Looking for the best things to do in the Amazon? While you’re in South America, a trip to the rainforest is an absolute MUST!
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.
Somehow, the idea of piranha fishing sounds a whole lot cooler than regular fishing. And it is – but mainly because it’s done from a canoe or wooden motorboat on a river surrounded by the Amazon rainforest. Real life piranhas are actually disappointingly tame compared with their ferociously ravenous on-screen counterparts: although a hungry shoal can strip the flesh from a large animal in a few minutes, they almost definitely won’t be interested in eating you, even if you do fall into the river.
These glittering red fish do have razor sharp teeth and strong jaws, and if they smell blood, or discover helpless mammal which has fallen into the river and drowned (so, not a kicking, flailing human), a shoal of piranhas will devour the flesh happily. On the whole, though, piranhas are actually pretty timid, omnivorous scavengers that are actually much more likely to feed on other fish, insects, invertebrates and plants.
So, you can fish in comfort. And even if, like me, you don’t actually catch anything (our guide blamed the raised river level), sitting in a canoe on the incredible Amazon river or one of it’s tributaries, listening to the quiet of the forest and the occasional birds, is really relaxing and an amazing experience.
Hunt for Snakes
No, I’m not encouraging you to grab a shotgun (not sure what good that would do you, anyway) and head into the jungle to hunt down some endangered species and blow it’s slithery head off. But many jungle lodges and tours offer the chance to go on a snake hunt, which might just as easily, but less enticingly, be called a snake-spotting walk, as that’s all it is.
But how amazing does that sound? Walking through the forest, or the swamps of Bolivia’s Rurrenabaque region, with an experienced guide helping you search for serpents in the undergrowth. No need to be afraid as the tour guides are on hand for protection if necessary, and besides – most snakes won’t attack you unless provoked. Snakes are among my favourite animals, so the chance to spot them in the wild is really appealing – but this tour option is not for the faint hearted!
Get some top tips for photographing snakes in the wild here!
Many snakes, like large numbers of the Amazon’s more exciting residents, can only spotted at night, so it’s lucky that most tour companies and jungle lodges in the Amazon can arrange night walks for more adventurous tourists. You’ll head out after dark with a guide in search of tarantulas, serpents, bats, frogs, and possibly even the elusive, beautiful jaguar.
Don’t head out after dark without an experienced guide – and make sure that they work for a reputable company. The Amazon is a very dangerous place, so you don’t want to find yourself lost there at night. Also – please make sure you book with a responsible, eco-friendly tour company or lodge; The Amazon is a delicate eco-system in constant danger, so we don’t want to support companies which are exploiting or damaging it.
INPA Science Centre
I’ve already mentioned Quistococha zoo in Iquitos, Peru, but another chance to visit the Amazon without forking out on a tour can also be found at the Brazilian National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) centre in Manaus. The centre is just a short taxi ride from Manaus city centre, where you’ll find grounds covering 13 hectares, including a botanical garden and park with labelled trees and plants. You can view the most iconic Amazonian plantlife – such as ceiba (kapok) trees, ficus and various medicinal shrubs – and spot wildlife like macaws, sakis, tamarins and squirrel monkeys, or even sloths and agoutis (a large rodent) roaming freely through the grounds. Glass-walled tanks house manatees, otters, turtles, caiman, electric eels, freshwater rays, and a variety of fish including armoured catfish.
The highlight has to be an elevated walkway which allows visitors access to the lower canopy, home to small reptiles, frogs and epiphytes such as orchids and bromeliads. In the Casa da Ciência you’ll find the scientific background to Amazon ecology, so INPA is a fantastic place to learn about the Amazon and it’s wildlife – as well as see it up close.
Want to see more of the Amazon and get hands-on experience with some exciting wildlife? Want to help protect endangered species or aid conservation? Think you can tough out the mosquitoes for more than a few days?
Why not volunteer? I met a guy on the road in Bolivia whose girlfriend was volunteering with the Inti Wara Yassi community in the rainforest, where her jobs included taking a puma for a walk every morning and evening, playing with the monkeys, and feeding the other big cats. Ever since I heard about her experiences, I’ve been insanely jealous and seriously regretting not adding another few weeks onto my trip to do the same. Not only is this a fantastic chance to get hands on experience with Amazon wildlife and see some of the rarer animals up close, but it’s also the opportunity to give something back to the communities you’ve been visiting, and help the environment and some endangered species, to boot. What’s not to love about that idea?
Cruise the Amazon River
Since most towns in the Amazon aren’t connected by road to the outside world, the only way to get in is often by plane. The overland alternative is by boat, best suited to the more adventurous travellers or those favouring slow travel. There are a number of places from where you can cruise the Amazon river, including Leticia in Colombia, Manaus in Bolivia and Iquitos in Peru.
A river cruise in the Amazon could be one of many different options. There are the basic, public-transport style “fast” boats, or rapidos, which are essentially water busses. Or you can hitch a ride on a cargo-ship, which will leave whenever it feels like it, potentially become stuck, and take around 3-5 days on the river. Perhaps the nicest sounding option is a luxury cruise with a tour company, which can vary in length depending on what the package includes, but which will be clean, comfortable and reliable, as well as much more expensive than the alternatives. If you’re considering taking the trip, check out my guide on sailing from Colombia to Peru.
When you think of the Amazon, you probably picture impenetrable jungle and occasionally stilted wooden huts. But it’s very easy to forget that there are actually some fairly big cities in the rainforest, like Manaus in Brazil (population 1.7 million) and Iquitos in Peru (population over 370,000).
Big, once-glamorous cities left over from the age of the rubber boom, both Manaus and Iquitos are great places to spend a few days either side of a jungle tour and both are great cities in their own right. Thanks to increasing tourism, the towns boast a vibrant nightlife and some amazing restaurants serving up traditional Amazonian food, with golden catfish, fried plantain, freshwater crab and even piranha on the menu.
Swim with dolphins
Swimming with pink river dolphins might sound a little like a bizarre dream, but it really is a possibility in the Amazon. Actually, there are two kinds of river dolphin; the long-snouted grey river dolphin and the more elusive, and much more striking, pink dolphin.
Many tour companies can arrange a trip to swim with the dolphins, which are naturally friendly and playful and can be great fun to meet. Be warned, though, they like to nibble! If you’re worried about another Amazonian inhabitant nibbling, too, there’s no need; the dolphins don’t swim in the same water as piranhas, which apparently will only bite if they smell fresh blood, anyway.
A swim with dolphins can be a real highlight of any jungle trip, but make sure you go with a friendly and ecologically friendly tour company, that the trips don’t have any negative environmental impact, and that the animals aren’t being mistreated.
What could be more interesting and spooky than an abandoned prefabricated industrial town? An abandoned prefabricated industrial town in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, of course. Built in 1928 by Henry Ford (of Ford cars) as a way to provide his company with a source of rubber, the narcissistically named Fordlândia was doomed from the start by infertile land, inexperienced managers and unhappy indigenous workers who eventually revolted – not to mention the eventual development of synthetic rubber putting an end to the natural rubber industry.
The town still exists in eerie ruins of glassless windows and abandoned buildings, and makes an interesting place to visit. Visitors can even look inside the old houses and see old beds and bathtubs from the 1930s.
Swim in Waterfalls
The Amazon rainforest hides huge numbers of waterfalls, some secret and hidden away, others well-known and popular swimming spots for tourists. The best-known spots include Terra de Cachoeiras (Land of Waterfalls) in Brazil, where visitors can also explore several caves home to bats, lizards and cave insects, as well as plenty of waterfalls, including the stunning Iracema Waterfalls where visitors can swim or take a natural shower under the fall. In Peru’s Amazon basin, you’ll find several waterfalls around the town of Tarapoto, or there’s the 895.5m tall Yumbilla which is the fifth tallest in the world. Bolivia’s Las Cuevas is a series of three beautiful waterfalls on the edge of the Amazon, which are popular with tourists thanks to the abundant birdlife and the hiking trails through the surrounding forests.
Most jungle tours and hikes can be tailored to include a trip to a waterfall or swimming hole, which is a great way to cool off from the humidity and heavy heat of the Amazon.
Have you visited the Amazon, or do you plan to soon? Share your experiences and plans in the comments!