Our second day in Brazil I looked around at our lunch setting – a floating restaurant on the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River, where fish was being set out for us as our kids were swimming and kayaking, and remarked to one of the other trip participants that this was one of those magical moments – those times in your life when you want to remember every detail, and when there’s nowhere else in the world that you can imagine being right this second. She commented that she had just been thinking the exact same thing. And that was before we had even boarded our ship for our five-day journey up the river. There would be more magical moments to come.
Brazil with Kids
I had never visited Brazil – partially because of the hassle with obtaining a visa. But at the beginning of 2018 the government switched to a far-simpler e-visa system, and at the same time a friend asked if I wanted to journey into the Amazon with her and her kids, along with several other friends of ours. Yes! My 8-year-old daughter is my adventurous animal lover so she was my obvious traveling companion. We planned the trip for mid-June. There would be 16 of us total – eight adults and eight kids, ranging in age from seven to fourteen. Four boys and four girls. It was a perfect mix. Our Whole Village and their local partner Katerre coordinated the entire trip for us.
My daughter and I left home in Los Angeles very early for a 6:05am flight to Miami, and then connected to Manaus, arriving at 10pm. It was an easy travel day – two 5.5-hour flights and we were in Brazil, my 50thcountry with kids. A driver met us and took us to our hotel for two nights, the Boutique Hotel Casa Teatro. We went to sleep.
The next morning we met up with everyone else in our group – also staying at our hotel – and set off for a day of exploration around Manaus. This was an add-on to the normal ship trip, but very few of us had been to Brazil before so we wanted to see a little more. We took a van over to the primary fish/produce market of the city, walked around with a guide who explained what we were seeing, and then got into a boat for a journey to the Meeting of the Waters – where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões come together but don’t combine for 6km as they form the Lower Amazon River. Well, we thought it would be a simple boat ride, but it was so much more. We boated through swamps which may or may not have held anacondas (we told the kids they were everywhere). We stopped at a tribal village, watched villagers dance, learned about their way of life, danced with them, and tried some of their foods – including fried ants. We ate an excellent lunch at a floating restaurant. We saw monkeys, and lily pads as large as our kids. And we made it to the Meeting of the Waters – which is one of the more unique things I’ve seen in the world. The two rivers are together but visibly different, and the water temperatures are even different. You can put your hand in and immediately feel the temperature change as you move across the line.
We then boated back to Manaus just in time for the second half of the Brazil-Switzerland World Cup game. We walked from our hotel one minute to the city’s main square, in front of the Amazon Theatre, where a large television was set up and hundreds of people in green and yellow were cheering on Brazil. So fun! The game ended in a tie, but people still partied through the night – music and dancing everywhere. If you ever get a chance to watch a Brazilian football game with a crowd of Brazilians, do it.
We then watched the sunset from the room of the hotel, and our day ended with an excellent dinner at Caxiri, across the street from the theatre. My new favorite fish: tambaqui. Amazing and buttery and there are no small bones. And then as we were walking back to the hotel, the kids saw group cycling taking place in the main square and all wanted to do it. A guide was on the first bike with three-wheeled cycles attached behind him, and he and the kids cycled around the square and neighboring blocks. An excellent investment for only 5 Reals (US$1.50)!
And then our trip started.
The next morning we said goodbye to internet connectivity for five days and set off for the Rio Negro. We took taxis roughly three hours to the town of Novo Airão, arriving at Flor do Luar, named after Margaret Mee’s local flower drawings, at noon. The kids immediately jumped in the river. Eventually we ate lunch – an amazing lunch, with more tambaqui – but there was no hurry. The kids and adults swam and kayaked, the adults drank caipirinhas, and everyone bonded. The kids got along great right from the start. It was a magical setting.
Around 3pm our ship, and home for the rest of the week, the Jacaré Açu pulled up to the restaurant and we boarded. But the kids didn’t stay on for long. They realized that the front of the boat, a large caiman head, made for a perfect diving board. They jumped into the water for a half an hour until we departed. Sunset from the top deck was stunning. Then dinner on board.
But no sleep yet. That would be boring. We docked and took a short walk up to a two-story gazebo with lots of hammock hooks. Anyone who wanted to could sleep in the open-air gazebo – basically camping in the Amazon. Six of eight kids, and two of the adults, went for it. My daughter has always liked camping, and she liked the other girls, so she was in. She took a hammock from our room, a stuffed animal, a jacket (just in case) and headed up the hill. She slept very well.
In the morning everyone who slept on board went up the hill to visit the campers and watch sunrise. Then we all came back to the boat and headed up the river. First up: a short farmhouse museum visit and a 4-hour hike to a cave and back. Along the hike we stopped often to learn about the plants of the rainforest and to climb trees, and to watch our guide make fire and set up a tripwire bow and arrow. It was a fun hike, with very little complaining from the kids despite the heat and humidity. Yes, everyone was happy to be in the rainforest.
Then back to the boat for lunch and some downtime before the first round of piranha fishing. We got into two small speedboats – the kids in one and the adults in the other – and headed off in search of fish. We used bamboo fishing poles with meat as bait and caught (and released) one. The kids didn’t catch any. But it was a fun experience, and sunset was once again gorgeous.
The morning of our second full cruise day, we were told that we would have a one-hour speedboat ride to a small waterfall, spend an hour there, and then have an hour back to the boat. That was an extraordinarily simple description of the most magical morning of my life.
The Rio Negro translates as Black River. The water is very dark. When you’re swimming and you look down at your legs, they’re dark red. What I hadn’t thought about is that the black water, when it’s still, perfectly reflects everything. It was stunning on a regular basis, but it was especially stunning going through the narrow, flooded passages of Rio Preto. Much of the trip the water was so still and clear that you couldn’t even tell where the water was. You simply looked down and saw the trees. It felt like we were flying through a valley; like we were part of Alice in Wonderland. Up was down and down was up. I didn’t want the boat ride to end.
We traveled up the incredible Rio Preto as far as we could – to the waterfall, which was really more of a rapid. During the dry season boats can’t make it up the river that far, and there won’t be the same reflections, but there are beaches and larger waterfalls that are short hikes away. So it’s a trade-off. I loved our journey though! Most of us jumped in the water and played, as a downpour came and went, for the better part of an hour. Then we returned though the same magical passageway. At one point our guide stopped our boat and pointed at a small brown spot high up in a tree. A sloth. Not very photogenic, but no worries. Our guide climbed 30 feet up the thin tree, picked up the sloth, lowered him carefully to the boat, and the kids all got to see him up-close. Kind of crazy! The sloth was returned to the tree a few minutes later, and we returned to our boat.
After lunch on the boat, we docked at the small village of Cachoeira – where conservation and education projects are supported (along with other villages) by the fees we paid for the trip. We toured the school, we learned how manioc/yucca/cassava flour is made, and the kids played football with the local kids. Most of the kids then swam at the village swimming spot.
Following a little downtime, we headed out in the speedboats for a night safari. Both boats (a kids boat and an adult boat) went up different sides of the river in search of anything – but primarily caimans. For 45 minutes we came up empty. And then Joseph our guide spotted something 100 meters away, through several layers of trees. We turned off the engine, quietly zig-zagged around flooded foliage, and found a small caiman. Even by the standards of crazy night safari guides who locate the impossible, this was extraordinary. Joseph bent over and quickly snared the caiman, bringing him into our boat. We then motored out to the kids’ boat to let them all see the caiman up close. Joseph gave everyone a crash course on caimans, let the kids take some pictures with him, and then released him. Meanwhile our larger boat had motored down the river and caught up with us, so we didn’t even have to travel far to return for dinner. A well-orchestrated safari, and finding the caiman was a trip highlight for the kids.
After our third night on board, we took a speedboat a very short distance to a stand of Samauma – the tallest trees in the Amazon. The kids took turns seeing how high they could climb. We then boated to the mostly abandoned town of Airão Velho, a hub of the rubber trade a hundred years ago. We walked through buildings quickly being reclaimed by the forest while we learned the history of the area, and Joseph made a rubber band in front of us, draining a small amount of rubber sap from a tree and heating it on a leaf.
After the village visit, we swam for over an hour in the middle of the river, with the kids (and a few adults) jumping off the top of the boat over and over. Then lunch, and the kids headed off to fish for piranha. They caught eight this time!
After some downtime, the schedule had us watching a PBS documentary on the Amazon. However the kids convinced the captain to sail into the middle of the river and stop so that they could swim some more. We stopped for a good two hours and everyone got back into the water – this time as the sun was going down. Magical? Yep. And in case you were wondering, yes this is all the same river – the one where we caught piranha and the caiman. My understanding is that the dangerous creatures mostly stick close to shore, so there wasn’t much chance of something coming after us in the middle of the river. I still wondered how quickly I could get back to the boat if something did start nibbling on me…
Then drinks on board, dinner, the documentary, and bed.
Our final morning on the boat we woke up, had breakfast and packed, and then walked off the boat at one of the nicest lodges I’ve ever stayed at – Mirante do Gavião in Novo Airão. It’s an amazing property on the edge of the Rio Negro, with gorgeous rooms and several overlooks for viewing the forest/river and watching for wildlife. We spotted 10 or so toucans. And after four nights on the boat, we appreciated the showers!
We spent the morning at the pool (we took up practically all of the rooms at the lodge and there were no other guests, so we were fine with the kids being as crazy as they wanted to be). Then it was off to the Almerinda Malaquias Foundation, where we learned how the foundation is helping the local community of Novo Airão by teaching carpentry skills and supplementing the local education of school children. We all worked on carving and sanding small manatees, purchased a few things made at the foundation, and then returned to the hotel for lunch.
In the afternoon, after more pool time, we took a very short boat ride (it was also walkable) to a floating platform where we learned about Rio Negro’s pink river dolphins and then were able to see several up-close. The dolphins are wild animals and are free to swim anywhere, but they come close to the platform to be fed several times a day. We were all able to pet them and get photos. It’s not an extraordinarily satisfying experience, since it’s a little zoo-like, but it was nice to get closer to them after all of the sightings from the boat over the course of the week. The kids all seemed to have fun.
Then more swimming, dinner, and bed. We slept very well.
Our final day was completely unstructured, since people in our group were leaving throughout the day for the 2.5-hour drive to the Manaus airport. We didn’t fly out until midnight, so we had the entire day to relax, read, swim, and delete a lot of emails. Breakfast and lunch were excellent. After lunch my daughter and I walked 15 minutes into town to Bio Nobre, a store with carved wood and jewelry that others in the group had found. My daughter bought earrings. Note that if you head to the store and it’s closed, you can just walk into the bar to the left and ask them to find the woman who owns the shop.
We thought about taking a motorcycle taxi back to the lodge, given the heat and humidity, but I didn’t think my wife would love me putting my 8-year-old on a motorcycle. So we walked back. We swam some more, packed, ate an early dinner, and left for the airport at 6:30, arriving at 9pm to find that our American flight to Miami was delayed an hour. Ugh.
We finally departed close to 1am, arrived in Miami around 5:30am, went through customs/immigration, and connected to LA. We were back in California before noon.
Note that American flies the Airbus 319 between Miami and Manaus. It’s an uncomfortable plane – especially for an overnight flight – and the late night departure time is tough for kids. I’d book with another airline if possible, but there aren’t a lot of options.
This trip was infinitely better because of the lack of internet. We were in the moment. We talked at meals. We enjoyed sunsets without thinking about responding to emails. We saw dolphins because we weren’t looking at our phones. The kids played, and wrote and performed songs, and relaxed in the hammocks a lot – without devices. Come to the rain forest and leave everything else behind!
When we finally had internet again at Mirante do Gavião, I had almost 600 emails waiting for me. None were important. My wife and kids were fine. Everything had continued the same. After just a few minutes online, I wanted to mute the world again.
The Jacaré Açu is not a fancy boat, but it’s perfect for the Rio Negro. It was locally-built. It feels right. Cabins are small, but you’re not in your cabin often. When you turn on the shower, the water comes straight from the river. It’s slightly warmer in the evening than in the morning! I didn’t shower for the four nights on the boat, but we were constantly jumping in the river so I was clean enough. Do not sign up for this trip if you are high-maintenance, or inflexible, or can’t handle the lack of internet. Seriously.
Weather and Packing
It rained every day, but usually when we were on the boat. The only times we were out in the rain, at the rapid/waterfall and at Cachoeira, it didn’t affect our plans. We simply got a little wetter at the waterfall, and we ducked into the schoolhouse in the village. I was never worried about my camera – I had a Ziploc bag that I used when necessary. The storms were never longer than 20 minutes.
We overpacked. We never used the towels we brought (the ship provided towels), and we only needed one pair of hiking pants and really one pair of shorts each. We got sweaty but not overly dirty. We never wore our hiking shirts – long-sleeve or short-sleeve. T-shirts worked well, even if it took them a while to dry. We didn’t use our water shoes either – we alternated between hiking shoes and flip flops depending on the excursion. I didn’t use my fleece or rain jacket, but my daughter used her fleece the morning that she camped, and her rain jacket at the waterfall since she wasn’t in swimwear. Between the two of us we went through over half our 7oz bottle of sunscreen and half of our 6oz bottle of bug spray.
There are areas of the Amazon where malaria and yellow fever are problematic, but not where we were. We both already had our yellow fever shots anyway. Mosquitos weren’t overwhelming by any means. My daughter is usually a magnet for bites and she didn’t get any until we arrived at the lodge at the end of the trip and we didn’t protect ourselves enough. She was bitten by a few fire ants during one of the hikes, and developed a minor itchy rash, probably from a tree that she brushed against, but no major issues at all. I got two mosquito bites that stopped itching quickly. No one in the group had any strange symptoms or injuries.
I received a media rate. Adults are roughly $2,499 each for a 4-night cruise (7-day itinerary). Kids 7-9 are $1,899. Kids 3-6 are $1,240. That includes one night in Manaus, transportation from Manaus to Novo Airão, a magical lunch at Flor do Luar, four nights on the boat, one night at the end at Mirante do Gavião, transportation back to Manaus, all meals starting at Flor do Luar and ending at Mirante do Gavião, and most drinks on the boat (wine on board is extra, as are drinks at the lodge). Cruises can be up to nine nights, but for families the 4-6 night cruises are optimal. Extra nights at Mirante do Gavião start at $175 per person per night, including meals but not tours. Katerre Expeditions, which runs the trips with Our Whole Village, supports projects in villages along the river with proceeds from the trip.
But don’t book individually! Part of the reason I loved our trip so much was that we had the boat and the lodge to ourselves. The Jacaré Açu is approx US$3,700/day to rent. That gives you eight cabins which can sleep 16. Get a few groups of friends and family together and split the cost. You’ll save money and have a better experience, and they’ll customize the itinerary and activities for you. Book at least three months in advance to get the dates you want, or for high season (July, December-February).
The first day tour of Manaus and the Meeting of the Waters was an additional US$50 for adults and $25 for kids, including lunch. The extra night at Casa Teatro in Manaus was $70 or so.
ATMs in Manaus are a pain. I had my card rejected once because it was too late at night, and again the next day when I tried to withdraw 1000 Reals (US$260). So I withdrew 500 Reals instead and used all of it throughout the trip – mainly on snacks and wood crafts from the Almerinda Malaquias Foundation. I tipped the boat staff and our guide roughly US$200 total.
The Amazon Rainforest With Kids – Summary
This was one of my favorite trips ever. I loved the bonding with my daughter, the extraordinary experiences in a very unique setting, and the group that we were with. And I loved being unplugged from the world for five days. It was a magical week.
My daughter loved the animal experiences, the hammocks everywhere, and the independence. There were times when she was running around with the other kids, both on the boat and at the lodge, where I wouldn’t see her for an hour or two.
I’ve had a lot of experiences, and visited a lot of destinations, that could be considered once-in-a-lifetime. This wasn’t one of them.
I’d go back tomorrow. I’d love to take my other kids. I’d love to experience the river when the water level is lower, and see the beaches and waterfalls. And I’d love to see the night sky reflected in the Rio Negro. It’s supposed to be incredible, but it was too cloudy this trip to experience it.
And after traveling with Our Whole Village on this trip, I wouldn’t hesitate to book with them again. They have trips to Baja and Thailand/Cambodia that look great. And I wouldn’t book a return trip to the Amazon with anyone else.