It's no accident that the Amazon is called mighty. The second-longest river in the world, it flows north and east 4,345 miles from its source high up in the Peruvian Andes, through Peru and Brazil, to its mouth on the Atlantic Ocean. On the way, the Amazon also cuts through a small section of Bolivia. The watershed around it includes the largest tropical rainforest in the world, and a variety of indigenous tribes.
Manaus is the center for Amazon travel in Brazil, with flights coming from Miami, Rio de Janeiro and Europe. A number of the cruise lines departing from Florida to South America, travel from the mouth of the river to Manaus on large, mainstream cruise ships. Along the way, they offer shore excursions into the tributaries. There are also a number of smaller riverboat cruises up the River Negro from Manaus.
Smaller river cruises ply the Amazon in Peru, exploring the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. Iquitos, 600 miles northeast of Lima (a 90-minute flight), is the central city for the Peruvian rainforest. (For more on both stretches, read Amazon River Cruise Basics).
The sheer breadth of the river can be the allure in Brazil, especially for those who favor large cruise ships. However, the 1,000-mile stretch of the Amazon from its mouth to Manaus is a heavily populated commercial waterway with many other vessels and a number of sizable ports. Its width can range from one to six miles during low water season, and rise to 30 miles in wet season.
Peru has the advantage of many narrower rivers where one can get up close with the birds, mammals and plants in the rich preserves. In fact, on the tranquil Peruvian riverboats -- quite small compared to the cruise ships -- you are actually in the rainforest for four to 10 days. Also, it's possible to combine the trip with time in Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, Lake Titicaca and Cuzco, as they are a short hop by air.
In both countries, you'll find excursions that help you make the most of your front seat to rainforest flora and fauna. Read on for our top excursions.
Swimming with the Pink Dolphins
Who Should Go: Those who enjoy challenges and are not afraid of diving into the river. Naturalists will seek out places where it is safe to swim with them.
Why It's Extraordinary: Pink dolphins, which have their rosy color because they have red blood vessels that run right beneath the skin, are said to have more human qualities than the blue ones.
Fishing for Piranhas
Who Should Go: Teddy Roosevelt fished for piranhas here, so why not? Unless you are in the water, they can't sink their deadly teeth into your flesh.
Why It's Extraordinary: Piranhas hang out with the alligators, so you can tell a good fishing tale about being right in the midst of both when you get home. By the way, the red-bellied piranhas are delicious grilled.
Canopy Walking over the Rainforest
Who Should Go: Anyone without a fear of heights. The walk is quite easy.
Why It's Extraordinary: Peek down at birds, monkeys, sloths, iguanas and other animals. See more than you would on the floor of the forest.
"Meeting of the Waters" Boat Trip
Who Should Go: Anyone curious about the behavior of water.
Why It's Extraordinary: See the point where the sandy water of the River Solimoes converges with the black water River Negro, both Amazon tributaries. You can watch their colors mixing for a few miles as they flow side by side.
Native Tupi tribe and Rubber Museum, Rio Taruma
Who Should Go: Travelers 12 and over who can walk trails and are eager to learn about shamans, the South American medicine healers, and the rubber boom at the turn of the 20th century.
Why It's Extraordinary: There are not too many places where a tribe allows you to observe shaman rituals. At the museum, learn about the incredible amount of money the robber barons made at the expense of natives, who worked under life-threatening conditions.
Alter do Chao Beach, in Dry Season
Who Should Go: Beach-lovers who yearn for seclusion.
Why It's Extraordinary: Few tourists know about the white-sand beach on the bright blue freshwater river. This beach was voted one of the 10 best beaches in the world by "The Guardian." Local boats can be hired for trips to a lagoon with birds and wildlife, and beach restaurants serve local food.