Put quite simply, the Amazon basin is an empire of water. Coursing through an area of 11 million square miles, the mighty Amazon encompasses more than a quarter of the world’s water currents. The volume of its rivers represents half of all water movement on the planet. It draws liquid from eight different countries and stirs and plows it so far into the Atlantic Ocean that a sailor can dunk a cup in the sea fifty miles beyond the sight of land and taste fresh water. It can reach a width of 118 miles and contains twenty percent of the world’s fresh water. It is called the river sea.
You could spend a lifetime exploring its vast interior, much of which is inaccessible and remains unseen by human eyes, but here is a list to get you started.
1. Be initiated in an ayahuasca ceremony
There are many worlds hidden beneath the vast foliage of the Amazon rain forest, but perhaps the most mysterious is one that is found in a cup a tea. Ayahuasca, which means “vine of the souls”, is considered by many to be the queen of all hallucinogens. It is perhaps the closest you will ever come to visiting another planet. That doesn’t mean you will leave this planet, necessarily, but when you drink ayahuasca everything about this planet changes.
The substance, which is taken as a tea, is a psychoactive infusion of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and an MAO inhibitor. It has been consumed for divinatory and healing purposes for millennia in the Amazon region of South America. Whereas many a number of hallucinogens can be used for recreational purposes, with ayahuasca you pretty much lose that capacity. Consuming it produces a very intense experience and it is only recommended within an environment where one feels safe and secure.
That said, there are plenty of such locations throughout the Amazon basin where ayahuasca can be consumed in a safe environment. The most popular are in Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil, where one can find shamanistic lodges that brew ayahuasca and provide a shaman who will guide you through its consumption. Options range from donation-based 8-day retreats in Iquitos, Peru, to ceremonies held at Santo Daime churches in Brazil, which involve rituals such as the collective singing of hymns while engaged in formalized dance movements. This is not to say that we condone any type of drug use. It is, however, a popular activity for some travelers to South America.
2. Go white-water rafting
With so much water plunging down from the Andes into the lush canyons of the Amazon, one should expect some of the best white-water rivers in the world. Here, like with so many other things, the Amazon delivers. From one tumultuous day on the foam to up to three weeks, there are options available for every budget and level of expertise.
One option is the Rio Apurímac (4 days), which begins near Peru’s tourist capital of Cusco. The Apurímac slices through a 9,843-feet deep canyon before steadily descending into the wide pastoral valleys and tropical rainforests of the Amazon. Awesome scenery and rare wildlife such as Andean bears, pumas, and otters can occasionally be seen during the trip.
A more adventurous option is the Tambopata River, which typically runs for 12 days and starts high in Peru’s altiplano, north of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The first few days are spent navigating some intense whitewater rapids, while the remainder are spent drifting through the Tambopata Candamo Reserved Zone, an unspoiled region where you’ll camp along the river and have a good opportunity to see monkeys, giant otters, parrots, alligators, tapirs, eagles and ocelots.
For some superb technical rafting, experienced rafters should consider Cotahuasi and Colca Canyons, the two deepest canyons in the world, both of which are in Peru.
3. Glide through the canopy
Humans have, unfortunately, lost much of their ability when it comes to tree navigation. Our primate counterparts swing effortlessly through the branches while we are cursed to remain passive bipedal observers. But in recent years that has changed. Thanks to a number of astute entrepreneurs, the trees have once again become our domain. Via canopy and zip-line tours, one can gain an elevated perspective of the rainforest, and get up close and personal with animals whose canopy habitat would otherwise be inaccessible. And not only that, but canopy tours also eliminate much of the environmental impact caused by forging footpaths through otherwise undisturbed swathes of forest.
Rather than stomping across the jungle floor and harming the habitats with foot traffic, eco-tourists can glide briskly through the tree-tops without disturbing the plants and animals below. If you’re adventurous and the walkways look a bit boring, consider a zip line tour, where you traverse the canopy from platform to platform via cables, reaching speeds of more than 20 miles an hour. Canopy and zip-line tours can be arranged in every country in the Amazon basin.
4. Volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary
For those with a soft-spot for animals, consider giving up a few weeks of your South American odyssey to help rehabilitate some of the Amazon’s most exotic wildlife. Most countries in the region provide volunteer opportunities, particularly Ecuador, whose programs often involve rehabilitation and release schemes that work in collaboration with local indigenous communities. Their aim is to rescue wild animals from unhealthy and illegal situations where the animals have been the victims of animal-trafficking or mistreatment. They usually involve behavioral enrichment programs, allowing the animals to be successfully released in an area suitable area for them.
5. Trek through the jungle
There are numerous national parks and wildlife reserves where travelers can get up close with the Amazon’s wildlife in their natural habitats. Many parks offer guided hikes to specific sections of the rain forest, where you’ll have the opportunity to see many exotic animals, including black caimans, pink river dolphins, giant river turtles, manatees, tapirs, a handful of different monkey species, and perhaps even a jaguar — not to mention the diverse flora. During the hike you’ll either camp or stay in basic lodges.
Treks can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and usually include a great deal of canoeing to reach deeper into the forest. So, what will you be doing? Well, it depends on the package you sign up for, but nearly all treks include birding, piranha fishing, visiting local indigenous communities, searching for anacondas, and, of course, plenty of hiking.
Two of the most popular parks for trekking in the Amazon are Jaú National Park, in the Rio Negro watershed of Brazil, and Manú National Park, in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. Both feature great biodiversity and comfortable visitors’ facilities. Another option is Peru’s Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samira, which boasts approximately 100 species of mammals, 500 species of birds, 250 kinds of fish and 22 species of orchids. It is the largest (twice the size of Yellowstone National Park) and one of the best conserved protected areas in Peru.
6. Stay in an eco-lodge
If you fantasize of being immersed in the sights and sounds of the jungle but aren’t too keen on expending the amount of energy required to machete your way through a week-long trek, why not buy a nice bottle of wine and swing away a few days in an eco-lodge’s mosquito-netted hammock? Eco-lodges, which are often constructed from salvaged material from the surrounding landscape, are the most common form of accommodation once you get thick into the forest.
Stays are available throughout the Amazon and can easily be arranged, but you’ll need to shop around to find what’s best for you. Some are cheap and extremely basic, while others feature hot showers, flush toilets, screened-in restaurants even Internet cafes (why again do you need the internet if the point is to be submerged in nature?). Eco-lodges strive to provide sustainable tourist accommodations and are careful to keep the impact on the environment to a minimum. Additionally, most lodge stays include an adventure guide who can help you plan excursions in the surrounding region.
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7. Cruise the river
Floating lazily through the jungle while swinging in a hammock and watching pink dolphins splash in the nearby waters is a unique experience, and organizing a trip down the Amazon can be done with relative ease, as the river serves as the only highway for many towns that are isolated in the dense forest and have no road access. Both locals and tourists must use the river’s thousands of tributaries to get from one destination to another, as the dense jungle makes building roads or landing strips very difficult.
In most towns and cities along the Amazon you’ll find river cruise companies that can book you on everything from a small skiff to a large barge or a pontoon tour boat. Trips can be arranged on site, or in advance over the phone or Internet if you know the company you want to go with. If you want to do the entire length of the Amazon, there are a number of options, depending how far up stream you wish to begin. These includes luxury state-of-the-art cruise vessels with air-conditioned rooms and experienced guides who will identify the animals you encounter, to rickety transport barges where you can sleep in a tangle of hammocks for a few dollars a night. To get up close with the wildlife and visit local communities it is best to tackle to river in stages, making stops along the way to explore the Amazon’s smaller feeders and flooded forests.
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- David Joshua Jennings