The Amazon. No, we’re not talking about the Internet retail giant that somehow co-opted the name of a magical, mystical geographic destination. We’re talking Brazil’s Amazon and Pantanal with jungle and waterways and wetlands — a destination so steeped in legend that it promises adventure and bucket list experiences to anyone lucky enough to visit. Imagine glimpsing wildlife you have likely never seen before, colorful birds, strange insects, and hearing wondrous sounds in the night floating across black, sometimes swirling waters. Journeys International offers numerous adventures into this Brazilian region with the Wildlife Wonders of Brazil, 14-day tour, being the most exotic and enticing, offering maximum opportunities to view wildlife of all shapes and sizes.

Even the flowers are exotic in the Amazon.

Even the flowers, like this water orchid, are more exotic in the Amazon. (Photo by Marilyn Heckmyer).

Marilyn Heckmyer, 74, selected a customized “Wildlife Wonders of Brazil” tour with three of her friends in 2016. HI Travel Tales had the opportunity to speak with Marilyn, a retired teacher and librarian, about her adventure with Journeys. Marilyn, who honestly could not tell us just how many countries she has been too, has been traveling every year since college. (She did note she’s been to every country in South America and Europe, as well as many others scattered around the globe, including Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Indonesia and Uganda.)

Below, Marilyn, who lives in Chicago with her husband, shares some of her insights and travel tips about the Amazon and Pantanal, as well as about travel in general.

Travel prep and more for Amazon and Pantanal

Amazon and Pantanal adventure, setting out from the river boat.

Late afternoon excursion on the River Negro with the M/Y Tucano in the background. From left to right – Kathy Freeman, Sheila McDonnell, Roz Lax and Marilyn Heckmyer.

HITT: What inspired you to go to the Amazon?

Marilyn: I have been traveling with a group of women for years now, and we were running out of places to go so we began looking at new trips Journeys was offering and this one stood out. Nature is very appealing to us, and the lure of seeing jaguars was what inspired us to go on this particular adventure.

HITT: What day or experience seems to become the story you tell most often about this adventure?

Marilyn: There are so many. Certainly seeing a jaguar for the first time tops the list. We were out in these small boats and saw a jaguar walking along the shore. He would walk along the shore for a while, then get in the water and swim. I never knew jaguars could swim. And then he would get out and walk some more. This went on for nearly two hours. Near the end, he leapt out of the water and grabbed a caiman by the neck and killed it. Our guide told us it is very rare to see a jaguar actually hunting and making a kill.

Jaguar in the waters of the Amazon.

Jaguar swimming in the water. (Photo by Marilyn Heckmyer).

Another story took place in Brasilia. Our guide’s father was one of the architects for the famous main cathedral in the city. What made the greatest impression on me was seeing the Cathedral of Brasilia in person, however — the same cathedral I had shown students pictures of in a textbook when I was teaching!

Cathedral of Brasilia on the Amazon and Pantal Journeys adventure.

Inside the Cathedral of Brasilia. (Photo by Marilyn Heckmyer).

And I loved staying at the Araras Eco Lodge. The food is terrific and the people who own and run the lodge are so wonderful. You feel like family almost immediately.

HITT: What was your favorite food?

Marilyn: In Brasilia, there are a lot of very good restaurants. Enjoy the variety. On the boats, they try hard, and the food is good, but it is basic – rice and beans. It doesn’t matter to me because I am traveling for the experience, not the food. One food item did really stand out to me though as delicious – the Cuba Libre drink with rum and muddled mint at the bottom.

Piranha appetizer on the Amazon and Pantanal adventure with Journeys International.

Piranha appetizer during the cocktail hour. Apparently, on the food score card, it’s Piranha “0” to Cuba Libre beverages “1.” (Photo by Marilyn Heckmyer).

HITT: What advice would you give others traveling to the Amazon and Pantanal?

Marilyn: Definitely pack very lightweight, long sleeve shirts and long pants. It is not an area where you wear shorts. And be sure to pack along a lightweight rain jacket – it will rain on your trip at some point. Also, people should not be disappointed if they do not see a lot of animals. The jungle is so thick and while there is a lot of opportunity for wildlife viewing, the animals are not operating on a tourist-viewing schedule. We got very lucky on our trip.

Walking in the Amazon along the Rio Negro.

Walking in the rainforest along the shores of the Rio Negro. This is not a casual stroll. (Photo by Marilyn Heckmyer).

Also, it is important to realize adventures like this in the Amazon are in nature. It can be hot, and wet, and the walking is not easy. We went during the Zika scare and packed so much DEET I could have gone into the DEET business, although we didn’t see a mosquito until we entered the Pantanal – there, we experienced mosquitoes.

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Travel tips and insights from a veteran traveler

HITT: What three items do you consider must-bring things on any trip?

Marilyn: I bring my mini iPad to write notes in as I go along. It has replaced the paper journal I used to bring. I also pack along a camera for better photos, and I bring my iPhone so I can take pictures and send them home along the way. For everything else, I just go with the flow. I don’t pack snacks or other small things. My goal is to travel as light as I can, and I still don’t travel lightly enough.

HITT: What is (so far) your favorite place in the world?

Marilyn: Rwanda and Uganda and seeing the gorillas in both places. There is nothing like it. We had a great guide – Paul — who works for Journeys. We are still in touch. We made up our minds to see the gorillas in both places even though it is super expensive. It is difficult and you have to be willing to walk and adventure. If I had to choose just one country, it would be Uganda because it is not so commercial. Rwanda, you have drums and tea. In Uganda, you just go. But this question is so hard too, because every trip I have gone on and every place I have visited and experienced in the world I have really gotten so much out of each.

HITT: Do you have a favorite travel quote or saying?

Marilyn: Experience things don’t buy things. I love travel because it broadens your whole perspective on the world. Enjoy the experiences you can have.

Now that is a big fish! In the fish market at Manus.

The fish market in Mercado Municipal of Manus. (Photo by Marilyn Heckmyer).

HITT: Why did you start traveling?

Marilyn: When I was in college I had an atlas – I still have it — and I mapped out the trips I was going to take and had visions of all the places in the world I wanted to see. First place I went to was Europe. From my first teaching job, I saved some money and took a prop plane and went to Europe for three months over the summer. I also bought a Eurail pass so I could sleep on the train at night to save money. And, I stayed in hostels. It was the kind of whirlwind trip where “If it was Tuesday, it must be Belgium,” but ever since then I have gone away for the summer, somewhere. I have always had the travel bug. You are either a traveler or not.

HITT: Is there one region or place in the world that draws you back again and again?

Marilyn: My husband and I go to France every other year – Paris. It is a special draw for us. We know it and love it. I do also have an affinity for India.

HITT: What would you tell people who, for whatever reason, don’t travel, don’t even have a passport?

Marilyn: I just think they miss out on a lot and miss out on life. You can read about things but actually experiencing them is so different and makes you so much more understanding of the world around us. I taught in the first suburb school in Skokie, Ill. There were a lot of people from India there. I wish I had gone to India before and also while I was teaching; I would have learned so much that would have helped me better understand the people I was teaching. I have been there three times now. You can see a lot of mountains and historic sites, but it is the people that make the difference in this world.

Sunset on the Amazon and Pantanal adventure.

If you never travel, you will miss scenes like this: sunset on the Pantanal. (Photo by Marilyn Heckmyer).

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Journeys International is the longest standing family-owned global adventure travel company in the US. We offer full-service exotic, guided cross-cultural explorations, nature safaris, treks and eco-tours in remote corners of Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific. Founded by current directors Will and Joan Weber in 1978, Journeys boasts an extraordinary record of client and staff satisfaction and several industry awards.