The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Brazil: Bobby Betenson of Matueté.
Bobby has the connections to make just about anything happen in Brazil, but what he loves most is to push travelers just a bit outside their comfort zone, as that invariably leads to an exhilarating and unforgettable trip. That could mean exploring the Amazon by traditional canoe; cattle-herding with cowboys in the Pantanal, where Bobby ran a safari lodge for five years before launching his business in São Paulo; enjoying a pick-up game with beach-volleyball professionals in Rio; or meeting with anthropologists, historians, and biologists who can dive deep into their area of expertise. To Bobby, travel and conservation go hand-in-hand, and his position on the board of a jaguar conservation project can grant you ride-along access when the cats are tracked and fitted with radio collars. While he has close relationships with the country’s top hoteliers, he also holds a spare set of keys to many of the finest villas along the coast and private yachts in the Amazon.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
There are only two jungle lodges that deliver a top-level experience:
The Anavilhanas Lodge is accessible by car from Manaus (itself a nonstop flight from Miami)—though I like to send clients one way via floatplane, which is the best way to see the “Meeting of the Waters,” where the Negro and Amazon rivers flow together but don’t mix for several miles. The lodge’s superior bungalows are the newest (and nicest, in my opinion), and have floor-to-ceiling windows that seem to bring the jungle right into your room.
I send die-hard nature aficionados to the more remote Cristalino Lodge, where the staff are incredibly knowledgeable about the surroundings and my close relationship allows me to secure the perfect private naturalist guides for my guests ahead of time. I also try to always book a superior room or a bungalow; they’re a considerable cut above the standard rooms for not too much more money.
Restaurant the locals love
Thiago Castanho, one of Brazil’s most inspiring young chefs, runs two of the most innovative restaurants anywhere in the country, both in Bélem. While Remanso do Peixe offers more traditional Amazonian cuisine, Remanso do Bosque does a contemporary version, combining the many species of freshwater fish available with a variety of spices and exotic fruits. My favorite dish in the Amazon is Remanso do Peixe’s smoked pirarucu with a coconut-milk sauce and banana puree.
That said, the restaurant scene in Manaus has really picked up over the past two years, and two of my favorite places to dine in the Amazon are now located there: Caxiri, steps away from the Manaus Opera House, and Banzeiro. At the former, the açai bread with dried pirarucu fish is to die for—as is the caipirinha with jambu (a local leaf that numbs the mouth). Banzeiro serves some of the freshest fish in the region, and their Saúva ant starter with manioc foam is a must for adventurous eaters.
Dish to try
I’d wager that the fish you eat in the Amazon will be the some of the best of your life. The pirarucu is the largest freshwater fish in the world and has very firm meat. Tambaqui is best grilled—ideally on an Amazonian beach.
What to See and Do
Belém is by far the most interesting large city of the Amazon, yet rarely visited by foreign travelers. It is on the mouth of the Amazon, where the river looks more like an ocean, and it has a fascinating street market selling both edibles and handicrafts and some great restaurants (see above).
Avoid cruises that sail up and down the Amazon River; this is the highway of the region, and you’ll meet only huge cargo ships and shabby cities along the way. Besides, the river is often too wide for you to see anything on the shores. It’s much more interesting to invest your time in the tributaries of the Amazon, be it in a jungle lodge or on a private cruise.
The most beautiful section of the entire Amazon region surrounds the city of Santarém. Only there can you find all three main ecosystems of the Amazon rivers: the murky waters of the Amazon itself, the black waters of the Arapiuns River, and the rare blue waters of the Tapajós River. There are very few large blue-water rivers in the Amazon, and they are the most scenic of all. The combination of blue water and white sand during the dry season led Jacques Cousteau to nickname this region the “Caribbean of the Amazon.”
A nighttime canoe trip. Being on the river when it’s totally dark is a surreal experience, and night is also the best time to spot alligators, snakes, sloths, and many other animals. The sounds of the forest also come alive at night, making this an experience that I suggest to everyone going to the Amazon.
Charter a private yacht in the Amazon. We have exclusive rights to many yachts, from four cabins to sixteen, all outfitted with fine linens and expert crews. This is the best possible way to experience the region, as you can reach areas that are not normally visited by other travelers. Yacht charters aren’t cheap—but the price varies very little with the number of passengers, so it can be more affordable if you invite along friends or family. For the ultimate splurge, a master chef will cater your voyage. One of our favorites is Laurent Suaudeau, a Frenchman and disciple of Paul Bocuse who has lived in Brazil for more than three decades.
Best for thrill-seekers
A private jungle survival course, lasting from a few hours to many days. Former Brazilian Army officers teach you how to survive in the forest: identifying edible plants, finding water, making fire, and keeping safe.
August to December is the dry season in the northern regions of the Brazilian Amazon—including Manaus, Santarém, and Belém—which means the river levels are lower and beaches are exposed. People are often shocked by the beauty of the white-sand beaches that form here, making a trip to the Brazilian Amazon unique from the experiences one can have in Ecuador or Peru’s swaths of the same river system. In fact, I know of few other places in the world where you can have a different beach entirely to yourself each evening at sunset. (The more remote, southern section of the Brazilian Amazon is also dry from May through July.)
March to June, when heavy rain falls and water levels rise, covering the beaches. (In the south, the rain stops in April.)
Expecting to see a wildlife extravaganza. The Amazon is not the place to see large animals, as those all hide in the jungle, away from humans. An Amazon experience is about being in a pristine natural environment where the beauty lies in the immensity of the jungle and the rivers, and in the details of the vegetation. You will probably see birds, river dolphins, and alligators—but if you are looking for a safari-like experience in Brazil, you should go to the Pantanal instead.
Avoid any of the jungle lodges within an hour of Manaus, the main gateway city to the Amazon. They’re simply too close to the big city to deliver a worthwhile wilderness experience.
Sunset on the river. The sky turns a multitude of colors; easily three or four of the ten top sunsets in my lifetime were from an isolated beach in the middle of the Amazon.
Native Indian artifacts. Beware of the cheap imitations that can be found almost anywhere, however. The two best shops at which to buy authentic Indian artifacts are Galeria Amazonica, very close to the Manaus Opera House, and Araribá, in the village of Alter do Chao, near Santarém.
A popular misconception is that mosquitoes are always a nuisance. It all depends on where you go. The acidity of black- and blue-water rivers means that mosquitoes cannot reproduce, so there is little chance of malaria or zika—though in yellow- or murky-water rivers, the mosquitoes will certainly be intense.
Swimwear! Most rivers of the Amazon that have black or blue water are perfectly safe for swimming—but never jump in without asking a local first. Yellow or murky rivers and all lakes should be avoided.
Books, a park of cards, or other forms of old-fashioned entertainment. Don’t count on having a good Internet connection anywhere; during river cruises you may be completely off the grid.