Welcome to the heart of the Amazon. Amazonas is Brazil’s largest state, spanning almost 1.6 million sq km. You could fit four Germanys within its borders with room left over for, say, Greece. It is here that the massive Solimões, Negro and Madeira rivers converge to form the Rio Amazonas, the granddaddy of them all. Manaus is where it all begins, a logical base for coming and going, and there are some genuinely rewarding tours, sights and urban amenities.
But Amazonas – not to mention Amazonia as a whole – is an incredibly big chunk of earth, and Manaus, with its outstanding tours, is merely a starting point. True, deep-immersion Amazon experiences, from Mamirauá Reserve to Reserva Extrativista Baixo Rio Branco-Jauaperi, from the Rio Urubu to the Rio Javari, are where you'll encounter the Amazon of which you always dreamed.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Amazonas.
This newly minted extractive reserve is an outstanding place to immerse yourself in the best the Amazon has to offer, with excellent wildlife-watching – if you're here to see the Amazon in its pristine state, this place should be high on your list. The reserve extends north from the Rio Negro and is most easily reached from Novo Airão.
Spanning over 100 sq km, this 'garden' is actually the world’s largest urban forest. There's a network of five short trails (guides and closed shoes required, two to three hours, free with admission) and an open-air museum that includes rotating exhibits on Amazonian flora and fauna and a spectacular 42-meter-high observation tower. It's busier on weekends and free on Tuesday.
Although this state park was established in 1990 to preserve the unique canyons carved out by the Rio Aracá, it wasn't until recently that the massive waterfall at its heart was officially measured and certified. Turns out, Cachoeira do El Dorado is Brazil's highest waterfall, plunging 353m over a sandstone cliff into a mist-swept pool below.
This gorgeous theater was built at the height of the rubber boom, using European designers, decorators and even raw materials. The original driveway was Brazilian, though, made of Amazonian rubber to soften the clatter of late-arriving carriages. The theater's performance schedule includes an excellent opera festival in April and May. Hour-long guided tours offer an up-close look at the theater's opulent construction.
Just beyond Manaus, the warm dark Rio Negro pours into the cool creamy Rio Solimões, but because of differences in temperature, speed and density, their waters don't mix, instead flowing side by side for several kilometers. The bi-color phenomenon occurs throughout the Amazon, but nowhere as dramatically as here. Day trips always include a stop here, and many tour operators at least pass by en route to their lodges. Never disappoints.
About 105km by river from Leticia, eco-fierce Palmarí's rambling lodge and research center sits on the south (Brazilian) bank of the river, overlooking a wide bend where pink and gray dolphins often gather. It's the only lodge with access to all three Amazonian ecosystems: terra firme (dry), várzea (semiflooded) and igapó (flooded). The lodge itself is rustic and has helpful guides employed from the surrounding community (no English, but much authenticity and expertise).
Spanning nearly 23,000 sq km, Jaú is Brazil’s second-biggest national park, and one of the largest tracts of protected tropical rainforest on earth. It stretches west from the Rio Negro along the Jaú and Carabinani rivers. The Unesco-listed park has a number of waterfalls, important stands of primary forest and a handful of access rivers. All of that said, visiting is less rewarding than the Reserva Extrativista Baixo Rio Branco-Jauaperi.
Stretching along the Rio Negro for almost 130km and with 400 islands, this national park, centered on the Anavilhanas Archipelago, is one of the most rewarding excursions in the Rio Negro Basin. When water levels are high, its flooded forests are most often visited on a day trip from Novo Airão. At other times, island beaches appear and camping overnight becomes possible.
Zacambú is one of the closest reserves to Leticia, about 70km away by boat. Its lodge is on Laguna Zacambú, just off Río Yavarí, on the Peruvian side of the river. Accommodations are simple, with small rooms and shared bathrooms, and a total capacity of about 30 guests. Plan on at least US$100 per person per night including food and transportation.