Eldorado, a mythical place in South America where a tribal chief covered himself in gold dust and dived into a lake, was searched for in vain by explorers but in the process the Amazon River was mapped for the first time. In our strange and different ways we all search for an eldorado but I wasn’t sure if I would find one at the end of a journey from Rio de Janiero to a dinky little runway serving the town of Alto Floresta (“high forest”), a settlement that didn’t exist 40 years ago.
I was in the Brazilian state of Matto Grosso but to reach my desired destination involved an hour-long drive in a four-wheel vehicle and then a half-hour boat trip along the Teles Pires and then the smaller Cristalino river, both part of a network of waterways that eventually feed into the Amazon.
The boat being tied to a wooden pier and luggage unloaded, I stared into murky water and, startled by enigmatic bird songs, gazed around at an iridescent blanket of greenery. This, the habitat for Cristalino Jungle Lodge, was deep in Amazonia and the chances of completing a long and tiring journey by connecting to the internet and ordering a quality Argentinian wine (sparkling ones apart, Brazilian wines don’t even come close) seemed improbable, bordering on the impossible. I was so pleased to be so wrong: wifi was available and a Chardonnay from the Adrianna vineyard was on the wine list. Eldorado beckoned.
Day one and a leisurely boat trip up the river: a stationary ibis with beak and legs a luminous green posing on one bank; on the other side, a sun bittern opening its wings to display a pair of seemingly giant eyes. Disembarking, we followed a forest trail to a spectacularly massive Brazil-nut tree, estimated by a specialist from Kew Garden to be around 800 years old, while in the background the Amazonian forest’s signature tune pierced the air – a raucous wolf-whistle coming from the throat of a reclusive screaming piha.
The bird, heard regularly over the next three days, was never seen but on the boat ride back to the lodge something became all too visually present. Our guide had been informed of a partial sighting some days earlier in a particular niche of the bankside and he drew up to the spot just to check it out. There it was, unmistakeably so: a very large coiled snake, a giant anaconda no less.
Disturbed by our boat approaching to within a few metres, the humongous creature unwound and sunk slowly and ominously into the river immediately in front of us; as if frozen by Medusa’s gaze, we sat awed into silence until the boatman restarted the motor in indecent haste and we sped off — everyone spoke of nothing else until the comfort of coffee and biscuits assuaged our sense of being on this occasion just a little too close to nature.
Such David Attenborough moments are rare but are all the more happily encountered and cherished when staying someplace where accommodation and food standards are not the equivalent of sleeping in a tent and eating out of a tin. Cristalino Lodge is a luxury-quality rumble in the jungle and while it may not reach South African levels of unashamed opulence it is superbly well adjusted to its natural environment. A generator provides air-conditioning (except during the night), solar power heats the water and wastewater is eco-managed by a banana-based treatment system.
This translates into an ever so comfortable lodging in a spacious, privately situated bungalow with in- and out-door showers, a hammock on the terrace for lazy lounging and the heart-easing feeling that the planet’s resources are not being recklessly squandered. There may not be an infinity pool but the floating deck on the river is fine for lolling about on after lashing out with sunscreen; and the bar serves a cool caipirinha, the perfect sundowner on returning from an afternoon’s excursion.
Canoeing on the Cristalino River, passing Capped herons and with toucans and macaws flying overhead, is one excursion and it’s ideal for that “I’m an intrepid trailblazer in South America” buzz, but all the forest walks in the care of a knowledgeable guide become a new adventure because each one covers a different habitat. One morning brought a group of White-nosed saki monkeys into view, a pilgrimage of capuchin monkeys having been seen the afternoon before, and the next day we watched in glee the courtship dance of a red-capped manikin (a witty online National Geographic video is the next best thing to seeing it for real).
The last morning started at an unholy hour but with a mist rising atmospherically above the water and Howler monkeys howling in the far distance I was soon imbued with the spirit of the place. A river crossing and a short walk brought us to the Lodge’s 50-metre observation tower where spider monkeys – seemingly with five arms given their acrobatic skills and incredibly prehensile tails – could be looked down on. As if on cue, an elegantly attired white-throated toucan posed for photographs at the top of a tree.
OK, so I didn’t get to be covered in gold dust, witness attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion or watch c-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhäuser Gate. It was still an eldorado experience, the kind of trip you can’t readily make a habit of repeating and all the more valuable for this simple reason.
by Sean Seenan
Need to Know
The local airport is Alto Floresta, reached by daily flights from Cuiabá which is connected by daily flights to San Paulo and Brasilia.
TAP Portugal has 12 weekly flights from London to San Paulo and Brasiliavia Lisbon, prices start at £700 return including all taxes and surcharges. Visit here or call 0345 601 0932.
Journey Latin America (call 020 8600 1881) specialises in tailor-made travel and small group tours to all of Latin America, including Brazil.