Five ways to immerse yourself in Amazonian culture on a river cruise

Ecuador Amazon River

As well as vibrant cities and towns, the settlements of an estimated 400-500 indigenous tribes lie in the Amazon rainforest. Here are some examples of how to immerse yourself in local culture during your cruise, visiting communities, experiencing their way of life and travelling their river…

City life

It seems incredible that a city of almost two million people can thrive so deep in the Brazilian jungle. Yet a thousand miles upriver from the Atlantic, almost 50 per cent of the Amazon River’s population lives in Manaus and it is the primary cultural and economic hub. The city provides much to explore.

In the 19th-century, Manaus became an architectural playground for mega-rich European rubber barons. The lavish Teatro Amazonas Opera House, which opened in 1896, was built almost entirely of materials shipped from Europe. The elaborate Customs House was prefabricated in Liverpool and shipped to Manaus in 1902. And the Rio Negro Palace, built as the private residence of a German rubber baron in 1903, later became the Governor’s office and is now a museum dedicated to all things rubber. Another grand 1800s edifice is the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa, a marketplace inspired by Paris’s Les Halles, offering fruits, spices, fish, handicrafts and traditional indigenous medications.

Cunard’s Queen Victoria is the largest passenger ship ever to dock in Manaus. Her 20-night cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rio takes you along the Amazon River and includes an overnight stay in Manaus. From £2,899pp, departing January 21, 2020 (0344 338 8648;

The best medicine

The Amazon rainforest produces more than 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen, 20 per cent of its fresh water and an innumerable collection of plants that have been used by ancient civilisations (and are still being used) for their powerful medicinal and nutritional properties. On a guided nature walk you may learn, for example, that 70 per cent of plants with anti-cancer properties exist only in the Amazon rainforest and that tawari tree bark and the lapacho plant are just two of them. Or that cordoncillo leaves have long been used by native cultures as an anaesthetic – chew on them and your mouth will go numb or rub them on a wound for the same effect.

Admire the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador


You will also learn about tribal customs involving insects. Entering male adulthood for the Sateré-Mawé people, for instance, involves boys as young as 12 sticking a hand into a glove filled with bullet ants and performing a dance while the creatures sting it. This painful ceremony is meant to show men that a life lived “without suffering anything or without any kind of effort” isn’t worth anything at all. Ouch.

Take an Amazonian nature walk during Viking’s 22-day From the Caribbean to the Amazon voyage departing San Juan (Puerto Rico) aboard Viking Star. From £5,790pp, all-inclusive, including flights and 10 guided tours, departs November 29, 2020(0800 298 9700;

Village green

The rainforest may be rich in natural resources but it is also very fragile. For this reason, its inhabitants have become instinctive conservationists. On a cruise offered by Rainforest Cruises you can travel by skiff and on foot to the traditional village of Cambebas, where you will observe the locals’ farming methods and see how the villagers have adapted their way of life to best suit their environment. You’ll also visit their school and have a chance to buy handicrafts – indigenous populations are the oldest artisans in Brazil, with natural pigments, wood, seeds and clay readily at their disposal.

Enjoy this experience on an eight-day cruise aboard the 148-passenger Iberostar Grand Amazon. From US$1,928 (£1,484), all-inclusive (flights extra), departing Manaus on various dates from March to December (001 888 215 3555;

A scene from Boi Bum festival


Party time

Each June, the Boi Bumba Festival is a highlight of the Amazonian town of Parintins in Brazil. It is a spectacle full of bright colours, music, dance and folklore, with costumes not unlike those you’d see at Rio’s Carnival, and celebrates a local legend about a resurrected ox and two fighting families, the Cids and the Monteverdes. For a taster, if your cruise does not coincide with the actual event, you can attend a show, complete with flamboyant dances, singing, elaborate costumes and floats, in the town’s arena.

See the Boi Bumba show in Parintins during Seabourn’s 15-day Amazon & Caribbean Isles cruise which sails from Manus. From £5,999pp, April 5, 2020 (0344 338 8615;

Indigenous Ecuador

Around 25 per cent of the population is made up of indigenous people in Ecuador. Choose this country for an Amazonian river cruise offered by Noble Caledonia and you can visit an authentic Quechua settlement, interact with the local community, learn about life in the jungle, eat traditional food, discover how they use plants and how to make handicrafts. A few tips. If you’re invited to an Ecuadorian family’s home, it’s polite to offer a small gift. Ecuadorians use a number of gestures with which you might be unfamiliar: drawing a circle in the air with your index finger means “back soon” while sticking out one’s hand and twisting it is an apologetic gesture to indicate that something isn’t possible. Raising your voice and pointing are considered rude.

You could get to know the way of life of a traditional Quecha settlement


Enjoy this experience on the 12-night Natural Wonders of the Amazon and Galapagos itinerary offered by Noble Caledonia aboard the 40-passenger MV Anakonda – the only deluxe ship in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. From £7,495pp full-board, including flights from London, departing February 24, 2020 (020 7752 0000;

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