River cruising in South America
Grandiose rivers sweep across the continent of South America, whose tributaries extend across countries throughout the region. Its largest rivers are the Amazon and Paraná Rivers, both of which flow out into the Atlantic Ocean. Iconic waterways that extend out from these rivers include the Río Negro, Río Napo and Ucayali River. Brazil’s Pantanal Region, through which the lengthy Paraguay River runs, is also magnificent, although it is often overlooked by tourists who are keen to hop aboard a cruise on the better-known Amazon river. The Other major rivers in the region are Colombia’s Orinoco River and the Rio de la Plata which straddles the border between Argentina and Uruguay.
Why choose South America river cruises
South America’s rivers weave their way spectacularly through the region’s heartlands, passing through some of the continent’s most beautiful natural landscapes and calling at iconic cities along the way. South America is, of course, home to the mother of all rivers - the Amazon River. This majestic body of water is the world’s longest, flowing regally through six countries with hundreds of tributaries extending from Brazil to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. South America cruises along the Amazon River transport travellers through a magical and extraordinarily diverse world, passing from the towering Andes mountain range to the Amazon Rainforest’s dense jungle lands which burst with exotic wildlife. Cruisers can explore some of South America’s most vibrant cities dotted along the river, from the bustling Peruvian metropolis of Iquitos to the gritty Brazilian jungle town of Manaus. What’s more, some of the region’s most glorious national parks are can be reached via the Amazon’s waterways, such as the Pacaya-Samira National Reserve in Peru and the Jau National Park in Brazil. However, the Amazon River is not the only imposing waterway that this region has to offer. Experience the dynamic city of Buenos Aires from along the Rio de La Plata and envelop yourself in the unique ecosystem of Colombia’s Orinoco River. Marvel at the stunning creatures that inhabit Brazil’s Pantanal region and explore some of Paraguay’s more remote regions on a tour of the Jejui and Manduvirá rivers.
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South America river cruises: Top South America cruising countries
Brazil is home to roughly two-thirds of the majestic Amazon River and to most of the Amazon Basin. The 6,400-kilometre river originates at the headwaters of the Mantaro River in Peru, and the main stem of the Amazon River begins at the point at which the Ucayali and Marañón tributary rivers meet. Brazilians call this section the Solimões and believe the Amazon River itself begins at the confluence of the Solimões River and the Río Negro. The Amazon is one of the largest and most intricate waterways in the world and several major Brazilian cities sit along its banks including Belém, Santarem, and Manaus. Typical river cruises in Brazil start at the port of Belém which is located at the river’s mouth on the Atlantic Ocean. From here, river boats glide gracefully towards the vivacious jungle town of Manaus. Cruisers will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the lifestyle of the indigenous caboclo communities settled on the river’s banks. Most river boats call at Santarém, a quintessential Amazon town from where cruisers can explore the luscious rainforest at the Floresta Nacional do Tapajós national park and venture out towards Lago Maicá, a wildlife-rich floodplain inhabited by pink dolphins and sloths. Some river cruises around South America offer itineraries that continue towards the frenetic town of Tefé which leads on to the Mamiraua Reserve, a section of Amazon rainforest which is home to the highest concentration of fauna in Amazonia. Here, you’ll find hundreds of caiman, basking in the sun, and monkeys, sloths and manatees.
Alternative itineraries include tours of the Río Negro, the longest tributary on the eastern side of the Amazon River and the largest blackwater river in the world. Visitors will be able to discover the Anavilhanas National Park, an enormous river archipelago, along with the Victoria Regia Lake, one of the world’s greatest waterlily lakes.
For those who may already have been lucky enough to experience what the Amazon River has to offer, why not jump on board a river cruise in the Pantanal region of Brazil. The 4,880-kilometre-long Paraná River runs through this wetland region and river boats call at the magnificent Iguaçu Falls, situated at the confluence of the Iguaçu River. Some river tours also sail down to the triple frontier, which marks the meeting point of the three borders of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.
The lively jungle metropolis of Iquitos is the Amazon Basin’s chief city in Peru. Travellers cruise from its backwater port along the Peruvian Amazon River’s gentle waters south-westward towards the ravishingly beautiful Pacaya Samiria national reserve, first gliding along the stunning Yarapa River which is inhabited by more than 1,800 species of bird. Pacaya Samiria national reserve sits between the Marañón and Ucayali tributaries and consists of three river basins, with flooded forests, lakes, canals and gorges. The verdant trees of this wildlife haven teem with tropical creatures: giant otters, yellow-spotted river turtles, howler, squirrel and saddleback tamarin monkeys, scarlet and blue-and-yellow macaws, pirarucu fish and caiman. Continuing down the Ucayali River, travellers will reach the Yanallpa and Supay Streams. A stop along the banks of these small waterways provides cruisers with fascinating insight into the culture and traditions of the human settlements in the Amazon. Both the Aria Amazon and the Aqua Nera River Cruise lines offer tours up and down the Ucayali River, tailoring their trips to showcase the Peruvian Amazon’s best attractions.
Cruises along the Napo River in Ecuador allow visitors to access remote and extraordinary wonders of the lush, steamy Amazon Rainforest which are impossible to access via roads, making it an amazing South America cruise destination. Visitors to Ecuador’s stretch of this mystical river are able to relax on hammocks from where they can admire the towering rainforest trees above, while their river boat transports them serenely into the depths of the jungle. Traditional wooden lodges provide overnight stops within the rainforest itself, at Casa del Suizo, La Selva and Sacha Lodge. From these bases, canoe and kayaking opportunities are widely available which allow cruisers to come within an arm’s length of rare and exquisite creatures, such as the famous pink river dolphin, river turtles and otters. Daytime hikes and climbs up into the canopy of the rainforest are rewarded with superb views of tree-top birds and stunning jungle. Shiripuno jungle lodge is situated close to the Huaorani settlement, where friendly indigenous residents welcome travellers into their rural villages to learn about their traditional lifestyle. River cruise itineraries tend to start from the small port town of Coca and include a visit to the Yasuni National Park which sits in a unique position on the equator between the Andes mountain range and the Amazon Rainforest. As a result, it is inhabited by particularly biodiverse wildlife, flourishing flora and it is home to a number of indigenous communities. River tours around this area also stop at Parrot’s Clay Licks where Peruvian macaws cling to the banks, at the Añangu observation tower and at the Sani Warmi Kichwa Interpretation Centre.
Colombia’s magical Magdalena River is the most important in the country. It is steeped in history, as 16th- century Spanish conquistadors once used the river to transport goods from Europe to mainland Colombia. These explorers founded numerous towns along the river, which flows 1,528 kilometres and cuts straight through the country from south to north. The banks of the Magdalena are peppered with charming colonial-style towns, verdant jungles and shrub-covered mountains. The river and its valley traverse a vast variety of ecosystems which are home to wildlife including the spectacled caiman, the West Indian manatee and the Magdalena tinamou. Cruisers will have the opportunity to wander around the town of Mompox, a fairytale town which boasts immaculately-preserved Spanish colonial buildings. Aracataca and Ciénaga are also ports of call on this route, the two romantic cities that famously influenced the writing of Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez
The Orinoco River boasts some of the world’s most outstanding wetland ecosystems, with thick jungle, limpid lakes, gentle rivers and exceptional wildlife-watching opportunities. Boto dolphins, crocodiles, manatees and giant otters splash playfully around river boats and the surrounding forests are home to countless species of birds, snakes and monkeys. The Orinoco competes with the Amazon as one of the longest rivers in South America at a whopping 2,140 kilometres. Cruises along the Orinoco River, which flows along the Colombian border from Venezuela, offer travellers a unique opportunity on a cruise excursion to meet the Warao Indians who live in houses on stilts along the river.
Amber-coloured waters, tranquil canals and waterfront houses on stilts characterise the Tigre Delta River in Argentina. Half and full-day tours leave from the dynamic city of Buenos Aires and cover five of the main rivers in the Paraná River Delta. Take a cruise ship around South America through these culturally rich waterways, passing the house and museum of the former Argentine president Sarmiento, the vibrant artisan Puerto de Frutos riverside market and the Museo de Arte Tigre. Deeper into the delta, you’ll find a wide network of tributaries and rural islands. What was once vast swamplands has been transformed by the area’s local residents into a gorgeous, thriving floating town, not dissimilar to Italy’s Venice. School bus boats, floating grocery stores and water taxis sail parallel to the delta’s banks, which by Argentina’s subtropical jungle where the native ceibo tree grows.
Gushing through Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, the Paraguay River has taken on the role of this landlocked country’s main gateway to the ocean. Goods are transported up and down this river from country to country. Starting in Mato Grosso in Brazil, the Paraguay River courses through the Pantanal Region, those marshy wetlands where wildlife can be spotted at every turn, including storks, caiman, monkeys, capybara, giant anteaters and anacondas. Four- and five-day trips down the river into the Pantanal invite travellers to admire the regions’ abundant flora and fauna, visit a typical Pantanal farm and to go out searching for the native jaguars known to roam brazenly around the forests. South America cruise excursions offer a wide variety of activities to dive into the culture.
South America river cruises: Iconic South America Cruise Ports
Iquitos is the largest, most isolated city in the world as it has no connecting roads to other cities. It is, however, Peru’s gateway city to the Amazon Rainforest and most Peruvian Amazon River tours begin from this port. The town itself is packed with European-style buildings and has a deep heritage in the rubber boom of the early 20th-century. Here, you can visit Iquito’s famous floating neighbourhood and market of Belen, the Padre Cocha Village Butterfly Farm and the Cocama and Cocamilla indigenous farming communities of Santo Tomas Village.
Manaus is the capital city of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. The city stands out as a cosmopolitan metropolis located in the middle of the dense Amazon Rainforest. Manaus is home to some gorgeous architecture, such as the Teatro Amazonas Opera House and the Paláco Rio Negro. Largely known as Brazil’s jungle town, Manaus is the ideal spot from which to launch your cruise of the Amazon River.
The town of Tigre is a watery paradise situated in the northern area of the Province of Buenos Aires. The Tigre Delta is comprised of hundreds of tiny islands which flow into the Río de la Plata. The town of Tigre is famed for its stilt houses, grandiose mansions, stylish rowing clubs and artisanal craft shops.
Barranquilla is a cosmopolitan, urban port which provides key access to Bocas de Ceniza and the Magdalena River. Excellent museums, 20th-century buildings and the famous Barranquilla Zoo provide the town’s attractions, and the town beats with sound of the Caribbean cumbia music and dance which is so deeply rooted in Colombia.
The breezy, riverside town of Santarém is situated on the right bank of the Tapajós River and is a popular stop on a Brazilian Amazon river cruise around South America. The area is dense with primary rainforest and this quaint little town also boasts pretty parks and restaurants offering delicious food. Santarém even has its own ‘Meeting of the Waters’ where the Tapakós River flows into the Amazon.
Coca shouldn’t be overlooked as merely starting port for tours along the Amazon River. The town’s fresh, modern malécon – waterfront – is a gorgeous place to take a stroll and the MACCO archaeological museum hosts collections which narrate the region’s cultural history. Pop into the Kallary Kawsay handicrafts shop where you can buy Kichwa keepsakes and fill up on a flavoursome meal of seafood at Cevichería Colorado.
Belém is a charming town worthy of every bucket list that is drenched in history and packed full of stunning pastel-coloured buildings. As a key location during the 20th-century rubber boom, Belém became a popular holiday destination for rich European families who injected the city with money and transformed it into a bourgeois haven bursting with impressive, ornate architecture. Have a look inside the grand Theatro da Paz and the Complexo Feliz Lusitania before losing yourself in the lively Ver-o-Peso market.
Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil
Foz do Iguaçu is a culturally diverse city that sits on the Brazilian border of Iguaçu Falls. It is home to one of the world’s most impressive group of waterfalls, a truly spectacular natural phenomenon. A fusion of diverse religious influences is present in the town, reflected in the variety of places of worship. The Buddhist Temple and the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque sit side-by-side in perfect harmony. Foz do Iguaçu is also the meeting point of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay which are connected by the Bridges of Borders.
One of the oldest settlements in South America, Asunción is one of the lesser-visited cities in the region. However, look closely and you will discover this urban hub is teeming with fascinating museums and historical monuments. Stare up in awe at the ornate Palacio de los López and the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Stroll around the Mercado Cuatro and pick up some chipá – traditional cheese rolls.
South America cruises: Top South America cruising excursions and experiences
Explore the Jaú National Park
Lo Peix and Lokal river cruises offer five- and seven-day trips to the little-explored Jau National Park. Here, you can walk through the Park’s exquisite pathways which are surrounded by peculiar plants and trees. Jaú is the largest forest reserve in South America and is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visit the Amazon’s local inhabitants
Cruising along the Amazon River gives visitors the opportunity to call in at the small settlements of indigenous people who inhabit the rainforest. Outsiders can connect with and learn about the culture of Amazon tribes such as the Achuar, Dessana and Huaorani.
Get involved in manatee conservation
Both the city of Iquitos and the Anavilhanas National Park are home to conservation projects which aim to protect the Amazonian Manatee. Cruisers can visit the Amazon Rescue Centre in Iquitos and meet rescued adult and baby manatees who are recuperating in the marine facility.
Discover the Pantanal
The Pantanal Region in Brazil is often overshadowed by the big-hitting Amazon, but it is brimming with rare wildlife and a variety of sub-regional ecosystems. It is the world’s largest tropical wetland area, inhabited by 1,000 species of bird, 400 species of fish, 300 species of mammal and 480 species of reptile. Cruise around this enigmatic region and learn more about it from one of the local naturalists who work as guides in the area
See the Meeting of the Waters
For those seeking an awe-inspiring natural spectacle, jump on a riverboat tour from Manaus to view this ‘Meeting of the Waters’ in Santarem, where the dark Rio Negro tributary runs alongside the sandy-coloured Amazon River without mixing. Differences in temperature and speed account for this natural phenomenon and it makes for a truly spectacular photograph.