Face Off #2: The Amazon

All election, all the time. Does it seem that way to ya’ll too or is it because we live in the nation’s capital that we feel this way? It’s all about the vote. Who’s voting, how they’re voting, and why they’re voting that way. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of tired of hearing about it. Obama or Clinton? Clinton or Obama?

So how about having a say on something else, something much more interesting, I dare say, than who will be the next leader of the free world? For instance, where we should go for our Amazon experience. Yes, yes, I think that’s it.

In the second face-off to appear on Lives of Wander, we ask you to cast your vote for the place/manner in which we experience the Amazon, one of South America’s most dominating landscapes. Yes, folks, this is a two-part vote, reminiscent of the days when the president and vice-president ran separately rather than on one ticket. Crazy, I know, but I trust that you bright folks can handle it. So review the options, vote in the poll below, and then leave a comment explaning why you voted the way you did.
(In the first face-off, 67% of you voted for Indonesia over the Philippines, and we’re heeding your advice. No Supreme Court overthrows here…at least not yet!)

Manner of Experiencing the Amazon

Option 1: Rolling On the River
Named a 2008 Dream Trip by Budget Travel magazine, there’s something rather old world about traveling by riverboat. It’s a bit Mark Twainian bargaining a ride with a captain, stringing up a hammock, and watching the world pass by from the deck of your boat. It seems to be a good way to get a slightly firmer grasp on what the Amazon is since you’ll cover a decent amount of ground. And is there a river more exotic than the Amazon? The downside is that being out in the middle of the river, you don’t get to experience life on the ground in the jungle. And from what I hear, some stretches of the Amazon are so broad that you can hardly even see the bank! Imagine that. Other negatives include the fact that the budget boats can be overcrowded and there’s not a lot to do but relax and take in the views. With a little more money, however, you can get aboard a boat designed more for tourists and that includes stops for jungle activities. But does that ruin the authenticity?

Option 2: Jungle Lodge Expeditions
Offering short two day/one night stays to week-or-longer adventures, jungle lodges are scattered throughout the Amazon rain forest. Some are luxury, far beyond the reaches of our dollars. Others are budget-friendly, while a fair chunk fall right square in the middle. Some of the most appealing options I’ve seen are eco-friendly, working hard to protect the rain forest, realizing that the true salvation of the forests may come from tourists. There’s money in tourism, just as there is in logging. And if there’s enough money in tourism, than perhaps there will be less destruction of the forest. A number of the lodges also work with native tribes. One of the difficulties is in sorting out which exploit and which assist. In general, these lodges offer an opportunity to go on nature hikes and short boat rides with guides that can point out the native flora and fauna. It’s a bit of a “best of” experience. A little of this, a little of that. An introductory course, if you will. Our friend Joyce had the opportunity to make a short visit to one and highly recommended the experience. Other lodges that I’ve come across include Explorers Inn, Inotawa Expeditions, New Huao Lodge.

Option 3: Hoofing it in the Amazon
If we want to get very intimate with the Amazon, then I’m not sure there’s a better way to do it than by traversing the jungle on foot. This isn’t a nature walk; it’s a jungle adventure, with guide, cook, and porter. It is very likely to include bushwacking and machetes. A number of trip organizers offer the option of hiring locals with advanced knowledge of the rainforest to take you on a multi-day hike through the jungle. So long as you vet your guide, and find someone who can speak your language and who seems reliable, it’s an awesome up-close-and-personal experience. Take the wrong guide, and that’s a disaster waiting to happen. With all the hiking I’m going to be doing for the guidebook I’m writing, this option might be tailor-made for me. But then again, sleeping on the jungle floor with all the Amazon’s creepy-crawlies, I’m not so sure. I mean a tarantula isn’t your everyday house spider and an anaconda is no garter snake. It’s not a walk in park, but then again, you don’t think National Geographic gets their awesome footage by venturing a few feet into the forest now do you? No, they get it by venturing down the path that’s not beaten until you’ve stamped it down yourself.

Option 4: Row, Row, Row Your Boat
Why take a big river boat when you can row, row, row your own dugout canoe? Okay, chances are you won’t be rowing; most of the dugout canoes have outboard motors, athough I hear they die frequently, so yeah, maybe we will row. Like the hiking option, this is a more intimate way to view the forest, but with the addition of time spent on the water. But let’s be clear here; you’re most likely not rowing on the Amazon river itself, but rather one of its tributaries. A tad bit safer that way, I guess. Again, you work with an outfitter to hire a guide and a cook and then you make your way into the jungle, by water rather than on trails. As with hiking, you spend your nights camped out in the jungle. Days are spent trolling down the river, stopping at villages, and going on hikes. It kind of sounds like the Grand Canyon trip Jeff and I went on, except without the white water and with a completely different type of scenery. But it’s the same kind of idea–travel by water, take a few hikes, camp on the shore.

The Places:
I guess saying you want to see the Amazon is a bit like saying you want to see the United States. Um, what part? It’s a big, big, big (maybe I should just say humongous) place. Almost every country in the northern half of South America gets a piece of it. Did you know that? Growing up I didn’t think “Amazon” without thinking “Brazil,” and I don’t think I’m alone in this. But as it turns out, many of the countries we’re planning to visit have gateways to the Amazon rainforest.

Option 1: Brazil
60% of the Amazon rainforest is located within Brazil. Additionally, the majority of the Amazon river runs through Brazil, so if you actually want to travel on this Grand Dame of rivers rather than one of its tributaries, this is the place to do it. For tourists, Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s Amazon region, is a popular jumping off spot. Many, many boats stop here if you’re looking to catch a ride down the river, and there are also jungle lodges in the area. If you take a look at a map of Brazil, however, you’ll see that Manaus is pretty doggone far away from well most everything else. So while there are flights and such, getting there and back isn’t as easy as it is in other places. But this is iconic Amazon.

Option 2: Peru
Though perhaps better known for its Incan ruins, Peru also claims a section of the Amazonian Rainforest. Manu Biosphere Reserve might be the best known section of it. And it’s not lacking for acclaim, having been named a Living Eden by PBS. This area claims to contain more species of plants and animals than any other place on earth. Fortunately for the earth, but unfortunately for tourists, visits to the Reserve are strictly controlled and aren’t exactly inexpensive. But there are other similar areas in the Peruvian rainforest that are more accessible to the average tourist. Puerto Maldonado, on the Madre de Dios river, is one of the more popular areas in Peru for Amazon exploration. In a nearby lake, 9 of the last remaining 1000 giant otters live, and the area is heavily populated with macaws. Iquitos, believed to the largest city unreachable by road, is another, especially as it is actually on the Amazon River and it’s possible to catch a riverboat from here to Manaus, Brazil.

Option 3: Ecuador
Ecuador is already on our list because of the natural wonders of the Galapagos. I hadn’t given its jungle much thought, and that might be because only 2% of the Amazon is located within Ecuador. It’s not that large of a country after all, and it only gets the far reaches of the Amazon. The good news about that is that most of the access points are within easy reach of Quito. Yasuni National Park, Limoncocha Biological Reserve, and Cuyabeno Reserve are popular Amazonian regions of Ecuador, offering river and jungle experiences. In Ecuador, many indigenous tribes still live in the rainforest and some trips incorporate learning about their lives. Unfortunately, however, it seems that some of these so-called protected areas are being legally exploited for oil.

Option 4: Bolivia
Now Bolivia wasn’t even in my wide-angle lens when I got to thinking about the Amazon rainforest, but when I look at map, I can’t figure out why I ignored it. It does, after all border both Peru and Brazil. Thankfully, we live in a very connected world and when I started trolling message boards for information on the Amazon, I kept finding references to a town called Rurrenabaque, which like Puerto Maldonado doesn’t have a lot going on itself but is a starting point for adventure, particular in the Madidi National Forest. Many travelers noted that this was one of the least expensive places from which you could explore the Amazon, and it’s hard to quarrel with that. A bonus feature of this area is that it not only provides access to the jungle but also to the pampas. So you can venture into the jungle, where you’re more likely to see interesting flora than fauna, then travel into the pampas for wildlife encounters with the likes of caimans, monkeys, anacondas, capybara, and river dolphins. It’s like two destinations in one.

Here’s Where You Vote
So I know this is just a tiny bit of information for you to decide on, but come on, go ahead and admit it, it’s more information than you have about most of the candidates you vote for. Don’t even try to lie to me and tell me you know anything about the people you vote to be secretary of agriculture, county judge, or school board member. So study the synopses, do your research (hey, I provided links), and cast your vote. Or just go with your gut. We won’t know the difference.

[poll id=3]
[poll id=4]