A Beginner’s Guide to the Amazon Rainforest

I visited the Amazon Rainforest back in October of 2018 during my study abroad trip to Ecuador. We traveled to the eastern portion of the country and spent an afternoon in Sumak Allpa, stayed in the town of Limoncocha for about three days, and stayed in the Tiputini Biodiversity Station bordering Yasuní National Park for another three days. It was an exciting experience filled with monkeys, birds, caiman, and bugs! There is so much I could say about the Amazon (I could go on for days), but this guide focuses on the essentials you should know to survive the Amazon rainforest.

Weather and Climate

The Amazon Rainforest is very hot and humid year-round. It was a common joke with the locals that there’s a wet season and a wetter season. This should provide you with some insight on the relative climate of the area. During my time in the rainforest, I experienced periods when there wasn’t much rain. This was usually in the mornings. Then, in the mid- to late-afternoons, there would be large downpours, and sometimes, they came without much warning. Things can change fairly rapidly in the jungle, so it’s best to always be prepared for any situation.

How to Get to the Amazon

The overall journey was long and tiring but very much worth it. My class flew from Quito to Coca, a small city in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. The flight itself took less than an hour. It felt like we had just gotten into the air when we had already begun our descent. The airport in Coca is fairly new and renovated so getting to the Amazon is a lot easier now. From Coca, we took a boat (which is pretty much the only way to travel long distances in the jungle) down the Napo River to the island of Sumak Allpa. This island is a monkey reserve close to Coca and it took less than an hour to get there. We spent an afternoon there before heading out towards the town of Limoncocha. We took a boat down the Napo River to get there, and this segment of the trip took about one to two hours. We stayed there for three days before taking another boat down the Napo River and into the Tiputini River. This boat ride lasted the longest and was close to four to five hours sitting in the boat. The Tiputini Biodiversity Station is located next to this river, so it wasn’t much of a hike once we got off the boat. From that point on, whenever we explored Yasuní National Park, we would either walk on foot or take large canoes.

Where to Stay

My group stayed at two locations during our time in the Amazon: a hostel in Limoncocha and the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS). Our hostel was not glamorous, but it was a good place to stay. I slept in a room with about eight to ten other people in the same room. I know there were other rooms with fewer than five people, though, so it really varies. Our beds at the hostel had mosquito nets over them that we had to tuck in to make sure we weren’t being attacked while we slept. At TBS, we slept in cabins with two bunk beds in each. The cabin itself acted as a mosquito net since it was built to keep them out. This meant we had to immediately shut our doors when we entered our cabins or risk having mosquitos invade our room. There wasn’t hot water at either of the places we stayed at, but that was fine since it was so hot out, we mostly wanted to cool off. The best part of our stay at these places, though, was the service from the staff. Everyone was always very nice to us. Their food was also delicious, and I was a huge fan of the home-cooked meals at both sites.

A very important note, however, is that the Tiputini Biodiversity Station only grants access to scientific researchers and is very specific about who can stay there, but there are always exceptions to this rule. For example, during our stay, a few videographers recording a documentary on the Amazon rainforest were allowed to spend a few days there, as well. Either way, I always recommend staying at hostels since it’s always cheaper and the money goes directly to the community instead of large corporations. There are many options for hostels in the area but could be more difficult to find since it’s isolated. I suggest you start looking for accommodations early on to avoid potential setbacks. If you’re looking for a more luxurious setting, though, we did come across some hotels (with steep prices) that offered scenic views over the jungle canopies. Finding those would be easier than finding hostels, but again, they do cost a great deal more.

What to Do in the Amazon

There are many different things to do in the Amazon, but the majority is going to be nature-centered. Usually, you will be out hiking or taking a boat around. If being out in nature isn’t your thing, the Amazon rainforest probably isn’t a good fit for you. But if you crave adventure and exciting new experiences, you’ve come to the right spot! The following is a list of some of my favorite activities we did in the Amazon.

Search for Black Caiman

During our stay at Limoncocha, we lived at a hostel located next to the Limoncocha lagoon for three nights. For the first two nights, we took a boat out into the lagoon to look for black caiman. The guides would shine a flashlight over the surface of the water looking for a distinct glow that would signal the light hit a caiman’s eye. They would then drive the boats over to the caiman and try to get as close as possible. At one point, I was only a meter away from a caiman! Luckily, these caimans were very passive and never showed any signs of hostility towards us.

Needless to say, it was a surreal experience. To make this moment even more magical, this lagoon was also covered with many lily pads and sitting on top of each lily pad were many fireflies. At night, when there is no light from other sources, the lagoon appears as if it’s a twinkling starry sky. And add onto this the black caiman, for an experience that is incomparable to anything I’ve ever done before.

Follow Monkeys Around

Practically anywhere you go in the jungle, you’ll be able to spot (or at least hear) monkeys. When we were at the monkey reserve, Sumak Allpa, we were able to walk the trails and see lots of monkeys in the trees above us. Because they’re confined to a tiny island, you are guaranteed to see lots of these little guys climbing around. I really enjoyed finding a group of them and following them around. We were able to observe their eating behavior and even saw a mother wooly monkey carrying her child around! It was so adorable and definitely a highlight of my trip. On this island, you can also find the smallest monkey in the world! This tribe of pygmy marmosets was rescued from the illegal black market animal trade where they were held in captivity. They are now being rehabilitated on the reserve and a new baby was just born!

Look for Butterflies

There is a huge variety of butterflies in the Amazon. From transparent butterflies to ones with owl eyes on their wings, you can find the most exotic and stunning butterflies anywhere here. There are also many salt licks in the area where you can find huge groups of butterflies huddled on the soil collecting nutrients. Needless to say, the Amazon is a hotspot for finding the most beautiful butterflies in the world and you should try to look for some of them during your time there.

Bird Watching

This one seems like a standard activity for nature-goers, but it’s taken to a whole new level out in the tropics. The biodiversity is so high, you could spend all day looking for birds and still come across new species. You will find some of the most beautiful and colorful birds you’ve ever seen. Some of my personal favorites are the scarlet macaw, yellow-throated toucan, and all oropendolas. My group would wake up at 5 AM every morning to go bird-watching, and although it was tiring, you get to see some incredible species. One of those mornings, we went to a tower in Yasuní National Park that let you look over the canopy and we got a good view of many birds, along with many monkeys! This is one activity that sounds boring, but you shouldn’t skip.

Take an Oil Industry Tour

Learn about the effects the oil industry has had on the Amazon by hearing about its direct impact on the communities living there. During our stay in Limoncocha, our guide, Hector Vargas, took us on a tour around the area to see how the oil industry has changed the landscape. We saw the oil pumps in person and the natural gas that is extracted from crude oil being burned 24/7. We also visited a family that lives near a crude oil dump site. Seeing these things are heart-wrenching. You learn how the indigenous communities living in the area are underrepresented in the government and how their health concerns are neglected. While it is not a fun experience, it is informational and necessary to understand the impacts of extracting oil. And if you’re going to visit the Amazon rainforest, you should also learn about the threats this ecosystem faces.

Health and Safety

It wouldn’t be a proper guide without talking about the health and safety concerns of going to a place like this. The area we stayed at was in malaria and yellow fever zone. It is 100% essential that you visit a travel clinic and get the prescribed medication necessary to prevent these two diseases. For yellow fever, you are going to need a vaccine. The good thing about this is that you only need one shot and then you’ll be immune for life. For malaria, you will need a pill prescription. I had to take a pill once a day starting two days before I left until one week after I was outside of the malaria zone. All medications vary, so this will really depend on your doctor, but you are going to have to discuss any potential health concerns at a travel clinic before you go.

Yes. There are many bugs in the Amazon, and the reality is that you will probably get bitten by some (or a lot, if you’re like me). However, I will say that I did not use much or any bug repellent and still managed to survive just fine. During my time in the Amazon, I was bitten by horseflies, chiggers, mosquitos, and ants. Yes, ants. The important thing to help prevent bug bites is to wear the appropriate type of clothing. I made the mistake of wearing dark, skin-tight clothing. I was not aware of this issue before I went or else I would have done things differently, but now you can learn from my mistakes. Horseflies are attracted to dark colors so avoid wearing these. And also, avoid wearing tight clothing because it makes it a lot easier for insects to bite you. You should also be aware that there are huge ants in the Amazon with stingers. These are called bullet ants and you’re going to want to avoid getting bit by one of these. The pain of a bite from one of these ants has been equated to getting shot by a bullet. Doesn’t sound pleasant.

Those were my main concerns while out in the jungle and if you take the necessary precautions, you shouldn’t have any problems while out there.

Packing List

If you’re wondering what to pack for a trip into the jungle, I recommend the following items:

  1. Binoculars: How are you going to spot all of the amazing creatures roaming around without a pair of these bad boys? I recommend a high-quality pair of binoculars. Even though they may cost more, being able to see the details of the animals around you makes it worth it.
  2. Sunscreen: Even though you may think the trees will block off the light, they don’t get it all and UV rays are stronger near the equator so better safe than sorry.
  3. Bug repellent: I recommend natural and biodegradable repellents that don’t contain DEET. I have personal experience that DEET doesn’t ward off all types of bugs and it’s known to cause damage to ecosystems and corrode plastics (aka some clothing fabrics), so it’s best to avoid using anything with this chemical in it.
  4. Quick-dry clothing: You’re going to want some loose clothing that can dry off quickly in case you end up getting soaked. It’s important to note that you should also avoid any dark colors when picking your clothing. Horseflies are attracted to these colors and those bug bites are not pretty, so you should opt to wear neutral tones during your time in the Amazon.
  5. Raincoat: You’re in the rainforest, so this one is fairly self-explanatory.
  6. Rain boots: There’s no point in bringing any fancy hiking boots because the only pair of shoes necessary (besides house shoes) are rain boots. These are all you will need when hiking through the trails and some paths are muddier than others, so you’re going to want a pair of shoes that can be easily cleaned.
  7. House shoes: If you don’t want to walk around in rain boots all day, you should bring some closed-toe shoes to use whenever you’re inside. Stay away from open-toe shoes unless you want to risk getting attacked by bugs.
  8. A good sun hat: It can also double as a shield from the rain. My preferred sun hat has an adjustable strap to keep it from flying away. This was essential during our time in the boats when the winds were very powerful.
  9. Waterproof backpack: You’re going to need a waterproof backpack if you plan on being outside for extended periods of time. The waterproof part is essential because getting your stuff soaked during a rainstorm is an awful feeling. The backpack I used was water-resistant, but nonetheless, there were still leaks and some of my valuables got wet. Be sure this backpack is capable of handling a sudden and heavy downpour.
  10. Biodegradable soap and shampoo: There aren’t any filtration plants out here so you don’t want to use any products that could potentially harm the wildlife out here. Even though biodegradable products aren’t exactly the safest to wildlife, it’s better than other stuff on the market and would cause the least harm, so I recommend using these whenever possible.
  11. Malaria medication: COMPLETELY NECESSARY!!!!! You do not want to catch malaria!

Even with the health and safety precautions, a trip into the Amazon rainforest is not as scary as you might think it is. It was a life-changing experience that taught me so much about how biodiverse and beautiful our world truly is. Of course, there will be ups and downs during your time there, but that’s life. And the advantages of seeing such a marvelous place in person outweigh the disadvantages. Overall, it was one of the best experiences of my life, and I’m fairly positive that I’ll never forget my time in this awe-inspiring Amazonian jungle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s