The Amazon is itself a place of near-mythical status. What traveler drawn to the wild places of the planet hasn't imagined a trip to the Amazon, not only to admire the towering trees, secretive wildlife and awesome river, but to enter, in a real sense, the very life spring of the planet? Expecting a Discovery Channel–like experience (jaguars in every tree, anacondas on every shore) is a recipe for disappointment. In fact, the Amazon’s quintessential experiences are more sublime than superlative: canoeing through a flooded forest, dozing in a hammock on a boat chugging upriver, waking to the otherworldly cry of howler monkeys. On a river whose size is legendary, it’s actually the little things that make it special. Give it some time, and the Amazon is all this and more.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Amazon.
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.
If you came to the Amazon to see primary rainforest, look no further than the Floresta Nacional do Tapajós. Wildlife is a possibility – from birds to primates and even the (very) occasional jaguar – but it's the sense of deep forest and some of the largest trees anywhere that are the real drawcards here. Access is from either Santarém or Alter do Chão.
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.
The floodplains east and southeast of Santarém are among the Amazon's most rewarding excursions. Flooded for much of the year, the plains are home to fabulous birdlife (including toucans and macaws), pink dolphins, howler monkeys, sloths and anacondas. The sunrise and sunset views are pure magic and there's a real sense of tranquility out here. Take an overnight boat trip, go canoeing through the flooded forest and relax far from the tourist hordes. Gil Serique organizes especially enjoyable excursions here.
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.
The name of this waterfront market, with its iconic four-turreted structure at its southwestern end, comes from colonial times, when the Portuguese would ver o peso (check the weight) of merchandise in order to impose taxes. The display of fruit, animals, medicinal plants and more is fascinating; go early to see fishing boats unloading their catch.
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).