The world's biggest river?
Greatest? Yes – in terms of water volume and all the life that this astonishing river supports. Longest? That's a contentious issue (see box, below). But what is undisputed is that the Amazon is the planet's largest body of fresh water, carrying about one-fifth of all the fresh water that enters the oceans worldwide. Its width is stupendous: in the drier season, the broadest point is around 11km; at the height of the rains, this can increase to more than 40km. So, for obvious reasons, the river has defied bridge-builders.
This amazing carpet of water moves at quite a pace – a good 5km an hour in the rainy season, which runs roughly from December to May – and drains a vast area across the northern half of South America. The Amazon and its tributaries (the Purus, Madeira, Tocantins and 1,100 more) flow through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil.
All creatures great and small?
The Amazon basin – and the vast tropical rainforest that it supports – extends over 7 million square kilometres, or roughly 30 times the size of the United Kingdom. Within this lush environment, more than one-third of the world's animal and plant species thrive – from tiny tree frogs to great harpy eagles (the females typically have a wingspan of some two metres). There are at least 55,000 varieties of flowering plant here, of which about half are found only in the Amazon area, and around 80,000 named types of tree. The region is also home to the açai palm, the berries of which (long a staple for native tribes) are now prized as a "superfood" due to their nutritional properties.
The waters sustain more than 2,400 known varieties of fish. Among the more remarkable is the huge pirarucu, or paiche, a member of the whiskery catfish family. It can measure up to 2m and its thick scales are often used by local people as sandpaper. The world's most terrifying small fish is also found here: sharp-toothed, flesh-eating piranha, which have been known to kill cattle and even humans, stripping the meat from their prey within minutes.
Among the other extraordinary wildlife in the Amazon region are jaguar; the rare pink river dolphin, or boto – which, in fact, is often albino or a shade of blue; and the endangered giant otter. Known locally as ariranha, these creatures hunt in packs, flushing out fish and crabs from backwaters. Birdlife in the region is also vibrant, from scarlet and blue-and-yellow macaws to hummingbirds, hornbills and toucans, their huge beaks up to 20cm long.
Of the reptiles in the region, the most striking is the anaconda, one of the world's largest snakes, growing as long as 16m. The highlight of the many amphibians here is the Amazon milk frog and the giant horned frog, which preys on fish and rodents.
Where can I go to see them?
Take to the water. Where the Amazon itself is too wide for good wildlife viewing, make for the smaller rivers of the Amazon basin. With the help of a local guide, you should have a fair chance of spotting even some of the more elusive creatures, although, of course, your prospects will improve the further you are from towns and human activity. Visitors from the UK tend to head for the jungles of Ecuador or Peru, partly because of what can be seen there and also because the rainforest areas in both these countries are relatively quick, easy and safe to reach (although setting out is still very much a voyage of exploration). It takes longer to get to similarly wild parts of Brazil.
In Ecuador, an increasingly popular option is to combine an Amazon venture with a trip over to the Galapagos Islands. For example, the regional specialist Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) can arrange a 14-night independent tour of Ecuador with three nights at an "eco-lodge" in the Amazon and seven nights on a cruise around the islands. Run by the indigenous Achuar community, the Kapawi lodge is set near the Pastaza River in the Amazon basin and offers flexible itineraries of walking, canoeing and particularly birdwatching.
To get there you take a series of progressively smaller aircraft: a 19-seater plane from the capital, Quito, to the army base of Montalvo, and a light aircraft on to Kapawi, followed by a 10-minute motorised canoe journey to the lodge. The two-week adventure costs from £3,194 per person (based on two travelling together, as are the other prices below). It includes international flights from Heathrow to Quito via Miami, onward transfers by plane and boat, all accommodation – in Quito, in the lodge and on board the cruise boat – and most meals. Other British travel companies have similar combination trips, including The Adventure Travel Company (0845 450 5316; www.adventurecompany.co.uk).
Can I paddle through Peru?
With the great ruins of Machu Picchu drawing ever greater crowds, there is a growing demand for trips into the Amazon basin from those seeking more seclusion – and adventure. For most tours, the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon region is the city of Iquitos in the low-lying north-east of the country. But "city" is a grandiose expression for this cheerfully laid-back place of 500,000 residents. It has colonial mansions, an "Iron House" designed by Gustave Eiffel and a "floating" neighbourhood, Belem, whose buildings have been constructed on stilts in the river.
The Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, established by the Peruvian government in 1982, lies within reasonably easy reach of Iquitos – a journey undertaken by boat. It is known as the "Jungle of Mirrors", due to the reflections of sky and vegetation in the reserve's u o rivers and lakes. You can often see pink river dolphins here, along with piranhas and great clouds of macaws. The specialist operator The Real Peru (0113 216 1440; www.therealperu.co.uk) offers a nine-day independent tour of the area by riverboat. The holiday starts from £899 per person including return flights from Lima to Iquitos, all accommodation on board the boat, most meals, guiding and a night in a hotel in Iquitos. Flights to Lima need to be arranged (and paid for) separately. KLM (0870 507 4074; www.klm.com) flies to Lima from Heathrow via Amsterdam; Lan (0800 977 6100; www.lan.com) flies three times a week from Madrid to Lima, connecting with flights from Heathrow on Oneworld partners British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com/gb).
Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) has a 10-day independent trip taking in the same area aboard the luxury river cruiser RV Delfin. It has seven air-conditioned cabins, furnished in natural woods, and carries two 8m-skiffs for taking passengers on excursions to villages and into the rainforest. The holidays costs from £2,695 per person; this includes flights to Lima from Heathrow via Amsterdam on KLM, two nights at a hotel in Lima, onward flights to and from Iquitos, seven nights' full-board cruise and all excursions. Other British travel companies offering similar trips into the Amazon basin from Iquitos include South American Experience (0845 277 3366; www.southamericanexperience.co.uk).
A Brazilian adventure?
Brazil's astonishingly large dimensions take in about 60 per cent of the Amazon jungle – although in order to protect tribes and keep areas of the rainforest pristine, large chunks of the region remain out of bounds to foreign visitors. Elsewhere, tourists have access to national parks and reserves, where there's plenty of scope for exploration as well as a good choice of forest lodges on or near waterways.
The bustling city of Manaus, capital of Brazil's Amazonas state, is the major gateway to rainforest adventures. In this thriving industrial port is the splendid Teatro Amazonas opera house, built in 1896 and featured in Werner Herzog's 1982 movie, Fitzcarraldo. Explore (0844 499 0901; www.explore.co.uk) takes in Manaus as well as two nights at Juma Lodge as part of its 15-day Pure Brazil group holiday. Before the Amazon leg, this epic trip visits Brazil's diverse highlights, from Rio to the Iguaçu Falls and on to the Pantanal Wildlife Reserve, before a final stop at colonial Salvador. The cost, from £2,275 per person, includes flights from Heathrow to Rio and back from Salvador, all intermediate transport, accommodation in hotels and lodges, some meals and the services of a guide.
Can I take to the trees?
Yes. For a more southerly take on the Amazon area, the Latin America specialist Last Frontiers (01296 653 000; www.lastfrontiers.com) suggests a nine-day trip that includes four nights at Brazil's comfortable Cristalino Jungle Lodge – whose resources include a tree house for evening nature-watching. The property is located in a private reserve of primary rainforest, just a short boat ride from the town of Alta Floresta, which you reach by air from the city of Cuiaba. Local guides are on hand to take guests on boat tours and jungle walks. The cost of £2,076 per person includes flights to Rio from Heathrow and onward internal flights, plus three nights' hotel accommodation with breakfast in Rio and one in Sao Paulo, as well as full-board accommodation at Cristalino Jungle Lodge.
Anywhere even more remote?
Head to Colombia. Although parts of the country should be avoided, the country has recently emerged as a wonderfully unspoilt tourist destination with beautiful scenery and very hospitable people.
Leticia, the country's southernmost town, is an intriguing and tiny place of about 38,000 people, right on an open border with Peru and Brazil – there's a popular day trip whereby you breakfast in Brazil, lunch in Peru and have dinner in Colombia. Audley Travel (01993 838 000; www.audleytravel.com) has a range of tailor-made Latin American holidays, and can arrange trips here with accommodation in Leticia at the stylish Decameron Decalodge Ticuna and at the Decameron jungle lodge in the beautiful Amacayacu national park. A 10-day holiday, including stops at Colombia's capital Bogota and at the colonial beach town of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, starts at £2,650, which covers flights from Heathrow to Bogotá via Madrid, onward internal flights and other transfers, all accommodation (with breakfast) and guided tours.
Otherwise, for a remote adventure you should make for Bolivia and the Madidi National Park, which is home to jaguars, giant otters and more than 1,000 varieties of birds as well as a newly discovered species of titi monkey that has a distinctive golden crown. Established in 1995, the park is a 50,000-square-kilometre wilderness stretching from the Andes to the Amazon basin. In the heart of the rainforest region, by the scenic Tuichi river, is the Chalalan Ecolodge. Run by the Quechua-Tacana community, it offers a variety of activities from guided hikes to day or night canoe trips, or you can simply relax by the shores of Chalalan lagoon.
Trips Worldwide (0117 331 4400; www.tripsworldwide.co.uk) includes a two-day visit to this ecolodge as part of a suggested 18-night Bolivian Highlights holiday, which takes in La Paz, Lake Titicaca, Uyuni and its amazing salt flats, and the 3,000-year-old pre-Incan city of Tiwanaku. The cost from £2,795 per person covers flights from Heathrow to La Paz via Amsterdam and Lima, onward transfers (by plane, train, boat and more), all accommodation, guidance and some meals.
Where can I find out more?
Bradt Travel Guides publishes The Amazon by Roger Harris and Peter Hutchison (£14.99). The Smithsonian Atlas of the Amazon by M Goulding is published by Smithsonian Books (£19.52).
The longest argument
Conventional wisdom until this summer maintained that the source of the Amazon was Lake Lauricocha in the Peruvian Andes. From there to the mouth in northern Brazil, it measures a little over 6,400km, and was deemed to be the second-longest river in the world, after the Nile at 6,670km. But, in June, Brazilian scientists published calculations based on a survey that claims that it has a different source, further south, 5,000m up a mountain called Mismi. This makes it 130km longer than the Nile, at 6,800km.
Can eco-tourism save the rainforest?
A recent Brazilian government survey revealed that more than 23,000 sq km of forest there was cut down in one year alone, between July 2001 and June 2002. This is slightly larger than the area of Wales. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) points to timber extraction and unsustainable farming – particularly soyabean agriculture and cattle ranching – as the major causes of deforestation, and adds that road development and dams are producing potentially huge problems.
Within this alarming scenario, tourism of a sensitive, responsible nature has some significant benefits. It creates a big incentive to protect what the visitors to the Amazon area have come to see but, perhaps more pertinently, tourism businesses provide local communities with an alternative means of livelihood to timber extraction and agriculture.
WWF urges travellers to research their choice of tour companies carefully and ensure that only those with good environmental credentials are used – offering accommodation, for instance, in lodges with a big local input, such as Kapawi in Ecuador and Juma in Brazil (as above).
The Association of Independent Tour Operators (020-8744 9280; www.aito.co.uk) runs a responsible-travel rating scheme, and the top score has been awarded to Explore, Journey Latin America and Last Frontiers. Explore stresses that its tours are "designed for people to understand more about the Amazon's delicate environment while supporting projects aimed at the conserving the natural world and the indigenous communities". Much also depends, of course, on how tourists respond.
What's in a name?
"Amazon" originates in Greek mythology: the Amazons are said to have been a tribe of female warriors from Asia Minor who governed men. Some stories hold that each Amazon warrior had to kill a man before she could marry, and that she was subsequently required to maim any male children she produced. Legend has it that the ferocious Amazons also each cut off a breast in order to shoot arrows more effectively.
It was the Spanish explorer and conquistador, Francisco de Orellana, who requisitioned the name of this female fighting tribe for the mighty South American river. Orellana, who purportedly "discovered" it, sailed much of the way along it in 1542. Along the way he was attacked by tribes whom he described as fearsome females, and he named the river in their honour. It is thought likely that Orellana fought off long-haired males.