Rivers, the great, ever-changing highways of water on the banks of which nearly all early civilizations were built. Nehir in Turkish, rio in Spanish -- the river's signifier in almost every language is beautiful, conjuring images of life and death, of settlement and flight, of the unstoppable flowing movement and renewal of all things. Their names -- Ganges, Nile, Congo, Amazon, Danube -- evoke entire worlds. Here is my list of the nine greatest river journeys in the world.
An aerial view of the Amazon
The Amazon basin is an empire of water. Coursing through an area of 11 million square miles, the Amazon River encompasses more than a quarter of the world's water currents. Its volume represents half of all water movement on the planet. It sucks liquid from eight countries, slurping snowmelt from glacial streams and vast stretches of wetland, dashing it down waterfalls and high jungle gorges, gurgling, stirring and plowing it so far into the Atlantic that a sailor may dunk a cup in the sea 50 miles beyond the sight of land and taste fresh water. It can reach a width of 118 miles and contains 20 percent of the world's fresh water. It is called the "River Sea."
Floating lazily through the rainforest while swinging in a hammock and watching pink dolphins splash in the nearby waters is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and organizing a trip down the Amazon's entire length can be done with relative ease, as the river serves as the only highway for many towns isolated in the dense jungle without road access.
There are a number of options, depending how far upstream you wish to begin. This includes luxury state-of-the-art cruise vessels with air-conditioned rooms and experienced guides who will identify the animals you encounter, to rickety transport barges where you can sleep in a tangle of hammocks for a few dollars a night. To get up close with the wildlife and visit local communities, it's best to tackle the river in stages, making many stops along the way to explore the Amazon's smaller tributaries and flooded forests.
>> Check out Amazon cruises from Iquitos.
The Nile at Aswan, Egypt
For thousands of years the Nile -- its profound, regular deliverance of flood water bringing fertility to the African desert and giving birth to one of the world's first great civilizations some 9,000 years ago -- has long captivated the imagination of travelers. It is the longest river in the world, flowing some 4,900 kilometers (3,060 miles) from the womb of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands, down through Sudan and all the way to the Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria.
A straight journey from source to delta is impossible due to the number of cataracts and dams that disrupt the Nile's flow, but there are many vessels that can ferry you in spurts down- or upstream, including luxurious river boats and small sail-powered feluccas. Few are those who have faced the hazards of tropical disease, civil unrest and crocodiles to attempt the entire journey from beginning to end alone, but it is not impossible to do with canoe or kayak -- it's been accomplished before.
>> Browse Nile River cruises.
Sunset on the Congo River
Another great African river that strikes fear and excitement into the hearts of those who hear its name is the Congo; there is nothing that can really prepare you for a voyage along its waters -- it is an incredible journey through one of the world's least explored areas.
The river itself is central Africa's greatest geographical feature, an enormous body of water which snakes its way through the rainforest to pour its bosom into the Atlantic Ocean. At some 3,000 miles in length, the Congo acts a massive drainage channel for the Congo Basin and is the second most powerful river in the world after the Amazon. It is also the world's deepest river.
Though you may not encounter the degree of peril that faced the travelers who came before you, the Congo remains a challenging journey and is not advisable to attempt alone. However, those brave and lucky enough to traverse the region will discover cultures largely untouched by the outside world.
Some adventure tourist companies offer multi-day expeditions from Lisala to Kisangani, visiting a number of small villages along the way and docking each night to give passengers a chance to interface with locals. Alternatively, you can explore different sections on your own via riverboat steamer, alongside colorful Congolese families and their animals (including, sometimes, crocodiles, monkeys, pigs and tortoises), many of which offer private rooms. To give you an idea, a trip from Kinshasa to Kisangani takes about two weeks.
A steamboat on the Mississippi River
When Mark Twain first penned his iconic story about runaways Huck and Jim floating lazily down the Mississippi River in an attempt to flee society, the grand river had already solidified into an indelible part of American identity.
Through lush forests, big cities and sprawling rural vistas, the Mississippi slices through the heart of the United States, beginning in Minnesota at Lake Itasca and rolling all the way to the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans -- some 2,350 miles. It is the largest river in the country and drains about 41 percent of the continental U.S.
It is fairly simple to arrange a Mississippi River cruise with varying degrees of luxury all along the river's route -- you can even try your luck gambling on one of the southern floating casinos which plow around for nights on end.
The more adventurous can tackle the river Huck-style and float and paddle their way down the whole length, which takes about 70 days. For this there are many riverside restaurants, grocery stores and campsites to refuel on food and sleep.
Ganges River. Photo courtesy of David Joshua Jennings.
Many Indians view the waters of the Ganges, the most sacred river in Hinduism, as having fallen straight from heaven. It is the life-giving artery for much of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, fed by a network of streams originating in Western Himalaya and flowing some 2,510 kilometers to the great delta of Bangladesh. Those who live on its banks wash their clothes in it, bathe in it and worship it.
Floating down the Ganges one can witness the most intimate rituals of life and death, passing bathing ceremonies and cremation ghats, and its path courses through some of the most mesmerizing towns in the world, including the holy cities of Varanasi and Haridwar.
Various types of vessels offer transport across and down the river throughout India and Bangladesh, including big car ferries, wooden canoes and wicker coracles. However, no local form of transportation offers an avenue to travel the whole river source to mouth. Various tour companies do offer package tours on cruise ships, some of which last up to 16 days and include meals and visits to a number of cities and villages along the way.
>> Browse Ganges River tours from Kolkata, India.
Nighttime on the Danube River at Budapest
Drifting slowly down the Danube with a wine glass in hand aboard a cruiser is perhaps the best way to experience the beautiful landscapes, cultural heritage and centuries-old architecture of Central and Eastern Europe. You will pass vineyard-lined valleys and beautifully preserved medieval towns through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Romania (cruises can be easily arranged in each of these countries).
Sites along the Upper Danube include Nuremberg, Germany, home to the Imperial Castle and Palace of Justice (the meeting place for the 1946 war crimes tribunal); the Vienna opera house in Vienna, Austria; the world-famous Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria; and St. Stephen's Basilica and the Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest, Hungary. A highlight of the Lower Danube is the Iron Gates, a spectacular gorge which runs between the Carpathian and Balkan mountains and forms the boundary between Serbia and Romania.
>> Read more: Cruising through Germany on the Danube and Rhine
The Volga River at Myshkin, Russia
The mighty Mother Volga, with its wide purling waters and graceful ships, holds a special place in the hearts of most Russians. Rising from a small spring in the Valdai Hills northwest of Moscow, the river flows southeast in a great arc over 3,690 kilometers before dumping into the Caspian Sea near the northwestern border of Kazakhstan. And much of this length is still surrounded by wild beauty.
Like most rivers on the list, human interaction with the Volga has a long history. The lower end of the river was the cradle of Indo-European culture 7,000 years ago, and the Volga has played a central role in Russia's history and folklore ever since. Today almost 50 million people -- a third of Russia's population -- live in the Volga basin, and many of Russia's greatest cities call its banks home.
The best way to experience the Volga is aboard a Russian river cruise ship during the summer months. These range anywhere from 10 hours to three days and often stop at medieval cities and little-visited towns along the way. A popular choice is the section from Moscow to Astrakhan, which covers practically the whole length of the river.
Wu Gorge, part of the Three Gorges system, on the Yangtze River
The Yangtze is China's greatest river -- it has been an important transportation route for several thousand years. Its headwaters originate deep in the Tibetan mountains and from there flow for some 6,000 kilometers (about 4,000 miles) into the Pacific Ocean. Only the Amazon and Nile are longer.
Ancient Chinese civilization first developed along the Yellow River and thereafter spread to the lower Yangtze basin and the rich agricultural lands of Sichuan. Serving as the main link between these areas, the Yangtze has played a pivotal role throughout most of Chinese history. Today, many of China's greatest cities lie along the its banks, including Shanghai, Yangzhou, Nanjing, Wuhan and Chongqing.
To travel it you can hop along the river in stages using different forms of aquatic public transport, or you can sign up with one of the tour companies, which offer cruises of various lengths and luxury. Cruises last three to nine days and generally plow between Shanghai to Chongqing, with many stops along the way.
The most famous part of the river is the Three Gorges area between Chongqing and Yichang. This route has changed considerably after the recent Three Gorges Dam project, but it is still definitely worth doing.
>> Check out Yangtze River cruises.
View over the Orinoco River
At 2,140 kilometers, the Orinoco, which is located almost entirely in Venezuela, is the third largest river in the world. It begins at the Delgado Chalbaud mountains and ends in a wide delta which branches into hundreds of rivers and waterways that flow through 41,000 square kilometers of swampy forests before reaching the Gulf of Paría and Atlantic Ocean. This encompasses the largest tropical delta in the world.
The delta's maze of narrow creeks and channels, which cut between thousands of low islands of palm forests and mangroves, is the Orinoco's main draw, as this area is extremely rich with diverse flora and fauna, including jaguars, pumas, ocelots, red howler and capuchin monkeys, capybaras, manatees, dolphins, macaws, parrots, toucans, harpy eagles, anacondas, iguanas, caimans, turtles, piranhas, stingrays and catfish (to name a few).
Organized tours, during which you will be jetted around for a few days on a motorized canoe, can be arranged through tour agencies around the country. Day trips can be organized, but most trips involve at least one night's stay in the heart of the jungle, usually in stilted houses among the native Warao communities, or in lodges constructed in remote parts of the delta.