With an area of six million square kilometres (1.4 billion acres), the Amazon rainforest spans nine countries and takes up about one third of South America. No trip to that part of the world is complete without a visit to the largest ecosystem on earth, home to more than half of the world’s total plant and animal species and a staggering 390 billion trees (give or take a few, of course). Some estimates suggest that we could lose up to 60% of the Amazon in the next 20 years thanks to deforestation and climate change, so clearly now is the time to visit this amazing and biologically important region. But what to do when you get there?
By far, the most popular activity in the Amazon amongst travellers has to be the jungle tour. From a single day to a week or longer, you can head out into virgin rainforest with an experienced guide and take tours on foot or by boat, to spot wildlife and take in the incredible hidden scenery of the forest.
Tours are available in most countries that have a section of the Amazon, but the most popular places that are perhaps best set up for tourists are Iquitos in Peru, Manaus in Brazil and Rurrenabaque in Bolivia. There is a range of tours available, ranging from the very cheap and basic packages to much more expensive and luxurious options.
For an extended stay, the best option is an eco-lodge which will be comfortable and ideally situated for wildlife walks, but which will also have minimal impact on the fragile ecosystem of the Amazon. Highlights of a jungle tour include swimming in the Amazon, piranha fishing, wildlife spotting, and night-walks that allow explorers to spot nocturnal creatures like snakes and tarantulas.
NB – Please make sure that you select your tour company carefully, and find one which is responsible, eco-friendly and has no negative impact on the environment they’re working in.
Meet a Tribe
Estimates suggest that there may be almost a hundred uncontacted tribes living in the Amazon rainforest, with as many as 77 in Brazil alone, who have never had contact with the outside world, much like the Mashco-Piro that very recently tried to make contact with outsiders in Peru.
Whilst you’re unlikely to encounter one of these unless you’ve gone very, very far off course, you can still meet up with an Amazonian tribe who have encountered the outside world and who have made an agreement with a local tour company to receive tourists. From Iquitos, many jungle tours will include a visit to a branch of the Yagua tribe, natives famed for their skill in crafting and using deadly, poison blow darts. Tourists can watch a demonstration of the weapon in use, and even have a go themselves.
Other tribe visits sometimes include an ayahuasca ceremony, which involves a strongly hallucinogenic drink brewed from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. If you really want to find yourself over a few days of drug-induced visions, you can even stay with a tribe, or at an eco-lodge or commune, to take part in an ayahuasca retreat.
NB – As some people have voiced concerns in the comments about villagers being exploited, I just wanted to remind everyone to choose your Amazon tours carefully, and make sure that the tour company have a fair relationship with the tribe. Don’t sign up to tours which promise to view ‘uncontacted’ tribes, as this is forbidden (more info in this Guardian article); but near cities like Iquitos there are many villages who are already integrated with the “modern world” and who have made agreements with tour companies to receive tourists – these should be ok as long as you can ensure that the tribe are receiving all the profits of their souvenir sales.
Visit Historical Buildings
History, architecture and culture might not sound like things you can find in the rainforest, but there’s plenty of it on offer in the faded rubber-boom towns of the Amazon. In Manaus, among other treasures, there’s the opulent Teatro Amazonas, a pink and white opera house containing Italian marble, 198 chandeliers and a newly restored gold-domed edifice. More bizarre is the Casa de Fierro in Iquitos, an entirely metal house built by Gustave Eiffel (designer of the Eiffel Tower) and transported to the Amazon by a rubber baron back in 1890. The crumbling colonial relics of the rubber era are a strange site in the centre of the rainforest, but they make a fascinating tour.
Thanks to the World Cup events this year, Brazil now boasts an enormous football stadium right in the middle of the Amazon. Actually, Manaus always had a stadium; the Vivaldão stood on the site of the new Arena da Amazônia since 1958, but until Brazil hosted the World Cup no one had really heard of it!
The impressive new stadium, with a capacity of 40,549, may never be used again after it’s World Cup debut, but you can still check out a football match in the rainforest by watching Manaus’ team Nacional Futebol Clube or the Colegio Nacional Iquitos Futbol Club in Peru.
A zoo in the Amazon? Yes, it sounds a little bit pointless; why pay for something that is available for free all around you? But the thing is, the wild animals in the Amazon are dangerous, which means you can only really go out to spot them with a trained guide. They’re also elusive, staying well away from towns and all signs of people, so you need to travel about a day overland away from towns to really be able to spot anything, and even in the heart of the jungle the larger animals tend to remain obstinately out of sight.
Quistococha is a tiny zoo just outside of Iquitos, set around a stunning lake in the middle of the rainforest. There’s even a beach; the shores of the lake are sandy and a small section of water is roped off, so if the many pictures of wild caimans in the lakeside restaurants don’t put you off, you can take a swim to cool off from the humidity.
The zoo features loads of animals native to the surrounding area, including parrots, caimans, jaguars and a very playful river dolphin that likes to perform for visitors, even when his daily show isn’t on. Probably the most popular attraction of Quistococha, though, is the monkey enclosure, which is so frequently visited by monkeys from the nearby forest (come to share their caged cousins’ free meals) that there tend to be more animals on the cage than inside it.
Have you visited the Amazon, or do you plan to soon? Share your experiences and plans in the comments!