Visiting the Amazon Rainforest
By Rhett Butler
If you're looking for advice about traveling to the Amazon rainforest, check out tips for your first visit to the rainforest.
Amazon River tributary in Peru
Welcome to the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest. Before we begin our visit, there are a few things you should know about the Amazon, which is also known as Amazonia.
About the Amazon rainforest
The Amazon rainforest is broadly defined as the tropical forest in the Amazon river basin and adjacent lowlands in the northeastern part of South America. Combined, this area amounts to roughly 8 million square kilometers (3.1 million square miles) and covers some 40% of the South American continent, making it nearly the size of the United States.
The Amazon Basin
The Amazon rainforest includes parts of eight South American countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname, as well as French Guiana, a department of France. Nearly two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest lies in Brazil.
Pie chart showing Amazon rainforest countries
The Amazon is by far the world's biggest rainforest, covering more than twice the area of the Congo rainforest, which is the second biggest rainforest on the planet.
OK, now that you have a little background on the Amazon rainforest, it's time to begin our visit.
In the Amazon rainforest
Understory in the Colombian Amazon
When you first enter the rainforest, one of the first things you'll notice is the humidity: the air is usually warm and sticky. There are two reasons for this. First, the Amazon lies in the tropics, meaning there is plenty of year-around sunshine. Second, the humidity is partly the result of the abundance of trees, which release water through pores in their leaves as a byproduct of photosynthesis.
Another thing you'll quickly notice during your first visit to the rainforest is the smell, which is similar to what you'd experience in a well-planted greenhouse: the combined scent of vegetation, moisture, soil, and decaying plants and wood. It's not a bad smell -- it's the smell of life!
In terms of sounds, the Amazon is highly variable depending on the time of year and your location. Generally there will be a constant buzz from millions of insects and other creatures going about their daily lives. In the evening, the cicadas may start to call, filling the forest with a continuous drone. Periodically the background noise of the forest may be pierced by parrots or other bird calls.
As you walk through the rainforest, you may be surprised by how dark it is. Because of the dense canopy of leaves and tree branches above, only a tiny amount of light actually reaches the forest floor. As a consequence, plant growth on the forest floor in undisturbed rainforest is often limited. The landscape is instead dominated by large tree trunks.
Primary forest in Brazil
Dark ground level in Suriname
Many of the trees have "buttress roots", which help give them stability and enable them to grow to great heights.
Me standing between the large buttress roots of a Kapok tree
While it's hard to distinguish between most trees because their leaves, flowers, and fruit are perhaps 30 meters (100 feet) overhead, know that there is a huge variety of trees around you. The Amazon rainforest has an incredible diversity of tree species — scientists have documented more than 600 species in an area the size of a football field. By comparison, that more species of trees than the United States and Canada combined!
Diversity of rainforest trees in the Amazon
All together the Amazon rainforest is estimated to have 16,000 tree species. There are thought to be 390 billion individual trees across the entire forest.
Red passion vine flower in Colombia
Now while the Amazon rainforest is home to more species than any ecosystem on Earth, you probably won't see a lot of animals. In fact, much of the creatures in the rainforest hide or live high in the canopy. But if you are quiet and look carefully, you might start to see some animals.
You'll probably first see insects like leaf-cutter ants, which harvest leaves and take them back to their giant underground nests where they use the bits of plants to raise the fungus they eat. You may also catch glimpses of butterflies, like the spectacular blue morpho, which is very commonly seen flitting through the rainforest understory. You may also encounter one of the least popular rainforest inhabitants: mosquitos.
Leaf-mimicking praying mantis in Suriname
Blue morpho butterfly
If are lucky, you may see some larger rainforest animals. For example, brightly colored poison dart frogs are found widely in the Amazon basin. These tiny amphibians are highly toxic from the insects they eat, so their colors serve as a warning to potential predators: "if you eat me, you'll get very sick". These frogs aren't dangerous to humans as long as you don't handle them.
Blue poison dart frog from Suriname
Other frogs are also very common in the leaf litter, but these can be a lot harder to see due to their camouflage. The best way to spot them is to look for movement as you walk. Out of the corner of your eye you might notice something hop. Walk slowly toward it and look carefully. Is it a frog?
Leaf frog in Colombia
Another common animal on the forest floor is the agouti, a rodent the size of a small cat that feeds on fallen seeds. Agoutis play a critical role in maintaining the health of the forest by dispersing seeds.
You'll probably also see — or at least hear — birds. The Amazon rainforest is full of birds. The biggest and most famous ones — parrots and toucans — are usually high in the canopy, so you'll probably only hear them unless you have a guide or binoculars. But you may spot some smaller, less colorful understory birds. Many of these feed on small insects, lizards, and frogs.
Blue and yellow macaw in Colombia
To get the most out of your rainforest experience, you should try to do a night walk. This should only be done with a guide since it's hard to navigate the forest at night and you don't want to get lost. Plus in some forests there is a risk of stepping on a poisonous snake.
The reason for doing a night walk is many rainforest species are nocturnal. Therefore your best chance of seeing some animals — especially mammals — is to go out after the sun goes down.
Night time is also when tree frogs and many interesting insects are most active. Keep your eyes open and don't forget a flashlight!
Clown tree frog in Colombia
Owl butterfly in Peru
As you wander the rainforest it is important to keep in mind that most animals live high in the trees. Therefore if you get an opportunity to go on a canopy walkway or tower, take advantage of it. That will be your best chance to really understand the rainforest ecosystem.
Canopy platform in Colombia
Canopy walkway in Peru
Also don't pass up opportunities to see the rainforest by boat. Due to its incredible amount of rainfall, the Amazon is full of rivers, creeks, and streams, which are a great way to look for wildlife, especially monkeys, sloths, and parrots. But don't forget a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen — that tropical sun is intense! And always be prepared for rain. Tropical rainstorms can sneak up on you in a hurry.
Rain over the Amazon River
Green iguana in Colombia
Common woolly monkey in Colombia
I hope you've enjoyed your virtual visit to the Amazon rainforest. Be sure to check out other parts of the site for more information about rainforests!
(NEXT Amazon rainforest destruction)