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I love the Amazon Rainforest. A lot. I especially love reading about the Amazon and watching everything I can about it, kind of like Mount Everest and the Himalayas. And I can’t wait to visit someday, but right now that can’t happen, so, here we are with the best books about the Amazon that are going to make it feel like I’m there. Most of these are non-fiction books about the Amazon or memoirs, but there are a couple of novels set in the Amazon too.
I hope these books let you take a little vacation at home and make you feel like you’re actually there. Or maybe just inspire you to visit in the future. Or get you excited about a trip you already have planned.
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Holly FitzGerald and her husband Fitz set out on a year-long honeymoon backpacking around the world. Five months into their trip, they are in Peru on their way into the jungle when the little plane they are on crashes in a penal colony surrounded by jungle. They can either wait for a way out or take a raft down the Madre de Dios to get there a lot sooner. They choose the raft and things go downhill quickly.
They assume they can get food from locals along the river, so they bring few supplies, but after a few days a storm throws them off course, stranding them for 27 days with no food in a flooded dead end of the river with no land to stand on until they realize the only way out is to swim. I’m a sucker for a crazy survival story (post coming soon) so I really liked this one.
After you read Ruthless River (or before so you know the area better) Mother of God is a must-read. This is one of my favorite books of all time and I actually have two copies of it. This is part adventure, part education as Paul Roaslie, a naturalist, conservationist, and explorer, takes us into the most remote sections of the Madre de Dios.
His love for the Amazon started in 2006 on his first trip there and over the coming years would return as often as possible. He ventured into some of the most inaccessible areas of jungle alone, seeing floating forests, jaguars, poachers, and more. He raises an orphaned anteater and helps fight to protect the Madre de Dios from developers, oil giants, and gold miners.
Even today there are tribes in the Amazon that have avoided contact with the outside world. This is the story of Scott Wallace’s journey into the Amazon in search of one of these tribes, the flecheiros or People of the Arrow, that are seldom seen and shower all intruders with deadly arrows. He sets out on the trek on assignment with National Geographic, heading a team of thirty-four with Brazillian explorer Sydney Possuelo.
His mission is to protect the flecheiros and uncovers clues along the way to find out how they’ve managed to stay uncontacted for so long and why so much about them has to remain a secret if they want to survive.
Yossi Ghinsberg is traveling through Bolivia when he meets two other travelers and a guide. What starts as the adventure of a lifetime as a trek to visit a tribe in the jungle quickly turns into a nightmare. The group separates on the trek out of the jungle: two hike out, two take a raft downriver to speed up the trip.
All too soon the river gets too rough for the raft and it is destroyed. Yossi and his travel partner are separated and he is forced to survive alone without a map, knife, or survival training. His feet begin to rot during constant raging storms, his sense of direction is lost, and he wonders, most of all if he’ll make it out alive.
In 1925, Percy Fawcett set off into the Amazon in search of a fabled civilization, never to be seen again. Plenty of people died after this trying to find the same place he called “The Lost City of Z.” This is an interwoven story of Fawcett’s quest and David Grann’s own journey into the jungle.
While this isn’t exactly the Amazon Jungle, I’m including it anyway. In 1911 Hiram Bingham III “discovered” Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains. He was credited as a villain for taking priceless artifacts and credit for the discovery. Mark Adams follows his footsteps to find the truth and ends up writing more of an adventure than he really had, after all, he never even slept in a tent.
In April 2008, Ed Stafford decided he wanted to be the first man to ever walk the entire length of the Amazon River. He started on the Peruvian coast and crossed the Andes to find the official source of the Amazon. He passes through Colombia and Brazil, facing logistical issues, wildlife, indigenous people, and more all while facing his own personal struggles, fears, and doubts.
His journey lasts 860 days and over 4,000 miles as he witnesses deforestation, pressure on tribes due to loss of habitats, and nature in it’s raw form. I love books about walking long distances and this was a great one for that.
A four-year-old girl was abducted from her home in a remote mountain village and abandoned in the Colombian jungle in 1954. It was a miracle that Marina Chapman survived and two days after she woke up drugged, terrified, and starving, she stumbled on a troop of capuchin monkeys. To survive, she acted on instinct and did what the monkeys did, learning to fend for herself.
She spent the next five years with the troop, becoming feral, losing the ability to speak, losing all inhibition, and losing any real sense of being human. She was discovered by two hunters when she was ten and brought to the lawless Colombian city of Cucuta where they sold her to a brothel in exchange for a parrot.
Ok, so this is actually in Honduras, but I still think it will get you in the Amazon jungle mood, so I’m including it. Rumors have gone around since the days of Hernán Cortez of a lost city of immense wealth called wither the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of relatives that fled here from the conquistadors and warn that anyone who enters the sacred city will fall ill and die.
In 1940, Theodore Morde emerged from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and a wild story of having found the Lost City but then he commits suicide without revealing the location. In 2012 Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking quest. They face jaguars, torrential rain, quickmud and more, but tragedy only strikes once they leave the jungle.
It’s 1910 and Maia is being sent from England to Manaus in Brazil, hundreds of miles up the Amazon, to live with distant relatives after being orphaned. She is being escorted by an eccentric and mysterious governess who has her own reasons for making the journey.
If you want a little break from reading, this photography book will take you on a journey across the Pantanal, covering 81,000 square miles covering parts of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. The Pantanal Flood Plain is the largest wetland network on Earth, half the size of California and twenty times the size of the Everglades. In this book, you’ll learn about the people of the Pantanal, wetlands, grasslands, forests, caiman, deforestation, overfishing, and overhunting.
This journey takes us into the jungle, the bug-ridden, jaguar and piranha-infested rainforest between the Orinoco and the Amazon where men would kill over a bottle of ketchup and locals may be the most violent people on Earth, after hockey fans, that is.
In the early 18th century, a group of brave French scientists set off on a decade-long expedition to South America in a race to measure the shape of the Earth. Their mission revealed the mysteries of a little-known continent to a world hungry for discovery. Their mission was barely completed after battling jaguars, insects, vampire bats and more. One scientist was murdered, another died from fever, and a third, Jean Godin, almost died of heartbreak.
At the end of the expedition his Peruvian wife Isabel Gramesón was stranded at the opposite end of the Amazon, a victim of a tangled web of international politics. Her journey to reunite after 20 years separated had all of Europe spellbound.
This is the story of Richard Evans Schultes exploration of the uncharted Amazon. He is an acclaimed botanist and pioneering Amazonian explorer. It’s an intimate narrative to go with his photos of indigenous tribes, hallucinogenic plants, stunning views and more.
This is a riveting account from the linguist Daniel Everett when he lived in central Brazil with the Pirahã people. In 1977 he was a Christian missionary when he arrived with his wife and three young children intending to convert the Parahã people. Instead, he found a language unlike any other: they had no counting system and no fixed terms for color, no concept of war or personal property, living entirely in the present. He became obsessed with their language and over the next three decades, spent seven years with them.
Mark J. Plotkin, an ethnobotanist, learned from shamans in the Amazon the plant lore their tribes spent thousands of years gathering from the rainforest. For more than a decade, he raced against time to record and harvest new plants before they succumbed to overdevelopment and before the indigenous people abandoned their ways for the allure of Western material culture.
We get to learn about healing rituals, the secret of curare, the lethal arrow poison that kills in minutes, the hallucinogenic snuff epena that allows them to speak with the spirit world, and more.
This is a short read, but will take you right into the jungle. David G. Campbell spent thirty years exploring the lush rainforest, which is home to more species than ever existed anywhere at any time in the four-billion-year history of life on our planet. We are taken with Campbell as he travels to Cruzeiro do Sul, 2,800 miles from the mouth of the Amazon, where he gets three of his friends before traveling further into the jungle to survey every living woody plant that they can manage.
Sean Michael Hayes spends, you guessed it, five weeks in the Amazon searching for ways to live a happy life. We get to follow his journey as he travels alone, meets a shaman, tries Ayahuasca, and experiences loneliness and excitement along the way.
In 1964, Napoleon Chagnon arrived in the Venezuelan region of the Amazon to study the Yanomamö Indians. They were one of the largest tribes still living in isolation. He expected to find them living contentedly in a pristine state of nature, but found a remarkably violent society instead. Men that killed had more wives and children and he found the prime reason for violence, was to avenge deaths and, if possible, abduct women.
Cultural anthropologists couldn’t believe an evolutionary basis for their human behavior as he began to publish his studies. Soon, he was the most famous, and most controversial, American anthropologist since Margaret Mead. This is his story of his time living with the Yanomamö people when he was threatened by tyrannical headmen and had a little too close of an encounter with a jaguar.
In 1941, Richard Evan Schultes took leave from Harvard and disappeared into the Amazon for twelve years, mapping uncharted rivers and living with dozens of Indian tribes. In the 1970s, he sent two students to follow in his footsteps and unveil the botanical secrets of coca, the source of cocaine, a sacred plant known as the Divine Leaf of Immortality to the Inca. This is an account of adventure, discovery, betrayal, and destruction bringing together two generations of explorers.
This is the tale of two trips to the Amazon in 1987 and 1989, bringing attention to the deforestation being done by oil, mining, and logging giants through writing and photography. We also get to learn about the mysterious and proud tribes in the area.
The Amazon region is one of the most magnificent places on Earth. The first humans settled, and thrived, here 10,000 years ago, but it wasn’t seen by Europeans until the 1500s. In Tree of Rivers, John Hemming recalls the adventures and misadventures of previous explorers, Jesuit ecclesiastics, and rubber barons who enslaved thousands of Indians in their relentless quests for profits. He also tells the tales of botanists, Indian rights advocates, and archaeologists and anthropologists who uncovered the secrets of the Amazon’s earliest settlers.
This is a great educational book about what it takes to survive in the Amazon from information about fatal diseases to things that can make you sick or eat you to tips on what to carry in your survival bag and how to decide if a group of strangers is friend or foe.
Since its European discovery in the 1500s, explorers, visionaries, missionaries, scientists, slavers, and more have been drawn to the secrets of the Amazon. The River Sea is a collection of stories of the brave souls whose love for the rainforest and efforts to save it cost them their lives. This is five centuries of history, myths, and legends of the Amazon River and Rainforest.
We have one last book on this list that doesn’t take place in the Amazon, but I still think it will get you excited about visiting, so I included it anyway. Sharon Matola, “Zoo Lady” was beloved in Belize and became known as one of Central America’s greatest wildlife defenders. When Sharon found out the government was conspiring with powerful outside forces to build a dam that would flood the nesting ground of the last scarlet macaws in Belize, she found herself embroiled in the fight of her life.
In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco Orellana set off from Quito in search of La Canela, South America’s rumored Land of Cinnamon, and El Dorado, the golden man. He led an enormous expedition into the jungle, but it began to fall apart before they even descended into the jungle. Soon, Pizarro went home and Orellana continued downriver with fifty-seven men. This is the reconstruction of the quest interwoven with eyewitness accounts and newly uncovered details.
Dr. Marina Singh sets out on an uncertain journey into the Amazon where she is forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world waiting for her in the jungle. She has been sent to find her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who disappeared while working on a valuable new drug. Marina has to face her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she ventures into the heart of darkness.
Have you read any of these? Which ones? Anything I should add?