Into the Amazon
I'd done a lot of research on this very important part of my trip - a tour into the Amazon rainforest. Another blogger's detailed post convinced me to go with Iguana Turismo (as well as their reasonable price). Most Amazon tours have similar activities, so I think what really makes your experience is the quality of the lodge, your guide, and the group you end up with. Iguana does a pretty good job with the first two, and I really lucked out with the third.
The morning of the tour, I walked one block from my hostel to Iguana Turismo's office. Slowly, other tourists began to trickle in. Sitting around and talking I discovered that one of the other girls had gone to my (tiny) alma mater for grad school. Small world! Suzi was with a group of people from Seattle, who'd decided to diverge from the American Outlaws packaged and spend a few days in the jungle before USA-Portugal. There were other small groups from Minnesota and Norway, and a few other solo travelers like me, from various cities around the US.
Meeting of the Waters
It was hot, and the small shop was selling ice-cold coconuts. Sooo good. Our second boat ride was on a smaller craft - still motorized, of course. We sped through the narrow tributaries of the Rio Solimões for another 45 minutes or so, till we arrived at the lodge.
Gerry, the owner, was there to greet us. He was fun to talk to, but his three dogs kinda stole the show.
We were served lunch right away. The food at the lodge was pretty good - lots of starches (potatoes, pasta, rice), fruit and salad, and a meat dish that changed with every meal. The large-ish TV was switched on in preparation for a game.
After lunch, we got to see our cabins or dorm, and pick our beds. Basically, it was the same level of comfort as summer camp. I was a little surprised there were no top sheets on the beds, but with the mosquito net, I found I really didn't need one. The power only worked at certain times of day - you could tell it was on by the hum of the generator.
Caiman (Jacare) Spotting
I was surprised how quickly the guides were able to locate and catch these small creatures. It was fun to learn a bit about them (for example, these aren't baby gators - this type of caiman grows slowly). We were allowed to hold one if we wanted, which was really cool. It was also neat to see the southern sky at night, something I hadn't done in 16 years.
Overnight in the Jungle
We chopped up firewood with machetes, set up hammocks (and tested them to make sure they were secure), and watched as our guide created an elaborate rotisserie out of stalks of bamboo. Dinner was roast chicken and rice, and was ridiculously good for having been fixed over a campfire. The Minnesota group had bought some cachaça, and two extra bottles had made their way into the bag to ensure everyone would have a good time. Having a Caipirinha in the jungle was one of the highlights of Brazil for me. Sleeping in hammocks was surprisingly restful - cocooned in my mosquito net, with my shoes safely beside me, I slept till daylight.
Visit to a Local Family
The morning after our jungle camping, we headed for a local home. The family (9 kids!) farms the land and makes crafts for tourists. It was neat to see cashews, açai berries, cotton, and bananas growing, and to get to try some other fruit right off the tree. We also saw how the crunchy manioc powder people in Manaus like to sprinkle on everything is made.
Tallest cotton I've ever seen.
Achiote is used for face paint by Amazon tribes. I... turned it into lipstick.
Monkeys proved fairly elusive (my group only saw one type, the other saw three - all from a distance), but there was a sloth on a tree at the lodge. On the day we left, he climbed down and made a break for the water, allowing us to get some really great, up-close and personal photos.
Swimming in the Amazon
This wasn't a structured activity - more like, we're next to the Amazon, so you can jump in whenever you feel like it! Walking down to the far end of the two buildings that line the river, we were able to jump in and float with the current down to the steps at the other end.
Despite the distance and extra cost, I'm so glad the US was drawn to play in Manaus. I think a trip to the Amazon is on many travelers' checklists, and I can't imagine my trip to Brazil without it!