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.

Adventures in the Amazon: Trekking the Jungle

Exploring the Amazon by boat is an incredible experience. The river is so vast and powerful that it can boggle the mind. For instance, during the high water season, it can reach 25 miles in width and more than 100 feet in depth. But there are certain aspects of the Amazon that you can only see if you leave the boat behind, and strike out into the jungle, which is as unique as the river it surrounds.

On my third day in the Amazon, we set out in the skiff like we had any other day, but this time the plan was different. Rather than piloting the boat far into the backwaters in search of wildlife and other unusual sights, we were looking for high ground, a place where we could go ashore and explore the Amazon on foot. Our guides knew where a small, permanent village was located not far from where we had set out that morning, and before long we were pulling into the shore, and hopping off the front of the skiff.

Wandering up the muddy banks and into a large clearing, we entered the village where a number of wide eyed children and mangy dogs looked on in curiosity. Scrawny chickens scrambled about as we passed, ducking under the primitive huts that were suspended above the damp ground on stilts. A half-dozen soccer jerseys hung from a laundry line, a testament to the popularity of the “beautiful game” even in this remote place.

We soon walked through the village and approached a green wall of jungle that had one small opening onto a muddy path that wound off into the forest. A man from the village approached, spoke a few words in Spanish to our guide, and then led us down the path.

Within moments we were surrounded by jungle. The slight breeze that blew while near the river was gone, blocked by the impassable foliage, and the temperature increased noticeably just a few yards in. It had rained that morning, as it did 270 days a year in the Amazon Basin, which meant that the humidity was off the scale, and ground was saturated, turning what little trail we did have into a sea of mud.

The one thing you notice upon entering the jungle is the amount of noise that surrounds you. It isn’t overwhelmingly loud by any means, but there is just so much of it coming at you from all directions. Birds, bugs, monkeys, tree frogs, and more, all compete to be heard, squawking, chirping, and croaking as you pass. Occasionally we’d catch a glimpse of those animals in the branches overhead, but often they remained out of sight thanks to the thick jungle canopy. One thing was clear, the forest was alive all around us, and it was watching us as we were it.

The further we progressed into the jungle the narrower the trail became, and at times we were forced to break out a machete to continue to continue along our way. The fact that our boots were caked in mud didn’t help matters much, and neither did the very thick gaiters that we wore around our ankles. For those who don’t know, gaiters are a piece of gear that you generally slip over your boots on longer treks that help to keep rocks, dirt, and various other things from getting inside your boots and irritating your fee. Most of the time they are fairly light so that you barely even know they are there, but these particular gaiters, provided by the guides, were extremely thick and cumbersome, and it was difficult to not notice them as we hiked. As usual, there was a reason for this however. Typical gaiters would suffice to keep all the usual junk out of our boots, no doubt, but they don’t prevent snake bites the way these thicker versions do. When cutting through the dense jungle, you never know when you might come across one of the many snakes that inhabit the Amazon, some of which are deadly poisonous, and are apt to strike you on your ankles or calves.

Over the course of the next few hours, we wandered about the jungle, coming across wild banana trees, pineapples, papaya and more. We also wandered through a somber graveyard, built on the highest, driest, land the villagers could find, in order to protect those that were buried there. Our path even came across an incredibly dark, deep pond, which I dubbed a “Malaria Pool”, which seemed to have no way of navigating around. Instead, we had to make a perilous crossing on a 30 foot tree that had fallen between the banks. The trunk was thick and solid, but wet from the continuous moisture, and our muddy boots didn’t make the walk any easier. I grasped some low hanging vines to help steady me as I shuffled from one end to the other, and looking down along the way, I peered into the darkest pool of water I had ever seen. I imagined a jungle croc waiting beneath the surface or worse yet a large anaconda. Fortunately, I wouldn’t become acquainted with either that day, as I soon was standing on firm ground and continuing my trek.

Not long after the crossing of the “malaria pool” we found ourselves back at the banks of the river, where our taxi back to La Turmalina awaited. This wouldn’t be the last time we hiked in the jungle, but it left a lasting impression none the less. I couldn’t wait to see what other secrets the jungle had in store for us.

Next: A Night in the Rainforest

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE.

Eco-tourism in Laos

According to the Lonely Planet, tourism in Laos is set to soar to all-time highs. I suspect this has to do with the popularity of Thailand as a tourist destination, as people tend to reason that if they’re going all that way they should do the whole shebang. I don’t know if anyone travels across the ocean for the sole purpose of visiting Laos, but it sure is worthy of it’s own trip — which you already know, if you’ve ever been there.

Jungle treks in particular are expected to flourish, which gives some valuable income to to the country and its people — hopefully it keeps the forest from being levelled as well. The Laotian government has shown it’s commitment to Eco-tourism, so let’s hope they stand by their word.
Laos is truly unique place — rugged and undeveloped, friendly and peaceful, full of beauty, both urban and natural. It’s a world away from the bright lights of Bangkok. When I first arrived in Laos, I was amazed by so much, but what stands out is the lack of streetlights in towns (or paved roads for that matter.) We left the Indian restaurant at 9, a full two hours before the country-wide curfew, and hardly found our way back to the guesthouse because of the darkness. I was a city girl who hadn’t realized that the world got that dark at night. I wonder if it will stay like that? I hope so. We all need little reminders like that.