Ride The Snake

An adventure into the Peruvian Amazon is a chance to delve into an ancient and captivating landscape unlike any other, discovers Nick Walton.
Photos: Nick Walton & Aqua Expeditions

The Amazon River. Even the words sound exotic. It’s a name that conjures up the most captivating of places, the deepest of jungles, the longest of waterways, the wildest of beasts, and the furthest of frontiers. I’ve been fascinated with the Amazon River since I was a child, when I would gaze up at a National Geographic world map in my biologist Grandmother’s study, tracing its course with my tiny fingers, struggling with the pronunciation of its settlements and tributaries. The map was produced the year I was born and since then many things have changed – borders have shifted, and names have been rewritten – but the Amazon has remained, perennial, seemingly infinite. There’s a timelessness to the Amazon – it’s been here before we were, and with careful management and respect by both those who live along its banks and the increasing number of well-heeled travellers that ply its waters, it will be here well after we’re gone.

Such reflection comes easy when you’re actually on the great waterway. From my perch at the prow of the Aria Amazon, a stout yet luxurious river cruiser operated by Amazon gurus Aqua Expeditions, the expanse of the river is before me, the same colour as my morning coffee due to recently flooding – infinitely wide, impossibly powerful, tenacious in its temperament. It’s little wonder, as the sun begins to struggle out of bed, its rays shimmering off the water and sending tree- bound macaws into a symphony of morning gossip, that the ancient Manaós tribe called the Amazon “the mother serpent of the world.”

When we think of the Amazon we often think of Brazil and its mighty, albeit threatened forests. But that’s like starting a book three quarters of the way into the story. The tale of this intriguing network of tributaries, streams and rivulets starts far up stream, in Peru, where the river is better protected and easier to access, and that’s where my adventure is just beginning.

It’s the first morning of a seven-day cruise round-trip from the river-edge town of Nauta, where the waters of the Mananon and Ucayali collide to mark the beginning of the Amazon River. The night before, my fellow guests and I travelled from Iquitos, the most inland port in the world and another destination smudged by dirty fingers on my grandmother’s map. The capital of the Peruvian River region, Iquitos is only accessible by boat or plane and lies under siege by the wilderness beyond, a jungle that constitutes 60 percent of the country. We had boarded the Aria at last light and cruised into the encroaching darkness.

The next morning things can only be described as serene. As wide as a pair of Los Angles highways, the river meanders around amiable turns on which one bank is always steep and ragged, the other smooth and shallow, a process caused by the water’s subtle samba across the landscape. Ripples appear ahead, and a pair of pint-sized pink dolphins breech the still waters and escort us northwest.

This is Aqua Expeditions’ backyard. The company, founded by intrepid Italian American adventurer Francesco Galli Zugaro, was the first to bring world- class river cruising to the Amazon with the launch in 2008 of the 12-cabin Aqua Amazon. Today the company offers three, four and sevennight itineraries that journey deep into the Peruvian Amazon basin and delve into the acclaimed Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, which is framed by the Pacaya, Samiria and Yanayacu-Pucate rivers and is home to protected populations of spider monkeys, arrau turtles, giant river otters, and scarlet macaws, as well as the most extensive floodable forest, or várzea, in the Amazon rainforest. It’s a truly special corner of the world that most people have never heard of.

The Aria Amazon, now the company’s sole ship on the Amazon (although work on a second is well underway), is the perfect platform from which to explore this remarkable landscape. Designed by Peruvian architect and interior designer Jordi Puig to be the epitome of understated luxury, the Aria’s 16 suites wouldn’t be out of place in a design-savvy Manhattan boutique hotel. There are polished wood floors and spacious ensuites, Peruvian cotton linens and floor-to-ceiling picture windows. Unseen stewards tidy up while you’re out on excursions, ensuring you return
from the heat of the river to a blissfully cool and contemporary space where you can collect your thoughts and recharge your batteries. One level above my suite is Aria’s restaurant, where exotic and intriguing ingredients from the jungle and from local producers are used to create insightful, modern Peruvian cuisine. Above the dining room, the observation lounge is the heart of the ship, especially during evening debriefings conducted over cocktails, while an outdoor lounge and plunge pool is the perfect setting for early risers and sun worshippers.

After a hearty breakfast in the sun-kissed restaurant, the domain of the infinitely-elegant cruise director Julianna, my fellow passengers and I gear up for our first excursion on the river. During the night we’ve cruised against the Marañón’s eight knot current, leaving civilization well and truly in our wake. The river here is broad and placid at its surface. The dolphins, grey and pink and inquisitive, continue to make appearances and occasionally long boats from the river’s remote Maina Indian communities drift by, their occupants shading from the sun under brightly-hued parasols.

Most days on the river are punctuated by two guided excursions, one before lunch and one as the day’s heat begins to ebb. No two adventures on the river are the same; from the ship’s powerful skiffs we spot exquisite great egrets, neo-tropic cormorants and jabiru storks. On early morning explorations of narrow river backwaters, spotted and howler monkeys race through the canopies that line the riverbanks, and in the shade, we spy ancient-looking Hoatzin birds with gleaming red eyes. As the light fades we use torches to track caymans in the shallows, blinking fire flies racing past like tiny fighter jets as we chase the sunset home.

The Aria’s Peruvian expedition team, led by the ever-grinning Julio and made up of experienced naturalists, has a goal for each excursion – from finding sleepy anacondas among the dead logs that litter the river banks during the dry season (when we do find one the intrepid pose for photos with the great snake running across their shoulders), to visiting the rangers of remote anti-poaching stations, where river turtle eggs are incubated – yet each adventure is ultimately determined by the wildlife. We stop, mesmerized, when we discover green tree iguanas clutching the branches of a fallen tree, and when a shy, dog-sized capybara emerges from the thick jungle to sip at the river’s waters. At other moments nature continues at its own frantic pace as we explore the intricate network of waterways – above us cocoi herons nimbly step from branch to branch in the canopies, a black collar hawk glides down for a silent kill, and later, in the shade of ancient palmito trees, schools of piranha race towards the bait of our hand lines during one of the Aria’s most popular activities.

While daily lectures are an insight into the Amazon River’s complex ecosystems, the challenges it faces, and the symbiotic relationships that make
it so fragile, each guide is also a treasure trove of information and none seem to tire of my ceaseless questioning. “The river has a life of its own,” says Julio as he serves cold beers during an impromptu mid-river sundowner session. “There are so many layers to the river, so many interconnections. Every day here is different, that’s part of what draws people back time and time again.”

As you might expect, conservation is a central theme of the expedition and on and off the ship we learn about the efforts of the Peruvian authorities to protect species like jaguar, black caymans and squirrel monkeys, and the challenge of getting these messages across to distant communities for whom hunting in the jungle has been a way of life for centuries. Despite the efforts of the government and private sector to change man’s often destructive ways, river turtles, dolphins and even tayra, a type of large weasel, can still be found for sale in the wet markets of Nauta.

We also hear about the folklore and superstition that has kept some species, including the beautiful, shy river dolphins, the so called demonio de largua or demon of the water, relatively safe from deliberate poaching during visits to remote communities, including the 100-strong village
of Contamanillo, where guests donate school supplies, matches, saltand kerosene, prized possessions for people so far from civilization.
However, through it all, there is the river, always moving, always evolving, ebbing and flowing with the seasons as it carves its path through the jungle, and our journey has been a truly unforgettable opportunity to see this unique ecosystem in play. We finish our adventure by finally immersing ourselves in the waters of the Amazon River, with a smile from Julio and a promise that our splashing and celebration is sure to scare off the larger caymans and anacondas. The risk is surely worth it.

Seven-night expedition from US$8,925 per person; www.aquaexpeditions.com

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