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Top Amazon experiences for the adventure traveller

The mighty Amazon. The largest river in the world by volume of water and the second largest in length. The dense and impenetrable tropical rainforest it runs through is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It’s the lungs of our planet, the land of the lost city of El Dorado, a place where myth and reality intertwine. The Amazon means many things to us but above all is home to about 30 million people, 40,000 plant and 2000 animal species, with new species still being discovered. It’s no surprise the Amazon has been named one of the new seven natural wonders of the world, although in reality its mysterious depths have been attracting curious and intrepid explorers for centuries. With Amazon experiences on offer in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana – where on earth should you head to for a visit? The good news is, you can’t go wrong and even with the gear change you have to make to embrace Amazonian living, you will soon realise one trip is not enough. The sheer size of the Amazon might be daunting, so we have put together a list of some of our favourite places and activities so that you can start planning your visit. 1. Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, Brazil This elaborate Opera house was built in 1884 when Manaus was in the middle of its rubber boom, it was flush with cash and home to several wealthy rubber barons. Times have since changed and therein lies much of the charm of this iconic building – as a relic from Manaus’  illustrious past. An ambitious Renaissance Revival building and no expenses spared project that set to bring European culture to the heart of the Brazilian rainforest. Life in the jungle can be unpredictable though, Teatro Amazonas’ fate was sealed when synthetic rubber emerged, the barons deserted Manaus and the theatre spent 90 years empty without hosting a single performance. The glory days of the rubber trade, a thing of the past. Today, Teatro Amazonas is among the most famous and celebrated of Brazil’s buildings with its iconic domed roof decorated with 36,000 tiles in the colours of the national flag once again playing host to concerts, its own annual film festival and of course welcoming travellers exploring the capital of the Brazilian jungle. Get to Manaus on a cruise through the Brazilian jungle or join a tour, think about combining with a trip around northern Brazil for both jungle and coastal experiences. 2. Leticia, Santa Rosa and Tabatinga, the three frontiers To get here (unless you cheated and caught the plane) you’ll have spent a fair few days aboard a boat. After languishing onboard your luxury cruise, as the forest canopy drifts past, broken only occasionally by an individual passing jetty or waterfront shack, or equally impossibly remote village, you’re probably going to be excited to stretch your legs and roam on dry land. You’ll be greeted by a bustling hum-drum, mopeds and tuk-tuks. The best thing is, there are three different countries to explore and you can get around all of them within the space of one day, but don’t stop for a day, stay for a few nights and make the most of this stretch of the Amazon River and its tributaries. These frontier towns are a great place to do a local tour and see some of wildlife whilst you get a sense of the different personalities of each country in this microcosm. From rustic Santa Rosa, Peru to Leticia’s visible relative affluence and Brazil’s slightly raucous Tabatinga. Definitely find time to look around Leticia’s shops and markets where you can get your hands on colourful, hand woven hammocks (when in the jungle, right?) and painted wood-carved souvenirs of jungle favourites. And yes, that meter-high free-standing jaguar carving needs a home in your living room! Visit the frontier towns in style by cruising, starting in either Peru or Brazil. 3. Wildlife You can’t talk about the Amazon without mentioning the wildlife. The rain forest stretches over 40% of the Latin American continent and is home to over 2,000 species of animal. Make a trip to the Amazon and you’re probably hoping to see pink river dolphins, capybaras, giant anteaters, macaws, monkeys and sloths, to name a few. Wildlife experiences in the Amazon are more a slow soak, gaze out over the water from the deck and you never know what you will spot. Embrace the whole experience, the rivers, trees, insects, birds and mammals – whatever you drift by rather than approach it like a big five spotting session out in the African savannas. For my time in the Amazon, getting to see giant water lilies, meeting a very mischievous young monkey and watching macaws fly over the horizon’s treeline at dusk was the most memorable. There are wildlife experiences in all corners of the Amazon, but guided tours will give you the best chance of spotting a wide range of animals and birds, along with an introduction to local flora. 4. Kayak / SUP paddle boarding A trip to the Amazon means trading roads for rivers, so what better way to explore and see wildlife on a kayak or SUP paddleboard? In Suriname and the Guyanas the salinity of the tidal rivers draining into the Caribbean Sea make perfect conditions for miles of robust and healthy mangrove forest. Explore rivers, tributaries and inlets fringed by aerial roots cascading into the water. It’s an exhilarating way to see stretches of river and you never know if you’ll catch sight of a troupe of monkeys or toucans and other exotic birds. Deeper in the jungle and further from the coast, you’ll trade the Guiana-Amazon Mangroves for flooded forests, waterfalls and slow-moving rivers. Be safe, check maps and tidal times where applicable, if you’re in a tidal zone. Most rental shops provide guided excursions, but if you want to venture along the river without one, don’t go solo, kayak with a friend, for obvious safety reasons. Take a laminated map with you (rental outlets should be able to provide these) and seal your phone into a dry tube or bag. The larger rivers run fast and are like motorways for local trade and travel so stay on the quieter tributaries. 5. Try your hand at piranha fishing Piranhas tend to loiter under or near river banks, in the shadows cast by branches stretching out over water. They’re waiting for birds, reptiles and small mammals they prey on to accidentally fall into the water. They move like lightning and use their famously sharp teeth to attack and strip the flesh of their prey. Scary, but in spite of their horror film reputation, they rarely attack anything as large as a human. You don’t have to be a seasoned angler to enjoy a spot of piranha fishing, the technique is easy and involves disturbing the surface water with your rod and acting quickly to pull your line from the water as soon as one bites. All mine got put back, but you may choose an excursion company where you cook what you catch. 6. Canopy bridge walk Get to see the trees of the Amazon from a different vantage point and take a canopy walk. Ceibas, Peru is an extensive network of walkways through the treetops, that will get you closer to the monkeys as they swing through branches. It’s definitely worth going with a guide so that you can really appreciate the flora your passing along with any wildlife that happens to be out to play that day. 7. Iquitos Iquitos is the largest city in the world with no road access. Think about that. This jungle city is where nearly half a million residents live cut off from the rest of their own compatriots. It’s a place that remains unique and lives by its own rules. It’s strange, frenetic and unlike anywhere else you’ve encountered. Cruise from Leiticia or all the way from Manaus or from the other direction, embark at Yurimaguas. The great thing about Iquitos’ inaccessibility is that you won’t see many other visitors, other than a washed up hippy or two that came a few decades ago and stayed for the ayahuasca and shamanic offerings that come with the territory. Much like Manaus, Iquitos lived through the glory days of the rubber boom and the centre still tells the story of this era, albeit with nothing as impressive as Teatro Amazonas. There are a few charming and crumbling colonial buildings. The detailed woodwork and tiling a stark contrast with the make-shift sun-bleached nature of what has succeeded them. The most famous building from the rubber era – The Iron House, which sits on the main square and was bought by rubber baron Anselmo del Aguila at the International Exposition of Paris in 1889. Together with a handful of others, it tells the story of a long forgotten more affluent past which adds to the Iquitos intrigue you’ll feel as you take in the city. Iquitos’ market is one of the best ways to get a true feel for jungle life. It’s an eye-opening, elemental, dirty experience, with fresh-caught fish for sale on the muddy ground, animal entrails hung up, stray bald dogs looking for shady spots among the wooden food stalls. Something you have to see to believe, not pretty, slightly alarming, but utterly fascinating if you are the kind of traveller that puts authenticity first, even when it’s not shiny and pretty. 8. Nocturnal wildlife excursions Chanel your inner explorer and get out on the water under the cover of darkness to go looking for caimans and other nocturnal wildlife. Armed with a torch you stand a much greater chance of seeing these animals. If you are lucky your torch light will catch a reflection of some glinting eyes in the dark. Treat yourself to a starlit experience. Just remember that mosquitoes are active at all hours in the jungle but they are, without any doubt, worse at night. Wear long clothes and use eco friendly insect repellent beforehand. Matt Gannan is the CEO and Owner of Tucan Travel. Tucan Travel operate cultural tours in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, Asia and Europe, as well as tailor-made holidays in Latin America, Africa and Asia. If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

Matt Gannan

Matt Gannan is the CEO and owner of Tucan Travel. Tucan Travel is an adventure travel tour operator that specialises in South America, where they started 32 years ago in Colombia. They run tours in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia, where travellers can choose between over-landing tours, small group tours or tailor-made holidays. Tucan Travel pride themselves in offering authentic adventures where customers can experience once in a lifetime activities. Cruising through the Okavango Delta in Botswana, exploring the lesser known country of Kosovo, conquering the Inca Trail or watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat – the options are endless. Tucan Travel has a strong focus on sustainability and responsible travel and were delighted to win South America’s Leading Green Tour Operator in the 2018 World Travel Awards.

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  1. It has always intrigued me that Opera Houses seem to be something that people aim to build when they want to make a statement about how civilised, established and wealthy they are. Of course, Sydney Opera House is a classic symbol of Australian cultural independence but I had never heard about Teatro Amazonas’. It would be a highlight of a trip to see a performance there.

    Another great example of aspirational Opera Houses lies in Muscat. Even when there were just 5km of tarmac road in the whole of Oman, the Sultan was talking of his grandiose plans to build an opera house.

    1. Hi Brian,

      Thanks for your comment. Good point, opera houses are an interesting one when comparing them across the world. Teatro Amazonas is definitely worth a visit.

      All the best

  2. I’ve still not got round to doing a river cruise though the idea really appeals to me. If I’m going to do one I might as well start at the top with an Amazon cruise. To be honest looking out for the pink dolphins and all the other wildlife is far more me than cruising along the Rhine or Rhône and stopping off to wander round medieval churches. I can just see myself lazing on deck with a cool drink and my binoculars.

    1. I recommend an amazon cruise! We did it in March, as part of a Holland America cruise of South America. It was fantastic! I see that there are a number of amazon cruise ships that are available to take – something I may consider doing as well. Think about the time of year that you want to travel in. The seasons are, of course, opposite the northern hemisphere, but there is the wet and dry seasons too. Our March travel was in the wet season- the river was 10-14’ above low levels and expected to go another 6’! This meant several things- less bugs, no beaches, more rivers to cruise on and easier to access small villages off the main rivers. It is hot and humid, but it always is. The cruise staff who had travelled in both wet and dry seasons preferred the wet one.
      Manaus, with its opera house (book a performance there) and century old buildings is interesting- a busy bustling city which serves as the largest shopping/supply area of the amazon. It’s amazing to think that you have travelled 1000 miles up the amazon, it’s still up to a mile wide, and that’s only 1/2 way up the river! The best was the side trips in motorized canoes-up the small rivers past the giant lily pads, the exotic birds flitting by, meeting the locals, hearing the jungle noises. It is not like going on a European river cruise at all-it’s very different. I hope you book an amazon cruise! You will be so glad you did.

    2. Hi Jenny and Kirsty,

      I’m sorry to butt into your conversation but I’ve just got to say how inspiring I found Jenny’s answer. I’m a big, big cruise fan. I’ve done ocean cruises and river cruises in Europe but you’ve really sold an Amazon cruise to me. It sounds like stepping into a parallel universe, it is all so different. Many thanks for your enthusiasm,


    3. Thank you Chris! I know you will enjoy it. There are some lovely Amazon Cruiseships with lovely accommodations plying the river. There are many smaller cities to see which service the amazon inhabitants- most were thriving in the rubber baron days and have lovely decaying European buildings. Today, many areas are struggling to gain prosperity. Tourism definitely helps. They can have a rough edge though- just be aware.
      Belem is on the southern delta and is home to a new industry- beer-Amazonia beer. It still maintains its fishing industry.
      Santarém is halfway to Manaus, at the confluence of the Tapajós and amazon river. Here the stores along the waterfront are dedicated to hardware and fishing supplies- the things the locals need when they come for their twice yearly trips for supplies. Most come via riverboat- if your trip is overnight, you would bring your hammock and rent hooks to hang it on- the floor space below you is then yours to store your supplies for your journey. This is also the place to buy your hammock- they are known for them here. Look along the waterfront, especially near the fish market and you will see the pink dolphins. This is also one of the places where the clean river meets the muddy amazon creating a distinct line on the waterway.
      I could go on and on…. I’m just glad you’re planning on going now.

      I must thank you for helping me in my quest too. I was thinking of starting my own travel blog and I now feel confident that I may add some value to others travel experiences. I have many more stories to share of the amazon and many other places I’ve visited.

  3. I worry about how much longer the Amazon will continue to be this beautiful. I have a feeling that I need to hurry up and see it whilst it is at its best.

  4. I struggle to get my head round the enormity of the Amazon having never seen a river on that scale. The thought of some 30 million people living alongside its banks is mind-blowing. I guess the only way to come to terms with it is to go and see it.

  5. Every New Year, my New Year’s resolution is the same; to visit three new countries. So far in South America I have only been to Brazil and Peru. It’s time I packed up the job, got out of a rut and went travelling. On an epic Amazon trip I could knock off Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. That would take care of my resolutions for 2020 and 2021.

    From the words about having to make “a gear change” I am expecting some culture shock but that’s why I travel to escape from the same old boring routines.

    1. Hi Sarah,

      What a fantastic resolution. South America is of course huge, but you can tick off many countries in one trip and the contrasts are fascinating.

      Best of luck in planning your next adventure.

  6. The Amazon is definitely a bucket list kind of experience, and it always strikes me as ‘the’ place for intrepid explorers. A photography buddy of mine has been to Brazil and spent some time exploring the Amazon rainforests and came back with the most incredible photographs. You’re right about the wildlife, he seemed to focus on a lot on animals because there’s nothing quite like seeing different species you don’t come across every day in their natural habitat.

    I’m not a fan of fishing personally, and I never even considered the ability to fish for piranhas. I just find the notion cruel, so there’s part of me that’s glad you put your catches back. A canopy bridge walk is something I’d definitely go for though, and some exploring in the dark to see both sides of life while you’re there. Good tip on the mozzies. I’ve had some bad experiences with those little guys so I take no risks these days!

  7. I’ve been kayaking in the UK but I bet the experience in the Amazon is a world apart! Apart from the obvious with the water and tide times, are there any dangers lurking in the water to be mindful of on the quieter stretches?

    1. Yes Laura. I have had the opportunity of kayaking in the Amazon with my husband and my local guide warned me of the possible life-threatening attacks by the wildlife. Despite of being a perfect spot for kayaking lovers like me, there are all sorts of deadly animals lurking under the seemingly calm waters. So, there is always a risk involved of being bitten, poisoned, bled, shocked, crushed or, even worse, killed by them. I vaguely remember the names of some (though not all) of those species here; some black crocodiles, leeches, piranhas (Yes! The locals there reported numerous incidents of piranhas attacking humans), some venomous vipers, Brazilian spiders (that can literally kill you within 25 minutes), anacondas and then there were some brightly colored poisonous frogs. (I guess you must have gotten a rough idea by now, so try looking up more about these fatal dangers in the Amazon on Net).
      Although these species of wildlife are rare in the river, but well, there is always a chance of falling prey. So, its best to be accompanied with an experienced friend or partner at all times and not to kayak deep into the ocean.
      With that, I wish you the very best of luck for your endeavor!

    2. Hi Laura. My two cents on your question regarding the possible dangers while Kayaking in the Amazon.Well, I would like to bring this to your knowledge, that the greatest risk of kayaking in the Amazon is not the wildlife or the tidal pressure- rather it comes from humans themselves (and I bet everyone will agree to this). Time and time again, numerous encounters with armed pirates, kidnappers, robbers, local militias and drug-runners have been reported. These incidences were mostly common in source-to-sea expedition undertaken by adventurers and led to the subsequent murder, hacking or drowning of the target (the latest one is the Emma Kelty case in 2017). So, yes its best to search and ask around about all the danger or high-risk zones along the Amazon and its tributaries. Lastly, make sure that you and your partner practice extra caution and be wary at all times during this otherwise thrilling adventure. 

  8. “It’s the lungs of our planet, the land of the lost city of El Dorado, a place where myth and reality intertwine.” What an apt description! I guess these lines are compelling enough for adventurers like me to go and explore this Paradise on Earth. (Guess it’s time for me to get over my father’s nerves so that he plans a trip to Amazon asap!) Also, I have acquired a relentless love for waterfalls over time. I don’t know why but they just make my heart fall in peace. And I heard from a colleague that Amazon is home to some magnificent waterfalls. So, I guess that’s my another motivating factor to travel here.

  9. Hi Laura,

    Definitely worlds apart! There are no dangerous animals that travellers need to be wary of, in fact most will stay clear of a kayak or human presence. We always recommend going with a company, or at least a friend, since its not a place you want to find yourself alone and in need of help.

    All the best

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