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Traveling Down the Amazon River

A Pictorial Essay from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean

The Amazon is a vast ecosystem, stretching from the eastern slopes of the Andean mountains in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the world's largest river system with the world's largest rain forest and greatest bio diversity. But these superlatives cannot aptly describe the immense ecological and cultural diversity of the region. When I set out from the Peruvian city of Cuzco to travel by train along the Urubamba River, and then continue down river by boat towards the Amazon, I had no idea about how vast and incomprehensible this region would turn out to be. My journey was at once magical and tedious, dangerous and mesmerizing. On my way to the Amazon I passed through dangerous rapids and narrow gorges, stayed at hospitable indigenous communities and was welcomed by settlers to spend the night in their palm-thatched huts. I passed towering cliffs with clay licks where dozens of colorful macaws gathered to lick vital nutrients, watched monkeys climb through the dense foliage along the banks, and observed river dolphins playing alongside the boats upon which I was traveling.

Sacred Valley, Urabamba river
The Urubamba river, which is one of the major tributaries of the Amazon river, has its source near Cuzco, Peru. From there it drains the Sacred Valley, home to many Inca ruins, and flows below Machu Picchu before descending into the Amazon basin. Above is a view of the Sacred Valley and the narrow Urubamba river.

Machu Picchu
The Amazon rain forest stretches from the eastern slopes of the Andes all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Machu Picchu is surrounded by spectacular cloud forest, which gradually gives way to the majestic Amazon rain forest at lower elevations.

Cloud Forest along Amazon
The cloud forest gets much of its moisture from low-hanging clouds, hence its name. Due to the high moisture, epiphytes and other plants with air roots are commonly found on trees.

Settlements along Amazon
Settlements throughout the sparsely populated Amazon are often located at road junctions or where waterways meet roads. At this small hamlet, Kiteni, the water level of the Urubamba river was too low for boat traffic, so I had to travel another day through the jungle in the bed of a large pick-up loaded with drums of diesel fuel.

Urubamba on Amazon
Finding a passenger boat on the Urubamba takes a lot of patience. When I embarked on this boat I had only arrived the previous night, but further down river I spent several days at native villages waiting for a boat.

All water from the Adeans glaciers, snow runoff, and rain flows toward the Amazon river, cascading into the Amazon basin in massive waterfalls and gushing rivers. The force of the water has carved huge gorges and canyons into the rock, often making navigation very difficult and dangerous.

Machiguenga Indians along Amazon river
The Machiguenga Indians live in small settlements in a remote region along the lower Urubamba river. However, recent natural gas exploration is not only threatening the local environment, but also the traditional culture of the native people.

Settlment along Amazon river
The upper reaches of the Amazon are difficult to reach by road or river, but as soon as I reached the lower elevations of the Amazon basin, boat traffic became more common, and small homesteads and settlements lined the river banks of the Urubamba river.

Ucayali River
Where the Urubamba river joins the Apurimac river, it becomes the Ucayali River, which itself becomes the Amazon river after its confluence with the Rio Marañon. While the Urubamba is a narrow all along its course,with the jungle and wildlife never far away, the Ucayali quickly becomes nearly a mile wide, even though still thousands of miles away from the Atlantic ocean.

Pucallpa Peruvian Amazon

Pucallpa is an unattractive frontier town, but an important trading hub, since it is only one of two cities in the Peruvian Amazon with road access to the rest of Peru. Situated near the banks of the Ucayali river, Pucallpa has regular boat traffic to the Peruvian city of Iquitos further downstream.

Amazon river boat hammock
Life on a river boat is more tedious than it is romantic, and an afternoon nap is often the passengers' only escape from the never-ending monotony of watching the distant forest-lined shores slowly pass by day after day.

Peruvian village on the Rio Ucayali
The water level of the Amazon and its tributaries varies enormously between the rainy and dry season, as is evident at this Peruvian village on the Rio Ucayali, where at the height of the dry season the river flows about fifty feet below its high-water level.

Passenger boats in Peru
Passenger boats in Peru are little more than barges, where there is often very little room for passengers. Here, the upper deck is completely taken up by a shipment of bananas.

Boy on boat on Amazon

Most people along the Amazon river depend almost exclusively on the river for their livelihoods. The Brazilian author Leandro de Tocantins aptly named one of his books "The River commands Life," showing how interdependent the lives of the locals are with the annual rise and fall of the waters.

Traveling down the Amazon provides a great history lesson, not only about South America's Inca civilization and the cultures of the native people, but also about recent history. The small town of San Pablo, located along the Amazon River in Peru, was the locale where Ernesto Che Guevarra volunteered at a leprosy colony during his South America trip in 1951.

Harvesting and processing the manioc roots
One of the main staple crops in the Amazon is Manioc (or cassava). Harvesting and processing the manioc roots is usually a communal effort, and the extended family usually lends a hand.

Amazon rain forest
The Amazon rain forest is a complex ecosystem, where all plants compete for light. Vegetation extends from the dark forest floor to the upper canopy, where vines dangle down from great heights and epiphytes, mosses, and lichens grow on every branch.

Scarlet Macaws along Amazon
Scarlet Macaws are among the most colorful and majestic birds in the Amazon. They eat fruits and seeds and prefer to roost in the upper canopy of the rain forest, making them difficult to spot from the ground.

Amazon tree boa
The Amazon is home to an amazing diversity of animal and plant life. The tree boa is only one of many snake species that inhabit the dense rain forest.

Manaus city on Amazon
Manaus is the largest city and biggest port in the Amazon, located over 900 miles upriver from the Atlantic ocean. In addition to hundreds of passenger boats that leave every day, Manaus can also be reached by ocean-going vessels.

The Amazonas Theater is Manaus
The Amazonas Theater is Manaus is the region's most impressive architectural monument, built during the rubber boom in the late 19th century. Rubber barons amassed enormous wealth, and the city is still home to historic buildings imported entirely from Europe.

The main branch of the Amazon has a muddy, reddish color
The main branch of the Amazon has a muddy, reddish color, and wherever a river of different color enters it, the waters create a spectacular "meeting of the waters," where differently colored currents run side by side for miles, before finally blending together.

Deforestation along the Amazon
Wherever there are roads in the Amazon, there is also a lot of deforestation. Tropical hardwood species, such as these huge mahogany logs, have now become quite rare, as logging, both legal and illegal, has advanced into remote areas of the rain forest in search of precious timber.

Cattle along the Amazon
Roads and deforestation are quickly followed by cattle pastures, and today vast ranches cover much of the Amazon in Brazil that were once covered by dense rain forest.

Logs along the Amazon
Where roads are absent, sawmills are strategically located along navigable rivers, from where precious logs can easily be transported by boat.

Amazon locals on canoes
As many locals along the Amazon live in small settlements, often far from the nearest town, they depend largely on dugout canoes to sell their produce or fish in town, and even to paddle to school.

Water lily on Amazon
The victoria amazonica, a water lily with large flat leaves, is the emblematic flower of the Brazilian Amazon. It is home to the 'várzea', low-lying forest that is annually flooded by the rising waters of the Amazon.

 - city along Amazon
The city of Santarém, located halfway between Manaus and the Atlantic ocean, is located at the mouth of the Tapajós river, which empties its deep blue water into the muddy Amazon.

Fishing along Amazon
Fishing is an important industry in the Amazon and an important food supply for the local population. Over fishing however, is threatening some fish species, especially near large urban centers. The caught fish here are Tambaqui (also known as Pacu), a large fish that lives off seeds and fruits.

Amazon river
On its lower course the Amazon river is up to 7 miles wide, and sudden micro bursts can whip up waves that toss around the boats and make passengers feel like they are on an ocean voyage.

Lower Amazon river
Before reaching the Atlantic Ocean the Amazon river splits up into dozens of channels that form hundreds of islands. Since the low-lying land is often flooded year-round, the trees are noticeably smaller, many of them water-tolerant species.

Town of Belem along Amazon
The city of Belém is located at the southernmost branch of the vast Amazon estuary, not far from the Atlantic ocean. It is here where my long journey down the Amazon from the Andes to the sea finally ended.
Related Topics
Independent Travel
Living in South America: Essential Resources
More by Volker Poelzl
The Race to Save the Amazon in Brazil
Volunteer Work in Brazil
Boat Travel in South America
Air Travel in South America
Overland Travel in South America

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