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 as subsistence farmers and fishermen. As the years went by, the Dessana began benefiting from tourist who were curious to see their ancient traditions.
Countless Amazon tours depart from Manaus each day, all offering a similar experience; 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 display their ancestors’ traditions. Though they currently live only a short distance from a booming metropolis with modern luxuries such as cellphones and satellite TV, the tribe keeps their preserved culture alive in spite of global modernization.
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 visitors 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 attempt to sell jewelry and handicrafts in order to make ends meet. The government and local NGOs have labelled the unfair practice as exploitation, and they seek to enact regulation requiring payment from the tour companies. For this reason alone, it’s helpful for visitors to buy some of the tribe’s beautiful handmade wares.
The experience provides an insight into how Amazon jungle tribes traditionally lived. These tribespeople offer to display their rituals both as a way to make ends meet and a way to remember and sustain their cultural inheritance. Their customs, music and dance are an authentic look at times past.
Day trips from Manaus covering the region’s best sights and a visit to Tupé start at just US$57.