For wildlife enthusiasts who travel the planet to experience unique and exciting flora and fauna, a trip deep into the Amazon rain forest is usually up there on the bucket list with a Kenya safari or diving the Great Barrier Reef. Home to an astonishing amount of biodiversity, travelers to the Amazon can spot everything from stealthy caimans and pink river dolphins in the water to slinking sloths, playful monkeys and colorful macaws in the canopy. But a trip to the Amazon, especially one in which the focus is on spotting wildlife respectfully, comes with many variables to consider. Not all locations, itineraries, nor guides are equal, so here is what you need to know before you go.
Where is the Amazon rain forest?
To start to try to wrap your head around how massive the Amazon rain forest is, it encompasses large areas of Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. The Amazon Basin covers 2.72 million square miles, roughly the size of the 48 contiguous United States or twice the size of India, and blankets some 40 percent of the South American continent. While nearly two-thirds of the Amazon rain forest is found in Brazil, the countries on western edge of the Amazon Basin (Colombia, Ecuador and Peru) have the advantage of the Andes mountains. This means that travelers can experience high alpine environments outside of the basin along with contrasting thick, verdant jungle in the basin and wetlands where water running down the mountains collects at their base. These geographical factors merge to offer a huge variety of landscapes and wildlife. Peru is a standout for wildlife viewing, as it has many large clay licks (where macaws and other birds gather to eat mineral-rich earth) and impressive wetlands that attract jaguars, anacondas, caimans and capybaras.
Best part of the Amazon to visit
Zoning in on where to start to explore is another variable to consider. Highly recommended for wildlife viewing is the WWF-supported Pacaya Samiria National Reserve in the Upper Amazon. It’s the largest protected area in Peru (and second largest in the entire Amazon Basin), spanning an area of 5 million acres of wetland at the headwaters of the Amazon River, encompassing islands, creeks and dry forests as well. Pacaya Samiria holds both some of the greatest biodiversity on Earth and also some of the largest wildlife populations to be found in the Amazon Basin.
Best time of year to go to the Amazon
The Amazon basically has two seasons. The wet season—January through June—is cooler in temperature and is the season when most of the fruits and flowers come out, often making wildlife viewing easier. But it’s not called the wet season for no reason—after all, you are in the rain forest, so the rains can often come down rather heavy. The dry season—July through December—is much drier, but is also significantly hotter and wildlife can be less abundant or at least less obvious to spot among the verdant plant growth. The dry season is often a more popular time for tourism, due in part to the northern hemisphere summer season for travel.
Best way to see the Amazon
There are two ways to stay in the Amazon. One is at a jungle lodge. While the Amazon is filled with wildlife, it is often difficult to spot from within dense forest. The best part of the Amazon to visit for wildlife viewing is along the river’s edge, making a river boat voyage a top option. But here is where due diligence comes into play. Some boats are quite large (many carrying more than 100 passengers), clumsy and rustic, meaning those guests never get to experience the smaller tributaries and will probably sleep in hammocks in a communal open area. Traditional dugout canoes can get travelers close to the wildlife, but these human-powered canoes move slowly and don’t make much headway for exploring vast areas. The ideal setup for wildlife viewing is a small, quiet riverboat that holds no more than 30 guests and that can be easily tied up at the river bank to embark on land- or water-based excursions. The edge of a habitat, between jungle and river, is usually the most productive for flowers and fruits, and so wild animals are more likely to frequent these areas.
Animals to see in the Amazon
It’s best to set some realistic expectations on what kind of wildlife is easily spotted and which sightings are fairly rare. The animals of the Amazon work on their own terms and don’t exactly come out for convenient photo shoots on demand. Travelers on a river boat tour are likely to spot tiny squirrel monkeys, larger spider monkeys, and black and white capuchin monkeys. It is probable to hear the powerful morning calls of the red howler monkey, but less likely to actually see them. Coati and capybara can be spotted on the ground, while the three-toed sloth is usually hanging out in a tree. A boat tour is ideal for spotting the famous pink river dolphins and caimans. Animals that live in the Amazon but are not very commonly seen in the wild include giant river otters, river manatees (although there are rehabilitation centers where travelers can see them), anaconda (no, no matter what movies will have you believing, they aren’t just waiting in the water to snag and eat unsuspecting people), and jaguar (they may be there, but are highly skilled at not being spotted). More than half the species in the Amazon are thought to live high up in the forest canopy.
Birdlife in the Amazon is abundant and spectacular, and all guests should bring a pair of binoculars if they can. Visitors can often see several species of toucans, scarlet macaws (often flying overhead, but more difficult to see up close), primitive Hoatzin birds that have claws on their wings that they use to climb, the long-toed jacana bird that can walk on floating vegetation, and several species of hummingbird. The harpy eagle calls the Amazon home, but it is very rarely seen. Keeping the birds of the Amazon happily full are roughly 2.5 million species of insects. Leafcutter ants are easy to find and the dazzling, massive blue morpho butterflies also make frequent appearances.
Plants to see in the Amazon
Not to be outdone by the fauna, the native flora is impressive as well. The Amazon is estimated to have 16,000 tree species and 390 billion individual trees. Some standout species are the “walking” trees, which can slowly uproot and move themselves to find more desirable soil or lighting. The largest species to be found is the kapok, which have buttress roots that support them in shallow soil. Palms and fig trees are an important food source for wild animals in the Amazon. The main showstopper is the giant water lily—Victoria amazonica has gigantic leaves up to 10 feet in diameter that float on the water’s surface on a submerged stalk up to 26 feet in length. Bromelaids and epiphytes that grow on the branches or trunks of other plants are common, as well as a large diversity of gorgeous orchids.
Must-pack items for a trip to the Amazon
The level of enjoyment of any trip to the Amazon is often based on a balance of managing expectations for both weather and wildlife, making sure that the trip is led by qualified, skilled guides and has an itinerary that suits desires, and packing correctly. Quick-dry clothing is a must—no heavy jeans or thick cotton clothing, as when they get wet (and at some point they will get wet), they will take days and days to dry. Multiple changes of socks, a pair of rubber boots and comfortable walking shoes, long thin pants, a sunhat and sunglasses, a rain jacket and both sunscreen and insect repellant are important. It is likely that on excursions, guests may have to walk on muddy trails or through standing water, or may come back to the boat soaking wet from rain—just consider it all part of the grand adventure to see some of the most diverse and vivid wildlife on Earth.