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Love Outdoor Adventure? Try a Real-Life Amazon Jungle Cruise

I stood on the top deck of the Jacaré-Açu, a charming river boat, as we sailed along the Rio Negro, one of largest tributaries of the Amazon River, and everything was perfect. The blackwater river was like glass, tropical birds sailed overhead, and the occasional monkey in the treetops had me and my companions in a tizzy trying to spot them through our binoculars. 

The monkeys were just the tip of the iceberg. Amazon River dolphins, aka pink river dolphins, were our near-constant companions. Brilliantly colored macaws and other parrots put on a daily show. At night, we spotted caimans and even the jungle’s apex predator, an elusive jaguar. We saw a couple of adorable sloths, too. 

The Amazon is something you read about and watch on the movie screen, but to see it—to swim in the river and trek through the rainforest—is something else entirely. Last fall, I got the crazy idea that it’d be fun to bring the family on a real-life jungle cruise to experience the Amazon in a way most people don’t. We did it, and it was absolutely incredible. 

For people who love the outdoors, wildlife, and unique travel experiences, the Brazilian Amazon is an adventure that’s hard to beat. My husband and I even braved the trip with two young kids.

real-life jungle cruise 6
Image by Josh Hestermann

Outdoor Activities in the Amazon

On our Brazilian Amazon adventure, we went boating, hiking, swimming, and kayaking. Besides spending time on the “big boat” (as my three year old called it), we spent a lot of time on small boats and canoes, meandering through the flooded rainforest. This was one of my favorite things to do. 

On one excursion, we were in search of a waterfall. Our guide took us up a narrow section of the river toward the falls. He skillfully swerved to dodge logs and branches, and we had to duck down into the boat multiple times to clear low tree branches extending across the water. To the kids’ everlasting delight, we also jetted through some thick river foam formed by the churning water as we approached the falls. After some bushwhacking to find a good spot, we swam in an area atop the waterfall. 

Image by Michael Hillier

Another small-boat day involved exploring the “meeting of the waters,” where the Amazon River meets the Rio Negro. We spent time on both rivers, culminating the day at the spot where the white water of the Amazon meets but doesn’t mix with the black water of the Rio Negro.

Several excursions involved hiking in the rainforest. On one hike, we explored a ghost town from Brazil’s rubber boom. On another, we hiked deep into the primary forest and through a series of cave systems. Our guide taught us jungle survival skills along the way. Yet another hike took us to a samaúma tree, the Mother of the Forest, a species many people in the region consider to be sacred.

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Image by Bethanie Hestermann

Swimming in the River

Nothing felt better after a sweaty hike in the jungle than a refreshing swim. In fact, swimming off the Jacaré-Açu was a highlight for our six year old, who loved jumping from the side of the boat into the river. The older kids and adults jumped from the third deck for a fun thrill. 

Just about every time we had the opportunity to swim in the river, we did. During one leg of our journey, we also had access to kayaks, which we took across the river to a sandy beach. There, our kids hung out with some young locals as their parents played a spirited game of soccer.

Wildlife Viewing

pink dolphin real-life jungle cruise
Image by Bethanie Hestermann

The Amazon is filled to the brim with wildlife, and seeing so many different species was a highlight of our time there. Seeing pink river dolphins—one of the few freshwater dolphin species in the world—was an incredible experience. These animals are playful, intelligent, and seem to enjoy being around humans. We also saw tucuxi, tiny gray freshwater dolphins that leapt from the river but never came close like the pink dolphins did.

Meanwhile, non-birders who visit the Amazon turn into birders, because how can they not? The tropical birds that inhabit the rainforest’s emergent layer are simply breathtaking. We saw blue and gold macaws, toucans, kingfishers, parakeets, egrets, caracaras, jacamars, a variety of Amazon parrots, and a bizarre bird called a hoatzin, among many others.

While hiking and boating, we also managed to spot two sloths, which are quite hard to find. Of course, we were always on the lookout for monkeys, too. We saw spider monkeys, capuchins, and a couple of howler monkeys. From tarantulas, bullet ants, and glasswing butterflies to bats, caimans, and an Amazon tree boa, we spotted just about everything on our Amazon-animal bucket list (except an oropendola).

A few members of our group even caught the briefest glimpse of a jaguar during a night excursion in a small boat. That was a first even for the guides.

toucan real-life jungle cruise
Image by Josh Hestermann

Cultural Experiences

You can’t have a complete experience in the Brazilian Amazon without learning about the history of the land and experiencing the cultures of the Indigenous people who live off the river and the rainforest. We were fortunate to visit several local communities along the river, many without roads connecting them to other villages or cities. 

The communities we visited partner with the organization we toured with, Katerre, which is one of the main sponsors of the Almerinda Malaquias Foundation, to provide visitor education and services (like canoeing visitors to local landmarks). Visitors can then support the communities by spending their Brazilian Reais on villagers’ handmade items like beaded bracelets, wooden earrings, and carved figures.

The Almerinda Malaquias Foundation also supports local communities by building and renovating schools, which the Brazilian government staffs with a teacher or teachers. Our Katerre guide, Noah Brito, told me that one way to change the reality of deforestation in the Amazon is to help local people earn money by working for an ecological company. 

“It’s more profitable to keep nature in tact,” Brito said. “Cutting down a tree will make money once, but if you leave it, there are more animals, and that brings visitors, so [locals] can make money [from the same tree] many times.”

Brito says Katerre means “all good” in Yanomami, and the company strives to do good for the land and its people, its employees, and its patrons.

Amazon jungle cruise 2
Image by Josh Hestermann

The Jungle Cruise

We partnered with Our Whole Village, a travel agency that designs adventurous family vacations, for our five-day Amazon River cruise with Katerre. We flew into Manaus, Brazil and spent a couple of days there. This is where we experienced the Meeting of the Waters tour. A Katerre transport then brought us to Novo Airão, where we boarded the Jacaré-Açu. 

The Jacaré-Açu was the river boat of my jungle-cruise dreams. The accommodations were appropriately rugged (e.g., small cabins and cold showers) but also offered comforts like air conditioning and Starlink connectivity. (We purposefully remained unplugged, though.) My family of four traveled with another American family of six and a British couple. We all became fast friends. 

All meals aboard the Jacaré-Açu were prepared by an exquisitely talented chef and assistant chef. We dined on plenty of fish (lots of arapaima), but there was also a wide variety of choices at each meal for the kids, vegetarians, and lactose-sensitive among us. Dessert accompanied every fine meal. 

Our itinerary included the perfect balance of excursions and down time as we cruised the Rio Negro to the stunning Jaú National Park and then back to Novo Airão. Brito offered bonus excursions early in the morning and late at night, providing extra opportunities to spot wildlife. Every member of the Jacaré-Açu crew was kind. The captain let the kids drive the boat, and the sailors even cleaned our shoes after each muddy hike. 

spider monkey real-life jungle cruise
Image by Josh Hestermann

Back on Land

After five days aboard the Jacaré-Açu, we enjoyed two nights at the luxurious Mirante do Gavião Lodge. The kids loved the eco-lodge’s swimming pool and game room; I loved getting a massage and soaking in the wooden bathtub in our suite. 

Once again, the food was great, and we spent most of our time outdoors, playing in the pool and kayaking or swimming in the river. After our adventurous river cruise, it felt nice to kick back and enjoy some comforts at the lodge before heading home.

Honestly, as soon as I realized I could go on a real-life jungle cruise, I knew I’d love it. Outdoor adventure, tons of animals, and warm weather? Sign me up. I loved it even more than I thought I would, though. 

While we never got to see the backside of water (as guests famously see on Disney’s Jungle Cruise ride), we did get to see where white water meets black water, where trees bleed rubber, where birds sing and monkeys howl, where a river looks endless like an ocean, and where dolphins are truly, inexplicably pink.

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