“Macho, Macho Man…” Piranha Fishing in the Amazon.
By Ernie Alderete
Manaus is the final frontier of not only Brazil, but all of South America. It is the heart of the Amazon, the vast river basin and rain forest that spills over into Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Ecuador and Peru.
You might remember from your high school geography class that the Amazon is the largest (by volume) river in the world. Its source has been traced to a minor stream, just a trickle no greater than your garden hose could generate, in the Peruvian Andes. By the time it sweeps past Manaus it is virtually a fresh water ocean.
At one time the Amazon emptied into the Pacific, but as the Andes arose the river’s outlet to the west became blocked, the river backed up creating an enormous lake that covered most of what is now Brazil before it broke out and reached its current outlet to the Atlantic. The current is so powerful that a hundred miles out at sea the water is still as fresh as it was in the pristine Andes.
Manaus abounds in contradictions. Parts of it resemble a hard-on-its luck border town not unlike Tijuana or Tangiers. Yet along the riverfront rise ultramodern condominiums not unlike those at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.
I soon realized that although buried deep within the heart of Brazil, Manaus is in fact a border town. Not situated near any international boundary, but on the even more distinct dividing line between civilization and wild rain forest. This untamed environment has bred a unique and resilient people. Citizens of the massive State of Amazonas, of which Manaus is the capital, are just as comfortable in the water as on dry land. They learn to swim as soon as they learn to walk. Their situation at the edge of human habitation, I believe, fosters open-mindedness.
There’s dozens of jungle lodges to suit every taste and lifestyle. Lago Salvador is one of the biggest. It’s also the closest to Manaus, only a 20-minute speed-boat ride across the river from the city, compared to a 2- hour upriver ride to Ariau Towers.
Most of the lodges offer similar excursions, such as a jungle hike where your English-speaking guide explains the medicinal qualities of plants as well as points out wildlife. He’ll introduce you to a tree whose bark can cause a spontaneous abortion, the morning after tree. Locals use the leaves of a certain bush as a natural insect repellent. You’ll learn how to tap rubber, and collect delicious nuts and berries.
You can even arrange to swim with pink fresh water dolphins and manatees.
One of the most exciting excursions is a half-day fishing for piranha. I sped out with my guide one morning for a secluded spot surrounded by mangroves.
A young boy, maybe ten years-old, passed out simple bamboo fishing poles to each of us and then gave us little stacks of chopped bait. I never knew his name, but he was the first person to snag a piranha. Before he sunk his line he thrashed the water with his pole, agitating the surface as if an animal had fallen into the river. This excited the carnivorous fish so much that as soon as his line was in the water it began to wiggle. Within seconds he jerked out a fighting mad quarter-pound red bellied piranha, supposedly the most dangerous species.
He gently took the piranha off the hook, and released it back into the water. Then he dropped his line in again, and presto, within two-minutes he had snagged another piranha! And a third. He held his third catch in one hand and cut a leaf from an overhanging branch with the other then demonstrated how to use a piranha as a living paper puncher. He placed the piranha’s mouth over the leaf and the fish obligingly chomped down on it, leaving a clear imprint of its prominent dentition.
Finally, I caught one too! It was a major thrill reeling in perhaps the most feared fish in the world. I could hear the Village People singing in my mind, “Macho, Macho Man, Ernie is a macho man”.
As we headed home I asked my guide if the kid was his younger brother. “No, he’s not related to me.” Is he an employee of the lodge? “No!” Then who in the hell is he? “We don’t know, we thought he was with YOU!” Apparently, the young man had played hooky from school in Manaus and stowed away aboard the boat that brought me to the lodge. I remember him helping with my luggage and never questioned who he was. He probably slept outdoors in a hammock, or in a small boat.
Ariau Towers Hotel has a small, five-foot by four-foot wide, shallow pond just outside the restaurant filled with piranha. At first glance I thought they were artificial fish because they seemed perfectly aligned in a straight line, all directly facing me, six or seven fish in crystal clear water, unlike the dark water of the river. The virtually invisible water made it seem as if they were floating in thin air.
After lunch one day I brought them a napkin full of chunks of left over chicken, which sent them into a feeding frenzy! From then on every time they saw me pass they started to lick their chops!
The selection of colorful and unique handicrafts is superb in Brazil. Wood carving has been elevated to a fine art. This is the place to buy spectacular over-sized salad bowls painted in a riot of colors. Perhaps, a fine Brazil – wood bowl in the shape of a watermelon, or pineapple. Carved wooden plaques are also impressive. You can choose a parrot, toucan or pink fresh water dolphin carved onto a three-foot tall wall plaque. They even offer full- sized doors for your home with tropical scenes carved in deep relief. I fell in love with several designs, but was already weighed down with purchases this trip.
I bought a very nice carved rose wood frog that turned out to be a both a musical instrument as well as a paperweight. It comes with a red wooden pole plugging a hole in its blondish body. You pull out that pole and run it along the ridges on its back and it makes a croaking sound! A narrow slit in its mouth holds your business cards. A bargain for only $6.
As in any country the most expensive place to shop is at the airport where you are virtually a hostage customer. However, airport shops do tend to have the best handicrafts, especially high-end merchandise. It’s worth at least window-shopping in an airport, or luxury hotel arcade to see what you want, and to estimate how much not to pay.
I discovered an intriguing shop en route to the airport called Arte Natural at kilometer 11 on Estrada do Turismo. My guide had never been there, but I had a hunch that it was a treasure trove of the kind of things I like to buy. And I was right. I asked the owner for permission to inspect even the storage rooms and that was where I discovered how they were able to keep prices so low. They make much of their own handicrafts, including marvelous picture frames made from marble and other stones.
The best place to stay in warm Manaus is the completely air-conditioned Hotel Amazonas Tropical. The giant (at 588 rooms the largest of the eight Tropical hotels and resorts across Brazil) hotel is a gleaming white skyscraper with every first class amenity, but the choice location at the river’s edge is the real advantage. Tropical sits atop the local transportation hub. Just a couple of hundred yards below is the pontoon jetty where all kinds of boats and sea planes depart for dozens of jungle lodges.
The hotel is wrapped around a nice little private zoo in a park-like setting featuring animals native to the Amazon. There are dozens of fantastic parrots, half a dozen species of monkeys and several jaguars. I enjoyed tossing fruit to the capybaras, largest rodent on earth. I snuck a few bananas away from the breakfast buffet, but I found plenty more fruit on the trees surrounding the caged animals. Hundreds of bright-red ripe mangos and guavas fall to the ground and ferment in the sun. As I tossed the welcome treats to many of the animals several monkeys reached out their human-like hands to grab the mushy fruit.
Some cages had feeding chutes where I could slide the tidbits into the inhabitants.
Cuisine throughout the Amazon is based on local ingredients, primarily the tremendous riparian abundance. Hundreds of mouth-watering varieties of fresh water fish you never heard of as well as just as many fruits and vegetables you wouldn’t recognize and probably couldn’t pronounce. Perhaps the most exotic dish is piranha soup! When I ordered it I expected maybe a piranha-flavored broth, or unrecognizable chunks of the toothy fish in a stew. So I was surprised when my soup arrived, the entire six-inch long piranha was laid across the dish, its head and tail overlapping the edges of the porcelain bowl. It was actually quite tasty, once I got over the visual shock of a gaping mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. And it was infinitely preferable to munch on a piranha than vice versa!
Most of the jungle lodges serve lunch and dinner buffet style, with perhaps a dozen fish choices, maybe one chicken main dish, always one, or two pasta selections such as Lasagna and spaghetti with a thin tomato sauce, perhaps a beef dish, and lots of salads, white rice and mixed vegetable rice and dozens of tropical fruits including the whole cacao pod. When I first saw the peeled cacao fruit I thought it was an insect, perhaps a giant milky-white grub, or multi-segmented caterpillar. It certainly gave no hint in its raw form that it could be processed into the familiar sweet and aromatic chocolate most of us crave.