5 Tips for a Successful Study-Abroad Trip to the Amazon

Visiting any tropical rainforest is a life-changing experience, but the Amazon Basin is the granddaddy of all tropical rainforests and a trip there will shift how you view your place in the world! At roughly the same size as the continental United States, it is immense. These vast forests are the lungs of our world, producing approximately 20% of Earth’s oxygen. They also house a staggering amount of the planet’s biological diversity with at least 40,000 species of plants, 400 mammals, 1,300 birds, and hundreds of thousands of invertebrates.

Everybody has heard of the Amazon, of course, and most dream of going someday to swim with pink dolphins, catch piranhas for lunch, watch macaws scream at each other, spot sloths in the treetops, and canoe through dense jungle searching for anacondas, tree frogs, and blue morpho butterflies. This common dream makes the Amazon an ideal destination to bring students, as I did last May to teach a course in Tropical Disease Ecology. The location lends itself towards biology or health-focused classes, but any number of courses could be designed to take place here (e.g. Conservation Biology, Tropical Ecology, Ornithology, Public Health, etc.). What I found especially fantastic about teaching there was the camaraderie that developed between some really different students who likely wouldn’t have interacted with each other back home.

Choosing your entry point into the Amazon
With such a large geographic spread, your first consideration is where to access the rainforest. The basin spans nine countries, but the majority lies within just three: Brazil (60%), Peru (13%), and Colombia (10%). For Americans, Spanish-speaking countries tend to be a little more accessible because many speak, or at least understand, some Spanish. For that reason, I would suggest planning a visit to Peru, Colombia, or Ecuador. Unfortunately, many people have watched too many episodes of Narcos and have a bit of an irrational fear of traveling in Colombia. The U.S. State Department’s Travel Warning regarding kidnapping and other violent crime doesn’t help either. So, even though I took my seven-year-old son to Colombia for a month on a father-son trip a few months ago, I would probably not recommend it for study-abroad trips. That leaves Peru (where I took my students) or Ecuador. In Peru, you can enter the Amazon via Iquitos (northern Peru) or Puerto Maldonado (southern Peru). In either case, it is worth spending a couple of days before/after in your base city for the cultural experience. My students befriended some locals at the corner convenience store, and together they went out dancing all night. If you choose to go the Ecuador route, you would travel to Quito before making your way to the Amazon.

Mix things up
My longest stint in the Amazon was working at a research station for three months straight. That was long enough to crave things like electricity or laundry or human companionship with somebody other than the other inmates (i.e. researchers). It turns out that most undergraduates do not have the same stamina for isolation in the rainforest as I do. They get restless after about a week. That is why in the middle of our two-week trip in the jungle, we took a side trip to Pevas. With about 4,000 residents, Pevas is the biggest city between Leticia, Colombia and Iquitos, Peru. So, to take a break from the research station, we took a speed boat to the big city for a few days to eat at Peruvian chicken restaurants, dance at the club, and visit some native tribes upriver. This turned out to be their favorite part of the entire trip. I strongly recommend you break things up a bit to keep your students’ attitudes up.

Keep your group safe
The biggest concern I always have when leading a trip is that one of the students is going to do something stupid. A trip to the Amazon reduces the likelihood of many of these things because you are so isolated. It is difficult to get caught buying weed from a howler monkey. That isolation does provide a bit of a risk, however. If something like an injury were to happen, the isolation could quickly become a major problem. In my case, I brought a satellite messenger that had an emergency beacon and could send and receive texts (Billy is still embarrassed by his mother’s texts to let him know that she loves him). We never needed it but Billy’s mom found it useful, and it provided me and the parent’s peace of mind.

Prepare your students
Yes, they will see spiders – one of my students had a friendly tarantula living on her cabana. Yes, they will see snakes (probably even some poisonous ones). Will there be mosquitos? Uhhh, yeah, plenty. These are sort of obvious, but you’ll also have to prepare them culturally. They will see and meet people living in extreme poverty who don’t have things like running water or easy access to healthcare. The food is also quite different, but extremely fresh and healthy.

Health concerns
The main diseases to worry about are Malaria (from mosquito bites) and Leishmaniasis (from sandfly bites). These are both prevalent in some areas but uncommon in others, so a bit of homework is useful. There are pills that can be taken to guard against Malaria. Dengue and Zika outbreaks are usually in cities, so they are unlikely to be encountered on a rainforest trip. Everybody must have a Yellow Fever vaccine to enter Amazonia – these are sometimes in short supply in the states, so make sure you and your students get vaccinated as soon as possible.

I am fortunate enough to have taken five trips to the Amazon, once with an undergraduate class and twice with a graduate student. It is an absolutely amazing destination and I am still humbled when I am in the middle of the forest or out on a river surrounded by the world’s greatest representation of biological diversity. I wholeheartedly recommend bringing your class to the Amazon.


Written by Ryan Jones