Amazon Rainforest Tours and Travel | Exploration of the Amazon
Exploration of the Amazon got underway shortly after Europeans began claiming sovereignty over different parts of the continent. Early explorers, perhaps those who had imagined a less ambitious journey, called the river "green hell." The first European to "discover" the river was Spanish explorer, Vicente Yanez Pinzon, who reached the mouth of the Amazon in his travels along the coast of Brazil. He called it Rio Santa Maria de la Mar Dulce, or Sweet Sea for short, a term still used to describe the vast outflow of fresh water at the river's mouth far into the Atlantic.
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Spanish explorer, Francisco de Orellana, became the first European to follow the river to the sea in 1542 and may be responsible for its name. The word "Amazon" comes from the Greek "amazons" meaning "no breast." Showing up in several Greek legends, the Amazon women are mythical warriors from the edge of the world who forfeit the right breast of their daughters to keep it from interfering with their ability to draw a bowstring.
Orellana was second in command of an expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of the conquistador, Francisco. With some 200 soldiers on horseback, 150 foot-soldiers and many Native Americans, Pizarro started out in Quito and detoured southwest to Quayaquil, Ecuador where he met up with Orellana and more soldiers. The plan for their Amazon tours was to travel east across the Andes and follow the Coca and Napo rivers to find two sources of riches, La Canela, a reputed valley of cinnamon trees, and El Dorado, a king with a great deal of gold.
The expedition went awry when supplies began to run out. Hoping the Napo would be their salvation, they built a boat, and Pizarro sent Orellana downriver with fifty men, leaving Pizarro and the remaining troops behind. Instead of returning, Orellana and his party followed the tributary to the Amazon all the way to the Atlantic. Along the way, the soldiers were attacked by various indigenous tribes. One of the fiercest they described as white women with bows and arrows whom Orellana labeled Amazons. Though his encounter with warrior jungle women (or perhaps tribesmen in grass skirts) was never corroborated, the name endured. Orellana returned to Spain, but still believing riches would be found in the Amazon rainforest, crossed the Atlantic again to continue his explorations. Near the river's mouth, he drowned when his boat capsized.
No accurate maps of the Amazon rainforest existed until the 1800s. As early as the 1600s, the Jesuits had predicted the river's source would be found in the Peru Andes, but it wasn't until 1971 that it was traced as far as 18,363-ft Nevado Misti, an Andean peak along Colca Canyon, 100 miles west of Lake Titicaca. Subsequent expeditions got closer to finding the source, though pinpointing the exact location did not occur until 2000. Aided by global positioning technology, an international expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society found the exact location at the headwaters of the Apurimac River. Because the spot is farther south than previously thought, the Amazon has been proclaimed the world's longest river for the time being. If these new calculations are correct and so are the Nile's, it would make the Amazon sixty-five miles the longer of the two.