Photographing in the Amazon River Basin

by Reinhard Thomas
March 15, 2017

Brazalian Owl Butterfly  by Rheinhard Thomas

Brazilian Owl Butterfly

We knew that we had entered the Amazon delta from the Atlantic Ocean because the water around our ship turned colors from blue to brown. Land was not in sight yet because the river is so wide in this area. The delta of this mighty river is dotted with islands, the largest, Ilha de Marajo, is the size of Switzerland.

Meeting of the waters

My childhood dream of visiting the Amazon Region had finally materialized. During the next days we sailed upstream on the Amazon river from the delta to Manaus and then continued our journey through the rainforest's along the Rio Negro.

Small quiet side-arm of the Rio Negro by Reinhard Thomas ©

Small quiet side-arm of the Rio Negro

The Amazon basin is the world’s largest river basin and encompasses eight South American countries. The source of the river system starts high in the Andes Mountains less than 200 km from the Pacific Coast where snow and melting glaciers in Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia supply the water to the two main headwaters, the Ucayali and Rio Maranon. These two rivers merge to form the mighty Amazon river which is fed by tropical rains and a vast network of rivers and small tributaries that reach across half of the South American Continent. Because of unsettled colonial disputes, the Amazon river has different names in the regions that it straddles. From Iquitos in Peru to the Brazilian Border the river is called the Amazon. From there it becomes the Solimoes and then becomes the Amazon again after it merges with the Rio Negro close to Manaus, Brazil.

Piranha is caught with a steel line by Reinhard Thomas ©

Piranha is caught with a steel line

The Amazon Basin is a huge flood plain and every spring large areas along the river disappear under a flood. That is one of the reasons that the houses in the area are built on stilts. Another reason for the elevated homes is to keep undesired creatures such as snakes and crocodiles out.

Typical modest home of the river dwellers in the Amazon by Reinhard Thomas ©

Typical modest home of the river dwellers

The kitchen of the river dwellers is always located at the exterior of the home by Reinhard Thomas ©

The kitchen of the river dwellers is always located at the exterior of the home

River dwellwers wih their floating home on Lake January by Reinhard Thomas ©

River dwellers with their floating home on Lake January

River dwellers along the Amazon by Reinhard Thomas ©

River dwellers along the Amazon

Our first stop is Santarem, a city of about 270,000 people that has been able to retain the flavour of a classic Amazon river town. Santarem is located at the confluence of the Amazon and the up to 15 mile wide Rio Tapajos. The Rio Tapajos is one of the many “black” rivers that enter the brown water of the Amazon. The local people call this the “meeting of the waters” because the brown and black waters run side by side for many kilometres before they eventually mix.

Inside a village bedroom by Reinhard Thomas ©

Inside a village bedroom

The “brown” Amazon River flows over sedimentary rock and carries huge amounts of suspended sediments, while the “black” rivers flow over crystalline rock and drain heavily wooded areas where they pick up tannins from dead vegetation. The rivers resist mixing because their waters have different densities, temperatures and acidity levels. This phenomenon is most visible here in Santarem where the Rio Tapajos enters the Amazon and in Manaus where the Rio Negro flows into the Solimoes river to form the mighty Amazon.

In 1927 Henry Ford bought a concession of 43,000 square miles of rainforest in this area. He cleared about 50,000 acres of forest and planted more than 3 million rubber trees to produce tires for his new cars. To service his investment he built the town of Fordlandia in the middle of the jungle. 17 years and 20 million dollar later he recognized that his investment had failed and he returned the land to the Brazilian government.

Rubber tree by Reinhard Thomas ©

Rubber tree

Manufacturing hammocks is a major business along the Amazon river because they are the bed of choice for local residents. Mattresses grow mildew and mold in this tropical climate and that is why most people sleep in hammocks in their houses without air conditioning.

If you look inside the many riverboats – the buses of the Amazon Basin – you can see row after row of hammocks slung from one side of the boat to the other. That is where passengers sleep during their boat ride.

Typical Amazon river boat with hammocks slung from one side to the other by Reinhard Thomas ©

Typical Amazon river boat with hammocks slung from one side to the other

We visited Boca da Valeria, one the many tiny, isolated villages to see how the Ribeirinhos (river dwellers) make their modest but adequate living. They are utilizing the resources provided by the river and the rainforest. A major food source for these native people is the nutritious flour made from the poisonous root (containing cyanide) of the manioc plant that grows in the jungle along the river. Another major food source is the fish out of the river. The most highly regarded fish in the Amazon region is the Pirarucu which can reach a weight of 300 pounds. It is usually salted and dried before it is eaten.

Pink dolphin begging for food.  by Reinhard Thomas ©

Pink dolphin begging for food.

Here in this village of about a dozen modest wooden homes, far away from any tourist facility, we were able to see how the ordinary people of the Amazon really live.

Indigenous women along the Rio Negro by Reinhard Thomas ©

Indigenous women along the Rio Negro

We did try our luck with piranha fishing and caught a few of these good tasting but very bony creatures. There are lots of horror stories told about piranhas stripping animals or humans down to the bones within seconds. While some species are capable of doing this the great majority of the 20 piranha species feed exclusively on aquatic vegetation.

During our next stop in Parintins we witnessed a powerful expression of music and dance by the local people. A local festival in this city is called Bio-Bumba and has its roots in European and African folklore. The display of dancing and flamboyant costumes is second only to the Carnival in Rio de Janiero.

Carnival in Parintins by Reinhazrd Thomas ©

Carnival in Parintins

Dancers in Parintins by Reinhard Thomas ©

Dancers in Parintins

About 1,600km upstream from the river’s delta we reach the hot and steamy city of Manaus, the Queen of the Amazon. This capital city of the state of Amazon as has a rich and colourful history since it was founded in 1660 by the Portuguese.

River boats in Manaus by Reinhard Thomas ©

River boats in Manaus

Houses on stilts along the river in Manaus by Reinhard Thomas ©

Houses on stilts along the river in Manaus

After rubber was discovered near Manaus in the early 1900’s a huge boom started and 38,000 tons of rubber per year were exported at the height of this boom in 1910. However an Englishman, Henry Wickham collected 70,000 seeds from rubber trees and smuggled them to  Southeast Asia, where the trees were grown on plantations. This ended the boom in Brazil and the Amazon Basin returned to it’s quaint pre-rubber times.

One of the more interesting buildings in Manus is the Opera House. Built during the rubber boom, most of the building materials, including the bricks, were imported from Europe to create this magnificent structure.
After spending a few days in the bustling city of over 2 million inhabitants, we boarded a smaller ship and continued our journey up the Rio Negro. We visited indigenous people in their villages and learned about their traditions and ways of life.

Victoria Regia Water Lilies by Reinhard Thomas ©

Victoria Regia Water Lilies, the leaves are about 1 meter in diameter

One of the most interesting animals we saw in the Rio Negro was the pink river dolphin. The Amazon river dolphins are sweet (fresh) water dolphins and are considered the largest species of river dolphins in the world. They actually belong to the family of toothed whales.

Left: Sloth climbing up a tree. Right: Pink Dolphin by Reinhard Thomas ©

Left: Sloth climbing up a tree. Right: Pink Dolphin

Long stretches of land along the Negro river are environmentally protected and our days were interesting with many bird sightings and twice daily wildlife watching trips with our zodiac boats on small quiet side-arms and channels of the river. On hikes through the jungle the local guide told us all about the flora and fauna of the area.

Left: Colorful Scarlet Macaw and Right: Great Egret looking for food.  by Reinhard Thomas ©

Left: Colorful Scarlet Macaw and Right: Great Egret looking for food.

Boat traffic on this part of the Amazon is significantly less than on the main river since the large oceangoing vessels can only go up the Amazon as far as Manaus.

There is a lot to see and photograph in the Amazon Basin and this article is only a little teaser to encourage you to explore the region yourself.

Note: All images were taken with a Canon Powershot AX200IS camera with a 5.0-60mm lens.


Authors Biography & Contact Information

Reinhard Thomas portrait

Reinhard Thomas is a photographer living in Calgary. He specializes in travel photography. Between travels he creates animal and landscape images and has a comprehensive collection of barn and grain elevator pictures.




Previous articles by Reinhard Thomas

Photographing Peru - Part 2
Photographing Peru - Part I
Photographing around Devil's Island
Photographing Brazil’s Pantanal the Unknown Gem
Photographing in the Western Prairies
Photographing Madagascar
Photographing Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonder 
Photographing the Spice Island of Zanzibar

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