DOING YOUR OWN CANOE TRIP IN THE AMAZON.
A few people contact me every year to ask for advice on how to do an independent river trip in the Amazon. Not many, and in a way I'm surprised more don't think of doing it, as it's a wonderful place, but I'm always happy to help.
Undoubtedly some lurid accounts of the hazards and dangers of the 'Green Hell' can make it sound intimidating, but it depends where you go, how prepared you are, and also how you handle discomfort. If you dislike heat, sweat, insect bites and stings, heat rash etc, any rainforest trip is probably not for you.
While I have done all my trips in Brazil, Amazonia is a huge area. Venezuela, Surinam, Guyana, French Guiana, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia also have Amazon tributaries.
It's a wonderful adventure that can be tailored to suit, by the type of river you choose. It can be an easy float on calm currents meeting ribeirinhos - the Brazilian term for the homesteaders who live on the banks of many tributaries. My first trip was on a river like that. Sometimes camping in the jungle, sometimes staying with the people who showed me how to fish, or how to collect jungle produce, and teaching me what was dangerous and what wasn't.
Always go in the middle or late dry season. This season comes at different times of the year in different parts of Amazonia, so check. The dry season has large sandbanks, lower humidity, drier jungle and firewood, and easier camping. The animals will have fewer options for drinking water so can be seen on the river bank. Fish are more concentrated and easier to catch.
The rainy season is miserable, and many rivers will rise more than 10 metres (30 feet) so flood the forest on each bank.
You might not see the rarer animals - jaguars, tapirs, giant otters - but there's a good chance of seeing monkeys, iguanas and prolific birdlife. A lot of the fascination of rainforest travel is in discovering the myriad bugs, butterflies, huge caterpillars, beetles, frogs, birds and fish. So much life is there, and a lot is bizarre and colourful. I think you need a curiosity about the wildlife and appreciate the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the rainforest to get the most out of a trip. Even on the remotest rivers you aren't guaranteed to see the rarer creatures because they can remain hidden in the foliage. But it's still a thrill to find their footprints on a beach, or hear them calling.
For those with more white water and survival skills there are more challenging rivers with little or no population, where wildlife will be more abundant. But I wouldn't recommend doing this as a first trip.
Getting sick. Malaria is common and it's essential to get advice on the best preventive medicine. Other tropical nasties are dengue fever, leishmaniasis and burrowing bugs etc. Covering up, taking anti-malarials and using mosquito repellents greatly reduces the risk. Use treated mosquito nets over your hammock. Don't go barefoot.
Obviously any accident or medical crisis will be made more acute by being many days from the nearest doctor. A comprehensive first aid kit is essential. I'll talk about that later.
Snakes, alligators, piranhas, jaguars, aren't nearly as dangerous a threat as you might think, but always play safe and keep alert and watchful.
Some areas, especially near the Brazilian/Colombian/Peruvian borders, are unsafe due to the drug trafficking that occurs. It's not a place to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In other places I've always found the people to be extremely friendly and hospitable. They consider it insulting that you sleep in the forest when they have space for your hammock in their huts. They often live lonely lives a long way from any neighbours and they are delighted to see you. Another reason to take some booze in the canoe and some small gifts too.
For a quiet tributary a local dugout canoe is fine. These can usually be found for sale in communities along the river, and shouldn't cost too much. Passenger boats will carry them, or tow them behind, if you want to transport them to a different section of river. Local paddles, carved from chunks of hardwood are for sale in the larger towns. They are heavy, and will give you some fine calluses, but they do the job.
Dugouts are leaky, and too heavy for two people to carry anywhere, so they are not suitable for rivers with rapids where portages are necessary to get past dangerous sections.
My first Amazon canoe trip was down the Branco river from Boa Vista up in the north of the Amazon near Venezuela. Apart from one rapid at Caracarai it was an easy paddle to the Negro. We had intended going to Manaus but we got a bit lost in the maze of islands at Anavilhanas, and accepted a ride on a cargo boat.
But nearly all the large Amazon tributaries could be travelled by dugout. Be careful of being caught out by storms when far from shore. Dugout canoes swamp in waves.
For wilder rivers. As I said before don't choose a wild river until you've had experience on easier ones, and without expedition experience. Not only will you have the dangers of white water to contend with, but also long stretches without habitation and difficult evacuation if things go wrong.
I use a folding Ally Canoe which makes it easy to fly it from home. Mine's an 18ft DR model that has been to the Amazon 3 times and to Arctic Canada 3 times more. They are great. (The 16 ft model would be equally good.) Pakboats are highly-rated too. Any other rigid canoes would have to be purchased locally in the larger cities, and probably have to be sold cheap or given away at the end of your trip.
Kayaks don't have the carrying capacity for an extended trip, and are only necessary for the rivers that tumble down from the Andes.
We rely on eating a lot of fish, which are easily caught, and often tasty, so I advise carrying a fishing rod and a selection of fishing tackle. The rest of our food is cheap and comes from the market.
Beans, rice, pasta, lentils, flour and porage oats are the staples of our diet, which we then try to make exciting and varied by carrying lots of garlic, oil, onions, sugar, spices, ketchup, tabasco, chillis, jam, honey, coffee and tea. It's not a wonderful diet, but with the addition of grilled or fried fish, is not bad at all.
Being old soaks we load up with rum (cachaça) and limes to produce some deadly caipirinhas at the end of the day.
Tarpaulin, and thin rope to support a shelter.
Cigarette lighters, and a litre of diesel to help when all the wood is wet. Machete, knives, waterproof sacks, flashlights. Spare paddles.
Fishing rod and big selection of lures, hooks, wire traces (as many fish will bite through nylon), line of 20lb breaking strain minimum. Fish filleting knife.
Local hammock (rede) with mosquito net that fits around it (sold in markets of Brazil). A cheap blanket. Even when you sleep clothed the jungle gets surprisingly cold at night.
Large frying pan and cooking pots. Grill. Flash light.
Repair kit. Gaffer tape, Adhesives, sewing kit. Sharpening stone for the machete and knifes.
This is important, as you will be a long way from medical help.
Prevention is better than cure, so take the anti-malarials recommended for South America at the time, and the strongest that experts recommend. Loads of strong insect repellent, and treat clothing and mosquito nets with knock-down insecticide. Malaria isn't the only unpleasant and potentially deadly disease spread by insects. Wear clothing in the evening that has a close weave, and thick enough to bend a mosquito's lance!
Powerful antibiotics to cover the widest range of infections - of your chest, skin, infected wounds, urinary tract, toothache etc. Consult your doctor. They hate the idea of their patients self-medicating, so they can be uncooperative, but stress that this stuff is only for emergencies.
Anti-histamines. Anti-fungal cream. (The humidity and sweat can causes rashes and rot in sensitive areas.)
Painkillers. Over the counter and prescription.
Sutures, sterile dressings, bandages, plasters, eye drops and patches, antiseptic lotion, tweezers, thermometer, scissors. Consider plaster of Paris to immobilise broken bones.
Small first-aid manual which shows you where to make the incision to remove an appendix. (Only kidding. I always worried about getting appendicitis and once asked a doctor to take it out as a precaution, but he refused.) Having said that I believe that certain combinations of antibiotics might keep an appendix grumbling for a week or two.
Remember what hazards you will be dealing with every day. Fire. Sharp knives and machetes. Potential mishaps on the river in rapids. Slipping and falling on wet rocks. They are guaranteed to produce the occasional accident.
It might be hard to imagine a few weeks without phones and internet, but it's actually quite liberating. I'm sure you could find a way to take a laptop and use it out there, if you want, but I'm not the one to tell you how.
Take a couple of big, worthy (and probably dull) books each. They will last, aid self-improvement and send you to sleep. Any exciting books will be devoured in a few days. All books end their lives as toilet paper, so you have to read fast and keep ahead of that need, and assess the quality of the paper when you buy the book. An e-reader might be good to take more reading material, and solar chargers will work well enough when you're out on the river to keep it charged.
Consider taking playing cards, Travel Scrabble or Bananagram, and a small chess set.
Try conversation. It'll be a return to simple pleasures. So don't go with someone who already bores you to death or annoys you at home.
I've travelled with a motley bunch of many different nationalities over the years - English, Australian, Swiss, Italian, Chilean, Czech - and that's been great. There's a lot of conversation and education to be exchanged about each country and life experience. Some language classes have been conducted as we paddle along, ( I didn't get very far teaching English to the Australians), which leads me to a very important preparation:-
LEARN SOME PORTUGUESE OR SPANISH! (Depending on where your river is.) On the Amazon rivers no-one will speak English, and you'll miss out on so much. You don't have to be fluent, but just have an idea of the simpler grammar and some vocabulary before you get there. Practice will do the rest.
All my Amazon expeditions were done with no phone or radio to contact the outside world, because such options were rare and too expensive at that time. It would be foolhardy not to take them now.
A satellite phone if you wish. But I prefer the SPOT, or the Garmin InReach that enables you to send and receive texts or emails. Friends and family can also follow your progress on a map. There is also an emergency function that'll trigger a rescue if it all goes wrong.. To power this, and to top up a Kindle and recharge your camera batteries etc I take a couple of power banks (good for 6 charges each before they too need recharging) and a solar charger. For some stupid reason the Garmin InReach only has a rechargeable battery instead of being powered by AA batteries, but the battery life is good as long as you turn off a lot of the functions.