Peruvian Amazon: The river wild

The Peruvian Amazon can now be experienced on board a luxury boat, whose slender design can navigate rarely visited tributaries and call on tribal villages.

By Chris Peacock
Published 9 Feb 2012, 11:43 GMT, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 17:26 BST

"There are four things you need to survive in the rainforest,Victor declares in a gesticulating show of bravado. "A machete, a mosquito net, a box of matches and some salt."

I realise our squat but robust naturalist guide is playfully teasing the woeful survival skills of the city slickers before him. For even with rucksacks groaning under the weight of high-tech tools, life-saving medication, GPS devices and a full-scale military arsenal, we wouldn't last five minutes on our own in the teeming jungle that enveloped us on the mirror-like black water creek.

Victor Coelho, however, is a man who considers the jungle his own back yard, and for whom survival is simply second nature, having grown up with the age-old wisdom of his forefathers and generations of rivereños — communities of farmers and fisherman living along the Amazon riverbanks.

To illustrate his prowess Victor recalls the time he willingly spent days alone in the el infierno verde (the green hell) with nothing but the contents of his modest jungle hamper: a machete to cut, carve and bludgeon his way through the mass of vegetation; a mosquito net to protect himself from the legions of blood-thirsty parasites; matches to cook with and light fires to help stay dry amid the relentless damp; and salt for preserving the bounty of freshwater fish in the rivers and creeks — from piranha and eel to tambaqui and paiche (catfish).

All this does is confirm why I should be sticking to Victor like a leech for the next few days and not straying from the mother ship, Aria — the river cruiser taking us on its four-night expedition. We will sail from Peru's jungle capital, Iquitos into the depths of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve — at over five million acres, the planet's largest wetland reserve.

Sister to the Aqua, the first luxury ship to navigate the dense Peruvian Amazon back in 2008, the 32-berth Aria allows its passengers to explore rarely visited tributaries thanks to its narrow frame and crew of expert guides and navigators, all the while offering astonishing luxury in the heart of the world's largest jungle. Whether cruising on a three-, four- or seven-night itinerary, the premise is the same. The sprawling wilderness of Pacaya-Samiria — home to more than 250 species of fish, close to 500 varieties of bird, 150 different reptiles and amphibian, and dozens of types of orchid — is explored on daily excursions aboard lightweight skiffs to penetrate the smaller channels and creeks of the flooded forest.

Between excursions passengers are free to take a siesta, listen to wildlife and conservation lectures, mingle at the bar with a pisco sour or two, or indulge in the onboard cuisine, which utilises as much Amazonian produce as possible, including hearts of palm, salted paiche and chiclayo beans.

During the short flight from Lima to Iquitos, the prospect of this contrast — between the untamed, violent wilderness beyond the ship's bows and obvious five-star luxury onboard — had made me anxious. Was I, after years of boyhood daydreams about lost tribes, flesh-eating piranhas and poison-spitting snakes, about to embark on a wholly sanitised exploration of the Amazon?

But as I boarded the ship in a blanket of darkness at the small town of Nauta, around an hour's drive from Iquitos, I was ushered on board with a provocative welcome: "Are you ready for an adventure?" I sure am, I thought to myself, and if I can combine it with decent food, running water and a comfortable bed, then all the better.

To the trees

Pulling back the curtains in my hotel room-sized cabin the following morning I was struck by the huge, framed image of dense green forest and fast-flowing water right outside my window. And after a quick breakfast and briefing we were soon settled on the skiffs, cruising across a misty Marañon River before Victor signalled to his driver to turn into what he called 'the galley forest'.

Towering banks of trees flanked us on both sides with thick curtains of foliage, gnarled trunks and twisted branches leading us deeper into a hidden black-water creek. I tried to spy land amid this tangled tunnel of greenery but, as Victor explained, there were no riverbanks here, or land. It was high-water season, during which the Amazon floods the surrounding plains for 135,000sq miles, making the river up to an astonishing 28 miles wide in parts.

Think of it not so much as a forest but an enormous, country-sized lake, chock-full of trees and coffee-like black water — the result of vegetation decaying and releasing acidic tannins into the water. In among the decomposing plant life and organic sludge, vibrant green rafts of water lettuce revealed crawling lawns of insects and scurrying frogs as the skiff ploughed through the stewed waters.

Being the utter novice when it comes to spotting wildlife, I craned my neck up into the canopy of trees, half expecting a staged procession of raucous birds and mammals to greet us for their opening act. But finding wildlife in a rainforest requires a degree of patience and a forensic ability to decipher clues, to listen out for calls, cries or rustling in the foliage that tell you whether it's a group of squirrel monkeys emerging overhead or a retreating family of alarmed monk sakis — a distinctly odd-looking monkey named on account of its peculiar hair-do.

Thankfully, because Victor and his team of Aria guides knew the jungle inside out they were able to react immediately to the slightest hint of wildlife; instantly cutting out the engine to prevent scaring anything off and pointing to an individual tree or branch, or interpreting distant shapes in the endless blue skies above.

Each of our group had a particular roll call of beasts they were hankering for — me, an anaconda, sloth and perhaps even a jaguar — but even when A-list animals were hidden off-stage, Victor and co. were able to provide a fascinating insight into all creatures great and small, from legions of stinging ants marching up an aguaje tree to hundreds of multi-coloured butterflies basking in the sun.

The birds, however, certainly weren't shy. Peru is home to a staggering 18,000 species, the majority of which reside in the rainforest, creating a Phil Spector-esque wall of cries, screeches, tweets, growls and squawks. It was hard keeping up with Victor's sightings, from bright blue macaws angrily conversing in the treetops and shrilling kingfishers darting across the water, to croaking herons idly watching the world go by and the hideous chorus of flapping horned screamers — a bird that, according to locals, sounds like a donkey, walks like a duck, flies like a turkey and tastes like chicken. Even without sightings of birds, insects or mammals, the jungle proved a strangely hypnotic world, full of intrigue and promise, leaving as much to the imagination as to tangible experiences.

As we crept through a shifting spectrum of light, texture and sound, there was an enduring feeling that something greater lay beyond our vision in the immensity of the jungle ahead, drawing us further from civilisation into the Amazon's abyss.

But it was only our first excursion and with the oppressive midday sun drawing in, our skiffs took us back to the Aria to freshen up, re-civilise and mull over the morning's action with an elaborate lunch of river fish and forest fruits, celebrating the culinary flair of the Aria's executive chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino — considered to be at the forefront of Peru's culinary scene, with his Lima restaurant, Malabar, on the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list.

In fact, every bracing excursion into the Amazon's backwaters was followed by an equally exotic meal on board, from chicken consommé with yucca and banana dumplings to paiche fish in sacha culantro (Amazon weed) and cecina broth, providing ample time to wind down or simply gaze at the ever-changing panorama outside, wondering what curious creatures awaited us next.

Animal magic

Each new foray into the Amazon's tributaries presented ever more of its weird and wonderful inhabitants while revealing some of Mother Nature's truly bizarre quirks and oddities. We were treated to the first of many sightings of Amazon river dolphins on our first evening trip. Known locally as botos, these freshwater mammals look similar to grey dolphins but display a striking pink flush, thought to be the result of blood capillaries near the surface of the skin. They can remain underwater for up to 15 minutes using a powerful sonar to find fish in the murky waters — their appearance always caught me off guard. A fleeting splash or spray announcing their arrival would have me frantically scrambling for my camera, only to be left watching a sliver of pink momentarily rise and glimmer above the surface before disappearing into the inky depths.

One creature that certainly wasn't in a hurry to disappear was the ludicrously long-limbed three-toed sloth, spotted nonchalantly hanging high in a cecropia tree, basking in the morning sun. Although moving at a painfully sluggish rate, slowly reaching his long hooked grappling claws from branch to branch, Victor joked we were lucky to witness a sloth in such a frenzy of activity — the animal having been visibly alarmed by an eagle cry overhead.

Three-toed sloths may look peculiar with their smiley bandit faces, comically oversized limbs, upside-down-growing hair (so rainwater runs off more easily) and camouflaging green tinge (caused by algae), but this is nothing compared to their bewildering biology and behaviour. Not only do they spend at least 18 hours a day asleep but they have the slowest metabolism of any mammal, descending from the canopy only once a week to deposit dung on the forest floor — an activity that expends so much energy they're forced to sleep again. And although travelling at a top speed of just 0.15mph, three-toed sloths are impressively agile swimmers, gracefully gliding the waters to seek new feeding — and sleeping — grounds.

But as eccentric as our lethargic friend was, he was quite ordinary compared with what awaited us next: a prehistoric and enigmatic species. Jubilant after reeling off sloth action shots on our cameras, Victor frantically waved his arms in the air to muster our attention, gleefully pointing to a brown, spiky-crested bird in the shrubs ahead. What looked like a perched, upright pheasant on first inspection was in fact a hoatzin, one of the world's strangest living birds.

Known locally as the stinkbird — thanks to a leathery sack in its crop that slowly breaks down leaves using bacterial fermentation, causing a horrendous manure-like smell — the origins of the hoatzin's odd characteristics have foxed zoologists for years. As well as a call like a heavy smoker's wheeze and a long, distinguished neck and tail, it has piercing, blood-red eyes encircled by bright blue skin. But the most perplexing thing about this creature, thought to be related to the first known bird, archaeopteryx, is that its chicks are born with claws on their wings, Victor whispered; to escape predators, young hoatzins drop into the water and swim under the surface, later using their clawed wings to climb back up the tree into the nest.

With sloth and hoatzin checked off I was hoping to lay eyes on two of the jungle's more elusive dwellers: a monster anaconda and mystical jaguar. Quizzing Victor on our chances of tracking these fearsome predators, he sighed that in the four years of Aqua Expeditions a jaguar had only been seen on five occasions; mainly because these solitary beasts move and hunt largely at night. Victor thought we'd have more luck with anacondas but even these were notoriously difficult to find; only their eyes and nasal openings visible above water, allowing them to lie in wait for prey while submerged.

During our expedition it seemed we were always one step behind these giant serpents — green anacondas can grow to more than 30ft — stumbling upon almost-meetings and traces of what could have been. Our closest encounter was on day four when Victor spotted the imprint of an anaconda's huge coils on the floating vegetation where it'd been warming in the sun minutes earlier.

Giant anacondas may have eluded us but we were fortunate to spy South America's most poisonous and feared snake, the fer-de-lance. Draped across a slither of water lettuce, it may only have been a baby but fer-de-lance bites are extremely painful, and fatal — their venom ravaging a victim's circulatory system and rotting their flesh. With this gruesome detail buzzing round my head I was more than happy to move on and take my chances fishing for flesh-eating piranha that afternoon on Lake Charo.

Village people

While this beguiling natural world offered endless wildlife encounters, I was eager to learn more about the hardy rivereños communities of the Peruvian Amazon to understand how people like Victor have become so finely tuned to life on the river.

On day four we reached the confluence of the Marañon and Ucayali rivers, marking the start of the main Amazon flow and, judging by the increasing number of river rafts and fishing canoes, the reappearance of civilisation. To gain a snapshot of river life we paid a visit to Puerto Miguel, one of several communities Aqua Expeditions helps — by finding buyers for its handicrafts, providing medical supplies and arranging regular visits from a travelling doctor. It also works closely with park authorities, runs environmental conservation programmes and helps to educate villagers about more sustainable uses of forest resources.

After mooring and being greeted by crowds of inquisitive children, we were free to explore a bustling village with stilted wooden huts perched high above the flooded river. Where the waters had recently subsided a chaotic game of football ensued between screaming mud-splattered children, while parents set about arranging homemade items for perusal — from bowls and jewellery to animal carvings and woven baskets.

Such an experience could have easily transgressed into guilt-laden voyeurism if it weren't for the presence of our impressive guides who clearly have a great relationship and rapport with villagers who in turn offered us a genuine welcome. Yes, poverty exists here, but only through the eyes of an outsider. For here also is a resilient community happily living off the land and river: dozens of families who have, need and want very little.

Such a humbling experience left me questioning the nature of material possessions and happiness. After all, this is a place where normally insipid goods such as salt and matches are incredibly valuable essentials and, as Victor showed, can even save your life. It also captured an enduring spirit of the Amazon that all its inhabitants, from anaconda and sloth to hoatzin and rivereño are true masters of adaptation and survival. And long may they flourish.


Getting there
There are no direct flights from the UK to Peru. Popular routes include flying to Lima from a range of UK airports via Amsterdam with KLM; from Heathrow via Miami with BA/American Airlines; and from Heathrow via Madrid with Iberia.

Average flight time: 13h.

Getting around
Iquitos is Peru's largest and best-organised river port. It isn't connected to the rest of the country by roads so a domestic flight with LAN, Star Peru or Aero Condor from Lima is the only way in. You can, in theory, travel all the way to the Atlantic Ocean from Iquitos but most boats and river cruisers departing here only travel in Peruvian waters on itineraries lasting up to seven days.

When to go
There aren't any weather seasons in the Peruvian Amazon, only periods of low and high water. Low water is from June to November and high water from December till May. Each brings differences in the plant and animal life but both are ideal times to visit. In a typical year, the rainforest experiences 200 rainy days, but the high water season is cooler and wetter with temperatures around 30C, around six degrees less than during low water.

Need to know
Currency: Peruvian nuevo sol (PEN). £1 = PEN4.2.
Health: Peru does not require any immunisations for travelling in the Amazon Basin but recommends prior vaccination against yellow fever and taking anti-malarials.
Time difference: GMT -5.
International dial code: 00 51.

How to do it
Bales Worldwide offers a week-long itinerary in Peru from £4,295 per person. This includes international and domestic flights, all transfers, three nights' B&B at the Orient-Express Miraflores Park Hotel in Lima and a four-night, full-board cruise aboard the M/V Aria with all excursions and activities.

More info
The Rough Guide to Peru.
RRP: £13.99.

Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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