CRISTALINO, BRAZIL — The September 15, 2015 Guardian Weekly reported that there are just over three trillion trees on the planet. Then Science Magazine chimed in, explaining that 319 billion of those trees existed in the Brazilian Amazon.
Upon reading the reports, I immediately thought of the 200-year-old Brazil nut tree that I spent quality time with when I visited the country’s Cristalino National State Park.
Getting to the national park from São Paulo required me to take two, one-hour flights to Alta Foresta, where all main highways end. From there I took a one-hour bus ride on a semi-private, red-dusted road, followed by a 30-minute pirogue-type boat ride.
Then I arrived in paradise. It was well worth the journey.
Above: Lodge may be hidden deep in the Amazon jungle but it offers 5-star treats.
The Cristalino Jungle Lodge opened in 1992 and, oddly enough, is better known to non-Brazilians than Brazilians. Most of the visitors are nature lovers who wouldn’t mind roughing it in the jungle for a chance to observe the wildlife and plants. As it turned out, our guide was a fellow Canadian. Brad Davies is an expert in all things Amazonian.
At Cristalino, excursions into the dense rain forests are encouraged, but you need a guide as getting to the various trails and canopy-viewing towers always requires a boat trip on the river. And really, do you want to get lost in the Amazon jungle?
The lodge has trails and excursions specifically for bird, mammal, fish and butterfly enthusiasts. The guided tours, with extremely well-trained personnel, are included in the price of the room. Foreigners come here from around the world as volunteers, hoping to guide permanently here.
Volunteers and guests mix easily, be they scouring over reference books in the library or enjoying the floating dock where visitors can go for a soak in the cool Cristalino River. Observation of all creatures, including giant otters, is possible at close proximity. At night, fires are lit in the middle of the dock in a sunken hearth. As soon as the flames die down you witness a spectacular display of southern hemisphere stars seemingly inspired by the choruses of croaking frogs.
Now, back to my Brazilian Brazil nut tree.
Above: Experienced guides introduce lodge guests to the area's fragile eco-system.
Imagine a tree that is so high you cannot see the top, and so wide that a group of seven could not even begin to make a ring around it.
Only one local creature, the beaver-like agouti, has the strength in its jaws to open a Brazil nut acorn to get at the nut. The agouti doesn’t eat all the nuts, but buries them here and there allowing for new seedlings to sprout. Talk about the perfect symbiotic relationship. And to ensure that the trees continue to grow, Brazilian law makes it illegal to cut them down.
There were no agoutis nearby to open the nuts we’d harvested at the base of the tree, so one of the guides hacked away at the acorn with his machete. I happened to have some Canadian granola bars and some Canadian-purchased Brazil nuts in my backpack, and was able to sample them right after tasting the real thing in the Brazilian jungle. Verdict: Amazonian Brazil nuts win hands down in the taste category.
As mentioned, there are more than plants and birds to this paradise. You’ll probably meet endangered white-whiskered spider monkeys and endangered white-nosed bearded saki monkeys, to name but two. And I will never forget the display of tiny, almost weightless butterflies that awaited us on the skiff of sand at the dock whenever we returned from an excursion. The only way to describe them would be to ask you to think of lightly coloured confetti that allows itself to be peacefully brushed by the wind before a stronger, imaginary wind somehow spirits them all away in one gust.
Above: Guests get to meet some rare creatures during their visit to this Amazon lodge.
In this part of Brazil you are really in the middle of nowhere. The lodge owns 28,000 acres of land and is next to an unspoiled Cristalino State Park of 456,000 acres, considered one of the most bio-diverse reserves in the world. All the water that flows by the lodge eventually makes its way down to the Amazon River. For better or for worse, somewhere far downstream is a huge Brazilian Army reserve — by its nature, undeveloped.
The story goes that tree poachers decided to build a bridge into the army territory, thinking that they could harvest trees unnoticed. As soon as the bridge had been completed, the audacity of the poachers was acknowledged by army engineers who then blew up the bridge.
I stayed in a well-appointed single casita with all the comforts of home. That said, the power generated by the lodge generators went off every night, giving us a chance to discover it’s actually quite cool in the jungle when darkness falls and it’s deathly quiet. And you have to pack an alarm clock, as on many mornings we had to get up well before the sun. Or, you could just view the wildlife from your room — I saw many birds from my front porch, some of which were species, thought until recently, to have existed only in the Peruvian Amazon basin.
Since my visit, the ultra chic new reception area restaurant and conference centre that was being finished during my visit, have opened. It was designed by the owner’s daughter, an architect who trained under celebrated Brazilian architect Zanini.
I pray that the simple fare served at the old restaurant will not be replaced by any attempts at chic cuisine. I was told that the old dinner bell will be preserved in the restaurant and can only hope that the down-to-earth service survived the transfer. •
• For more on the lodge, go to http://cristalinolodge.com.br/en