The Amazon is a 4,400-mile river with thousands of tributaries. It is a 2,600,000-square mile basin, draining rivers and streams in eight countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname), as well as French Guiana. Its broadleaved forest is the largest on the planet and its biome – the forest combined with the savannah, floodplains and rivers – is a region of immense diversity, sheltering more than 30,000 plant species, 1,800 fish, 1,300 bird species, 311 mammals and 165 types of amphibian.
The superlatives state the facts, but the Amazon is clearly not a straightforward destination. For one thing, the main Amazon river flows through Brazil, Colombia and Peru, changing character as it changes its name; it’s Amazonas in Spanish and Portuguese, but the upriver section in Brazil is called the Solimões and after it passes the tributary of Uy acali in Peru, it is known as the Marañón. All other rivers are tributaries. These three countries, along with Ecuador, where the Pastaza, Putumayo, Napo and Tigre drain into the Amazon, are the most obvious choices for a holiday, but all present different kinds of experiences and their own logistical challenges.
Brazil offers, arguably, the archetypal Amazon trip – a cruise from Belém on the Atlantic to Manaus or up to the Colombian border – but the interest here is more human or anthropological. You’ll doubtless dance samba on deck at sunset, but you won’t see many toucans.
Peru, Ecuador and, to a lesser extent, Colombia are notable for their wildlife. Where deforestation and industrialisation have devastated great expanses of the low-lying Brazilian Amazon, the headwaters are in better shape. For birders and lepidopterists, the banks of the tributaries and the forested slopes of the Andes provide plenty of entertainment. For those who want more specialist wildlife, tour companies take groups in search of spectacled bears, jaguars and rare monkeys.
Wherever you go, you will want to get away from the widest sections of the river. In fast tributaries, whitewater rafting and kayaking are options, but it is in the slower watercourses that wonders await. Small, quiet groups can be paddled or punted into channels to see capybara on the banks and capuchin monkeys in the canopy and, come nightfall, caiman, snakes and tree frogs.
In the rainy season, when the floodplains fill, the submerged forests feel enchanted, and with just the plop of an oar, the call of a hoatzin bird and the green magnificence of the jungle for company, so will you.
When to travel
Given such a vast area, it is impossible to talk of a single weather system or neatly defined seasons. In the broadest terms, the rainy season in the Amazon is November or December to June (though Ecuador has a dry season between January and March). The river rises and floods the low-lying forests (called várzeas in Brazil) that lie along the banks, after which many channels become passable.
The dry – or drier – season, runs from July to December. As the temperature rises the mosquito numbers go down, and the receding rains expose trails and beaches. This can be good for hiking and fishing and for sightings of caiman as they compete for dwindling food sources.
How to travel
There are hundreds of ways into the Amazon. Independent travel is possible and may suit those with weeks to spare, but it comes with complications. You can fly into Belém and book onto a local boat and then arrange flights or epic bus journeys on from Manaus, or head directly for Iquitos or Leticia with only flights. You can also email the lodges in major parks such as the Tambopata, Manú or Yasuní reserves and the smarter boat operators (Delfin, Amazon Clipper, Manatee Amazon Explorer) directly and they will advise on logistics.
But you also need local operators for transfers and – because the best trips tend to be in remote areas – food, drink, water, boats and local guides (who may speak only Spanish or even an indigenous language, meaning a second guide).
Sudden, torrential showers are daily occurrences across the Amazon, and flights are often delayed, and connections easily missed. In short, if you have limited time and want to go deep into the jungle or explore the backwaters, you’re probably best organising your trip beforehand. Booking with a UK operator gives you a chance to browse what’s on offer, as well as the security of insurance and backup.
The first question to ask is: land or water? Almost all visitors take to the river at some point but there’s a huge difference between a four-day cruise and a three-hour transfer by motorised dugout. The second is: luxury or budget? The former will cut you off from local culture, but the latter may mean basic loos, windowless chalets and warm beer with dinner. A good ecolodge is often the best compromise and specialist tour operators will have surveyed the options and visited many of them.
Tactics by country
Over the past two decades, the Pantanal wetlands in southern Brazil have replaced the Amazon as the wildlife destination par excellence. The country’s vast Amazonian region, however, is still a popular choice for long voyages, whether on a cruise ship or a traditional riverboat.
Holland America, Princess, P & O and Silversea, among others, offer cruises that start in Brazil, Europe or the United States. But for the budget-conscious and anyone who wants to meet ordinary people, riverboats carrying passengers in hammocks (with a few air-conditioned cabins) depart every day from Belém to Manaus (stopping at Parintins, Santarém, and Monte Alegre), with connections on to Iquitos in Peru. These are cheap, basic and slow – book through a UK tour operator (visit lata.org for a list of firms specialising in Latin America).
Once upstream, the most popular options for wildlife watching are a cruise on small, smart riverboats from Manaus up the Rio Negro or to head farther upriver to Tefé to stay at the lovely Uakari floating lodge.
Brazilian highlights include the Manaus Opera House, pink dolphins, piranha fishing, the Rio Negro’s anavilhanas (freshwater archipelago), caiman-spotting at night, Victoria amazonica waterlilies, flooded forests, pink-faced uakari monkeys and tarantulas.
The city of Iquitos (pictured below) – still not connected by road to most of Peru – remains the major hub for excursions into the Peruvian Amazon proper. From here visitors can either go by boat up to the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peru’s largest, or take the Nanay river to the Allpahuayo Mishana National Reserve. lt is also possible to link up with Manaus on a local riverboat or, at the other extreme, on the luxurious SeaDream yacht.
In the last decade the Manú National Park, accessed via road from Cusco, and the Tambopata reserve near Puerto Maldonado, have become increasingly popular. They are part of the Madre de Dios river system and as well as great wildlife, ever-improving lodges and some intrepid options for kayaking, both are easy to combine with a Machu Picchu trip. Peru has a third Amazon region around Chachapoyas where the emphasis is on fine indigenous ruins (at Kuelap) and mummies (Leymebamba).
Peruvian highlights are Iquitos and its Casa de Fierro by Eiffel, strangling fig trees, canoeing in Lago Sandoval, river otter, cock of the rock, macaw and the parrot clay lick of Tambopata.
The headwaters of the Amazon in Ecuador are widely recognised as the site of some of the greatest biodiversity on Earth. The government is still contemplating exploiting the oil reserves in the Yasuní region but, for now at least, tourism provides a counterweight to the economic pressures.
Indigenous tribes such as the Huaorani and the Shuar and the more integrated Quechua communities accommodate visitors at basic lodges along the banks of several tributaries. Lodges are often isolated and getting to one may involve a flight – while boat trips are special, a small plane offers the best vantage point for seeing the full grandeur of the canopy.
Highlights include the indigenous tribes, ceibo trees, Huaorani Ecolodge and campsite, hummingbirds, blue morpho butterflies, the Yasuní Biosphere Reserve.
Wildlife tourism is in its infancy in Colombia, but the Parque Nacional Amacayacu, accessed via Leticia, has – during the rain season – flooded forests to rival any in Brazil and lower visitor numbers mean spottings of monkeys, river dolphins and the 468 bird species that live there are more likely. Visit parquesnacionales.gov.co for information (in Spanish only).
Where dozens of tour operators offer trips to the other Amazon countries, with Colombia you’re best talking to a specialist such as Quartz Travel (01904 411188; quartz-travel.co.uk) or Colombia Holidays/Verdant Adventures (01603 340404; colombiaholidays.com) or intrepid companies such as Travel the Unknown (020 7183 6371; traveltheunknown.com) or World Odyssey (01905 731373; world-odyssey.com).
Colombian highlights include Leticia, Isla de los Micos, Puerto Nariño and mata-mata freshwater turtles.
Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com) offers a trip that combines five nights aboard the Santarem riverboat with three nights at the Uakari lodge from £3,486 per person, based on two sharing, including international and domestic flights with TAM from Heathrow.
Audley Travel (01993 838620; audleytravel.com) has a 12- night trip into the Manú Biosphere Reserve which involves a road trip through the Andes, a stay at a basic birdwatching lodge in a cloudforest and then stays at two other lodges in the reserve. From £3,028 per person, including international and domestic flights.
Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2211; abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers a four-night trip to Huaorani Ecolodge from Quito from £895 per person, including accommodation, excursions, return local flights, full board and the entrance fee to Huaorani territory.The company can also arrange a 10-day excursion, including three nights in Quito, four nights staying with a Huaorani Indian tribe and three nights spent in the Avenue of the Volcanoes exploring its historic villages, including white-water rafting and a day at Cotopaxi National Park, which costs from £3,495 per person, mainly on a b & b basis, with international flights, internal flights and transfers.
Wade Davis’s One River is a readable, often funny book about the psychoactive and medicinal properties of Amazonian plants and the tribes that employ them. Books by or about conquistadores Orellana and Carvajal, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and the British explorer Henry Walter Bates will enlighten you about “real” exploration, while John Hemming’s 2008 book Tree of Rivers covers all bases, including some of the region’s present-day challenges. Visit the website of the NGO Project Amazonas (projectamazonas.org) for further suggestions.
The inside track
Nature isn’t an Attenborough documentary – most animals and birds live in the canopy, many shun daylight, and all are predator-wary. Be patient, quiet and grateful for anything you see.
Take binoculars and field guides for the birds and don’t forget all the insects, frogs and nocturnal species.
The Amazon is not just about its wildlife: there is plenty of fascinating human culture to be discovered.
What to avoid
Getting bitten. The combination of heat, foliage and wet means you’ll encounter insects that want to bite or at least annoy you. Long lightweight trousers are an essential complement to chemicals. And pack a small mosquito net if you are travelling independently.
Getting wet, sunburnt or cold. You will need rainproof gear, a hat, sunglasses and high-factor sun protection, as well as something warm for the chilly nights, a water bottle and an antiseptic hand gel.
Getting caught short. Don’t forget to take loo roll with you.