Spanning a continent, the Brazilian Amazon is an area of extremes and superlatives. Distances are vast, skyscapes huge, and the wildlife vibrant, bewilderingly diverse and ever present. Here even tributaries of tributaries of major rivers are bigger than rivers in Europe and there may be more species of fish in one tiny stream than in all of Europe's river systems combined. In total area it's about the size of mainland USA (Alaska excepted), and covers some 40% of South America.
The numbers numb you with their size. The Amazon is the biggest tropical forest in the world combined with a truly phenomenal river: the largest on earth, with a daily discharge greater than the next six biggest rivers combined. In total, the Amazon contains one-third of all the freshwater on the planet.
Eight countries have Amazonian rainforest within their boundaries, but it is Brazil that has by far the biggest chunk. Five of Brazil's 24 states (Pará, Amapá, Amazônia, Roraima and Acre) lie wholly within this vast forested river basin, and three more (Maranhão, Mato Grosso and Rondônia) have some in their northern-most extremes.
Within the Brazilian Amazon's 4.2 million km² there are states bigger than European countries, beetles the length of your hand and tiny transparent finger-nail-sized frogs. Towns are few, cities even fewer, and over vast areas the forest still reins supreme. Even in the largest cities the forest is never far away and during the day the biologically-primed can see huge moths resting on walls of the poshest shopping malls, waiting for whatever feeding and mating opportunities the night might bring.
For those used to southern Brazil's European levels of infrastructure, Amazonia is another country. Good roads are rare, and for those who can't afford to fly, the rivers and their large wooden people-and-goods carrying recreio ferryboats are still the only reliable way to get from place to place. Journey distances are generally measured in days.
But the Brazilian exuberant love of life and general dedication to good times, football and pagode remains the same. As with the wildlife, diversity is also the key to the people of Amazonia: urban sophisticates and foreign businessfolk with no forest knowledge other than that gleaned from TV share pavements with sun-hardened fishermen and forest-dwelling caboclos, in town for supplies and replacements for the few machined parts their ingenuity and skill could not repair.
The towns and cities are extremely varied: the mixture of colonial and modern that characterizes the city of Belem, one of Brazil's oldest, to the baroque of Manaus rubber-boom city-centre. Then there are the towns, like Óbidos, whose brief economic booms funded a few small scale municipal glories and proud merchant houses before they slid back into sleepy backwaterdom. For others, like Itacoatiara, Santarém and São Gabriel do Cachoeira now is the time and the cities are abuzz with optimism and the dust and disruption of construction.
Amazonia has everything to offer except snow-based sports. You can trek in remote jungles, climb to the canopy, and raft turbulent rapids. You can windsurf, waterski and laze on white sand beaches 1000km from the sea, while Amapá has a famously surfable seasonal bore. There's even a steam train. In the lakes and backwaters meanwhile lurk tucunaré huge enough to entice sport fishermen from all parts of the world.
Live music is everywhere, from innuendo-filled forró, to international quality opera, stadium rock, and local guys in bars with guitars. Every state has its own traditional rhythms, from the Merengue-like sound of Para's carimbó, via Marajó island's highly traditional lundu and chula, to Amazonia's unique toadas de boi.
On the food side, you can eat in sophisticated restaurants or fry piranha you have just caught yourself. Para's seafood specialties include vatapá and tacacá, while Amazonia offers fish in a vast variety or shapes and flavours (tambaquí, tucunaré, matrinxã and jaraquí are all especially good). The rainy season is the best time for local fruits – the streets awash with locally-grown mangos, starfruit, avocados. You can find apples if you miss them, or try a whole diversity of Amazonian-only, local fruits whose names alone should set your taste-buds to must-try curiosity – acerola, pupunha, taperebá, tucumã, and burití.
The year-round of celebrations and cultural events are as varied as the birds of the forest. From the religious fervor of Belém`s Sírio de Nazaré, and the Maués guaraná festival, to Presidente Figueredo's celebration of everything cupuaçú and the tropical fish festival in Barcelos. Then there is the pulsing over-the-top exuberance of the Boi Bumbá Festival in Parintins, where, with dances, songs and processions of extraordinary costumes, the supporters of caprichoso and guarantido compete to be that year's champion, in Amazonia`s very own version of carnival.
For those with intentions beyond the city, the weather dictates what is possible. For most places the rivers are fullest between March and September, allowing access to more remote areas, giving the best rafting and allowing you to drift through the quiet splendor of igapó an várzea – the Amazonia's unique riverside flooded forests. For jungle trips you have to take your choice – the rainy season is when most plants have fruit and flowers, so the forest can look more beautiful and it can be easier to see animals. But it is also the time of torrential downpours that bring sodden clothes, drenched gear and add treachery to muddy trail surfaces.
Whether you bring binoculars, a beach towel or an adventurous heart, there is something for everyone in Amazonia. Welcome and enjoy.
Avenida Gentil Bittencourt 85
Travessa Dom Pedro I, 546
Estr. da Ponte Negra, 1496-1634 - São Jorge, Manaus - AM, Brazil