MANAUS, Brazil - The Amazon guide raised his hand in the steaming forest and looked at me at the end of a line of six hikers.
"Do you want a machete, Jeremy?" said the guide, Shane Zammette. "Jaguars always attack from the rear."
I spent the next half-hour watching the jungle around me before maneuvering myself into the middle of the group.
It was a moment that brought home the reality of the paradise around us. Amid the tangle of tropical plants and colorful birds, there were also jaguars, poisonous spiders, termite mounds and caimans lunging into waters infested with piranha. Human visitors must take care.
I quickly learned it's essential to survey a shoreline before leaping to land a canoe because you might step on something dangerous. I also found myself watching my every movement as I cleared my way along forest paths. By shifting a branch or vine, I could have found myself clutching a spider or a snake. Any unthinking move could prove fatal.
With those lessons in mind, visiting the Amazon is an experience that dispels myths but also brings respect and awe for the largest rainforest on the planet.
Indeed, say guides, much of what draws people to the Amazon is the chance to venture into one of the world's great unknowns.
"The Amazon was or is a mystery to a lot of people," said Wolf Wink, a German who moved to Brazil to realize his dream of being a jungle guide. He now works under the name Lobinho da Silva, or Little Wolf of the Forest. "The people who come here are interested in the culture and the nature. It's different than all other places in the world."
Our group stayed at a lodge operated by Amazon Gero Tours, one of a number of companies operating from Manaus, a city of 2 million people. In addition to being a gateway for Amazon tourism in Brazil, Manaus is also one of the country's 12 host cities for the World Cup soccer games taking place June 12-July 13, and it's likely to attract crowds of soccer fans for some of the tournament's top matches, including England-Italy and Portugal-U.S.
Manaus is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Rio Negro and the Solimoes (the upper Amazon) River. The Negro's waters are brown, while those of the Solimoes are whitish, and the point where they flow together is easily discernible. As we set off on the first leg of our journey to a jungle lodge, our speedboat slowed so we could see our hands move between the two waters' colors and feel the difference in temperature of the Negro coming overland while the cooler Solimoes flows from the Andes mountain range.
Travelers are also warned not to urinate in the water as they cross the river - local myth claims tiny fish can swim up the urine stream and lodge in the body.
Landing on the other side 15 minutes later, we traversed a ramshackle dock and dodged food hawkers under the watchful eyes of dozens of vultures sunning themselves on the beach. Trudging up a red-earth bank, we made our way to vans idling in a town seemingly carved from a South American version of the Old West and drove for 90 minutes to a muddy dock. Here, in an afternoon downpour, we deposited our bags into motorized canoes and set off for the lodge through a maze of waterways used as roads by the region's residents who live, work, go to school and attend church at the jungle's edge.
At the lodge, Gero Mesquita's Ararinha Jungle Hotel, guests are given the choice of private huts or accommodation upstairs in the main lodge in hammocks or beds - mosquito netting provided. Once settled in, it's off to piranha fishing with beef used to bait hooks under the guidance of Zammette, a Guyanese transplant to Brazil.
"Every time I come out here, I see something new," Zammette said. "It gets better and better."
As our days progressed, hikes and canoe trips uncovered caimans (South America's alligators) lurking on banks, monkeys howling in the trees, snakes waiting to drop on unsuspecting prey and colorful birds erupting from trees along the lagoons and rivers.
Indeed, I almost jumped on a 10-foot caiman while landing a canoe to look for sloths.
A day earlier, we almost tipped when we hit something in the water, the canoe rising up and leaning heavily. The shore was 40 feet away through piranha-filled waters. The four of us admitted we were terrified, grateful to be alive.
"Some people get scared," Zammette said. "They're scared of almost everything. As we continue everyday doing our tours, it helps them conquer their fears."
I didn't sleep much as the night was filled with the screams of birds, howls of monkeys, chirps of crickets and croaks of frogs.
In the water, the glowing eyes of caimans glint on the surface.
The jaguars were silent.
"Animals can come around," Zammette said. "You just lie there and listen to the jungle. You don't know what sound is what."
Indeed, a visit to the Amazon is a trip into the soul of Mother Nature, magnificent and deadly. It is a spiritual experience, not simply something to be checked off a bucket list.