Mamirauá is the world's largest protected area of flooded forest - the most iconic of the Amazon's ecosystems. It stands almost exactly at the centre of the Amazon rainforest.
Mamirauá is an area of great importance for wildlife and its forests are, as a part of the Amazon, vital for the planet. It is also home to many small communities, some who are relatively new arrivals and some who have settled here for generations: its human history may date back 8,000, possibly 12,000, years.
Bringing together the needs of these communities, the needs of nature, and the opportunities for visitors to share this special environment, is the mission of the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve.
Its success is tangible when you visit, and it has been acknowledged in ecotourism awards (World's Best Ecotourism Destination Award 2003) as a world-leading example for others to learn from.
You may have seen Mamirauá for yourself in the BBC 'Amazon' series with Bruce Parry.
There can be fewer more important issues for the planet than the protection of Amazon forests. If they are to be successfully protected it must allow sensitive and sustainable development in favour of their local communities. Your own visit to Mamirauá will certainly be an enthralling experience and will help to support this special place and show the way for others.
Mamirauá's wildlife is most notable for its mammals, especially its monkeys.
Of these the very striking white uakari, the emblem of Mamirauá, is undoubtedly the star. An extraordinary monkey, uakaris have a bare, bright red face and long shaggy coarse hair. They are creatures of the heart of the Amazon, inhabiting only the flooded forest. There are three types, the red uakari which is native to a wide area to the west, the black uakari which is found to the north, and the white uakari which is found in the Mamirauá reserve and nowhere else.
Until the 1980s its only description lay among the notes of Henry Walter Bates, the great Victorian naturalist explorer who spent 4 years of an 11 year expedition close to Mamirauá. Bates' studies of diversity and adaptation in this region provided evidence to support the theory of natural selection; he returned in time to provide welcome support to Darwin after the publication of The Origin of Species. (For anyone who has visited the Galapagos, a visit to the Amazon, and to Mamirauá in particular, is an absolute must.) Bates described the uakaris he saw as of "most grotesque appearance. Their bodies (about eighteen inches in height, exclusive of limbs) were clothed from neck to tail in with very long, straight and shining whitish hair; their heads were nearly bald .. and their faces glowed with the most vivid scarlet hue". Their faces are caricatures of the most severe case of sunburn imaginable, so that locally they are known as 'the English monkey'. They are agile and active, travel widely in groups of 25-50 individuals, and can occasionally leap gaps of 20 metres or more between trees.
Intrepid Brazilian biologist Jose Marcio Ayres located populations of white uakari in 1983 and published his study The White Uakaris and the Amazonian Flooded Forest in 1986 for his Cambridge PhD. Largely due to his efforts, within just 5 years over a million hectares of Mamirauá's flooded forest had been protected: the entire known range of this extraordinary primate.
Mamirauá's flooded forest
Before the Andes appeared the land drained westwards to what would have been the Pacific ocean. Blocked by the Andes it now drains shallowly eastwards, dropping just a few tens of metres in the thousand miles to the ocean. Rivers that rise in the Andes become swollen in foothills that may receive 6000mm of rain each year, carving out vast volumes of soil that are deposited as they reach these flat lands to create the largest floodplain on the planet - a landscape of shifting meanders and narrow lakes with vast volumes of water sweeping slowly through it.
River levels in Mamirauá rise and fall by 10-12m over the course of the year, largely in response to seasons of rain in the Andes, creating the difference between areas that are never flooded, flooded briefly now and then, or flooded every year to a lesser or greater depth - differences that have marked effects on the type of forest, and in turn on the wildlife and Mamirauá's communities.
Flooded forest is very diverse, astonishingly productive, and high in endemism. Conditions vary enormously with the rise and falling of the seasons and with small changes in the altitude of the land or the depth of the water. The massive lodes of nutrients brought by the rivers give all manner of life a constant boost. Varied and changing conditions create unusual stresses and opportunities for adaptation, sparking new species that can persist only in the flooded forest areas where they arise.
Mamirauá's primates include the white uakari, the more common and widespread brown capuchin and squirrel monkeys, saki monkeys, black spider monkey, and the blackish squirrel monkey - newly discovered in 1985 and also found only in Mamirauá. Red howler monkeys are plentiful, their long roars echoing through the forest.
You are also likely to see sloths (here the Brown-throated three-toed sloth), and there are chances to see the collared anteater, amazonian red squirrels, and coati. You will hear the amazonian bamboo rat calling (often mistaken for frogs), and may well come across the extremely likeable capybara, the world's largest rodent and very family oriented.
Capybara's are the main prey of Mamirauá's population of jaguar, but seeing jaguar always requires considerable perseverance or just plain luck.
Beneath Mamirauá's waterline there are good populations of manatee, weighing up to half a ton, thriving on the plentiful floating grasses and water hyacinth.
Mamirauá's rivers and lakes are extraordinarily rich in fish, and species include some absolute whoppers, including the pirarucu - the Amazon's biggest fish, the aruana whose males nurse their fry in their mouths and can leap a metre out of the water to snatch beetles and even small birds, and the tambaqui which grows to 30kg. There are pacu, piranhas and many many more, including the acará-bandeira which aquarium keepers know as the angel fish.
All this fish life brings many predators. Pink river dolphin, a legendary creature of the Amazon, are very often seen swimming with your boat. It's hard to imagine such an animal could be such a bright lipstick pink (the muddier the river, the pinker the dolphin). Many stories surround them, not least of which is that they emerge from the water as handsome men to seduce young virgins - a sure-fire excuse for teenage pregnancies. Mamirauá is home to legions of black and spectacled caiman feasting on the fish, and large numbers of waterbirds.
Mamirauá's birdlife is very impressive. Although birdwatching from a boat is never easy, it is possible to build a very interesting list in a few days, including species that are hard to find elsewhere. Ask us for Mamirauá's full birdlist.
The Mamirauá Reserve
As usual for Brazil, the statistics for Mamirauá are staggering. The Amazon's waters have already covered 1000 miles or more from their sources in the Andes before they reach Mamirauá, and they have another 1100 miles to go before they reach the ocean. Northwards from Mamirauá the forest continues for 700 miles, with another 600 miles to the south.
The Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve (to give it its proper name) covers 4,300 square miles. Mamirauá links with two neighbouring protected areas to form the Central Amazonian Conservation Complex (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) covering 22,000 square miles - somewhat larger than the whole of Costa Rica.
Mamirauá is both a RAMSAR site and a Biosphere Reserve. But Mamirauá is more than these. It is also a pioneering sustainable development project whose objectives are not only to conserve its nature, but also to help support the communities who live there, and encourage and support them in adapting towards sustainable ways of living in this precious forest.
Through a consultative process, the communities have designated a sizeable area of Mamirauá as available to visitors.
Visiting the communities of Mamirauá
The local communities of Mamirauá descend from indigenous people that have made the area their home for many generations and from Brazilians who migrated to the Amazon from the Northeast during the rubber boom. These 'ribeirinhos' (river people) are rural people who settle by the side of the rivers and live mainly from fishing and family agriculture.
The foundation of the Reserve gave these communities a platform to begin to put right the depletion of their natural resources that had accelerated in the 1970s and 80s.
By visiting their communities you can begin to discover their history, way of life, and customs. You will be hosted by a local guide chosen by the community, who will take you around their village, sharing with you its history and the way of life of its people, their local perspectives, handicrafts and so on. There is plenty of opportunity to ask questions and begin a personal dialogue.
Community visits lasts about three hours and visitors will have the opportunity to see locally-made handicrafts. This a unique opportunity to learn about the local way of living and also to see the work developed from the local people's perspectives.
Water levels usually begin to rise in January and reach their peak in May and June, when the much of the area is flooded except for areas of higher ground. Levels then subside gradually, reaching their lowest by October or November.
In October/November, the usual time of lowest water, hiking is possible and aquatic animals and birds become highly concentrated in the remaining rivers and lakes. This is a good time to see wildlife, often in great numbers.
In May and June when the flooded forest at its most extreme, virtually all your experience of the area will be by boat.