Activities in Manaus are all about the river and the jungle. Trips into the jungle have always been popular here, but the number of guides and boats has exploded in recent years. Everything's possible, from half-day jaunts to multiday expeditions. To truly experience the wild Amazon, do at least one of the latter.
Getting away from Manaus and out into the jungle should be the goal of every visitor to the Amazon. Although day trips from the city are possible, including to the Encontro das Águas or to waterfall-rich Presidente Figueiredo, to truly experience the jungle, you'll need to venture a little further. The longer you're away from Manaus, the more you're likely to see and to feel as if you've done more than scratch the surface of this vast and extraordinary region.
Manaus has dozens of operators who can take you out into the wild. Quality varies enormously, and paying more doesn't necessarily guarantee you a good experience. The majority of trips sold on the street, and even at some of the reputable tour agencies, are consolidated onto huge cattle boats; bargain hard for these because there's really not much bang for your buck.
But there are also some excellent companies run by professional staff and led by knowledgeable guides. Talk with other travelers to get a feel for what's possible, especially at the budget end of things. There are also some terrific operators in Novo Airão.
What Sort of Trip?
While anything’s possible, the most common trip is three to five days based at a jungle lodge or on a riverboat, with day trips for hiking, canoeing, fishing for piranha, spotting caiman at night and visiting local villages. Sleeping in hammocks in the forest for a night or two is usually possible, but not required. Some operators also offer so-called survival tours, which are spent mostly or entirely in forest camps.
Thinking carefully about what sort of trip you want can help determine which operator is best for you. How much do you want to rough it? Do you want a bed or a hammock? What about sleeping aboard a boat? Private bathroom, shared or pit toilet? Do you want to spend a night or two in the forest or do day trips from the lodge? How much do mosquitoes bother you? Do you prefer hiking or canoeing? There is no shame in choosing more or less comfort – you are there to enjoy yourself, after all.
There are also a few questions to ask the tour operator: does the guide speak English (or a language you understand)? How long will you spend getting there? What is the trip itinerary? How much hiking and/or canoeing will you do? How large are the groups? Ask to see recent pictures of the accommodations and activities, and a guest comment book.
And talk to other travelers! Virtually every foreigner you see in Manaus is planning a trip or returning from one, and they are a good source of honest, up-to-date info.
What to Bring
Bring shoes or boots for hiking, sandals for around the lodge, long-sleeved shirts and pants, mosquito repellent, a hat and sunscreen, rain gear, flashlight, roll of toilet paper, daypack and a water bottle. And binoculars! Even a small pair makes a big difference, yet few operators have extra pairs. Plastic bags, including a heavy-duty one large enough for your entire pack, are useful for rainstorms and leaky boats. Leave whatever you don't need at your hotel in Manaus – virtually all offer free, secure luggage storage.
When to Go
You can visit the Amazon year-round, but when you visit will have a big impact on the kind of experience you'll have.
From May to October, give or take a month at either end depending on the year, rivers overflow their banks. This means you'll spend much of your time paddling through the flooded forest. It's a terrific time to see monkeys such as squirrel monkeys, capuchins, saki monkeys and howler monkeys, as well as plenty of birdlife. Caiman are more commonly spotted on night tours at this time. To have a better chance of seeing cats, big snakes or deep-forest monkey species such as spider monkeys, you'll need to find dry land and hike into the forest, although even then these species can be elusive.
From November through to May, especially early in this period, flooded forest is less widespread, meaning river beaches are exposed and accessible and it's easier to see wildlife along the river margins. On the downside, the magic of floating through the flooded forest is more difficult to experience, and rain is an ever-present possibility.
The Amazon is teeming with animals, but seeing them can be quite hard. (It's a much better place to be wowed by the flora and the river itself, rather than wildlife.) On a typical trip, you are very likely to see pink and grey dolphins and a slew of birds, including herons, parrots and possibly macaws and toucans. Monkeys, sloths, anacondas, boa constrictors and caimans are relatively common, but seeing them is no sure thing. River otters and tapirs are even more elusive, and you're almost certain to not see jaguars, ocelots or manatees – they are extremely hard to spot.
'White water' areas tend to have more animals, but they also have more mosquitoes and thicker vegetation. State and national reserves have more (and less skittish) wildlife. The biggest factor in seeing animals is luck, followed by the quality of the forest and the diligence of your guide. Refrain from chatting unnecessarily.
Most agencies have a small lodge or jungle camp where guests stay and activities such as canoeing, hiking and fishing are launched.
A handful of these are luxurious; they cater to an upscale client base and while the activities are usually the same as those offered by operators in Manaus, the lodging, food and service tend to be somewhat more refined (and the prices substantially higher). Prices at these places can easily surpass US$1000 per person per day.
Elsewhere, the majority of jungle lodges have amenities such as electricity and flush toilets, but not all. Prices usually include meals, lodging, transport and guides, and range between R$150 to R$350 per person per day; this normally includes time spent traveling to and from the lodge, not just the time you’re actually there. Prices vary primarily by the type of accommodations: hammocks with shared toilets are the cheapest option, followed by dorms and private rooms, then riverboats and specialized tours.
Jungle Trip Scams
Most travelers to the Amazon have a wonderful time. But Manaus is teeming with scammers and touts, and it helps to know how to avoid them. Most peddle cut-rate tours that turn out to be woefully uninspired: awful accommodations, surly guides, and sad, damaged forest with no wildlife. Tourists have been seriously injured, and a few even killed, on tours with unscrupulous or inexperienced guides. Mainly, though, they get duped: swindled out of their time, money and a chance to really enjoy the Amazon. Here are some tips and pointers to avoid getting scammed.
Don't be naive. The smooth-talking guy who approaches you at the airport, on the street or at the door of your hostel, with promises of an epic adventure at a rock-bottom price, is scamming you. Period.
Do not tell touts what hotel or tour agency you’re considering. They’re trying to squeeze a commission out of the hotel or operator. The magic words are 'I already have a reservation,' whether it's true or not. Touts only get paid for bringing people without reservations or prior bookings.
No legitimate tour agency 'fishes' for clients at the airport. Those that do are cut-rate operators trying to snag unsuspecting tourists. Some touts shamelessly lie about who they work for, claiming to have been sent there to pick you up. Many legit agencies do offer airport pickups, but they send someone with your name on a sign.
Never pay for a tour anywhere except at the agency’s main office. Touts often pretend they are with a legitimate agency but steer you to a cafe or airport bench to make the deal. They even make phony phone calls to convince you the main office is closed, or that you must commit right away to get the best price or the ‘last seat on the boat.’ These are all scams.
Above all, don’t risk your life to save a little time or money. In the end, it's tourists who keep scammers in business by booking with them. There are legitimate established agencies for all budgets and tastes; take the time to find one that works for you.