Golden beaches, verdant hills meeting turquoise waters. Astonishing biodiversity and sound ecotourism. Phenomenal fishing. And oh, the food. Such superlatives might describe an island paradise in the South Pacific, an "undiscovered" stretch of Aegean coast, or the whole of Costa Rica. Unlikely though it may seem, these words describe a rarefied stretch of Brazil's Xingu River, a 1,230-mile tributary of the Amazon equally well.
I recently had the opportunity spend some time fishing this stretch of river at the Xingu River Lodge, run by High Hook Fishing Tours (www.highhookfishing.com). On arrival at the lodge, one immediately gets the sense that this is a special place. Stretching out below the property's verandah is a vast stretch of river flowing through an archipelago of forested islands. Beaches separate the river from the forest, and outcroppings of basalt rocks punctuate the entire basin. This landscape is framed by distant hills covered with thick, untouched forest. The haunting calls of forest birds echo in the gathering dusk as the nightly chorus of insects begins its performance. Icy cocktail in hand, this scene seems almost surreal -- the contact point of the timeless forest and the modern world, replete with hot water, catered meals, satellite TV, and air-conditioning (all hard-to-come-by luxuries in the Amazon).
The Xingu River Lodge lies over 40 miles from the provincial city of Altamira. Although it's possible to charter a plane for the 15-minute flight to the lodge's private airstrip, a more budget-friendly (and scenic) option is to travel by van courtesy of the lodge. The route follows the TransAmazon Highway, which in this region is no more than a dirt road. The last 12 miles of the journey follows a one-lane dirt track through fields and remnants of rainforest -- sadly, even in this remote country, slash and burn economics rule, and each year, more virgin forest is lost to pastures to raise cheap beef. In the wet season, this route can be largely impassable because of runoff and mud. Thankfully, the dry, high season for fishing is also the best season for driving.
The Xingu Lodge is all-inclusive, so once there, visitors can relax and let their biggest worries be what sort of fish to pursue and what lures might best entice them. The lodge staff is exceptional, with great cooks, housekeepers, and most important, excellent fishing guides. Most of the guides grew up near this stretch of river and some live off of it when not working as guides. Their knowledge of fishing spots, techniques, and ability to navigate the Xingu's sometimes treacherous currents and perpetually confusing backwaters borders on the encyclopedic. Each guide has particular strengths, such as knowledge of fly-fishing or bait-casting, so make sure they know what you'd like to catch and how you intend to do so.
On my first day, I was paired with an affable guide. He spoke no English and I only rudimentary Portuguese. Thankfully, lodge policy is to have at least one Anglophone at the lodge to facilitate communication. Although this was a bonus, I found that between my hastily learned-on-CD Portuguese and the singular Brazilian ability to create a working lingo from soccer terms and motions, I was able to communicate and even joke with the guides. Sure, our conversations weren't Sartorial, but who needs to discuss existentialism while pre-occupied with the piranha at the end of your line?
The Xingu River is rich in fish, and it's possible to catch over 15 species in the lodge's 18 miles of river alone. Most anglers come to this area to fish peacock bass, a powerful fighter and admittedly toothsome fish. High season for peacocks runs from July until the second week of December. At other times of year, the water may be too high and the fish too dispersed in the submerged forest. Even when waters are high, however, catfish, such as the beautiful red-tailed catfish and whiskery barbado are plentiful. Surubim are also a popular catch. A fun fighter, this zebra-striped fish is prized as a delicacy in Rio and Sao Paulo. Fortunately for them, High Hook runs an entirely catch and release operation to preserve the fishing stocks for future anglers.
French explorer Jacques Cousteau explored the Amazon and her tributaries with much excitement. He dove this stretch of river and discovered just how rich in fish the area is -- and legendarily spotted a 1,200-pound catfish in the Xingu's depths. While the largest specimen my boat landed was a 27-pound red-tail, it provided plenty of excitement. Local wisdom holds that pound for pound, fish on the Xingu are some of the best fighters in the world because they must constantly navigate its swift currents. I was skeptical myself until I reeled in a prize fighter of a fishÂ?that wasn't more than 10 inches long. In retrospect, I'm perfectly content that I never crossed paths with the 1200-pound catfish.
Every day, the lodge's guides ferry guests to different stretches of river to fish different holes and rapids. These rides can be a delight as you glide along the Xingu, watching for wildlife. In one morning alone I saw countless rainforest birds wing overhead and a tapir swimming down the river. Upon arrival at a fishing hole, guides happily help you set up your gear, and even bait your hook -- a great service considering the worms are quite literally three feet long and smell of death. They're infamous for this odor, but are a favorite snack among the Xingu's fish. Your hook safely baited at arm's length, you can relax, enjoy the sun and the scenery, and even indulge in some of the cold beer and soft drinks that the lodge staff thoughtfully sends along each morning. This is back-to-basics, Xingu-style.
Time at the Xingu River Lodge becomes less important the longer you stay. Days are punctuated by meals and the long, starry Amazon nights. I fell into this rhythm sooner than I'd like to admit, my movements dictated only by my hunger and need to sleep. Coming off the river to a meal each day was akin to arriving at a wedding banquet. Cold drinks and hors d'oeuvres were always waiting, followed shortly by a smorgasbord consisting of dishes ranging from simple rice and bean recipes to fish, chicken, and beef prepared and spiced in an endless variety of ways. Properly, dessert followed every meal and nearly always took advantage of the bounty of locally-grown fresh fruit. Though I ate like a king (or, dare I say, pig) the healthy food and constant activity kept me in shape; alas, it's not only the French who enjoy a paradoxical relationship to food and weight. Sometimes, it seems, excess is just enough.
Succumbing to the rhythm of this lifestyle, one realizes what gems responsibly-managed lodges like the one on the Rio Xingu can be. Not only do they provide a wonderful opportunity to relax and enjoy the outdoors, they also provide locals with well-paying jobs, create a substantial incentive for preserving the forest, and educate visitors about the rich diversity of the vast, yet fragile rainforest of the Amazon basin. Supporting such environmentally conscious properties promotes the preservation of the surrounding rainforest and contributes towards the growth of more eco-oriented properties, which in turn work to preserve more forest. In the hopes of imparting visitors with a lasting appreciation of the unique nature of this endangered resource, the lodge maintains a nature trail where guides routinely introduce visitors to this complex ecosystem.
On my last afternoon at the lodge, my guide took me along the narrow trail, under serpentine vines stretching towards the distant emerald canopy. Myriad birds and insects flit through the lush undergrowth, and rare tortoises ambled along the forest floor, easy marks for photo ops. I was soon overcome by the feeling of stepping into a National Geographic documentary, replete with parades of leaf-cutter ants and leaping howler monkeys. As we neared the end of our ramble, my guide stopped to scan the adjacent forest. My translator explained that he could smell that a snake has just crossed the trail. We scurried back towards our boat to avoid any serpentine encounters and squeezed in one last hour of fishing before nightfall. As the sun set and the southern sky turned from gold and crimson to soft shades of pink and milky blue, pairs of macaws returned noisily to their roosts while we motored back to the lodge's boathouse. Just another day on the Xingu.
TAM Airlines (www.tamairlines.com) flies daily from Miami to Belém. From Belém, lodge representatives can work with you to arrange flights on a regional carrier to Altamira, 40 miles from the lodge. Chartering flights directly to the lodge from Belém or Altamira may be an economically viable option for groups. The lodge also runs complimentary shuttle service from Altamira's airport.
Currently, a week's stay (a full six days of fishing) at the lodge is $3,100. This rate is all-inclusive, although tipping the house staff and guides $15 per day, respectively, is greatly appreciated.
It is highly recommended that lodge visitors take the advantage of the opportunity to explore Belém or Manaus to appreciate northern Brazil's welcoming culture, and unique city-meets-rainforest atmosphere. In Belém's renowned Ver-O-Peso market, merchants hawk goods from all over the Amazon ranging from monkey skulls to patchouli handicrafts. High Hook Tours can also work with the the state tourist board Paratur (www.paratur.pa.gov.br) to arrange further exploratory trips throughout the region. Near Belém, one can visit Indian villages, see the traditional way of life of the river's boat people, or visit areas rich in wildlife, such as Parrot Island. Amazon Star Turismo, Rua Henrique Gurjão 236 (www.amazonstar.com.br) also offers a variety of such tours. In Belém proper, a visit to Mangal das GarÃ§as (www.prodepa.psi.br/mangaldasgarcas) can result in some fantastic culinary memories in addition to sightings of scarlet ibis and other native birds.
For more insight into fishing the Xingu, check out: (www.anglersnet.co.uk/Overseas-Articles/adventure_fishing_Brazil.html), and High Hook Fishing Tours (www.highhookfishing.com).
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