Exploring the Mighty Amazon
“But, I don’t like bugs!” is often the response I hear when encouraging people to visit the Amazon. Though much of the rainforest’s diversity is in the form of insects, this thought never hindered the allure for me, and neither does it remain foremost in my memory. My reply to this hesitation? “Bring insect repellant, a hat, and a few other essentials—and just go!”
My initial fascination with the Amazon spawned from a lecture presented by renowned Ethno-botanist Wade Davis. As enlarged photographs of shamanic rituals, medicinal plants, dugout canoes, and dense jungle canopies flashed before our eyes, my interest in the Amazon and its indigenous cultures ignited.
"The Amazon is one of the richest areas of the world in animal and plant diversity. There can be more plant species in one hectare of Amazon rainforest than there are in all of Europe."
Once I joined the staff at ExpeditionTrips, the company founders Ashton Palmer and Kristy Royce shared tales from their Amazon adventures. After years as naturalist guides all along the river, they then lived and worked with the Machiguenga, an indigenous group in Peru’s lowland Amazon rainforest, helping to develop a community-based ecolodge. Their job was to train the community members about ecotourism, guiding practices, lodge operations, basic English, and prepare them for the realities of tourism. I listened intently as they explained, “Walking through the rainforest with a Native guide is an amazing experience. While most people only see immense walls of green, the indigenous Indians see, hear and smell every minute detail. The rainforest, their home, has everything they need to survive; it is their pharmacy, their supermarket, their REI and Home Depot. Every step they take, they gather something useful.”
"Some of the world’s last live-off-the-land peoples live in the Amazon rainforests."
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Ecuador’s Kapawi Ecolodge on the Capahuari River, fifteen kilometers from the Peruvian border. Our guides, Lorena from Quito and Ilardio, a local Achuar Indian, guided us on walks through the forest, educating us about the myriad uses of palm, natural antiseptics from bark, and local delicacies such as lemon ants. In the evenings, I retired to my cabana’s hammock to count macaws flying overhead and listen to the mysterious calls and chirps surrounding the lodge.
"An estimated 90% of Amazon rainforest plants used by Amazon natives have not been studied by modern science."
Years later, I returned to Amazonia, this time to Brazil’s Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Amazon River. Myself, our two highly skilled Brazilian guides, and seventeen other passengers, spent eight days exploring a very remote portion of the river. In fact, we never once saw other visitors until we reached “Encontro das Águas” (Meeting of the Waters) towards the end of our trip—the confluence between the dark Rio Negro and the sandy-colored Amazon River.
Morning and afternoon, sometimes four times a day, we disembarked our cozy wooden boat, the Tucano, and set out in motorized canoes to immerse ourselves in the pristine jungle. We navigated narrow tributaries, glided through serene lakes, and angled our binoculars in search of howler monkeys, tamarins, sloths, pink river dolphins, and birds such as Kingfishers, Ibis, and Tanagers.
"There are no bridges that cross the Amazon."
We came across someone net fishing from a tiny dugout canoe, his net softly waving through the air. What appeared at first to be one man turned out to be a family of five, with a mother and three children sitting contently at his side. We later landed at a small community where our unexpected visit was welcomed by a jovile, toothless chief who led us on a tour of the village. A young boy wandered down to the river’s edge to a boat store to trade his rooster for a large bag of manioc flour. Dark young eyes peered through cracks in a house as we passed. We paused briefly at an open window of the one-room school house as a vocabulary lecture was in session.
Another afternoon, we stepped inside the remains of a dilapidated, vine-covered rubber plantation, straight from a scene in Indiana Jones, and then wandered past hundreds of exhausted rubber trees. If only they could talk.
Sometimes we’d apply an extra coat of insect repellant and take a nighttime canoe ride after dinner. Our guide’s floodlight revealed a beautiful bright green boa, several caimans along the river’s bank, and large stoic owls. It was as if the wildlife called out to our guides; they could spot something in the most tangled vegetation imaginable like a constant game of “I spy.”
Our onboard chefs spoiled us with daily homemade feasts of chicken, vegetables, freshly-caught peacock bass, manioc spice cakes, and a colorful assortment of fruit including giant avocados. They joined us on the roof one evening for caipirinhas and lessons in the hip-gyrating national dance, the Samba. I then led us in a game of interpretive dances of the wildlife we’d encountered on our trip. We laughed and applauded one another as we transformed into combat ants, sloths, or the Mohawk-sporting hoatzin.
After eight incredible days aboard the Tucano, we sadly left our Amazon family and headed to our next stop, Rio de Janerio. Sure, I noticed the mosquito bites and scrapes I’d acquired in the jungle, but I recall hoping other travelers in Rio might ask what they were from; as they were proof that I’d really been somewhere.
Exploring the Amazon by riverboat:
The Rio Negro, the largest blackwater river in the world, is the least inhabited river in the Amazon Basin and includes some of the most untouched rainforest in all of Amazonia. Thousands of animal species inhabit this area, including river dolphins, spider monkeys, boa constrictors, and an extensive array of birds and butterfly species.
>> For an active exploration of a rarely visited area of the Amazon, travel on the 18-passenger Tucano. Guides are local and very knowledgeable. Most trips in this area travel only a short distance from Manaus, but the Tucano takes visitors on an exploratory journey northeast of the city, deep into undisturbed forest and isolated communities. Noted by National Geographic as one of the "Best Tour Operations on Earth". Heart of Amazonia – 8 Days.
Peru’s Pacaya-Samira Reserve harbors over 500 species of birds, including five species of macaw. Venture up unnamed blackwater tributaries on skiffs in search of howler monkeys, saddleback tamarins and black caimans. Walk alongside giant water lilies. Or, fish for piranha and meet the Ribereños, natives of the reserve.
>> For romantic adventure aboard a classic riverboat, join the the 24-passenger La Aquamarina, recognized as one of the “25 Greatest Adventures in the World” by National Geographic Adventure Magazine.
Greatest Amazon Experience – 10 Days
>> For an elegant Amazon discovery with exceptional comfort, step onboard the 28-passenger all-suite Delfin II, with a gracefully modern design, and five-star restaurant-trained chef. Upper Amazon – 10 Days
Exploring the Amazon by Ecolodge:
Kapawi Ecolodge & Reserve
Built and managed by the Achuar natives, the 20-room Kapawi offers guests a gateway to the natural wonders, ancient culture, and traditions of the Amazon.
Napo Wildlife Center
Managed as a conservation project with the Anangu community, this first-class 10-room ecolodge sits within one of the top 10 birding areas in the world and is the only lodge in the pristine Yasunì National Park.
A charming 32-room lodge, adjacent to the Tambopata National Reserve and surrounded by a mosaic of waterways and habitats. Included is an authentic Brazil nut trail and camp, which is ideal for those traveling with children.
Posada Amazonas is a comfortable 30-bedroom ecolodge located on the Infierno Community’s territory and directly adjacent to the 750,000 hectare Tambopata-National Reserve in southeastern Amazonian Peru.
Tambopata Research Center
Adjacent to the Bahuaja National Park in southeast Peru, Tambopata is a rustic yet comfortable 13-room ecolodge accommodating travelers and researchers alike while protecting the world’s largest macaw clay lick.