Exploring the Amazon: River cruises and budget jungle lodges
The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest in the world with about 10% of the world’s animal species and 20% of the world’s birds living there.
Even if you’re not an animal lover, the Amazon jungle is a fascinating place to explore the culture of the local tribes and hike along the forest floor amidst the giant trees and plants that grow in this unique environment.
But with the Amazon spreading across nine countries including Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, it can be difficult choosing which country to explore the rainforest from.
Which country to visit the Amazon from
Brazil has the majority of the Amazon, with 60% of the rainforest on its land. But this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best place to explore the jungle from. In fact, after researching we discovered that it’s cheaper to go from one of the other countries.
Why? Because people often associate Brazil with the Amazon, making it a more popular destination for tourists.
For example, an eight day tour of the Amazon from Brazil will set you back around US$2,000, whereas a similar tour from Ecuador costs around US$1,500.
But will you miss out on exploring unique Amazon areas if you decide against going to Brazil or another particular region? Not really. There is relatively little difference between the rainforest in each of the countries. You may only be affected if you have a particular interest.
For example, if you’re interested in ornithology then Peru will probably have the bird life most for you to see, and if you like anthropology then Ecuador supposedly has the most native community interactions for tourists. Macaw parrots are also more likely to be found in some regions of the Amazon than others and the pink river dolphin can be found more easily in Ecuador.
When to visit the Amazon
The best time of the year to visit the Amazon depends on what region you plan to go to. For example, in Brazil the dry season between July and December can cause the river levels to go down, making it harder to get around by boat and reducing accessibility. This just means that most of your excursions will be on foot rather than in a boat.
However, low water levels aren’t necessarily a bad thing because sometimes they can draw animals like caimans, anacondas and otters closer to the centre of the river, giving you a greater chance of seeing them.
In terms of temperature, July and August are the hottest months to visit and the humidity might really get to those who aren’t used to it.
Between May and September in Ecuador and Peru you can sometimes get cold snaps which can send some animals into temporary hiding for up to a few days.
Jungle lodge or river cruise
There are a few points to consider when deciding on whether to explore the Amazon by a stay in a jungle lodge or on a boat cruise.
Firstly, for those wanting to spend longer than five nights or more in the Amazon, a river cruise might be the way to go, as you’ll have more sights to visit than if you stay in a jungle lodge. After five days you might have explored all the areas surrounding the jungle lodge, whereas once you’ve explored one area on a cruise the crew can just pull up the anchor and move on.
Sometimes it can be harder to fit a cruise tour into your itinerary though, as they often have set departure dates and durations, whereas jungle lodge tours are more frequent and flexible.
However, if you want to know what it feels like to sleep among the animals then staying in a jungle lodge is probably the way to go. At night as you lay in bed you’ll hear the crickets chirping around you and all the noises of the jungle rocking you to sleep. On a cruise you’ll be in a cabin with air conditioning and won’t experience this.
If you decide on a jungle lodge, make sure you choose one that’s remote as the more remote it is, the better the quality of the surrounding wildlife. If it’s close to a national park, that’s even better.
Like with any hotel accommodation, there are different levels of services, and therefore different price options available. Our eco-lodge trip cost US$780 for the two of us in a double room for four days, and research shows a similar stay at other Ecuadorian lodges can cost anywhere from US$650 – US$900.
For river cruises, there are more luxurious boats such as those run by Aqua Expeditions in Peru, which cost around US$3,800 for four days for two people. Or you could opt for a budget option like the Lo Piex riverboat in Brazil which costs as little as US$200 per person for three days.
Whether you stay at a jungle lodge or opt for a cruise, you won’t miss out on anything as they each offer daily excursions and multiple opportunities to explore the Amazon.
Request the itinerary in advance
Before you purchase your Amazon tour, be sure to investigate your daily itinerary. For example you might find, as we did, that a 4-day and 3-night tour is more like a 3-day and 3-night tour, as the last day is spent commuting back to your drop off point.
Your itinerary will also give you a good idea of what level of fitness is needed for your activities. We spent a lot of time hiking in the humid jungle. If you don’t feel your fitness is up to scratch for that then you might have to look for another tour.
Be aware though – the best tours are the ones that have numerous jungle hikes as this increases your chance of seeing the elusive wildlife.
The best way to book – if you can – is last minute as most of the tour companies will have cheaper rates because they’ll be looking to fill close-by dates that aren’t yet taken. It’s a great way to snap up a deal.
Even if there isn’t a promotion advertised on the tour’s website, if you email them last minute and ask to get on a tour it doesn’t hurt to inquire whether a last-minute rate is available.
What to pack for an Amazon trip
It’s best to pack light for your trip to the Amazon. Our tour was in Ecuador and we stayed at Sani Lodge, an eco lodge located near Yasuni National Park. We got to the lodge via a canoe, so if you have large amounts of luggage this could make logistics difficult.
It’s important to bring strong mosquito repellant with you, one which has DEET in it, as the mosquitoes are quite vicious. Consider taking malaria tablets before and after your trip as well, as some areas of the Amazon have mosquitoes that carry the virus.
Bring light and waterproof clothing, and it’s better if it’s long sleeved and legged to protect your arms and legs from the mosquitoes and anything else you might brush up against in the jungle. You will normally be provided with wellington boots to walk around in, as it can get very muddy in the rainforest, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about footwear.
Pack sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat for the times you’re out on the rivers because the sun can be quite strong.
Don’t forget any extras
Your tour will most likely include all of your meals, a bilingual guide to take you on all of your excursions, accommodation and transport from a meeting point and into the jungle.
You will still have to bring a bit of cash though. There aren’t any ATMs to be found in the Amazon and you’ll need money for tips and any drinks you’d like to buy at the bar.
We weren’t really fed in between meals when we were on our tour, so bring some snacks to tie you over if you get hungry in between feeds.
Volunteer in the jungle to save money
If you’re looking to explore the Amazon on the cheap but are also keen to help out, volunteering your time might be the way to go. You can expect to pay as little as US$7 a day volunteering in the Amazon and it’s a great way to give you an insight into the culture of the people who live in the rainforest and to learn about the animals who call the jungle home.
We met two volunteers from Holland who’d spent a month in the Amazon at an animal sanctuary, looking after sloths, monkeys, birds and reptiles. They’d loved their time there and only had good things to say about the experience.
Some volunteering agencies include Ecuador Volunteer, the Amazon Conservation Association (Peru) and Amizade (Brazil).
Transport to and from the jungle
Remember to factor into your budget your travel costs to get to the Amazon. For our trip to Sani Lodge we had to get to Coca which is a town located on the edge of the Amazon.
To fly there from Quito it cost around US$189 return, so we decided to save money and catch the bus instead, which cost just US$20 return. The journey took eight hours on a night bus and wasn’t too pleasant, so if it’s comfort you’re after you might want to pay more and fly.
What you can expect during your Amazon stay
I can only speak from our experience during four days at Sani Lodge, but if it was anything to go by then your trip to the Amazon will be one of the best holidays you go on.
Each day we got up early to make the most of the dawn, as this is when the animals are most active. We’d spend a couple of hours trekking through the jungle at a slow pace, learning about the flora and fauna from our two guides (one was a native Quechuan and the other was bilingual).
We’d stop for lunch and a siesta during the heat of the day before doing another activity in the afternoon such as climbing the lookout tower that gave us sweeping views across the rainforest canopy, or visiting the local Quechua community to try their local food and admire their handicrafts. I bought a bag and bracelet that’s made from tree leaves found in the rainforest.
In the evenings we’d do activities like night hikes – as many of the Amazon animals are nocturnal and this gives a good chance of seeing them – or go out on the canoe to look for caimans.
Each day was busy without being overcrowded with activities and I felt we were truely experiencing life in the middle of the Amazon.
By Carmen Allan-Petale
Carmen is one half of the couple behind Double-Barrelled Travel, a travel blog focused on vlogging. Carmen married Dave two years ago and they quit their journalism careers in mid-2013 for a life on the road.
Hi, we have 3 weeks in May, already booked an 8 day Salkantay trek to Macho Picchu Peru but want to visit Amazon/Jungle. As we are budget travelers, would you suggest we rather fly to Ecuador and go from there or not? We’ll be returning from our trek 20/05/2019 and our flight back to South Africa departs 01 June from Lima (would like to spend 2 or 3 days in Lima before departure). That leaves us with 7days. Thanks for all the valuable info.
This was a guest article by my friend Carmen, and she doesn’t monitor the comments here. But if you click on her website near the bottom of the article you’ll find more information on Amazon cruises and such, and you can contact here there. -Roger
Thanks for a comprehensive guide. It gives me some good ideas to work my plan from