Amazon River Tours and Travel Guide
Amazon River Attractions & Landmarks Guide
The Amazon River is the world’s largest by volume, starting in Peru and flowing some 4,000 miles east through Ecuador and Brazil to the Atlantic Ocean. The surrounding rain forests are among the world's most diverse ecosystems, home to thousands of plant and animal species. There are two main sections, the Upper and Lower Amazon, navigable by medium and small river cruises.
The Amazon in Numbers
Only statistics can convey the sheer size of Amazonia, the largest tropical rainforest in the world. The Amazon ecosystem contains one-tenth of the earth’s vegetation and animal species, and one-fifth of its fresh water. Its plant life produces one-third of the world’s oxygen, which is why the devastating deforestation that is underway has such a major impact.
Statistics also help to put into perspective the size of the massive river for which the area is named. At 4,000 miles in length, the Amazon is the second longest river in the world after the Nile, but in other respects it ranks first. This massive waterway provides life to the largest rainforest in the world, and supports over 10 million plants, animals, and insects. This staggering number makes the Amazon the most biodiverse region in the world.
It is the widest river, in many places up to seven miles across even 1,000 miles inland. The Amazon has a flow of water 12 times that of the Mississippi. It has more than 1,000 tributaries, 17 of which themselves are over 1,000 miles long.
Wildlife in the Amazon
15,000 species make Amazonia their home. Many of the larger mammals have retreated from the river banks to less accessible remnants of undisturbed forest. While it’s extremely unlikely these days that you will spot a jaguar, and rare to see tapir, or giant anaconda, this doesn't mean you won't see other rare and fascinating animals.
There are still plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife in their natural habitat. Giant river otter, three-toed sloth, and porcupine are among mammals that may reveal themselves to sharp-eyed travelers. Rare pink dolphins are also commonplace in the Amazon, so you will also have the chance to see these marine mammals up close.
Protected Areas of the Amazon River
If you want a more authentic experience, and want the best chance of seeing a range of animals and plants, protected areas are your best bet.
1. Yasuni National Park, Ecuador - If you’re starting in Coca, this park is likely on your itinerary. There is a mix of rainforest lodges and river cruises, depending on your preference and the tour you select. This is a great park to visit because of it’s high levels of animals and plants. There is also a clay lick which will attract animals. This park contains over one million hectares of UNESCO rainforest.
2. The Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peru - this is a great option for those traveling to the Peruvian Amazon. Most tours based out of Peru includes a stop in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. Here, you will see various animals (including monkeys, pink river dolphins, and iguanas), and beautiful, protected forest. This area is best seen on a river cruise, so you can see this “forest of mirrors.” The nutrient-rich water makes for awesome reflections of the trees in the river, a sight to be seen!
3. The Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Reserve, Peru - best for travelers looking to explore the Amazon by foot. The forest is on higher ground, making it more accessible to walk around. The reserve was founded to help protect uakari monkeys, and also features a dart frog conservation.
For visitors looking to zipline through the Amazon, this is home to the largest canopy zipline. The primate research grid is located nearby the reserve too. This is a popular choice for visitors, and many come to visit the Tahuayo Lodge, one of the highest rated lodges in the Amazon.
4. The Anavilhanas National Park, Brazil - is another protected area. This park is special as there are different “islands” to explore. Cruise through the archipelago. Surprisingly, there are beaches in this section of the rainforest!
When to Visit the Amazon River
The Amazon region is huge. Since it spans across much of South America, the best time to visit depends on what you’re hoping to see, and where you’re going. Wet season often means traveling by skiff, so if you’re hoping to walk around and hike, it’s best to go during the dry season. The tail end of the rainy season is what helps the plants bloom, so keep this into consideration. Rainy season can also bring out the wildlife.
Popular Amazon regions:
1. Coca, Ecuador - There isn’t a huge temperature difference throughout the year in Coca, with highs in the upper 80s to low 90s, and lows in the low 70s year round. Travelers looking for minimal rainfall have the best luck visiting in August-November.
2. Iquitos, Peru - The weather in Iquitos is pretty stead all year, averaging upper 80s year round, with lows in the low 70s. Rainfall hits a low of 160 mm in July and August, during peak “dry” season, while wet season averages between 230-310. While wildlife is active year, plants and fruit are blooming in the first half of the year (around January through May).
3. Manaus, Brazil - Manaus is pretty similar to Iquitos regarding weather, with temperatures averaging high 80s and creeping up into the low 90s year round. Lows are pretty similar to, averaging in the mid 70s.
Again, wildlife is pretty active the whole year, but fruits and flowers are blooming in February-April. While this is peak rainfall season (averaging around 300 mm of rain), visitors also win because this is the start of festival season. For travelers looking for minimum rainfall, August is the best month to go, with just an average of 58 mm of rain.
Should I visit the Amazon River with a tour?
The answer is yes, you should. Many people pride themselves on being independent travelers, but this is not the place to do this. The Amazon is huge and it’s easy to get lost. There’s a chance of running into indigenous tribes who may not be too fond of visitors just strolling around their home.
By going on a tour, you have a guide who is familiar with the area, who has access to safety and help when needed. They have built relationships with the indigenous communities they pass on the tour, so you’ll have a welcoming and fun experience with them.
Amazon River Photography Tips
For capturing the many colors and creeds of the Amazon, knowing a tip or two will take your travel photographs from ordinary to extraordinary. But beware - the river is unforgivingly large and deep - keep your camera firmly attached around your neck to avoid dropping it in the depths!
1. Use Manual Focus - The Amazon river and rainforest are beautiful, however, they exhibit many of the same colors and shades. To make your subject pop, use a manual focus setting (or on a phone, try a “portrait mode” that will fade the background. This will give more depth to your image.
2. Bring a Lens Cloth - The Amazon is a rainforest and therefore it will be damp (whether you travel in the dry or wet season). In case you’re going for the fogged lens look (which you might be!) it’s always a good idea to give your lens a good wipe down before shooting.
3. Use Different Angles - This becomes increasingly important for wildlife photography, when getting the shot may require a position worthy of any contortionist. But using different angles can reveal an entirely different kind of picture, and keeps you attuned to your surroundings.
4. Bring a long lens - If you’re shooting with a DSLR, you’ll definitely want a long or zoom lens with you. The wildlife will not come to you, so you have to go to them, and even then your sightings may be very far away (another reason to go with a guide on nature hikes and walk through the Amazon - their eyes will see things you’d pass right by!). A 100-400mm lens is recommended, and you can even get extenders to add on top, giving you amazing long distance range.
5. Pay attention to shutter speed - making use of your manual settings is going to take your Amazon photographs to the next level. One that is often forgotten about is shutter speed. Remember that oftentimes you will be in a fast moving boat, and / or attempting to photograph fast moving wildlife. Increasing your shutter speed can help!
6. Don’t be afraid of your flash - It can seem counterintuitive to have your flash ready in broad daylight, but remember that when you’re walking on the forest floor, the canopy cover is quite thick. It will be dark, so your flash can become your best friend. If you hate the look of photographs with flash, consider widening your aperture to let more light in.
Things to Know Before You Go
Since many of Amazon cruises are Peru based, most of this section will focus on Peru itineraries, but much of the information is applicable to all Amazon tours. Regardless of which port you enter through, you’ll be met with beautiful scenery.
How to get to the Amazon River
Peru is a popular country for people who want to visit the Amazon River. Many tours include a combination tour of cities and the Amazon. Tours often fly into either Lima or Iquitos airports, and then take a flight to Cusco (if flying into Lima). Once you arrive into Lima, most tours stay overnight, and fly into Cusco the following afternoon for a tour of Machu Picchu, or Iquitos to start your Amazon tour.
If you’re starting your Amazon River cruise from Iquitos, Peru, you’re starting from a popular section. Because this port is close to a city, you’ll have to travel further away from the city to see a lot of animal wildlife. Don’t let this discourage you, the sights are still incredible and worth seeing, they are just further in than if you entered from Coca, Ecuador.
If you’re starting your adventure from Manaus, Brazil, you’re starting at the largest city in the Amazon Rainforest. Because of this, you have to travel pretty far to see the various plants and animals found in the Amazon. This is a fun option for people who want to combine city and nature travel.
If you’re starting your Amazon River Adventure from Coca, Ecuador, you’ll experience a less popular entry point, meaning less degradation by human activity. You’ll commonly spend time in Yasuni National Park, where you can climb above the rainforest on the canopy towers to admire the colorful birds and butterflies. Hike through the protected areas to get a glimpse at various Amazon Rainforest species.
Wildlife in the Amazon
For those who have ever been on a safari, you know no two safaris will ever be the same. The time of day, the weather, and pure luck will play into what animals you see. Wildlife sightings along the Amazon are the same. That’s what makes multi-day adventures exciting. There is always a new opportunity to see different animals.
Being in one of the most biologically diverse habitats in the world, each day will bring new plants, new fish, and new mammals. That’s the fun of looking for wildlife: you never know what you’re going to see, so every spotting brings excitement, even if you’ve seen it before.
Top animal sightings in the Amazon River
- Macaw parrots
- Pink River Dolphins
- Rainforest monkeys
Weather on the Amazon River
The weather for your Amazon river cruise will depend on the season. June through October is known as the “low water” season, you’ll be able to get out into the forest via walking. In the rainier season, November-May, most of the touring will be done via a skiff, which is a small boat. The amazon river is hot and humid. Being a tropical region, the temperature doesn’t vary much between months.
What should I pack for the Amazon River?
Despite the hot and humid weather, it’s smart to bring long, breathable clothing that you can layer. Most of the time, long pants will be needed to protect the body from bug bites, so consider bringing zippable pants that can be turned into shorts when needed.
Sunburns and mosquito bites are some of the last things anyone wants to deal with while traveling. Protect yourself from that summer heat and bites with a sun hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and bug spray.
When you sign up for a trip to the Amazon, you’re more than likely to be active and on the go. Make sure to bring comfortable shoes, and even hiking boots. The rainforest is true to its name, so a lightweight rain jacket will help keep you dry.
Despite the overall warm temperatures year round, there is a chance it can get a bit cold at night, so a jacket can help keep you warm. Don’t forget your camera so you can photograph the amazing scenery!
What to see on the Amazon River
While the Amazon River itself is an incredible attraction, there are specific places/attractions that can be of interest, especially if you’re looking for a specific animal. Some things worth seeing:
1. Clay Licks are places where an animal can feed on the clay. The clay helps with the toxins in their diets. This is a great attraction to almost guarantee a wildlife spotting. Clay licks are most commonly found in Peru. If you’re entering the Amazon through Coca, there is a clay lick in Yasuni National Park, which many river cruises visit.
2. Primate Research Grid is a great destination for travelers hoping to see monkeys. Located near the Tahuayo River in Peru, this 1,000 acre grid is an awesome stop for travelers heading to Peru. Visitors can expect to see howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, titi monkeys, and other animals/plants.
3. Canopy Towers offer great views of the Amazon from a birds eye view. The green tree tops meeting blue skies with birds and butterflies floating through the air? Talk about a perfect view! Make sure to bring your camera. Every now and then, visitors see monkey families floating through the tree tops. Canopy towers are often found at Amazon Rainforest Lodges, with a couple along the Amazon River itself.
Outdoor activities on the Amazon River
1. Canopy zipline/canopy walking: Similar to the canopy towers, you get to see the Amazon from a different view. These options add a bit more of a thrill. If you’re in Ecuador, there is a canopy walk at the Sacha Lodge. For those in Peru, a stop at the Tahuayo Lodge allows visitors to zipline through the Amazon!
Other Tips for Amazon River Travel
When people hear Amazon, some think of rough conditions, camping, and being on an entirely outdoor adventure. This isn’t always the case. While of course you’ll be outside during the day, you’ll return back to your accommodation where you’ll sleep in a real bed. You’ll only get as rough as your outdoor daytime adventure, whether it be hiking through the national reserves or swimming with dolphins.
Be prepared for limited to no-cell service when you’re in the Amazon. If you’re visiting major cities, you’ll be able to connect, but out in the wilderness, you won’t be getting a signal. If you’re staying at a Rainforest lodge, that may be a different story. Since some lodges sit on the edge of the river rather than the middle of the jungle, the lodge may have an internet connection.
The mosquitos and other insects are the real deal in the Amazon. While some Amazon countries don’t require vaccinations (such as Peru), it’s important to check in with the CDC and see what they recommend. Staying aware of recommendations and potential health concerns can help keep you healthy.
Consider studying up the local language. It’s a sign of respect, even if your language skills aren’t the best! The locals appreciate the effort.
Visiting the Amazon river doesn’t mean you have to take a boat the entire time. There are some incredible Amazon river cruises, which allows you to see the river from a different viewpoint. If spending a week on a boat doesn’t sound desirable, there are also Rainforest lodges. Some time will be spent on the water, but this is mainly day time activities such as kayak tours.
Be skeptical of wildlife tourism that allows interacting/touching animals. Swimming with the dolphins is one thing, but industries that allow you to hold the monkeys likely aren’t ethical. Often, the animals are mistreated/abused to allow humans to hold them. Look for tours that feature ethical animal interactions.
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