset. The river dolphins are apparently badly endangered - they might not be tasty to us, but they make excellent, and very efficient, bait for other fish, that we do find tasty. Mamirauá has a project studying and trying to protect them. We got a presentation from the two girls working on the project at the time (one Brazilian, the other Spanish...) - I believe they are spending seven months with the project. Primarily in the company of each other and the dolphins! They get out into town on occasion, as the girls in Alvaraes knew them - it's a small world down here.

The sky lighting up as the sun is getting ready to set

Our guides enjoying the view

Now, that, is a spectacular sunset!

Finally, on the very last day, Monday, we were scheduled to leave around 9:30 in the morning. Most places would've given us a leisurely breakfast and sent us on the way. Here, we instead got a quick breakfast, and set off on another two hour tour of the rainforest. I requested to see the giant lilly-pads in a nearby pond, as they are apparently widely considered a symbol of the Amazon (who knew!?)

On the way through the forest. Lifejacket - check! Safety third! The guide seems just fine without one though...

And here are the famous lilly pads

The night before, right as I was starting to pack, I got a visitor, who snuck into my room through a crack in one of the walls. I considered leaving him alone, imagined what it would be like if he smashed into my mosquito net in the middle of the night, and eventually spent 20 minutes trying to trap him under a trashcan and eventually getting him out. Having a nice fat cockroach invade my room in the process, then calmly sneak out through another crack in the wall, as I hunted for him with the bottom of my boot for a weapon...

And with that, we all said our good-byes and set off back for Tefe, where I got to accost poor Diana a little more, while getting my loooong journey out to Colombia started.

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