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Amazonas: From source to delta on the world's largest river

Author Lene Kohlhoff Rasmussen takes you on her fascinating journey along one of the most significant rivers in the world - the Amazon. Here, the journey offers everything from illegal gold mines and beautiful nature to hidden big cities and relaxing river sailing.
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Amazonas - from spring to delta on the Amazon River is written by Lene Kohlhoff Rasmussen

South America - Amazon

Why the Amazon?

I have set out to travel along three of the most significant rivers in the world. The largest, the longest and the holiest - the Amazon, the Nile and the Ganges. The expeditions are divided into three stages, and the plan is that I spend 3-4 months on each trip. 

My project is to write a book series and make a series of lectures from each of these three rivers. I will therefore stay with some of the people who live in the areas along the rivers and describe their way of life.

Here you can read about my wild travel adventure along the Amazon River, get tips for river sailing and nature, and hear about the experiences that the big cities Iquitos and Manaus can provide.

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The Amazon Expedition

In the summer of 2016, I set out on the first of the three expeditions that started in Peru at the farthest reaches of the Amazon River in the Peruvian Andes. From here I continued along the great river into the world's largest rainforest.

Along the way, I lived with several Native American tribes deep in the rainforest. I followed their everyday life and experienced how they live in the traditional way. Among other things, I was out fishing with them and going hunting. I also came to big million cities along the river. Among other things, Iquitos, which is the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road.

I Brazil I reached the largest city in the Amazon Basin, Manaus. Here the river has become so large that large ocean-going ships and cruise ships sail all the way down to the mouth of the river. I ended the journey by throwing myself into the waves of the Atlantic Ocean in northern Brazil.

The Amazon River is by far the largest river in the world in terms of water volume. Between 15 and 20 percent of all fresh water flowing into the world's oceans comes from this huge river, which flows over 200.000 cubic meters of water into the Atlantic Ocean every second.

The 6.500 km long river is surrounded by the world's largest rainforest. The Amazon is home to the world's largest biodiversity - and countless Native American tribes. There are even isolated Native American tribes who have never had contact with the modern world.

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The start of the Amazon

"Look, there's the Apacheta Gorge," Roy said, pointing to a rock wall in the cold, desolate mountain terrain. This is where the Amazon River starts at an altitude of 5270 meters on Mount Mismi, which is one of the highest mountains in Colca in southern Peru. I had hired Roy to take me up to the source of the Amazon River.

You can drive almost all the way up to the gorge with a four-wheel drive, so when we had parked the car, we went very slowly down towards the rock wall. To me, all movements were strenuous in the thin air. I had to take extra care when I walked around with my right arm in plaster.

In several places there were large rocks and stones that we had to climb over, and the moss-covered ground was swamped so that one could easily step wrong and sink into the icy water.

The water trickled out through several cracks in the rock wall, from the glacier behind. It was frozen to ice in several places, but most of the water collects in a small stream, and about six months later it will end up in the Atlantic Ocean.

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A magical travel adventure

The place seemed magical. I sat on a rock and enjoyed the view of the endless barren and desolate mountain plain as I listened to the trickle of water behind me. It was a very special experience for me to be in this place, which was to be the start of a long and exciting travel adventure.

On this very day I was able to take off the cast, which I had now been walking around with for four weeks. I would do so at this particular moment when I was standing at the farthest reaches of the Amazon River.

It was a wonderful feeling of freedom to get rid of the cast, even though I was a little sore and relaxed in the wrist. I washed my arm in the icy water from the spring while thinking that I should now follow this water all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

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The illegal gold mines

When I later on the journey reached out in the middle of the jungle in the south Peru, I met a Mexican journalist. He was very interested in sniffing out a story about the illegal gold mines in the Amazon, and together we hired two motorcycle taxis to drive us out to one of them.

We turned off the main road and now roared through the jungle on a narrow man-made path. Suddenly after a sharp turn, the forest was completely cleared and we were at the mine.

It looked raw with endless sand dunes and brown mud swamps. The workers were well on their way to keeping the diesel pumps running to the large fire hoses used to flush the sticky mud.

The mud was then sorted, sieved and rinsed with liquid mercury. Since gold is the heaviest metal, it remains as the last thing left.

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Harmful consequences of gold mines

Huge areas of pristine rainforest are felled and burned. Even more extensive is the devastation when the water used to flush the soil runs back like thick mud in the Amazon River. It contains mercury, which is extremely harmful to health.

Deforestation and mercury poisoning are not the only consequences of the illegal gold mines. It is estimated that over 1.200 girls between the ages of 12 and 17 are exposed to child prostitution in Peru, and many of the brothels are located in the mine camps.

The girls get there with no money in their pockets and are lured by the promise of good, well-paid jobs as waitresses and the like. Instead, they end up as prostitutes.

I remember a news story that went around the world back in 2011 when 293 girls escaped from one of the brothels in the jungle where they had been held captive as sex slaves!

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Obsessed with a golden vein

"Keep the camera away!" Shouted the motorcyclist who was driving me. He was obviously very nervous, because strangers are not welcome here. Maybe here's wealth, I thought, but in that case it hides well beneath the surface of the primitive wooden huts, open toilets and dingy bodegas.

We met Marco, a miner from the south Peru, who arrived here two years earlier in hopes of earning a quick fortune and returning to his village to buy a piece of land.

"It's hell," he said. “We sometimes work 24 hours a day, depending on how it goes. We find maybe five, six, seven grams of gold a day, and I earn almost 100 suns (about 200 kroner, red.) a day. We're just trying to survive. I wish there were other jobs to be had. ”

While he was talking to us, a couple of suspicious gold miners came closer. They asked one of our drivers what we were doing.

"People here do not like to talk," Marco said, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his shirt.

“I know we are destroying the forest. There were only trees here before, but what are we going to do? ” He smiled faintly and then turned around and walked back down into the swamp. His colleagues looked down, but no one else wanted to talk to us, and the drivers started to get nervous, so we drove back.

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To give up freedom in the pursuit of gold

On the way back, I thought of Marco. Every day he and all the other gold diggers wade around in mud to their knees. They examine every lump of mud to find small pieces of gold. The gold mines attract people from all walks of life. There are both young and old.

It is said that if you have been close to a golden vein, you become obsessed. As in a casino, only the few manage to curb greed and stop when the winnings are greatest. Often the winnings evaporate in an intoxication of hard booze, willing ladies and new friends who are lured by the sound of the crackling banknotes.

Although the chances of wealth are small, and the gain often disappears like dew from the sun, many of these people will still give up the freedom in the pursuit of gold. This is how the gold rush came about. It is just an extension of the golden age and has always existed.

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The hunt for El Dorado

It has always been known that there is gold in the Amazon. Ever since Europeans arrived in South America in the 16th century, explorers have risked their lives to find El Dorado - the legendary civilization that allegedly existed in the jungle.

El Dorado is described as a paradise filled with gold-plated streets and palaces of pure gold. And the king of El Dorado was even dusted with gold dust every single day.

One of the most famous explorers was the Englishman Percy Fawcett. In 1925, he set out in the impassable and relentless Amazon jungle in search of El Dorado.

Fawcett and his two companions never returned. The mystery of their disappearance and the lost city lured numerous adventurers in their footsteps, but without success and often with fatal consequences.

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Reality explorers

My fantasies about these adventurers, who in Indiana Jones style had to fight cannibals, find hidden ruins and secret maps, are amazing and captivating.

But the explorers of reality died of starvation or disease - or were killed by wild animals or the poison darts of the Indians. None of the tenacious explorers ever managed to find El Dorado or Z, as the city was also called.

So far, only primitive Native American tribes have been found deep in the jungle. In recent times, scientists have concluded that a complex civilization could not arise in such harsh and inhospitable environments. Environments where the soil is unfit for farming, mosquitoes transmit deadly diseases, and predators lurk in the shade of the trees.

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Big cities along the Amazon

The two largest cities along the Amazon River are Iquitos in Peru and Manaus in Brazil. They originated during the great rubber boom in the years 1850 to 1910. During this period, hundreds of Europeans came to the Amazon to take part in the rubber industry. It was a big boom, and the rubber barons made a lot of money.

It is still seen in the number of large mansions, which today are in more or less decay in the two big cities. Both Iquitos and Manaus are good starting points for jungle tours and river cruises.

There are lots of good 'jungle lodges' where you can go out and experience nature and the animals. There are also tour providers who offer everything from day trips to multi-week hardcore survival trips.

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Peru Iguito's Woman Dame street vendor amazonas travels

Iquitos: The city without a road connection to the world

This city in the north Peru is the largest in the world that can not be reached by any means. You can only get there by either sailing or flying. Iquitos is a lively city with a completely unique atmosphere. Everywhere there are three-wheeled vehicles and rammed buses, which are limited to driving in the area around the city.

The finest mansions are located along the river, and on the corner of the central square of the city is the “House of Iron”, designed by Gustave Eiffel. The Belén district - Portuguese for Bethlehem - is well worth a visit.

It is a slum, which is a partially floating city. The houses are built on poles or rafts that rise in step with the water level in the Amazon River. Here is also a local market where unusual animals and plants from the jungle are sold.

In addition, Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm and the Amazon Rescue Center for injured or orphaned animals found in the jungle are both exciting places to visit.

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Manaus: The isolated big city in the jungle

The Brazilian city of Manaus is one of the most isolated in the world. Approximately 1,6 million people live here with a total of over 1.500 km of forest in all directions. It makes the city seem completely out of place.

The large opera house is the very symbol of the wealth that Manaus experienced during the great rubber boom. The opera house is built in Renaissance style from materials that were imported from Europe - including French glass and Italian marble.

Other interesting buildings from the city's heyday are the Alfandega and the Guardamoria. It is also worth visiting the Adolpho Lisboa market, which is built with sturdy iron structures. The market is a vibrant place with a motley range of goods.

On a short boat trip downstream on the river Rio Negro, you can experience a very special phenomenon, which in English is called "Meeting of Waters". Here the water from two large rivers Rio Solimões and Rio Negro meet. The water from the two rivers runs side by side on a stretch of 12 km without being mixed. This can be easily observed as the water of the two rivers has different color.

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Sail with on the river

If you are fresh on ignoring luxury and comfort, there is something very special about sailing on the world's largest river with one of the local river boats.

Most of the boats sail with cargo on the lower deck and passengers on the 2-3 upper. You bring your own hammock, which is hung up on the deck.

The days go by lazing in the hammock, enjoying the views and the amazing sunsets over the jungle and watching all the life that unfolds when the boat docks at small towns along the river. Or you can entertain yourself by looking at the many fellow passengers who fill the boat to last place.

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Attractions in Amazonas

The trip can last up to 8-10 days depending on where you choose to get off and on. One option could be to sail from Manaus to Belém on the Atlantic coast. You can, for example, get off at the town of Santarém halfway and visit the little gem Alter do Chao with chalk-white sandy beaches and crystal clear water.

The possibilities are many on the world's largest river, the Amazon. Rejoice and have a good trip!

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About the travel writer

Lene Kohlhoff Rasmussen

Lene Kohlhoff Rasmussen travels to meet new people and learn about other countries' culture, history and religion, but also to get some great personal challenges. Therefore, she travels on her own to places that are far away from the usual destinations. She will experience some of the few places in the world where mystery and adventure still exist. Read more about her adventures at www.kohlhoff.dk.

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