Spanning nine South American nations and home to myriad natural wonders, the Amazon rainforest is a perennial bucket-list destination, finds Ben Lerwill
There are certain parts of the world that are beyond compare. The Amazon is one such place. The planet’s largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest has over 400 billion trees growing in it and spans across nine countries. Within this area you’ll find enough wildlife, adventure, culture and scenic majesty to last a lifetime — not to mention the longest river in the world, flowing from the Andes to the Atlantic. It is, without question, one of the most fascinating regions on Earth.
Given the sheer size of the area, however, travelers can find it difficult to know where to begin when planning a trip. Brazil boasts approximately 60% of the Amazon rainforest within its borders, although Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia all have excellent potential of their own, not to mention increasingly well-oiled tourism infrastructure. Activities can range from upscale river cruises to remote eco-tourism packages, and the good news for potential visitors is that there are large numbers of experienced tour operators with presence in the region.
Just as relevant is the fact that, despite the Amazon of popular imagination being one vast tropical jungle, the variety of landscapes on offer is astonishing. Compare the low-lying Brazilian wetlands with the dense rainforest reserves further upriver, for example, and it might as well be two different worlds. “You rarely, if ever, feel like ‘just another tourist,” says Danniell Saunders of ASTA-affiliated operator Encounters Travel, highlighting how straightforward it can be to visit uncrowded regions. “The locals are warm, welcoming and genuine.”
On a less positive note is the spread of the Zika virus. At the time of writing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued Alert Level 2 travel notices (meaning ‘practice enhanced precautions’) for all countries included in this feature. The possible implications for pregnant travelers — and those planning to become pregnant — have been well documented, although it should be remembered that if all the right precautions are taken, there’s little reason for other travelers to forego a visit.
The US dollar has risen spectacularly against the Brazilian real in recent years, effectively doubling in value since 2011, but in truth there’s never been a shortage of good reasons to visit Latin America’s largest nation. No country is more synonymous with the Amazon, and river voyages either to or beyond the jungle city of Manaus have long been a popular way for first-time visitors to experience the region.
High-end cruise ships and traditional riverboats ply the famous waters, often for days at a time, with itineraries generally giving decent opportunity to spot monkeys, parrots and more. Amid all the greenery, man-made attractions include the renaissance-style Amazon Theatre opera house in Manaus and the stunning Uakari Floating Lodge, further upriver in the Tefe district.
The range of travelers who come here — from budget backpackers to baby boomers — has resulted in a wide variety of different activities being offered. Hiking, canoeing, tree-climbing, sport fishing and boat trips along smaller tributaries are all easily arranged. And while Manaus is very much the ‘capital’ of the Brazilian Amazon, due its ease of access, it’s worth noting the jungle gets more pristine the further you head from the city. Smaller, quieter watercourses can also hold as much magic as the widest sections of the river.
Another important point to bear in mind is, while the Amazonian areas of Ecuador and Peru are famed for the incredible diversity of their wildlife, the Brazilian Amazon is better viewed as more of an immersive rainforest experience — particularly if compared to the animal-rich Pantanal wetlands in the south west of the country. May and June are often considered the best time of year to experience the Brazilian Amazon, when the water levels are at their highest.
Considered one of the most biodiverse locations on the planet, Ecuador’s jungle headwaters showcase the full grandeur of the Amazon. The main attraction here is the colossal region of wilderness known as the Oriente, which stretches from the high flanks of the Andes to the depths of the rainforest. Numerous jungle tours are offered, and keen hikers will be in their element.
Anything from short day-walks to multi-day camping treks can be arranged. Guided night hikes — to the cacophonous soundtrack of tropical insects — are also possible, with the emphasis on spotting wildlife — including fearsome caimans — by torchlight.
The towns of Coca and Lago Agrio are the main jumping-off points for those heading further into the wilds on a tour. The latter is best known as a base for trips into the stupendous Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, a haven for flora and fauna that warrants several days’ stay. Across the wider region, meanwhile, there are various jungle lodges to stay at, many run by local indigenous tribes. For US travelers, the country has the added benefit of using the US dollar as its official currency.
Most visitors gravitate towards Machu Picchu, but Peru is huge, almost twice the size of Texas, and it packs in plenty, including a vast swathe of Amazonian wilderness. In the north, attention mostly falls on Iquitos, a river port that prospered in the late 1800s due to the rubber industry. Today, it’s the region’s main hub for trips into the Amazon and, with Manaus in Brazil, provides one of the river’s two chief gateways for cruises — vessels often use it as an embarkation point. Of note in the town itself is the Casa de Fierro (‘Iron House’), designed by Gustave Eiffel.
Relatively close by is the vast Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, whose near five million acres of virgin rainforest are at their most wildlife-rich from December to March, when the seasonal waters rise. There are also good touring options further south, particularly at Manu National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Located at the meeting point of the Andes and the Amazon basin, the park is home to jaguars, armadillos and giant otters. What’s more, its southerly location means a trip here can easily be combined with a visit to Cusco and, yes, Machu Picchu.
Around a third of Bolivia lies within the Amazon basin, with travelers usually beginning their explorations from the eco-tourism center of Rurrenabaque, around an hour’s flight (or a day’s drive) from capital La Paz. Spread along the banks of the Rio Beni, the town is close to some of the country’s best areas of jungle wilderness. Madidi National Park, home to a steamy and exotic tropical ecosystem of dense rainforest, is the best known of these. Eco-tourism is more than just a convenient buzzword here, with the low-impact Madidi Jungle Ecolodge being a prime example of somewhere doing things the right way.
The first three months of 2016 saw a 30% rise in the number of US travelers to Colombia compared with the same period in 2015, putting the South American country on course to receive over 500,000 US visitors over the course of this year. All proof, were it needed, that this is a destination going places. Its zone of untamed Amazon wilderness is part of its growing appeal, with the southern town of Leticia, near the Brazil border, the best base for exploring the region. Travellers heading downriver will eventually reach Manaus, while 90-minute upstream is one of Colombia’s natural highlights, Amacayacu National Park. Kayaking and hiking are big draws here, along with the 500-odd bird species, crocodiles and river dolphins.