How A Floating Brazilian Lodge Is Keeping The Amazon’s Caimans Swimming

A stalwart of sustainable tourism, Brazil’s Uakari Lodge provides for both the local communities living in its verdant surrounds and for the circus of wildlife that calls the Mamirauá Reserve home

Ailton Martins Carvalho is pointing at a shadowy, dark space on the water's surface. "There's the caiman," he says, stopping the boat so we can get a closer look. I can just about see the faint glint of scales adorning a long, muscular body. Quickly calculating the position of the creature, I shiver nervously: it's lying in a spot a metre or so below my cabin bed. Only floorboards would separate me from it later that night. I ask Carvalho how long the caiman would lie there for. He chuckles: "As long as he wants."

My reptilian bunkmate is one of dozens of caiman that swim through the waters surrounding Uakari Lodge, the only floating hotel in Brazil's Mamirauá Reserve. "I think they think it's cosy here," says Cecilia Varanda, one of the hotel's councillors, when I ask her why there are so many in the area. Tucked into a river bend in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, the bright red floating bungalows in stark contrast to the verdant treetops above, my home for night looked inviting. The waters? Less so.

Uakari Lodge, Brazil

An anhinga drying its wings, left, and Uakari Lodge

Back in my cabin, I kick off my hiking shoes and look down nervously at the floorboards, imagining the sharp-toothed monster below. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remember an old children's tale about a castle surrounded by alligator-infested waters. Here, "infested" doesn't seem to quite fit - after, all the forest and river are his home. I am just a guest.

Open for two decades, the floating Uakari wasn't designed for aesthetics or ideas of "cosiness". Instead, its location on the bend of the Japaruá was picked to keep its footprint light. On my long journey to the hotel, which began with a flight from the Amazonas capital of Manaus to Tefé and then a 90-minute boat ride to the lodge, I had seen similar buildings in riverside communities - homes built on stilts, and long staircases leading down to the water's surface. I knew that soon, they wouldn't be needed. Travelling with my mother, our visit Uakari had been planned to coincide with the beginning of the rainy season. Water levels are still low, but they will be rising. Located in a region of the Amazon called the várzea, or the flooded forest, the hotel sees dramatic rises and falls in water level throughout the year.

Carvalho cuts off a branch of an unha de gato (cat’s claw) tree – freshwater leaks out of it like a tap

During the rainy season, the majority of the lodge's excursions are done by boat when the forest and nearby lakes flood. But things are not so simple during our visit: an ongoing drought meant that levels are still lower than normal. Trails, set to be completely submerged in a few months, are still accessible. It has its advantages: on a walk with Carvalho along one trail, he points out trees with unique properties, capable of living in such a watery landscape. He cuts off a branch of an unha de gato (cat's claw) tree - freshwater leaks out of it like a tap. We tread carefully, watching our step as we navigate twisting roots and catching vines. Our guides keep their eyes out for the rustling of leaves overhead - a sign monkeys are close, including one in particular, the red-faced, white-furred uakari.

When the Brazilian primatologist José Márcio Ayres travelled to this area to study the original habitat of the uakari monkey in the 1980s, he found a landscape plagued by exploitation. In 1985, he proposed the founding of the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development, a plan to transform the region into a protected reserve that would ensure that more than 400,000 hectares of rainforest were safe from destruction, while providing economic opportunities and sustainable resource management education for the riverside communities living in the area. He was successful, and included in the plans was Uakari Lodge, an ecotourism destination that would be co-managed by the institute and the local communities. Today, over 90 per cent of the hotel's operations are run by ribeirinhos - people from communities inside the reserve. Outsiders make up the rest of the staff, serving as both cultural guides and language interpreters.

Uakari Lodge, Brazil
Uakari Lodge, Brazil

Ailton Martins Carvalho carves a walking stick, left, and Cecilia Varanda scanning the riverbank

The involvement of ribeirinhos in the project offers visitors the chance to learn about the region's indigenous communities. On our second day at Uakari, we set out to Carvalho's hometown, Vila Alencar. With the water levels still low, we're on foot, hiking for 40 minutes. Arioste "Tote" Martins Carvalho, one of the town's leaders and our guide's brother, meets us when we arrive, and we head to an old school building that's been transformed into a community centre. Nearby, a herd of cows takes refuge from the midday sun. Cattle, and other resources, are shared among the 30 families who live in the community.

Tote takes us on a tour of the village. Tagging along is his five-year-old daughter, Lara, who follows us, picking flowers en route and introducing us to roaming puppies. Later, she brings us caiman teeth to look at. Tote explains that, initially, Mamirauá's indigenous communities were resistant to the idea of the reserve, concerned that strict regulations would prevent them from making their living off the land. But with time, it became evident how the institute could not only help them manage environmental resources, to prevent problems like overfishing, but also bring a second income source to their lands: a steady flow of tourism.

Uakari Lodge, Brazil
Uakari Lodge, Brazil

Arioste Martins Carvalho and his daughter, left, and Vila Alencar

The Uakari institute provides training programmes not only for people to become guides and to share resources, but also for basic studies and resources that can help them apply for college. December is the start of the summer holidays in Brazil, but in a couple of months, the children of the community will be back in school, connecting to a remote classroom via satellite internet. Schoolchildren, and their families, are also active participants in conservation. "The institute can't begin new research without the approval of the locals," Varanda explains. "Everyone here works together to do everything to preserve the area. They are proud that there are people from all over the world coming here."

Back on the trail, on our return to our floating hotel, Carvalho points to a paw print in the dirt. Jaguar tracks. He noticed them on our way to the village, but waited until we were almost back in the safety of our floating home to tell us about them. Back at the hotel, I wonder at the wild cacophony of howler monkeys, the never-quiet soundtrack of bird calls and the splashes of the giant arapaima fish, who rise to the water's surface seeking air every half hour - everything that the reserve seeks to preserve, including those grinning black caimans.

Paraty, Brazil
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