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24 hours to the Jungle

April 16, 2012 | | By Kevin Read

I’m staring down the length of a long tree branch  to a wire dangling in the water. The canoe I’m sitting in rocks worryingly from side to side at the slightest movement, which makes things difficult for me, since I’m holding the branch trying to feel for a change in the tension on the line. There are 5 of us in the canoe, which is tied up in a glade of trees set in at least 15 feet of water. It’s hot and humid, even in the shade, and the air is filled with hundreds of insects which will every few seconds land on you (and stick), bite you or incompetently fly into your eye. Only just over 24 hours previously I was driving a rental car past the shopping malls and urban sprawl of northern Virginia, and now I’m sat in a canoe in the Amazon Rainforest. Fishing. For piranhas.



When the fish bites it is much more obvious than I would have imagined, a very sharp and clear pull on the line. I pull the branch upwards hard and fast and the tension is completely different than before. When the piranha breaks the surface… panic. Now I have one of the most notoriously vicious creatures in the world violently thrashing around on the end of some string attached to what seems suddenly like a very short stick. And it has good reason to be unhappy with my involvement in its day.

Although not quite deserving of their ferocious reputation, piranhas have some of the characteristics people usually imagine. They are carnivores. They do have very sharp teeth, hunt in groups and, in some circumstances, churn the water with their enthusiastic attacks. Swimming in piranha infested waters is likely to get you bitten and one of our guides lost a brother to piranhas when he was 4 years old. However, the people most at risk for piranha attack are the ones extracting them from the water in boats. I did not know this at the time.

My recently extracted piranha was swinging wildly off the line like an angry sharp-toothed pendulum between the edge of the canoe and a point a few feet away, it’s arc coinciding with an increase in the chaos in the boat as I swung it closer each time. Our guide, Antonio, was shouting instructions which I felt were a little overdue, since there was plenty of time earlier in the trip to explain how to attract the fish, what kind of bait to use and how to ensure you got them firmly on the line; there was surprisingly little about what to do when you got one.

As the line made its next swing, he grabbed it a few inches above the piranha and quickly slid his hand down to the hook, removed it, and allowed us our first look. It did appear fierce with two rows of large jagged teeth, which Antonio demonstrated by putting a branch in the piranha’s mouth so we could watch the jaws snap shut and break the twig in half. I had made a mistake in my performance with the piranha, though: I had shown a weakness. Antonio loves a practical joke, has no fear of the jungle and is basically crazy (the strongest demonstration I can offer for that is the picture below of him climbing 50 feet, one handed, carrying a 5 foot snake which he found in a tree).


With his big semi-toothless grin, he tossed the piranha at my feet, where it flapped violently around for another few seconds before going still while I danced around trying to avoid both the teeth and tipping us all into the dangerous waters.


Eventually, I did get better at controlling them into the boat and lost some of my fear. No-one was bitten, despite Antonio ending every catch with another grin as he tossed the live piranhas under our seats. Two Argentineans with us prioritized retrieving the fish boat far over any kind of control, and gave me a new story about the day I was slapped in the face with a live piranha, but the piranhas came off the worst.

We ate them the next day as a snack. What flesh we did get was good, but difficult to obtain without a mouthful of bone and my taste isn’t sophisticated enough to describe it properly. It tasted of mostly of fish, with a hint of danger.










I stayed at Gol Backpackers in Manaus very near the Teatro Amazonas. It’s friendly, clean and with good security. The common area is not very large and it’s not a party hostel, but I met good people there and the staff are friendly and helpful.

The hostel arranged my jungle tour with Gero Tours. It’s not the cheapest, but the guides are professional and fun, and the jungle lodge accommodation is comfortable. You can go for 3, 4 or 5 nights, leaving any day you choose (I arranged my tour the night I arrived at 1030pm and left the next day at 8).

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3 responses to “24 hours to the Jungle”

  1. Mike A says:

    Whatever, I cleaned a humidifier today, which is way more exciting than being slapped by a piranha.

  2. Matt R says:

    What no picture of the teeth?


  3. Lisa says:

    Wow I had no idea you could do something like that. What a great experience.

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