The Amazon, or Amazonia, as it is also known, is a region spanning considerable portions of eight independent nations—Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Suriname, and Guyana. It covers more than seven million square miles in a maze of mile-wide waterways and meandering tributaries. Despite the fact that the Amazon river passes only through Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, its presence remains the hydrological center of much of South America, its watershed nearly equal in size to all of western Europe. Perhaps because Amazonia is tremendously heterogeneous, home to stunning biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity, scholars have long differed greatly on how to define and characterize the region. Thus, our descriptions here should not be considered definitive or indisputable. More than its ‘gigantic’ nature—a trope inaugurated after the first contact with Europeans—the Amazon's real richness lies in its many “voices”. At the beginning of this century, more than twenty-three million people lived in the Amazon region. Today, hundreds of languages—indigenous and European, some of the former threatened with extinction—are spoken there. While there are an equally myriad number of indigenous communities living throughout the region, including some ‘uncontacted tribes’, the majority of its inhabitants do not define themselves as being indigenous. Along the river and its tributaries there are numerous urban centers, some of them counting millions of people, such as Manaus (Brazil), and others thousands, such as Iquitos (Peru) or the Colombian–Brazilian frontier cities of Leticia- Tabatinga. The intense urbanization process to which the region has been subjected since, in the case of Manaus and Belém in Brazil, the turn of the nineteenth century, and in other countries since the early 1970s, when the Trans-Amazonian Highway was inaugurated, contradicts the commonly held notion that the region is no more than gigantic nature dwarfing humanity.
The Amazon is also a discursive construct, imagined in many different ways. Furthermore, since the Spanish conquest, the northwestern part of the Amazon has been imagined by non-indigenous peoples primarily as a place defined by the ways in which it differs from another of South America's salient geographic features: the Andes. And yet, the Amazon river itself is born in the snowcapped mountains of the Mismi peak in modern-day Peru.