Getting into the thick of it in the Amazon rainforest
When you think about South America, one of the first things that will probably spring to your mind is the Amazon.
The largest tropical rainforest in the world, it stretches out over 5.5 million km2 and across nine countries: Bolivia, Brazil (around 60% of the entire rainforest is situated here), Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. The Amazon River begins its journey in the Nevado Mismi - a mountain in the Peruvian Andes - and ends in the Atlantic Ocean, on the north-east coast of Brazil. The second longest river in the world - after the Nile - it’s approximately 6400km in length.
Known as the ‘lungs of the Earth’, the rainforest produces around 20% of the world’s oxygen, and the lush vegetation is so thick that the ground below the canopy is always in darkness - it can take about ten minutes for rain to reach the ground! As a result, much of the Amazon remains unexplored. Despite being a mystery, one thing is guaranteed - if you head over, you are sure to have the trip of a lifetime.
Home to a stunning array of living creatures, the Amazon is the perfect place to look for wildlife. With at least 40,000 varieties of plant, thousands of types of fish and birds, around 430 species of mammals and 2.5 million different insects, the Amazon has a staggering biodiversity.
The largest of South America’s big cats, jaguars are magnificent animals. They were revered by Native American cultures, who believed they were connected to the spirit world. Also, a sight to behold is the pink river dolphin - a species that has largely escaped human persecution due to local belief they have special powers. However, there are other creatures lurking in the water that so friendly.
Watch out for crocodiles, piranhas and electric eels!
Look out for wildlife amongst the trees too - the Toucan, which is synonymous with the Amazon Rainforest; hummingbirds flitting in and out of flowers; dazzlingly blue morpho butterflies; and poison dart frogs which are filled with the deadliest poison known to man!
Look out for Toucans hiding away in the trees
It’s not just exotic wildlife that the rainforest is home to. The Amazon is the home of approximately one million Indians who are split into around 400 tribes, each of which possesses its own territory, culture and language. Many tribes have contact with the outside world and live in settlements along the water, where they grow their own food. Some tribes are uncontactable though, and live deep in the rainforest where they hunt and gather to survive.
A lot of our everyday food and drink items originate from the rainforest. You wouldn’t be able to get your coffee fix, or satiate your sweet tooth with chocolate, without the Amazon. It’s also responsible for fruits such as bananas and avocadoes, cashew and Brazil nuts and many other tasty titbits. We also have the Amazon to thank for flavourings such as vanilla, cinnamon and pepper too.
Lots of these ingredients are also used in cosmetics such as shampoos and moisturisers — have a look on the packets for scents using Brazil nuts, coconut oil and passion fruit.
These rainforest ingredients aren’t just of the delicious kind — a lot of the plants also have healing properties and are used in medicines. Around 70% of the plants that are known to have anti-cancer properties are only located in the rainforest — all the more reason to respect it!
A man picking coffee
Because of its overwhelming size, it can be difficult to know where to begin your Amazon exploration. Unless you have the time (and stamina!) to traverse the entire length of it, it’s best to choose certain areas to experience.
The geographical character of the Amazon changes across the continent, meaning there are so many different things to see. It’s advised to use a professional tour group/guide to ensure you stay safe (and to point out wildlife or features to you!). There are lots of National Parks dotted throughout the rainforest which are tourist-friendly, such as Manu National Park in Peru, which is renowned for its wildlife. Or head to Canaima National Park in Venezuela to marvel at the table top mountain - Mount Roraima - which inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and to see Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall. To see another side of the Amazon, take to the waters in Ecuador for white water rafting and kayaking experiences, or opt for a relaxing river cruise.
Angel Falls is the world's highest waterfall
Take some time to visit the pockets of civilisation along the Amazon, from the bustling cities to indigenous communities. Manaus is the Amazon’s largest city where you can visit the museums, go to the enchanting Opera House or do a spot of shopping. The most striking attraction in this city is the ‘Meeting of the Waters’ where the dark waters of the Rio Negro converge with the murky, brown waters of the Solimões River to create a body of water that is split in half by the two different colours. And make sure you visit nearby Presidente Figueiredo to see their stunning waterfalls.
Ensure you also sample some authentic Amazonian cuisine, most of which makes use of the fish found in the river. Try a bowl of shrimp soup or a dish involving pirarucu, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. Tropical fruit such as acai berries is popular too - particularly in juices.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that there are no beaches in the Amazon. The city of Alter do Chão is known for its Ilha do Amor (Island of Love) which has gorgeous white sand. Explore the island, go for a paddle or just lounge on the beach.
If some retail therapy is in order, the Ver-o-Peso Market in Belém is definitely worth a visit. This huge open-air market sells a variety of produce, particularly local fruit and fish. Perusing the wares will give you a great insight into the Amazonian way of life.
And once you have finished exploring for the day, stop off at a jungle eco-lodge to relax and get some rest before starting your adventure all over again the next day!