Floating along Peru’s Amazon basin is exotic and laden with ancient mystery, a tropical soundtrack, haute cuisine, enchanted creatures and therapeutic mud
The air is humid, heavy with tropical scents. Crickets, grasshoppers, and tree frogs hum in the early evening. It’s dark.
Dinner is fresh chunks of ceviche and flaky Doncella (“jungle fish”) on fresh-picked plaintain (denser, less sweet, more delicious than banana), after which another soundtrack starts: maracas, drums, pan flute, charango (ukelele-type instrument), cajón (box drum with guitar strings).
All this while floating upriver deep into the Peruvian Amazon.
Ceviche, the go-to dish of Peru's celebrated cuisine, aboard the Delphin II (Image: Barb Sligl)
We’re on the Ucayali, which joins the Marañon to flow in the Rio Amazonas. These wide, slow-moving waters (the Amazon’s principal headwaters) have an air of the exotic, laden with ancient mystery. Low-lying vegetation and branches hang over the riverbanks and sodden logs bump against the boat as it goes by.
Tucked in bed, the bangs and night cries from ashore are oddly comforting. There’s nothing but the wild outside. This is the Amazon Basin.
An Enchanted Amazon
The riverboat is the Delphin II, a small yet posh vessel with haute cuisine (that verifies all the hype Peruvian food gets), gleaming wood floors and floor-to-ceiling cabin windows, plush sofas and settees and hammocks to lounge in. But the best part is the views from these vantage points.
One day a pink dolphin’s gleaming back arches out of the water to collective gasps. Only found here, these curious creatures are revered by locals and referred to as encantado or enchanted (legend says that eating the creature causes craziness—or gets women pregnant).
Here, in the Upper Amazon, everything seems a little encantado. Life is redolent, teeming, exaggerated…like the giant Victoria lily pads that look as if they’re off of a fantasy film set, or the friendly furry faces of squirrel monkeys that swing, leap and seemingly fly from trunk to branch to treetop alongside the boat. Locals say spirits protect the forest, and there does seem to be some kind of spell cast over this verdant riverscape.
The landscape in the Upper Amazon is teeming with life (Image: Barb Sligl)
On a dawn wildlife viewing tour, we glide through still waters and pink-hued morning mist to see a fish hawk waiting (to gobble one of those small monkeys) and a huge iguana lounging.
Then, at twilight, we see a black caiman (the jungle’s version of an alligator), more frolicking monkeys and an upside-down sloth. There are also hopping kissing fish, red-beaked jacana, long-nosed bats, blue morpho butterflies, vocal kingfishers…each day we glimpse another species.
Biodiversity and Remote Villages
We’re in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve and this vast stretch (some 20,000 square km) of jungle remains isolated from the outside world. With that comes great biodiversity: over 500 bird species (from the fish hawk to the jacana), 132 mammals (from the jaguar to the three-toed sloth), over 200 reptiles (hello giant anaconda and caiman), 58 amphibians (like the bassy tree frog), 259 fish (from giant paiche to toothy piranhas) and well over 1,200 plants (like the massive-trunked lupuna tree).
The Delphin II launches out of Nauta, a riverside settlement that only recently became connected by paved road to Iquitos, Peru’s only city in the jungle, which itself cannot be reached other than by plane or boat. The same isolation that helps protect biodiversity has kept remote villages largely sheltered from modern influence.
And yet, walking a kilometre through jungle into one settlement, we’re greeted by kids playing soccer and blasting Justin Bieber. Really. Still, the schoolgirls (with names like Daniela and Gladys) have such sweet smiles and tidy uniforms that, in many ways, they remain a world apart.
Villages in the Amazonian jungle may be remote, but locals are friendly and gather to greet visitors (Image: Barb Sligl)
There are some 100,000 people scattered in such communities on the fringes of the reserve. Known as “ribereños,” they sell handicrafts, fish and help protect the wildlife from poaching. It’s their way of life they’re protecting, too.
Along one of the countless little tributaries that stem off of the Ucayali, we come across Pablo, a local boy who helps us fish for piranhas, and then, on another, a woman who shows us her boat-load of armoured catfish.
A Therapeutic Mud Bath
And then there’s the mud. This being the dry season (rainy season is October to April, when waters rise and flood much of the rainforest), the banks of the river expose plenty of rich, gooey, chocolate-like muck. So we take yet another gift the Amazon offers, slather on the therapeutic stuff (think spa treatment), let it dry over a local brew and game of volleyball on a sandbar, then take a dip to rinse off.
Yes, these are the waters of caimans, toothed dolphins and piranhas (not to mention anacondas), but when in the Amazon…