How to Explore the World's Longest River
Here’s a dream many travelers share: sailing down the longest river in the world. Of course, you’d need a little help. Spanning nearly 4,345 miles—roughly the distance from New York to Paris—the Amazon River is an awesome natural wonder, home to fascinating creatures like pink dolphins, piranhas, Amazonian manatees, and crocodile-like black caimans. It snakes through a total of eight South American countries, including Colombia, Ecuador and Peru (to name a few), though its largest portion can be found in Brazil.
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At its mouth, where it spills into the Atlantic Ocean, the Amazon fragments into an estuary that’s over 186 miles wide. Navigating the mouth alone is a challenge, as it pumps up to 300,000-square-meters of fresh water per second into the Atlantic: that's about 20 percent of all the fresh water entering the oceans across the planet.
Until the 1990s, many believed the Nile was the world’s longest river. When a team of Brazilian scientists launched an expedition to western Peru, however, they were able to confirm a newer, more distant source of the Amazon. It officially became the world's longest river, though it's always beat the Nile in terms of volume. The Amazon River Basin constitutes the largest drainage basin of any in the world, at around 2.7 million-square-miles.
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Trekking to the source of the Amazon—a glacial stream high in the Andes named Nevado Mismi—is possible, but it requires a good guide and plenty of stamina. Arequipa-based operator Peru Adventure Tours offers 5-day treks up from Colca Valley, where you’ll be driven up in a four-wheel vehicle to the 17,000-foot peak. From there, the entire valley can be seen below. Though the climate at this altitude is mostly dry and barren, one unusual highlight is the rare Llareta: an odd, alien-like flowering plant that appears as a green, blobby mass.
Traveling the entire length of the Amazon—from the highlands down to the Amazon basin—would be extremely difficult, even for experienced rafters, explains Roland Balarezo, a guide with Aqua Expeditions who’s been traipsing the legendary river for more than 23 years.
But it would certainly be culturally rewarding. Over 350 distinct indigenous groups inhabit the territory: “Along the Peruvian Amazon, the locals are called robereños, or mestizo,” says Roland. “They’re a mix between the first western people in the area and the indigenous. Very few of their indigenous ancestors are still alive, but along the journey, we meet the Ashaninkas, Shipibos, Boras, and Yaguas peoples.”
Not that life on the Amazon could ever get boring. Nevertheless, Roland makes sure his travelers come home with plenty of wild experiences with which to wow their friends. “We do things like wrestling anacondas and caimans, and take our guests Pirhana fishing.”
Experience the Amazon River—and get a sense of its unfathomable length—in total luxury with a three-night river cruise on one of Aqua Expeditions' intimate, hotel-like ships.