October 4, 2008

‘Where Can Our Children See the Real Amazon?’


Q My husband and I are planning a family holiday to Brazil over the Christmas holidays and are keen to visit the Amazon at some point during the trip. We have wildlife-obsessed twin sons (aged 14) and would like to stay at a lodge that is suitably family-friendly but which will also give us a reasonably "authentic" experience. Any ideas?

M Harper, via email

A You're right to be choosy. In some instances, tourism to the Amazon region has helped to protect the environment from development, but by no means all tourist activity in the area is as sensitive as it might be. This applies particularly around the Brazilian city of Manaus, which is the hub of the state of Amazonas and a popular jumping-off points for Amazon trips in Brazil. Decent lodges and jungle tour operators tend to be heavily outweighed by pack-'em-in merchants flogging piranha barbecues and photo opportunities with caged animals.

With this gold-rush approach, it isn't surprising that there are also some serious safety issues to consider. The current Lonely Planet guide to Brazil, for instance, warns that, in 2007, a tourist in the region drowned after the boat he was in capsized in a storm: "The boat had no life jackets, was driven by an inexperienced guide and had been booked by an agency known for snagging tourists off the street (and which is still operating today)."

Stories such as this prove that it's wise to do some careful research before you leave, but don't let them dissuade you from visiting the Amazon. This mighty river's basin is home to more than one-third of the world's animal and plant species, including the giant pirarucu fish, jaguar, pink river dolphins, colourful parrots and anacondas.

Although there are no guarantees that you will spot these during your trip, your chances will certainly improve the farther away you are from larger centres of population. For this reason, many travellers looking for a more authentic Amazon experience don't go to Brazil at all but to neighbouring Ecuador and Peru, where more wild terrain tends to be easier to reach than in Brazil.

This doesn't mean that the kind of experience you are looking for isn't tenable within Brazil, however. One excellent option would be to head to Pousada Uacari (00 55 97 3343 4160; www.uakarilodge.com.br), inside the Mamirau sustainable development reserve. This well-managed floating lodge is a 90-minute boat ride from the small city of Tefe, itself a one-hour flight (or a 13-hour boat trip) upstream from over-subscribed Manaus.

Mamirau was established in 1996 and, unusually for a conservation project at that time, was designed to involve the 1,800-strong local population, in the belief that its long-term viability would be better sustained that way. Set at the confluence of the Solimes and Japur rivers, within an area of flooded forest known as vrzea, part of the reserve is open to tourists.

Though the mix of human subsistence and nature conservation isn't always an easy one, the project has succeeded in providing alternative, low-impact employment for some of the communities living within the tourism sector of the reserve.

At the heart of the reserve's tourism venture is Pousada Uacari, a string of 10 floating bedrooms linked by boardwalks to a communal living and dining area. (For brave - usually younger - visitors, a netted swimming pool is suspended in the river.) Named after the rare uakari monkeys endemic to the area, the lodge restricts visitor numbers to 1,000 per year. Though it isn't luxurious in the traditional sense, it is comfortable, with en suite bathrooms, powerful solar showers and three delicious, home-cooked meals a day - don't miss the fried catfish, mashed pumpkin and exotic Amazonian fruit juices.

Guests can partake in a number of daily activities, from guided excursions by canoe into the flooded forest to night hikes, cayman- spotting trips and visits to villages. Though not all of the guides speak fluent English, there's usually someone at hand to translate. The staff are especially good with children (the minimum age is 12). Adults, meanwhile, can make the most of the lodge's delicious passion-fruit caipirinhas.

Three-night packages at Pousada Uacari start from around US$500 (286) per person, including full-board accommodation, all activities and transfers from Tefe. This is probably long enough as, wildlife aside, there's no other entertainment. If you don't want to organise your own transport to Tefe, companies such as Open Door Tour (00 55 67 3321 8303; www.opendoortur.com.br) can put together more fully inclusive itineraries.

Alternatively, you could book through a specialist operator such as South American Experience (0845 277 3366; www.south- americanexperience.co.uk) or Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk), which could build an itinerary to include a stay at the Pousada Uacari.

Send your family travel queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, 'The Independent', Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or email [email protected]

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