One of the biggest buzzwords in travel in recent years has been “ecotourism”. The term is generally used to describe a type of travel that is designed to minimize the impact on the environments we are visiting and is often used in reference to fragile or seldom visited destinations. It was my experience during my journey through the Amazon that ecotourism wasn’t a buzzword at all, but actually an approach to sharing the environment that has been in practice there for years.
When I arrived in Iquitos at the start of my journey, I was told that tourism was a large part of the economy there, although as I walked the streets and visited the markets in that city, I rarely saw anyone that even remotely resembled a tourist. Leaving the city aboard La Turmalina meant leaving nearly all semblances of tourism behind, something I was a bit surprised to discover.
When I elected to take a river cruise on the Amazon, I suspected it would be much like the cruise I took on the Nile a few years back. On that river, there are literally dozens of ships at every turn, and when you pulled into port, they would line up three abreast. You had to cross through other boats just to go ashore. But in over a week on the Amazon, I saw only one other boat that was carrying tourists, and the river was decidedly uncrowded.
We did see several ecolodges as we moved about. Some were located right on the main channel, within easy reach of the Amazon River itself, while others were tucked away, deeper in the jungle. No matter the location though, they all shared a common theme, respect for the jungle and a sustainable approach to protecting it.
Built in the same style as the huts we saw lining the river, the lodges felt like they fit into the jungle both on an ecological and cultural level. Most of the bungalows were built on stilts and constructed in such a manner as to not endanger the plant life in the region. For instance, trees were not cleared to build these jungle retreats. Instead, they were built around the trees themselves, sometimes literally, with the trunks growing through the floor and continuing up, and out, the roof. It was clear at a glance that these resorts had been built with integration into the jungle environment in mind from the beginning.
Several lodges in the area offer canopy tours as part of their eco-friendly approach. These tours give travelers an opportunity to see the jungle from a whole new perspective, while at the same time protecting the environment. On a canopy tour, visitors to the lodge walk on rope bridges suspended high above the jungle floor and strung between two tall trees, sometimes hundreds of feet apart. The bridges can be forty or more feet in the air, keeping you well above the jungle floor, almost eliminating all impact on the environment.
I had the opportunity to walk one of these canopy tours on the morning after I had camped in the jungle. The bridges I crossed were not unlike something you would see in a B-action movie, swinging back and fourth precariously. Being agile on your feet helped to make things a bit easier, but not all of my traveling companions were comfortable with our little stroll amongst the leaves. Suspended 60 feet above the jungle floor, the bridges did indeed give us a new perspective however, while leaving zero impact on the environment around us. This was the very definition of ecotourism. In all, we crossed eight bridges, each connecting to a wooden platform built around one of the gigantic trees that grew out of the jungle. The last bridge gently angled back down to the surface, returning us to the muddy trail.
The eco-lodges of the Amazon do offer an alternate way to visit the jungle, with a completely different experience from the one that I had. While I spent the better part of a week and half aboard a river boat, cruising up and down the river and exploring its backwaters, a visit to an eco-lodge allows you to relax a bit more, while staying in one place, and still get an authentic rainforest experience. The best part is that at the end of the day you return to a comfortable bed and plenty of amenities.
From my personal experience there was a clear commitment at every turn to protect the environment and ensure that the Amazon stays healthy and strong for future generations to visit and marvel at as well. My traveling companions and I contributed to that effort be each of us planting small trees and giving a little something back to the rainforest, and although it felt like a small gesture at the time, it is also rewarding to think that that little sapling could one day be an integral part of the greatest biosphere on the planet.
Next: The Future of Tourism in the Amazon
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