Exploring The Amazon

There are many ways to explore the Amazon. What suits you depends on how much time you have and how comfortable you want to be. Most people choose to stay at a lodge. Most are land-based, located within a few hours by boat from Manaus, and make excursions to the surrounding area. Lodges vary in luxury but the programs offered are similar.

Another comfortable way of seeing the Amazon is by riverboat. These range from basic to air-conditioned and luxurious. The vessel serves as your home base; you take excursions in canoes up the smaller channels.

Regular boats that locals use to travel the river are another option. Although extremely inexpensive, these are not sightseeing tours; it's rare that you get close to shore, and no excursions are possible. You do meet locals traveling the river, and you'll have a front-row seat as you pull in to harbors along the way.

Specialized operators offer expedition-style trips where the emphasis is on truly experiencing the rainforest. You don't need to be in top shape for these; you just have to be able to hike or paddle a boat, and be willing to forego amenities like hot showers for a more hands-on jungle experience. One excellent outfitter is Amazon Mystery Tours.

The Amazon & Eco-Tourism: Questions To Ask

Some visitors come away from a visit to the Amazon energized and excited by what they've seen. Others come away pissed off: The forest was degraded, the animals impossible to see, the guide had no idea what he was talking about. Some of these complaints stem from expectations set too high, from mental pictures of animal encounters developed over too many years of nature documentaries. Other times the complaints are entirely legitimate.

Eco-tourism in the Amazon is far from perfect. The section that follows will give you a better idea of what to expect, and of what to do to make your experience the best it can be. I'd also like to encourage you to use your power as a consumer to raise the level of eco-tourism as practiced in the Brazilian Amazon -- for the benefit of the Amazon itself.

I love the Amazon. It's a dense, intricate, fascinating ecosystem. I also believe that eco-tourism, done right, can help endangered ecosystems throughout the world. At its best, eco-tourism teaches visitors about the ecosystem, while teaching locals that a functioning natural ecosystem is a thing of real economic value, to be guarded and preserved. Unfortunately, even after 20 years as a tourist destination, "eco-tourism" so defined has yet to develop around Manaus. Indeed, at its worst, Manaus-based eco-tourism seems to be teaching locals that you may as well chop it all down because you can show gringos any damn thing and they'll still ooh and aah, and pay the big bucks.

It's not all bad. Some of it is very good. But things seem to have fallen into a rut, and there's no local impetus for change. Only you, the consumer, can change things, and you can do it simply by demanding more. Below I give a checklist of things to ask, and things to verify before going.

What You Won't Get -- First, though, let's dispel the unreasonable expectations. Most lodges, for logistical reasons (food, supplies, attracting staff, ferrying people back and forth to the airport) are located no more than a half-day journey from Manaus. This rules out the "never-before-seen primeval jungle" experience. You will see houses on the riverbank and lots of other boats. In recent years as cattle prices have soared, pastureland has begun replacing forest on accessible riversides close to Manaus.

Most lodges cater to foreign tourists. For Brazilians, the Amazon is quite expensive. The majority of your fellow travelers will be European, Japanese, or North American. Like it or not, you'll be lumped in with the gringos.

Animals are hard to spot in the rainforest. You will see caiman (you may yawn at caiman by trip's end) and more than likely little pink dolphins and some species of monkeys. You will see lots of birds -- kingfishers and egrets (snowy, great, and cattle), herons (gray, green, tiger), cormorants, hummingbirds, parakeets, and vultures. Macaws and toucans are also common, though not guaranteed. You may see sloths (I've seen one in over 10 trips to the Amazon) and capybara and agoutis as well as other small nocturnal rodents. The odds of seeing a predatory feline of any species are astonishingly small. Amphibians are also tough -- those famous photos of poison arrow frogs took a lot of work and a lot of time.

On the bright side, those worried about creepy-crawlies can rest easy. Insects in the Amazon are really not that bad. There are ants (some about the size of a bumblebee), butterflies, and flying beetles and mosquitoes. In all my visits to over a dozen different parts of the forest (including a 1-week kayak trip in the far-off depths of the Amazon) I've only ever seen one snake and it was tiny and harmless.

What You Should Get -- What you can expect is an opportunity to see and experience the rainforest around Manaus. Much of it is in pristine condition, and the vegetation, the range of species, and the sheer oddness of the trees and plants are truly impressive and remarkable. You can expect to learn about life on the Amazon. As the river is the main means of transportation and a major source of food, most people live on or close to it. It can be fascinating watching children going to school by canoe, seeing 4-year-olds paddle themselves around, seeing women washing their dishes or catching dinner off the decks of houses built on stilts. You can expect to learn about the ecosystem. Many of the guides are quite knowledgeable and they speak foreign languages very well, making it easy to ask questions and learn about the Amazon environment. You should expect to eat well. The lodges put on a wonderful spread of Amazonian specialties, much better than in most restaurants in town. The river fish are delicious.

How to Get It (& Do Good Things at the Same Time) -- The following is a checklist of questions to ask the travel agent (or better yet the lodge manager) when researching your stay in the Amazon. The list is by no means comprehensive, but it should help you find the best available option. As importantly, by putting these questions to the operators in the Amazon, you will be educating them on what matters to foreign, ecologically minded tourists. In the listings for the lodges I've created a lodge checklist with the answers to most of these questions.

1. How far is the lodge from Manaus? Farther is better. Although distance does increase travel time, it also lessens the "city effect" on the animals, trees, and people.

2. Is the lodge surrounded by a private nature reserve? Of what size? Obviously, larger is better. In recent years as cattle prices have soared there's been a second wave of deforestation on accessible rivers close to Manaus. There's not much lodge owners can do about the Amazon as a whole, but they can work to preserve their little part. That's why we try to recommend not just lodges farther from Manaus, but lodges that are in some sort of private nature reserve that the lodge has set up and is trying to protect. I didn't include this information in the checklist simply because I have been unable to verify the legal status of various claimed reserves. You won't be able to either, but simply by asking you'll be emphasizing that this is important. Those lodges that haven't yet set up private reserves will hopefully move in that direction. Reserve sizes will likely be quoted to you in hectares. 1,000 hectares is a square about 2 miles long on a side.

3. How big is the lodge? Smaller is better. The more people there, the bigger the local environmental impact, the more the trails have been treaded and the animals spooked. Ten rooms is excellent, 20 acceptable, 35 pushing the limit, and 300 obscene.

4. What is the group size? Again, smaller is better. The larger the group, the less likely you will see animals or enjoy the forest peacefully. We have been to lodges where huge motorized canoes take 25 people out at a time. Lodges lie about group size, so I've found it more instructive to ask "what is the maximum capacity of the boats used to take guests on outings?" Generally, that's the group size.

5. Are the guides trained naturalists? Is there a biologist at the lodge? Is there a library or resource center at the lodge? Are there any nature talks? The answer to all these questions will be "no" (with the notable exception of the Mamiraua Reserve lodge). No one ever seems to have thought to hire university biology students to work as naturalists -- both to train the regular guides and to give guests a deeper insight into the ecosystem. No one has ever considered hiring a full-time biologist, or even putting in a library with field guides and nature books. Hope springs eternal, however. I put in the questions because I'd like to see it happen. If enough people ask, maybe it will. And it's a good lead-in to the next question.

6. What kind of training and education do the guides have? Your guide can make or break your experience. Unfortunately, guides vary greatly in quality. Some are truly excellent. But the main qualification seems to be an ability to speak English (or French, Italian, or what have you). Nature training comes afterward. If you're lucky, the guide will have grown up in the forest, or have gone through the army's jungle-warfare program, or have an interest in biology. I wish I could recommend a lodge with particularly good guides, but in Manaus the guides are all freelance, contracted for periods of 3 or 4 days as guests come in. Turnover is high, because pay is not great. Ask about the qualifications of your guide beforehand. Demand one that has army-jungle training, specialized nature training (above the standard guide course), or at least grew up outside of Manaus. Ask questions of your guide when you meet him to see that he is as advertised. If he's not, complain. If he is, tip him well.

7. When do trips go out? Trips scheduled around breakfast and supper are almost guaranteed to show nothing but forest. If you want to see animals, you have to be on the water or in the forest at sunrise or sunset; ask about early morning or dusk excursions if you want to maximize your animal spotting odds.

8. Are jungle-tour boats motorized or nonmotorized? If motorized, what kind of engine? Nonmotorized canoes are the best, but only two lodges (the Mamiraua and the Ecopark) use these regularly. The noise of an outboard will scare off most wild creatures. However, they're justifiable if you're on the way somewhere farther off in the forest. But they should still be quiet outboards. Some lodges (the Ariaú is especially bad) use so-called rabete engines, unmuffled high-revving two-strokes, with the engine mounted on the drive shaft. The smell and noise of these motors are enough to make you sick; never mind the animals that you'll never get to see.

9. What kinds of excursions are there? The standard package of outings includes a reconnaissance tour, a jungle walk, a visit to a caboclo house, and a nighttime caiman-spotting trip. These are fascinating, fun, and informative, but there could be so much more. They could set up a telescope and show you the stars (the Milky Way is incredible in the Amazon), they could take you out and show you insect life, or search for amphibians, but they don't because no one ever has, and operators in the Amazon are very conservative. So, ask the next question.

10. Are there any excursions beyond the basic ones? (And how much do they cost?) Maybe if enough people ask, they'll develop something.

11. Are there canoes for guest use at the lodge? There is inevitably a fair bit of downtime at a lodge. Tours go out early and late, leaving a big chunk of time in the middle of the day. Lodges could offer nature talks or presentations to fill this time, but they don't. Some people swim. Some snooze in their hammocks. I like to grab a small dugout canoe and go for a paddle. The water is flat and calm, and the scenery can be fascinating. Only the floating Amazon Eco Lodge keeps a fleet of canoes on hand. Other lodges can usually rustle one up if you make a fuss.

12. Finally, one question you should ask yourself. How much do you want to rough it? Can you live without air-conditioning, hot water, fridge, and TV? There is an Amazon trip for everyone. Picking the right one will greatly enhance your experience.

Forgive me if this all seems a tad didactic, but I assume that for people who have flown so far to see the Amazon, the important thing is to see the Amazon. I could be completely out to lunch on this. Certainly, the people who build and finance new lodges have concluded that what matters to people is not the quality of the nature experience but the quality of the bed. It's what has lead to the creation of places like the Tiwa, where the forest is poor and degraded but the swimming pool is excellent.

For the situation to improve, visitors will have to do one thing and one thing only -- demand more. Whatever you do, don't let this explanation scare you off coming. The Amazon is a tremendous experience. But with a little effort it could be so much more. Make a pain of yourself. Ask operators if they have a biologist, if they have a library, if they have nature talks and canoes and highly trained guides. Tell them you'll go to the lodge that does. When you're there, ask for these things again. Maybe, slowly, the message will get through.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.