There's nowhere else on the planet like the Amazon River. Flowing more than 4,000 miles through a region home to about 10 percent of the world's species, the river seethes with color and life -- scarlet macaws swooping overhead, monkeys leaping from branch to branch, fishermen paddling by on long wooden canoes, giant lily pads blooming on the surface of the water.
If you love nature and exploring places well off the usual tourist trail, the Amazon is a must-visit. But with so many options, choosing an Amazon cruise can be tricky.
Should you cruise the river in Brazil, Peru or Ecuador? Is it better to sail during the rainy or the dry season? And just how long of a cruise is right for you? Below we answer these questions and more to help you choose the perfect Amazon itinerary.
Rainy vs. Dry Season
The rainy season -- also known as wet, high-water or flood season -- runs roughly from December through May. There are a few key advantages to traveling this time of year: The weather is slightly cooler (in the 80s rather than the 90s), the higher water levels mean that you're closer to the canopy where many birds and animals hang out, and the lush flooded forests make for striking photos.
The downsides? There are more mosquitoes this time of year, and many hiking trails through the jungle are inaccessible, so you'll spend more time exploring by skiff than on foot.
The dry or low-water season runs from June through November. "Dry" is a slight misnomer; this is the rainforest, after all, so you'll still likely see a few downpours. This is the best time to cruise if you're interested in jungle walks and fishing excursions (it's easier to catch a piranha when the fish are swimming in a lower volume of water). Dry season is the hottest time of year, but you'll have fewer mosquitoes to contend with.
Brazil vs. Peru vs. Ecuador
Cruise ships explore three main areas of the Amazon region: the Brazilian section near Manaus, the Peruvian section near Iquitos, and the Napo River (an Amazon tributary) in Ecuador. While the landscapes and wildlife are similar, there are important differences among the regions.
The Brazilian part of the river is the widest and most developed, with the most boat traffic. You'll have a wider array of cruise options to choose from, including large luxury ships and more intimate expedition vessels. Sailings depart from Manaus, a bustling city of more than 2 million, and often include stops in other local communities such as Santarem and Parintins. This means that Brazilian Amazon itineraries often have more emphasis on people and culture than Peruvian or Ecuadorian itineraries, which are very nature-focused.
One key attraction on Brazilian cruise itineraries is the Meeting of the Waters, near Manaus, where two major tributaries -- the light brown Solimoes River and the blackwater Negro River -- come together and run alongside each other for several miles without merging.
Many Brazilian Amazon cruises are part of longer itineraries that include other parts of South America or even Antarctica or the Caribbean. Note that Americans, Canadians and Australians need visas to travel to Brazil.
Big cruise ships haven't made it to the Peruvian section of the Amazon, which is quieter and less developed. Here your options include small expedition river ships that sail out of Iquitos, with a population of about half a million, or the nearby town of Nauta. There are no port stops on these cruises; instead the ships ply the tranquil waters of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, allowing passengers off at various points to explore on small skiffs.
Cruises out of Iquitos can easily be combined with side trips to other Peruvian attractions such as Machu Picchu or Lake Titicaca. There are no special visa requirements for most visitors to Peru.
You'll find a couple of small expedition ships in the Ecuadorian section of the Amazon, where you'll fly into Puerto Francisco de Orellana, or Coca, with a population of just 45,000. Itineraries here focus on Yasuni National Park, where highlights include clay licks that attract hundreds of colorful parrots and macaws.
While you're in Ecuador, you might want to combine your cruise with a visit to the historical city of Quito or a trip through the Galapagos Islands. There are no special visa requirements for most visitors to Ecuador.
How Long Should You Cruise?
Dedicated Amazon cruises typically last anywhere from two to 10 nights. How long you cruise depends on how much time you have to travel, what else you want to see, your interest in wildlife and your tolerance for heat and humidity.
Three to four nights is enough time to get a good taste of the region, including plenty of wildlife watching as well as other excursions such as village visits or jungle hikes. You can combine a short Amazon cruise with a side trip to places like Rio de Janeiro or Machu Picchu. Wildlife lovers, bird watchers and those seeking to immerse deeply in the region should consider staying the full week (or more).
Keep in mind: Many seven-night sailings are combinations of two shorter itineraries, so you might find some overlap in activities between the first and second parts of the cruise. This can be a good thing if you enjoy these excursions (or if you want to skip one in favor of relaxing in your cabin without guilt), but some passengers might find it a bit repetitive.
Many large luxury ships include the Amazon as part of much longer itineraries, ranging from two weeks to two months, that explore other destinations such as Antarctica, the South American coast and/or the Caribbean. If the Amazon is an important part of the journey for you, look closely at the itinerary to see how much time the ship will spend in the region.
Choosing an Amazon River Cruise Line
For a traditional big-ship cruise experience in Brazil, you can sail with Holland America or choose among a number of upscale lines such as Crystal, Oceania, Viking and Silversea, all of which offer multi-week journeys that include calls along the Amazon River and beyond. Choosing this type of cruise offers access to multiple dining rooms, onboard entertainment and other amenities typical of large ships.
If you're willing to sacrifice luxury for a more intimate and wildlife-focused cruise, consider booking with a smaller local expedition line such as Amazon Clipper Cruises or Amazon Dream. The onboard experience can be a little rugged, but you'll have more of a chance to taste local flavors in the dining room (bigger cruise ships have more generic international menus), and the excursions will feature small groups and knowledgeable local guides.
Options in Peru include small-ship expedition lines such as Aqua Expeditions, International Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Delfin Amazon Cruises and Avalon Waterways. Lindblad is known for excellent guides and enrichment programs, while Aqua Expeditions focuses on gourmet cuisine and boutique hotel-style cabins. Delfin is one of the region's more affordable options, and Avalon Waterways offers packages with guided sightseeing in other parts of Peru.
There are two ships operating Napo River cruises in Ecuador. Anakonda Amazon Cruises offers a luxurious boutique experience with fine dining and all-suite cabins (including private balconies), while Manatee Amazon Explorer is a comfortable and more affordable choice.