One of the things you really should do while travelling in Brazil (or South America), is to make a trip to the Amazon. This rainforest is the largest in the world, and spans nine countries in the continent. It’s huge! And it’s unique too – with a few million of kinds of insects, and thousands and thousands of species of plants, birds and mammals, the Amazon’s biodiversity is of great importance to our beautiful planet. But where do you start, what do you bring, and what are other practical things to worry about? Continue reading for my Amazon travel tips!
I’ve been to the Amazon three times now: twice in Bolivia (from Rurrenabaque) and recently in Brazil. My favourite was definitely the “pampas” in Bolivia, and I found the Amazon near Manaus in Brazil rather disappointing. But I’m sure that – if I take my own tips into account next time – there are better places to be explored!
Take your time to figure out what exactly you want
First, start by really taking some time to think about what you are looking for in your Amazon trip. Do you mainly want to spot animals (which can be quite hard anyway)? Are you looking for adventure or comfort? Happy to go to a remote place by boat for a week, or do you only have three days to spend? These questions really matter, especially if you go to the Brazilian side (which occupies 60% of the Amazon!).
For other, smaller countries it may be a little bit easier. I remember from my time in Bolivia that there were several options leaving from Rurrenabaque (pampa boat tour, hardcore-style Amazon adventure trek) and that we saw a lot of animals along the way. But for Brazil things are different. The Brazilian Amazon is so big and large cities such as Manaus attract a lot of economic activities, so it can be difficult to get that ‘remote’ feeling if you stay close to Manaus.
Manaus may not necessarily be the best city for departure
If you want to do a 2-4 day trip, get an allround glimpse of the Amazon and don’t want to spend a lot of money: book a trip near Manaus. There are plenty of travel agencies offering a variety of options. We booked a tour with Iguana Tours, and it was okay given the price we paid. We thought it was going to be in a remote area, since we had to travel by van, boat, van and boat again. But arriving there – at our lodge on the river side – we realised this wasn’t really the case, as we saw quite some other boats and houses along the way. And at night, the light pollution from Manaus was still visible.
The activities itself were also not amazing. We spent a lot of time on the boat trying to find animals (fail), did one hike (that was fun) and caught some piranhas. We were also going to spend one night in hammocks in the forest, but when we arrived there it turned out to be a small permanent camp 20 meters from the river side. No adventure at all! For me personally, having already travelled to the Amazon, this was pretty disappointing, although others seem to love it. I have to admit that the tour was pretty cheap, so maybe I expected too much.
One aspect I particularly found disappointing was the lack of animals. Yes, it’s difficult to see them anyway in the Amazone, but I saw a lot more when I was in Bolivia. So if you really want to see some animals, either go to another area in the Amazon, or perhaps decide to skip the Amazon completely and (dare I say it) go to the Pantanal instead.
If you are looking for more adventure, more remote lodges, or a longer cruise: it would be wise to build in more days for your Amazon trip in your travel schedule. These tours tend to take a little bit longer. The ecolodges and the river boat tours are also significantly more expensive, but may well be worth the price. Another option would be to see if there are other cities to book your trip from, such as Santarém or Belém, so you get to the more remote forest more quickly than leaving from big city Manaus.
A tip for the true adventurists: take the 7-day hike for the Pico da Neblina (although make sure that tours are actually taking place before you go there). The hike to get to the highest peak of Brazil, near to the border with Venezuela, seems to be amazing!
Bring the right clothes
Touring in the Amazon can be quite challenging. You have sunburns to worry about, the humidity makes you sweat like crazy, but at the same time you don’t want to be eaten alive by mosquitos. So what do you wear? It depends a little on your activity. I found that during our boat trips by daytime, shorts, a t-shirt and flipflops were just fine. But whenever you go on land for a hike (i.e. when you might run into snakes, spiders and nasty insects) you would definitely want to wear long trousers and closed shoes. I wore trousers that were light-coloured (= fewer mosquitos), permanently impregnated with anti-mosquito stuff and made of a nice light material, so it wasn’t too hot.
I wore the same things at night for our nocturnal boat trips, but this time also with a long-sleeved shirt. This shirt was actually quite tight, so the mosquitos bit right through it, unfortunately. I would therefore recommend loose shirts as well as trousers – the Brazilians in our group who wore tight sports leggings were not protected against the mosquitos at all. You will need loose material that is not directly on your skin, or our little friends will have a delightful meal.
For the easy Amazon trips leaving from Manaus, sport shoes are just fine. You need closed shoes to protect you from insects, and whenever I walked around on land, I also put my trousers in my socks, so that no insect could run up my legs (I’ve had it before… caterpillars and leeches. Yep, you don’t want that). If you are going for a more adventurous hike you might want to consider real walking shoes/boots, as they protect your ankles from snake bites.
For the night in the hammock, I simply slept in my day clothes (long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt). It got a little cold around 4am so I put on an extra tshirt.
Oh, and do bring a bikini! You can swim in the river (yep, the same river where you’ll be fishing for piranhas).
The everyday dilemma of putting poison on your skin vs facing dozens of mosquitos
People say that there are areas in the Brazilian Amazon where there are “no mosquitos”. Well.. I have yet to find these areas. In the forest both around Manaus and Alter do Çhão I got approximately 34 mosquito bites on each leg. DEET is therefore a must – although the choice between poison or mosquitos is not always an easy one.
What else to bring?
As the sun is quite strong and you can easily spend a few hours a day on a boat, it’s always good to keep a hat with you.
You will also be very happy with cleaning wipes after your hammock night in the jungle (as there is no toilet, no shower, nada). For the same reason, an alcohol gel also comes in handy.
Flipflops for walking around the lodge.
You’ll probably leave most of your stuff from your big backpack at the travel agency, so it would be good to either have a large enough daypack for the things you’ll need, or have some other sort of bag that you can lock and leave at the agency. I simply used my backpack’s cover to store the rest of my stuff and put a lock on it. They advise you to leave your valuables, creditcards, passports etc at the agency. Although I trust humanity and wasn’t afraid that my stuff would get stolen at the agency, I would NEVER leave all my documents and valuables all at one place. Bring some ID and money with you – you never know what will happen.
And what are your Amazon travel tips?
I’m actually going to the Amazon again next month, so I’m very curious to know about any other rainforest hacks! What are your tips, and where did you travel?