This Amazonian Mountain Is the New Everest
And it's 100% indigenously owned.
One does not just rock up to Pico da Neblina from a tour agency sign posted on a bulletin board of a hostel. And that’s not just because the destination is remote, which it certainly is. This tallest mountain in Brazil (at 9,822 feet) lies deep in the northern Amazon on the border of Venezuela in the Imeri mountain range. Manaus, the closest big city, is a not-exactly-insignificant 525 miles away, and the nearest (by “nearest”, we’re talking a two hour drive and six hour boat trip) village is Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira.
Pico da Neblina had not usually been on most travelers’ radar unless they happened to be a serious mountaineer—but the thriving culture here is changing all that. And though the mountain had been closed to all tourists for the past 20 years, it finally opened up again in March 2022 under new rules and a whole new conscientious—and 100% indigenously-owned—management. This time, all decisions regarding expeditions are being made by the Yanomami.
The Yanomami have lived at Pico da Neblina—which they call Yaripo, meaning “where winds cross”—for thousands of years. To them, the mountain is a sacred space, and they believe that the forest is a living entity with complex cosmological dynamics. They call their environment urihi, or “the forest-land,” which to them is not an inert space, but an alive being integrated in an exchange of humans and non-humans. Now, the Yanomami are staking their claim on their territory by instituting ecotourism—tourism centered on minimizing environmental impacts and fairly distributing earnings to the local community.
The tribal members have organized to become the guides, porters, boat pilots, boat hands, and cooks, and they have set up their associations, AYRCA and Kumirayoma, to administer the business. The re-opening of tourism here will be much more respectful to the profound indigenous culture of the region. Ecotourism in Yaripo is a promising initiative from a financial perspective, necessary in terms of territorial protection, and an ideal model for cultural empowerment. The reopening of Pico de Neblina is being celebrated worldwide as one of the best current examples of how to run indigenous tourism successfully and respectfully.
Here’s the story behind this remote mountain, plus how to climb the next cool peak without the Everest crowds.
Years of jungle isolation lead to nature protection
“I would like to teach you how we people of the land eat and live, taking care of our land and forests and rivers and our way of working with machines without engines,” says Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami leader and shaman. Kopenawa is the winner of the 2019 Alternative Nobel of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation for his work in recent decades in defense of the Yanomami ethnicity and the protection of the Amazon. He asks, “Why is it taking so long to believe that if we hurt Nature, we hurt ourselves?”
Due to its extremely remote location, the Yanomami tribe of Pico da Neblina interacted pretty much exclusively with their own communities and nature until the 1950s, when an airline pilot spotted and reported the mountain. In 1965, members of a Brazilian Army expedition made their first “official” ascent, and afterwards Pico da Neblina started to grow as a trekking destination for adventurers worldwide, one of those destinations that was quietly shared from traveler to traveler over a beer or two in the pub.
It wasn’t until 2003 that organizations started trying to protect the environment and the rights of the Yanomami—by suspending all tourism. Previously, tourism had been completely unregulated. And most tourists didn’t even know that the peak was in Indigenous territory or that it had spiritual importance for the Yanomami people, even though they hired Yanomami to carry their loads. The agencies that brought tourists to the region were based far away and took whatever profits they made from the expeditions with them.
The search for gold brings death
Then came the illegal gold mining issues—which is actually still a thing in the 21st century. An estimated 20,000 illegal gold miners are in the Yanomami area, Brazil's largest protected indigenous reserve. Garimpeiros are prospectors who often illegally mine in Indigenous areas and on conserved lands, sometimes working for themselves, but sometimes hired in well-equipped operations financed by wealthy elites.
Because mining on indigenous land in Brazil is not allowed, any gold extracted from these regions is classified as illegally taken, and when traded on, illegally sold into the black market. Last year, a video of illegal miners shooting at unarmed residents of a Yanomami village in northern Brazil went viral, and that is by far not the first massacre.
These miners have been polluting the rivers and destroying the forests that are such a critical part of Yanomami territory. “They come on illegal runways and bring food and material for mining,” says Kopenawa. “They cut the trees and make holes about three or four meters deep. All the dirt that comes out fills the river, and the mercury they use is dangerous. The fish get ill and die and the animals that drink the water also die. The huge puddles of dirty water they leave behind spread malaria because they attract mosquitoes. We get ill from bathing and drinking.”
An activist rises
One of Kopenawa’s strongest childhood memories is of his mother hiding him under a basket when white people came to his village for the first time—soon thereafter, missionaries from the US-based New Tribes Mission brought fatal diseases to the isolated community and both his parents and much of the rest of his community died, shaping his future as an activist.
In 1991, Survival International organized Kopenawa’s first trip to the USA to raise awareness of the impending genocide of the Yanomami. There he met then-UN Secretary General Pérez de Cuéllar, members of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, and American senators. He went on to meet Al Gore, Prince Charles, and four Brazilian presidents including President Lula. He later wrote the powerful book, The Falling Sky, about his experiences and philosophy.
To this day, Kopenawa continues to play a crucial role in battling for his people’s rights. He founded the Yanomami rights organization Hutukara (which means “the part of the sky from which the earth was born”), and he is the driving force behind an innovative bilingual education project that aims to help the Yanomami defend their rights themselves.
Truly, Kopenawa’s courage, fighting spirit, and tenacity are reflected in his name, which means “hornet.”
What to expect when climbing Pico da Neblina, AKA Yaripo
Yaripo is definitely the new cool mountain to hike. But spots are incredibly limited (Amazon Emotions is authorized to book one expedition per month of a max of 10 climbers per group). Access and time might be the biggest challenges here, though it’s no walk on a hillside. After actually getting to the mountain (consisting of a couple hour plane ride or a 26-hour speed boat ride from Manaus, then the two hour drive and another six hours by boat), the expedition is a strenuous physical activity and has been designed for hikers who have at least some experience with altitude.
Climbers will ascend six to 10 hours per day during a 10-day trek (if weather cooperates), on moderate to very steep grades. It never requires full-on mountain climbing equipment of crampons and ropes, but the gradient can get pretty intense in places. It can be blistering hot in the dense forest at the base of the mountain at around 300 feet above sea level, yet a mere 15 degrees Fahrenheit at the summit, some 9,000 feet later. High winds (remember Yaripo means “where winds cross”), heavy rains, and limited visibility due to fog and mist are common. After all, the Portuguese name roughly translates to “foggy peak”—which makes sense, because this mountain is not only shrouded in myth but also in dense clouds most of the time. That means weather days are added into the itinerary to increase the chance of summiting.
It’s not all heavy, though. On the slopes, rare endemic plant species of epiphytes, orchids, and bromeliads can be found, and down below at the base, rivers of black water contrast with beaches of white sand. Tourism infrastructure is basic (this is no highly developed Everest or Kilimanjaro), but this trip is authentic. Every porter, guide, cook, driver—they will all be Yanomami, who are excited to share their mountain with foreigners now that they’re doing so in a respectful way.
This is definitely now on my bucket list, but how on earth do I arrange this trip?
Simple answer? You don’t do the planning. Everything here is hyper-controlled to avoid the mistakes of past tourism attempts. Only three operators are currently authorized to work in the region: Amazon Emotions, Roraima Adventures, and Environmental Tourism.
Vanessa Marino, owner of Amazon Emotions, was chosen (after a grueling, years-long vetting process) in part because of her considerable experience over the past 23 years respectfully working alongside indigenous communities. To say that she takes her role in this new undertaking seriously is an understatement.
“I have passionately dedicated my life to wildlife conservation, community-based tourism, transformational travel, and exploring how travel has the power to protect nature, benefit communities, and preserve cultural heritage,” says Marino. “This is not my goal, this is my responsibility.”