There’s no BEST way to tour the Amazon, the second largest river in the world, but there is a best way for YOU. The first — and most important — decision you’ll make when planning your Amazon adventure is whether to stay in an eco-friendly jungle lodge or take a cruise on the river.
Each option has advantages, so think about your own preferences and expectations. These questions are ones that we ask our clients when planning their visits to the largest tropical rainforest on the planet.
1. Does your Amazon fantasy include waking up to the sounds of exotic birds?
The lodges we suggest are deep in the rainforest in a national park or reserve. The rooms have screened windows that can be opened to allow you to hear all the sounds of the jungle–the rustling trees, the chirping of insects, and the musical birdsongs. A lodge gives you a truly authentic experience of the jungle, especially at night when you go to sleep to the sounds of nature.
2. Is your vacation schedule flexible?
Cruises have specific departure dates and times for their three-and-our-night or longer trips, so your schedule must mesh with the boat’s timetable. Keep in mind that on a cruise, the last day of the trip may not allow for much exploring, because the boat must make the journey back to your original departure point on time.
Most rainforest lodges have flexible schedules, allowing travelers to arrive any day of the week. Once you arrive in the designated gateway city, you’ll board a small motorboat and head several hours away to the your lodge.
We think the ideal Amazon experience is five days. The first day gives you time to get to the lodge, have lunch, and spend the afternoon settling in and exploring the common areas around the lodge. That leaves you four and a half days to explore the jungle.
3. Do you like activity by day and comfort at night?
Riverboat cabins can be quite roomy and luxurious. They’re temperature controlled and so offer a cool, dry respite from the day’s heat and humidity. A boat typically has fine hotel-type amenities, too. The high-end Delfin’s Amazon Discovery, even has a pool and spa!
Another plus for boats–depending on how you feel about nature’s sounds–is that the sealed windows quiet the jungle noise. (Some people actually enjoy hearing the crickets and birds–see Question #1.)
Lodges rely on solar power for light and heating water, so you may have to adjust your requirements for a hot shower and other hotel perks.
4. Is seeing a variety of wildlife your top priority?
Since a cruise takes you to several areas that are quite far apart, you have the opportunity to see different flora and fauna. If you’re lucky you may even spot big cats, like the jaguar. However, whether you’ll see any large mammals is always a bit of a gamble. That’s because the jungle is so vast, and in remote areas the animals shy away from people.
The guides at a lodge tend to know the patterns of the local wildlife, and the animals near them are more accustomed to the sounds and smells of people. That means there’s less of a guessing game about what you’re likely to see and where. Your chances of spotting a big cat so close to a human habitat are slim, but chances are you’ll see plenty of smaller animals, such as sloths, monkeys, and tapirs.
PRO TIP: Insects proliferate in the Amazon, so wear lightweight clothing that dries quickly and covers your arms and legs. (The coverage protects you from scratchy branches, too.) Slather yourself in a high quality insect repellant for even greater defense against bugs.
5. Are you an avid birdwatcher?
The Amazon is a birders’ idea of heaven–20 percent of the world’s birds call this rainforest home. So whether you travel to the farther reaches of the Amazon on a boat or stay in a lodge, you will see a wide variety of birds. Be prepared, though, to work hard at looking for them. Chances are you’ll hear them long before you see them.
PRO TIP: Ask ahead of time if your lodge or cruise will provide a birding and/or wildlife checklist – great for keeping track of all the species you’ll see. And, yes, there are apps for that as well help identifying birds.
Lodge guides typically know the behavior of varied bird species and can alert you what to watch for at different times throughout the day. Early morning wake-up calls are not unusual so that you don’t miss the birds that show up at dawn. Most wildlife enthusiasts know that early mornings are best for viewing different species – animals are generally most active and easier to see when it’s cooler.
Many Amazon lodges also have viewing towers or walking bridges above the forest canopy. From there you will see birds and so many butterflies and moths you’ll think someone is tossing confetti.
6. Do you enjoy walks on your own?
Both lodges and cruises offer organized group hikes, but lodges allow guests more independence. Since, you’re already in the jungle, as a lodge guest you are free to go for a walk any time in designated areas or on trails. Don’t miss out on any offers for a nighttime “walking safari.” You’ll spot animals that come out long after the sun has set.
Hikes on a cruise or from a lodge are usually no longer than two hours, so any reasonably fit person can do them. Be prepared to deal with heat and humidity.
7. Do you enjoy knowing the details of what you’re seeing and where you’re going?
The group guides on boats and both the private and group guides at the lodges we use are experts with scientific knowledge, years of experience, and good language skills. They speak English, Spanish, and often another language as well.
8. Is this your splurge trip?
Experiencing the Amazon from the deck of the Amazon Discovery or Aria Amazon is more expensive than a stay at a lodge. That’s because you’re covering greater distances and enjoying the same amenities that you’d receive in an upscale hotel. Foodies will enjoy the more grandiose culinary experiences provided on a ship.
Whether you see the Amazon rainforest from the river or the hiking trail, you’ll experience the flora and fauna much like the natives did centuries ago. The trick is to get beyond the developed Disney-esque lodges at the entry points in Peru or Ecuador. A remote lodge will be more expensive than those closer to departure towns, but you will get far more “Amazon” for your dollar.