15 June 2016 by Rachel Mostyn
Far away from Peru’s usual tourist trail, two luxury cruise ships explore seldom-seen stretches of the Amazon basin.
About the Amazon
The Amazon is a bewitching mistress. It spans a continent. Its tributaries and sub-tributaries number around 15,000, five of which larger than any river in Europe. It is, in the eyes of many, the longest river on earth, rivalled only by the Nile, and feeds the world’s largest rainforest. Until recently, plying its murky waters meant cramped and crowded riverboats, sleeping in windowless cabins or sweltering in hammocks, dodging huge insects and plugging your ears against relentlessly throbbing engines.
Admittedly, the payoff is some of the most intriguing and exotic wildlife on the planet: rare river dolphins, pink-footed tarantulas, black-collared hawks and red howler monkeys, to name but a soupçon of species. There are spectacular sunsets and cacophonous dawns, raging waterfalls and tangled green creepers.
How to explore the Amazon
Fortunately, it’s now possible to see all of this without running out of water or spending days broken down on a caiman-crawling mud bank. The trick is to go to Peru, by far the best for boating of the five main Amazonian countries. Sixty-five per cent of Peru is in the Amazon basin, and some of the forest’s least touched areas lie within its borders.
Two luxury riverboats offer comfortable cruises without sacrificing authenticity. The Aria Amazon is luxury cruise ship on the northern Amazon River, offering air-conditioned cabins, with en suite sitting areas and generous picture windows. Delfin II is newer still, and its standard cabins are of an equally high standard (air conditioning and a good shower will never be more appreciated than in 88% humidity) and its four master suites boast 180° panoramic windows.
Food of the Amazon
Fine dining deep in the Amazon jungle may sound unlikely, but food aboard both ships rivals anything in Lima. Menus draw on Peruvian, Creole and European influences, served on fine china among the twinkle of candlelight, the impenetrable jungle an ever-changing tableau outside.
The open-sided top decks are where you’ll go to relax between river excursions. The bars on each deliver knockout pisco sours, the cocktail of choice when relaxing in a hammock or snoozing on a sofa.
Both ships are boarded in the town of Iquitos, a ramshackle rubber-boom city of almost half a million people, well off Peru’s usual tourist trail of Machu Picchu, Cusco and Lake Titicaca. From its clamorous dock you’ll head deep into the jungle, your eventual goal the Pacaya-Samiria national reserve, a vast flooded forest covering five million acres at the headwaters of the Amazon basin. It’s in this reserve, home to elusive jaguars and countless species of birds, that the Ucayali and Marañon rivers meet and the mighty Amazon begins its 3,800 km journey to the Atlantic.
Exploring the Amazon
Every morning and afternoon, local guides, raised on the river, will lead excursions in motorised skiffs. While you adjust to the early morning sunshine, watching fishermen paddling their dugout canoes, their eyes and ears will be focussed on the jungle. With their help there’s no limit to what you might see: a giant otter doing repairs to his nest, cheeky capuchin monkeys leaping from tree to tree, sloths curled tightly in the clefts of gnarled trunks. The sky could be a buzz of parrots and toucans, blue morpho butterflies with wings the size of hands might be flittering over hyacinths. You could see horned screamers, the largest birds in Peru, or the prehistoric looking hoatzin, whose chicks have evolved to grow claws on their wings so they can climb back to their nests should they slip and fall out.
After dark, keep an eye out for bats and tarantulas, the glowing eyes of a jaguar, or dazzled baby caiman, so frozen by a flashlight they can be hoiked from the water to pose for a photo.
No trip to the Amazon is complete without fishing for piranha. Rods are made from horsehair grass stalks and hooks are baited with beef. Catch enough of these red-bellied creatures with rows of fearsome teeth and you’ll win the crew’s affection – they regularly fry them for a tasty fish supper.
Pink river dolphins
Another memorable encounter will be with pink river dolphins. Unlike their oceanic cousins, these emblems of the Amazon can’t jump, they merely glide beneath the teastained water, breaking it occasionally with their snouts to take breath. They are also protected – not by law but by superstition. Locals believe that if you kill one, your next child will die at birth; if you eat it, you’re certain to become impotent. They’re not the only creature to have a place in Amazonian folklore: iguana too are given a wide birth. Should you touch one, you’ll inherit its traits, and no one wants to be that ugly.
Finally, near the birthplace of the Amazon itself, both trips reach their climax with a visit to the native village of Puerto Miguel. After a dawn excursion past riverbanks populated with large-billed terns, laughing falcons, grey tanagers and five kinds of parakeets, your skiff will arrive at the village. The chance to meet the locals and learn of their customs is a highlight for many a traveller. You can often trade items for local handicrafts, but what you’ll never put a price on are your memories of life on the river.
To weigh anchor on your own Amazon adventure, call a Latin America specialist on 020 7838 5966 or email your enquiry to [email protected].