More than just the planet’s largest rainforest and its greatest river system (with over 1,000 tributaries), the Amazon is a mythical entity capable of evoking extremes. On one hand, there is the primeval earthly paradise, replete with virgin forests and Indians who have managed the staggering feat of never having had contact with Western “civilization.” On the other, there is the deadly “green hell,” an unbearably hot and humid no-man’s land in whose tangled green landscape one could easily lose one’s bearings and end up as a meal for jaguars, anacondas, or piranhas.
Myths aside, the reality of the Amazon is equally inspiring. Occupying close to 60 percent of Brazil’s landmass, the Earth’s most ecologically diverse and—despite ongoing devastation—most unspoiled virgin rainforest is a sight most people can’t resist conjuring up when they think of Brazil. Dense, green, wet, and full of the promise of adventure, the rainforest provides an unforgettable experience for those who venture the distance to get there.
In most cases, you won’t encounter the pristine jungle teeming with wildlife that BBC nature documentaries might have led you to believe exists. Deforestation, urbanization, and less eco-friendly forms of tourism have definitely taken their toll, and aside from birds and some reptiles, you’re likely to see more large creatures in the region’s zoos than in the actual forest.
However, if you adjust your expectations and take pains to get yourself off the beaten path (i.e., away from urban centers), you will discover a truly rich and unique part of the world with singular landscapes, cultures, and people.
There is no end to the ways you can explore the Amazon. Set sail along one of the Rio Amazonas’s many tributaries in a riverboat (or dug-out canoe) that glides past caimans and cavorting pink dolphins. Take a hike through the jungle filled with the screams and squawks of hundreds of fluorescently colored birds, or climb up into the trees’ canopy where you’ll be eye-level with monkeys. Go fishing for piranhas (yes, the chances of you eating them are far greater than them eating you). You can even go swimming among them, in waters that range in color from creamy brown to jet black.
And if you want to go deep into the steamy, green thick of things, check into one of the jungle lodges—which range from rustic to downright luxurious—and let the forest wildlife come to you. If time and money are no obstacle, consider trips far into the jungle. Prime destinations include the Anavilhanas archipelago, with its 400 islands, and the Mamirauá Reserve, Brazil’s first sustainable jungle park, which is home of the elusive scarlet-faced uakari monkey. In these spots, you’re still likely to find the kind of Amazon featured in National Geographic centerfolds of yore.
Contrasting (sometimes shockingly so) with their jungly surroundings, the region’s two principal cities of Manaus and Belém are equally fascinating to explore. Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas, and gateway to the forest, is a busy river port humming with activity and markets. It is also home to the sumptuous Teatro Amazonas, a glorious belle epoque opera house whose opulence is all the more surprising for being in the midst of the jungle. Built in the late 1800s, the Teatro is a testament to the rubber boom that, for a while, transformed both Manaus and Belém into the richest cities in Brazil.
Manaus is also famous as the birthplace of the Amazon River. It is here that the Meeting of the Waters takes place, a spectacle in which the dark clear waters of the Rio Negro flow beside and finally merge with the lighter hued Rio Solimões to form the world’s mightiest river.
Midway between Manaus and Belém lies the town of Santarém, perched upon the Rio Tapajós. Steeped in Amazonian culture, Santarém is a languid, laid-back, and very undiscovered place blessed with the gorgeous, white-sand river beaches of Alter do Chão. The surrounding region has a wealth of marvelous attractions ranging from the jungles of the Floresta Nacional do Tapajós to the 12,000-year-old rock paintings hidden amidst the caves and grottoes of Monte Alegre.
Meanwhile, at the mouth of the Amazon, 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) downriver from Manaus sits Belém, capital of the state of Pará. Founded in the 1600s, for centuries Belém was little more than a sleepy colonial outpost. Then along came the rubber boom of the late 1800s. Overnight, Belém was transformed into a “tropical Paris” packed with palaces, plazas, and parks. Although by the early 20th century the boom had gone bust, this atmospheric city, lined with thousands of mango trees, still retains considerable vestiges of its former wealth and elegance.
As a living and breathing showcase of Amazonian culture, arts, and cuisine, Belém is one of Brazil’s most interesting cities. It is home to the Amazon’s best museums, restaurants, and nightlife, and a fantastic market, the sprawling Mercado Ver-o-Peso, where you’ll find everything from piranhas to guaraná.
From Belém, it is only a three-hour boat trip to Marajó, a vast island of marshes and forests with attractions that include secluded white-sand river beaches, water buffalo farms, and ceramics studios where local artisans make pottery based on the sophisticated techniques and designs used over a thousand years ago by their indigenous ancestors. The world’s largest freshwater island, Marajó has an interesting culture all its own and is a wonderfully relaxing place to while away a few days at the tail end of a jungle trip.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition