Whether it is an Agatha Christie novel featuring a murder weapon laced with the serum from a poison dart frog or the Sean Connery movie Medicine Man, in which the protagonist is searching for a cure for cancer, literature and lore have long shrouded the Amazon River and the rainforest in an aura of mystery.
Spanning two fifths of the South American continent, the Amazon sustains the largest ecosystem on earth. Recently named one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of Nature’, it is home to multitudinous varieties of plants, birds, animals and insects, many of which have yet to be discovered by man. Although much of the rain forest has been compromised by deforestation, cattle farming and mineral exploration, we wanted to explore and experience the wonders of this unspoiled world in total comfort, but without harming it in any way.
Although it is frequently associated with Brazil, only about 35 percent of the rainforest in that country remains intact. Peru on the other hand has preserved much of its forests and has been getting international support for its preservation for the past 40 years. With the goal of only leaving an impression on the people we met and taking with us only an increased knowledge and appreciation of one of the last true wildernesses, we joined an International Expeditions riverboat cruise on the Peruvian Amazon.
The first decision you have to make is when to go – during the wet season (November to May) or the dry season (June to October). Since it rains for approximately 250 days a year, we knew it would be wet any time we visited, the difference being that during the wet season, rain and melting snow from the Andes cause the water level of the river to rise up to 40 feet above the dry season level. When the water is high, it is possible to travel by boat to areas that are unreachable during the dry season, but during the dry season it is easier to trek through the forests that are flooded at other times. We opted for the latter.
We joined 13 other members of the group in Iquitos – the biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon. From there we were driven to the small port town of Nauta, where we boarded the La Amatista – a purpose-built Amazon cruiser with accommodation for up to 28 guests – from where we would depart a week later.
The pace of our river journey was to be slow and sedate: we devoured the first of our nightly buffets of freshly-prepared dishes and local specialities on the first evening of the cruise, before setting off on a voyage into the mightiest river on the planet.
On the second morning, we woke before dawn and boarded two shallow-draft skiffs that took us around a bend in the river into a narrow tributary. As the sun rose, bathing the sky in a spectacular show of pinks, gold and finally vibrant blue, we heard the sounds of the forest welcoming a new day. Propelled only by the movement of the water, we drifted silently as we watched a blue kingfisher dip into the water and catch his prey only three metres away. Monkeys playfully swung from branch to branch in trees that towered 100 feet above, while a sloth just hung there, not moving at all.
While the ornithologists in the group were mesmerised by the flying herons, yellow-beak hawks, graceful storks and dozens of other species of birds, I was fascinated by the river’s edge.
Uprooted trees lay sprawled along the shore where the force of the rapidly moving water during the wet season had felled them. Fresh grasses and lily pads deceptively hid the shore that the same powerful forces had eroded. Looking up, I saw the high watermark from the last season’s flooding.
Holes gaped in the exposed sand, resembling miniature cave dwellings, when in fact they were nests for catfish eggs. The day before we had passed some local river people who were floating a cache of 10,000 catfish to market, where the delicacy would provide a good portion of their meagre yearly income.
Deep into the river’s tributary, our expert local guides secured the small boats to the water’s edge and distributed ice cold cloths and hot tea and coffee, along with a picnic breakfast (all our waste was carefully collected so as not to harm the environment). Then we had our first up-close-and-personal experience with the intriguing Amazon rainforest as we set off for a hike into the verdant forest.
The darkness beneath the dense canopy 200 feet above prevents most new growth on the forest floor, leaving the ground slippery from decaying foliage and residual moisture. Curtains of Tarzan vines drip downwards as skinny saplings strive to reach the light they need to survive. Brilliantly coloured bromeliads grow in great bunches far above, providing splashes of colour against the greens and browns that enveloped us. This is an old forest – one that has withstood the ravages of the yearly floods.
Other areas do not fare as well, as the rushing waters not only knock down trees, but also wash away great quantities of the soil, only to deposit it further down the river, changing its course, sometimes even blocking the flow completely, thus creating lakes. The sandbars and islands that form as the silt is deposited soon sprout with new vegetation; either agricultural crops such as rice or peas, which are planted by the local river dwellers, or natural grasses and later trees that eventually grow into forests.
The pattern of floods, erosion and newly-formed land is part of the natural cycle of the Amazon Basin that has existed for millennia and continues in spite of man’s impact.
Even in the so-called dry season we had rain showers almost daily, but only one true torrential downpour. The reward for getting soaked through our rain ponchos was the phenomenal double rainbow that appeared.
Each day we went on different expeditions in the skiffs to areas the riverboat could not navigate. We saw turtle nurseries where the eggs of endangered species were protected until they hatched and could be returned to their native habitat.
There were also plenty of opportunities to meet with the local communities. We went to a river village where the chief had a generator that provided electricity for a television that the village gathered around to watch for a few hours each day. We also visited a school where the children received free education until the age of 13. There we met Daisy, the beautiful 15-month-old daughter of an equally beautiful 15-year-old mother and her 19-year-old husband. The community was in the process of building a thatch-roofed house for them, elevated on stilts to protect it when the waters rose.
Because the oxygen in the water decreases during the dry season, fish come to the surface and are easy to catch. Armed with simple stick poles, we caught a plethora of piranhas, which took the bait almost as soon as we dipped our hooks into the water. The small red fish did not look like the vicious meat-eaters they are, until we saw the two rows of sharp teeth inside their mouths. That night for dinner, La Amatista’s onboard chef served our catch and, much to my surprise, it was rather good. Perhaps this is the law of the jungle – eat or be eaten. We ate every last bite.
Towards the end of the journey we visited a medicine man, or shaman, who performed a cleansing ritual. I sat silently as he chanted and brushed my head and shoulders with branches from a special tree, while blowing a type of tobacco smoke on my face and head. I felt an aura of peace envelop me, in spite of my concern over inhaling his second-hand smoke. Whether it was from being on vacation or from the cleansing, I did feel good afterwards, although I was not transformed into a believer in his healing powers as the villagers and many city dwellers are.
Back on La Amatista, life was laid-back and relaxed. Daily excursions were scheduled to avoid the hottest part of the day, providing downtime for an afternoon siesta. Some relaxed on the upper deck, spotting birds and waving at the river people we passed who were fishing, washing clothes and going about their normal activities, while others snoozed in the cabins. Upon our return from the day’s activities, our laundry would be neatly folded on our king-sized bed, next to fresh towels.
Although the boat had a radio, the scattered telephone towers meant that we were cut off from the rest of the world much of the time, increasing the feeling of isolation and remoteness that makes this area feel so unspoiled and fascinating today. Even though we spent seven days on the river, we only discovered a fraction of the secrets it hides. It would take a lifetime to uncover them all, but if you want to see for yourself what has inspired centuries of writers and poets, hop on board and prepare for the journey of a lifetime.
The following companies provide luxury accommodation and superior guides for exploring the Amazon flowing through Peru.
M/V Aqua (24 guests): 7 nights from $5,950
M/V Aria (32 guests): 7 nights from $6,300
La Amatista (28 guests): 7 days from $3,898
National Geographic Tours
Delfini (28 guests): 10 days from $5,590
All prices are per person, based on double occupancy, including meals, guides and cruise activities.