Aside from its incredible diversity of flora and fauna, one of the great allures of the Amazon are the indigenous inhabitants who call the region home. Although the most remote and traditional tribes have not opened their homes to visitors, there are some interesting ethno-tours that can be experienced by the curious traveler. Read on to discover how to get a slice of traditional Amazonian culture on your next trip to Brazil.
The center of ethno-tourism in Brazil is Manaus. Right in the heart of the Amazon, this far-flung city of two million people has no direct road access to much of the country, requiring visitors to arrive by boat or by air. Yet despite the logistical challenges, travelers flock here to relish the beauty of the world’s largest ecosystem, with visits to an indigenous tribe known as Dessana included in many rain forest tours.
A few decades ago, a contingent of the Dessana tribe founded a settlement just 15 miles (24km) from Manaus in an area known as the Tupé Sustainable Development Reserve. These people—whose ancestral home is some 600 miles (965km) away in the dense remote jungle of northwestern Brazil—migrated to Tupé in the hopes of finding a better life closer to civilization, leaving their jobs as subsistence farmers and fishermen behind. As the years went by, the Dessana realized they could make a living in tourism by promoting their exotic traditions.
Countless Amazon tours depart from Manaus each day, all essentially offering the same thing; a boat ride to see the Meeting of the Waters where the dark Rio Negro and the muddy Amazon River collide, a hike through January Ecological Park to admire those incredibly large water lilies, and perhaps a swim with dolphins or a spot of piranha fishing along the way. As a bonus, many visit Tupé to watch a ritualized dance on the way home.
Dressed in feather headdresses and covered in body paint, the Dessana do their best to conjure up imagery of an isolated Amazon tribe. Of course, in reality they live just a short distance from a booming metropolis and enjoy modern luxuries such as cellphones and satellite TV. But that is not to say these people are impostors, only that they have learnt to commercialize their culture in order to earn some much-needed income.
On a typical visit, travelers are invited into a traditional thatched-roof building and take a seat as they wait for the show to start. Suddenly, the performers jump to their feet, playing maracas and percussion instruments as they chant Amazonian songs, later beckoning tourists to join in as the show picks up steam. An explanation of their history and culture is provided at the end, followed by a Q&A session which allows visitors to directly interact with the tribespeople and purchase souvenirs.
According to a BBC article of 2015, most tour companies don’t actually pay the Dessana for the spectacle, forcing the villagers to tout jewelry and handicrafts in order to make ends meet. The unfair practice has been labelled exploitation by the government and local NGOs who are seeking to enact regulation requiring payment from visiting tour groups. For this reason alone, it’s worth picking up some of their beautiful handmade wares.
Although the experience may not be as “authentic” as some would hope, it does provide an insight into how Amazon jungle tribes have traditionally lived. Remember that these are real tribespeople. Their customs are authentic, as is their music and dance. The only difference is that their performances are for profit rather than communal ritual.
Day trips from Manaus covering the region’s best sights and a visit to Tupé start at just US$57.