The increasing attention that is given to the state of the world's environment has sparked interest in ecotourism – tours that serve people who want to see the wild places of the earth while reducing the environmental impact of their visits. The development of a tourist destination usually involves the construction of hotels, restaurants, and the corresponding infrastructure of roads and services to maintain them. These can leave a heavy imprint on the local environment, including on the indigenous population. The intent of responsible ecotourism is to reduce that impact to the minimum possible and give travelers a true sense of what the natural environment of the area they've chosen to visit is like.
One of the top destinations for ecotourists is the Amazon basin. This vast rainforest ecosystem has remained largely unchanged through the ages, having never been affected by the Ice Ages; it stands as an example of an area that is the same as it was 100 million years ago, even though it is threatened by human development and industrial encroachment on a grand scale.
Ecotourism in the Amazon is largely conducted by small companies who visit specific, designated areas. Many of the regional governments (although the bulk of the Amazon rainforest is located in Brazil, there are sections of it in over nine countries!) have no specified certification process to identify a company as an ecologically friendly business, so travelers seeking a company to use for a trip are advised to do their homework.
Some specific questions to ask include:
- Is there a clear description available of the nature of the tour? Ecotours are rarely luxury trips, and a responsible operator will make clear what accommodations are like, what activities are offered, etc.
- Is there some statement about how the local communities are affected or involved with the operator? Responsible ecotourism connects with the local residents and works with them to make the operation sensitive to local conditions. Does the operator have a clear code of ethics available?
- Do the trips include educational activities, difficult travel, and potential risk? Travel to remote destinations may include reduced access to medical services, hazardous health conditions, and other risks that the standard tourist destinations don't have. Some ecotours offer reading material and other information for travelers to study before their trips. This can be a good tip off as to what may lie in store.
- Is there clear information available about what is needed before the trip begins – equipment, clothing, vaccinations, etc.? The lack of infrastructure in the Amazon region makes it imperative that the traveler knows exactly what he or she is getting into.
- What are the qualifications and experience of the leader and staff? Experience is key in this area.
- Are travel logistics clearly spelled out? The area is remote, and not well served by major airports outside of a few cities like Belen and Manaus in Brazil.
Timing is important in planning a trip. The rainforest's wettest months are from October to May, and travel can become difficult as roads are frequently washed out, airline flights are delayed, etc. The best time to travel is between June and September.
The Amazon rainforest is a huge area, comprising 2.1 million square miles (5.5 million square km) of the densest forest on the planet – it's estimated that half the world's remaining forest is in the Amazon Basin. The Amazon River itself is the world's largest river; it is over 3800 miles (6275 km) long and pours more water into the ocean every day than every other river. . It is home to the single most diverse range of species in the world, as well. The largest section of the rainforest is in Brazil, with the cities of Manaus and Belen acting as typical "jumping off" spots for ecotourists; however, sections of the forest are found in Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.
Due to depictions of the area in film and television, many travelers may expect that the single biggest risk in travel here is the wildlife – who hasn't heard of giant anacondas, jaguars, and piranhas? However, the most common threats come from mosquitoes (who can carry infectious diseases like malaria and yellow fever; pre-trip planning by your tour operator can tell you what vaccinations and other preparations you'll need to make) and the weather. Many parts of the rainforest receive over 100 inches of rain a year, and average temperatures fall into the high 80s F (roughly 31° Celsius, so proper clothing is essential.
A tour may include boat trips into any of the numerous tributaries of the river, winding down tunnel-like avenues of green trees and vines through the frequently murky water. Travelers will see and hear some of the myriad birds that make the area their home, and listen to various animals (monkeys, insects, frogs, lizards, and yes, the occasional jaguar) -- photographers will have an especially rich experience. There may be visits with local communities of Natives who are attempting to make an existence in time-tested ways, even as rapid deforestation from clear cut logging, road building, and cattle ranching make that increasingly difficult. Some tour operators even combine sightseeing with a chance to work with scientists and others who are working to save threatened species, Native lifestyles, and ecosystems.
Accommodations can range from tents on platforms, to cabin like structures, to tree houses. Again, knowing what the tour offers is essential for planning; those expecting four-star hotels are likely to be disappointed to say the least.
Ecotourism in the Amazon rainforest offers a chance to see one of the most important bio regions on the planet up close, in a way that (sadly) may not be around much longer as the modern world encroaches on it more every day. For the prepared trekker, the rewards of a tour of this kind cannot be overstated.