Adventures in the Amazon: Ecotourism in the Rainforest

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

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE.

There may be a zipline tour near you

With fall foliage reaching its peak, I was reminded of a zipline tour canopy tour I took through the trees in Ohio this past June.

There are several zipline tour options. Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina also have zipline adventure offerings, although not all are canopy tours.

In an Escapes article in the New York Times, Roger Mummert gives a humorous account of his own experience at Ski Mountain Ski Area in Pennsylvania where he went with his teenage daughter for a bonding outing.

At the end of the article, he summarizes the highlights of each of the following places:

After visiting each Web site, I noticed that several have Halloween activities. Remember, zipline tours are truly for a multiage crowd. I was happy to see that the Hocking Hills Canopy Tours made it to Mummert’s list. I had can still recall the whirring sound the cable made each time I zipped across.

Zipline canopy tour: A fall foliage adventure option

Back in June, when I zipped from sycamore to oak trees along the highwire cable lines of the Hocking Hills Canopy Tours in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio, I thought, I bet this is gorgeous in the fall.

Now that yellows and reds are just beginning to show their colors, I’d say trees will be in their autumn glory in a week or two. Cold has arrived at night to hasten the palate switch. Meg’s posts about fall foliage tour options, reminded me of this one.

I blogged about this tour before I took it, and am not surprised that it has remained so popular that the season has been extended through November–although the hours will change.

As a person with first-hand experience, I can vouch for the thrill of heading off on a wire from one tree to another. My favorite parts were the sections where I was zipping through the air, far from the platform I had left, high above the ground, and the platform where I was heading had yet to come into view. There is a moment where you can’t see where you are exactly because of the leaves. Then, the next platform comes into view like a surprise of “oh, there you are.”

For anyone who is afraid of heights, a zipline canopy tour might be your cure. A friend of mine said she was afraid of heights when she started the tour, but by the end she was not. Because of the process of clipping and unclipping safety lines, and the calm voices of the two guides–one who leads and one who follows, ensuring everyone’s safety, you know you are in capable hands.

Before you go out on the real ziplines, there is practice session (seen in picture) with a short zipline that’s only shoulder height off the ground. This is when you learn to stop yourself by applying pressure with the palm of one of your hands to the top of the zipline cable. It’s enough of a practice to give you the feel for how the cable, harness, clip and pulley system works.

Before the moment when you leave an actual platform to head off to another platform, you’re always clipped to either the line attached to the tree where the platform is or to the zipline. During the transition, you’re clipped to both to make sure there aren’t any mistakes. There are two clips fastened to your harness. One clip is unfastened from the platform cable and then fastened to the zipline cable. Then, the next clip is unfastened and fastened. This means if you did slip, you’re held up.

The picture is of the only part where you start from the sloping ground and run until your feet lift off. Then off you go.

Seriously, you won’t fall and the harnesses are designed to hold you properly–almost like an adult version of one of those things you strap babies into so they can jump and bounce in a doorway. There is a pulley wheel system that enables you to glide along using the weight of your body, the distance of the cables and the angle of the points where the cables are affixed to the trees.

I did slow myself down too soon and stopped about 25 feet from one of the platforms, but I was able to use my hands to pull myself along easily until I reached the point where the lead guide could pull me the rest of the way.

Seriously, zipping was a piece of cake. (In the picture above, you can see the lead guy on the platform. The person heading toward him is slowing down, partly due to the slope upwards of the zipline caused by the angle and the person’s weight.)

One terrific aspect of this trip is that you don’t have to be an athletic type to have fun. There’s not a lot of physical exertion involved. The oldest person to do the canopy tour, so far, I was told, was in her 80s. Not that 80-year-olds aren’t athletes, but the point is, this is a multi-age, multi-ability activity. You do have to be at least 10-years-old though, and weigh at least 70 pounds to be allowed to go. You also can’t be above 250 pounds. The reason for the weight limit is not that the cable won’t hold, but because of the principles of physics that make the system work. Too much weight throws off the system.

When I took the tour, one of the co-owners of the company was one of the guides. Here’s some insider information not found on the website.

Hocking Hills Canopy Tours came about after she and her husband went to Alaska with two other couples–one of the people was her sister. While in Alaska, all six of them took in the Alaska Canopy Adventure zipline tour, loved it, and thought Hocking Hills would be a perfect setting for a canopy tour company. Instead of thinking about all the reasons their dream might not work, once back in Ohio, they went for it. All pieces fell into place including the land for sale. In months, they had a booming adventure travel business.

The moral of the story, follow your dreams, particularly if you have the dream when you’re traveling.

Canopy tour of Ysterhout Gorge

Here’s another version of canopy tours, much different than the ones in Hocking Hills, Ohio and near Kuala Lumpur. At the Ysterhout Gorge in Magaliesberg, South Africa, trees are sparse, but the gorge is mighty. This is a well-done edited version that shows each step of the experience. The scenery is gorgeous. The family in this video consists of a young girl as well. You really know how much you trust a tour guide when you send your child flying along a cable, feet dangling high above the rocky ground. There’s a point where my heart would jump. Part with fright, part with their excitment–and I’m the one who once took my 3 month-old on long boat rides in Thailand, passing him above the water while he was strapped in a car seat carrier. Here is a resource to find canopy tours in South Africa, plus a Gadling post from former blogger Erik Olsen that presents options in other places.