Cruising the Amazon
"We watch the locals fishing and they wave at us, proudly holding out their catches for our digital cameras."
As our plane begins its descent towards the Amazon rainforest, the only break in the carpet of rich, luscious, green canopy is the occasional glimmer of light from the winding grey river below. It is a timeless scene, unaffected by the passing of the centuries and seemingly unchanged by human interference. From this height you quickly begin to realise why: the Peruvian corner of the world’s largest rainforest appears vast and impenetrable – one of the Earth’s few remaining unconquered territories.
Luckily, we plan to explore it by water: the only way to make an inroad into the dense jungle to discover the rich concentration of some of the world’s most diverse and exotic flora and fauna hidden in the trees.
The heat embraces us as we step off the plane in the tiny, dusty city of Iquitos, our palms instantly damp in the stifling humidity and blazing sunshine. Beyond the rudimentary shacks, the lush foliage of the Amazon shimmers in the heat, at once mesmerisingly beautiful and peaceful. The noisy chatter of birds and the buzz of insects are the only clues to our future forays into the jungle as we board our vessel under the cover of night.
We arrive exhausted and sweaty. Luckily, there is no roughing it on this expedition and our first night aboard the 5-star ‘Aria Amazon’ is spent enjoying a three-course tasting menu, excellent wine and exotic Amazonian fruits as we sail deeper into the heart of the rainforest. The 147-foot-long Aria Amazon, which was launched in 2011, is the first truly luxurious expedition cruise vessel on the northern Amazon and was custom built for Aqua Expeditions by the renowned Peruvian architect Jordi Puig to offer an extraordinary level of comfort to their guests. It can accommodate a maximum of 32 passengers plus a dedicated crew of 26, including a cruise director, paramedic and four English-speaking naturalist guides.
This luxury cruise ship is the perfect size to sail along the sultry Amazon, providing an extremely comfortable inboard and outboard lounge, indoor bar, shaded observation deck, luxuriously appointed dining and sleeping accommodation, outdoor jacuzzi, exercise room, massage room, shopping in the inboard boutique, with modern navigation technologies and standards for cruise ship travel and safety on the water.
The Aria Amazon’s 16 ‘Design Suites’, which include four master suites, are equally lavish and feature private en-suite lounge areas, polished timber flooring and a generous outward-facing wall of floor-to-ceiling windows affording panoramic views of the Amazon and its lush and verdant banks. Each of the beautifully decorated air-conditioned Design Suites are located across the first and second deck and measure between 240 to 250 square feet. Four of these suites can be interconnected, to cater for families. The en-suite bathrooms with rain shower and organic bath amenities incorporate the very latest eco-sensitive technology.
The next morning we awake to see the trees passing calmly by our bedroom window as we sail towards one of the tributaries we will be exploring more intimately on skiffs – small flatbottom boats with outboard motors. We watch attentively as huge jabiru storks flap past and listen to the curious bray of horned screamers, more popularly known as the donkey bird because of its unique call.
Then, on our simple but sturdy skiffs, we embark on a series of Indiana Jones-style expeditions deep into the jungle, spurred on by the calls of howler monkeys and flashes of brilliant colour from exotic birds such as the hyacinth macaw and hoatzin. It is the wet season and much of the land is completely flooded as we sail into a tributary known as the Mirrored Forest. So, instead of exploring on foot, we glide under treetop canopies by skiff, watching spider monkeys dart along the branches above. Spectacular iridescent butterflies flutter by while indolent sloths turn their heads in our direction as our naturalist guides impersonate their mating calls.
The jungle is loud and imposing and I am struck by how many different bird, monkey and insect species we spot as we negotiate a blackwater stream in the Yanallpa River. The rainforest is home to nearly a third of the world’s species and the sense of being watched unnerves us as we spot tiny eyes glittering from between the trees. Look around quickly and you’ll see nothing. Concentrate, and there are scarlet macaws and noisy night monkeys seemingly oblivious to our boat chugging lazily through the water while the sunlight catches the glint of my trusted Swarovski binoculars.
There is also a surprising amount of river traffic: whole communities live along the bank, sustained by the incredible ecosystem. Most have adopted simple lifestyles that complement the natural harmony of the jungle and their lives barely impact upon their surroundings. We do, sadly, also spot loggers and industrial fishermen and see first-hand the damage they do.
As we explore the 20,000 square kilometre Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, we watch the locals fishing and they wave at us, proudly holding out their catches for the click-click of our digital cameras. Then we visit them in their villages where we present them with pens, paper and clothes and they sell us necklaces with alternating beads and piranha teeth.
The most spectacular moment of our entire trip comes as darkness falls. Night holds a different magic in the rainforest. As the sun drops over the lip of the horizon, the deafening cacophony of howler monkeys, night birds, brightly-coloured tree frogs and buzzing insects increases to an almost unbearable volume. That night, near the Yanayacu Lake, we watch thousands of fireflies wink in the thick soupy darkness as our skiff negotiates the branches and trees strewn across the river.
Night is also the best time to search for caimans. These creatures, a smaller cousin of the crocodile, are best spotted by their eyes, which glow red in torchlight. We manage to catch a spectacled caiman and a black caiman (luckily both babies), and the guides hand them to us to gently hold and take pictures with, their glistening reptilian skin reflecting the light from our torches.
Thrilled by our encounter with the baby caimans, we go in search of a much larger reptile: the mighty anaconda. The snakes, members of the boa family who kill their prey by constriction, can apparently grow up to five metres long. We find one, just a couple of metres in length, and then sit at a safe distance while our four naturalist guides wrestle with the majestic creature before lowering it carefully back into the water, completely unharmed. The night ends with a glass of champagne onboard the skiffs as the sun sets behind the ancient trees.
The following evening, we take the skiffs out and cruise between enormous lily pads, their powdery pink flowers unfurled in a dazzle of colour among the greens and greys of the trees and river. We smile as baby jacanas, tiny moorhen-like birds, dart about the pads, making high-pitched cheeps. But as our guides start to exchange wary looks, we notice the sky darkening and the clouds thickening and we turn swiftly towards home. Regardless of their efforts we are too far away and get absolutely soaked, despite our heavy-duty anoraks. When we eventually scramble off the skiffs back on to our luxury river cruiser, the group is in high spirits as we laugh at our adventure.
The next day, during the long, hot afternoon, we go piranha fishing in the Carocurahuayte Lake. We hook the vicious creatures with their blood-like reddish-orange colouring, and then throw them back alive. Our four-night cruise ends with an evening trip on the skiffs to watch a stunning sunset streaked with red and orange. The lake is bordered by imposing trees standing motionless where they have for countless decades. We sit contentedly as schools of ancient species of pink and grey dolphins breach the placid waters just a couple of arm’s lengths from our boat. It is a scene that has endured through the centuries, barely touched by the passing of time. But for just one night, its startling beauty is forever etched in my memory as the wonderful, otherworldly Amazon.
Peru Tourism Bureau: visitperu.com
Aqua Expeditions: aquaexpeditions.com