An Amazon river cruise adventure takes you deep into the heart of an intriguing and captivating wilderness, discovers Linda Aitchison
I know it’s off the beaten track but there are some things I definitely didn’t expect to be doing on an Amazon river cruise. Yet here I am, fishing for piranhas, feeling a bite at the raw beef bait attached to my wire on a stick. I bend backwards, pulling in my prey. This will be dinner tonight, baked and served with a squeeze of lime.
Above, squirrel monkeys leap between towering palms and colourful macaws call out. Iguanas and three-toed sloths rest on exotic branches.
This is the Maranon River, one of 1,100 Amazonian tributaries where today fellow travellers also reel in impressively whiskered catfish and wolf fish. In fact there are 5,600 species of fish here, but today it’s piranhas we want. Anything else is thrown back into the swirling black waters. My catch flounders on the floor of our motorised skiff before our guide Juan Carlos expertly disconnects a hook so it can join a return to our G Adventures ship, Amatista.
The ‘killer’ fish are misunderstood, insists Juan Carlos. They’re not likely to eat you other than in the unfortunate circumstances where you are already dead when you fall into the river, he says.
Everyone gasps as pink dolphins swim past and two playfully follow us. “They look grey,” I protest, but Juan Carlos explains youngsters may appear to have the same colouring as other dolphins. As they age, they develop a pinker hue. There’s another way to tell the difference: grey dolphins move their head up and down while pink ones can move it from side to side.
Naturalist Juan Carlos grew up in the Amazon basin and has an enviable intuition for finding its most compelling wildlife. He calls it “feeling the animals’ spirit”. Hours earlier, on a night-time skiff excursion to a stretch of water known as Japan Creek, he showed us long-nosed bats, clown frogs and black-collared hawks. Then he dangled his hand into the water and brought out a caiman. I cooed over the mini crocodile-like lizard, its red eyes glistening, before it was safely returned to its natural habitat.
I’ve never seen a caiman and I’ve never been fishing before. Later on at José Olaya village, I clamber into a traditional cedar dugout canoe. That’s another first for me, even if I do have an expert paddler at the helm: Agnes, a smiling 11–year-old in a Disney top. We journey along the Maranon, among reeds, water lettuce and bows I duck to avoid. One hits me square in the mouth. Used to such hiccups, Agnes doesn’t stop smiling.
It’s beautifully serene, bringing tranquillity amid a week of adventures. We trek through the jungle, go looking for sloths, meet a shaman, and river people, or ribernos, who have built their homes out of bamboo on stilts. Sometimes there are no walls.
We fly to Iquitos, the world’s biggest city that can’t be reached by road and stop off in bustling Lima. Here, the chaos of Jorge Chávez airport is unforgettable. On the Amazon, I find breathtaking scenery, welcoming people and awe-inspiring plants and creatures. Gazing across the river, I often witness a family making its way by dugout canoe – hugging the shore and paddling upstream; what I don’t see, apart from Amatista passengers, is a single other tourist.
Our ship is the 124ft Amatista which means amethyst. This classic, wooden vessel was built and fitted out by Amazon carpenters and shipwrights. It’s authentic rather than luxurious, with space for 30 passengers. Rooms are comfortable and air conditioned. A top-deck bar is a great place to unwind. The ship’s biggest asset is the knowledgeable and courteous staff. If you’re a solo traveller you are likely to share if you don’t opt for your own room. Food is varied but simple, with early breakfasts, generously portioned buffet-style lunches and more adventurous dinners with options including local meat and fish.
The ship sails the Amazon, which is around 4,000 miles (6,400km) long and reaches up to 120 miles (190km) wide. It runs through Guyana, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Peru, with no bridges.
“Always remember you’re not tourists, you’re adventurers,” says Juan Carlos as we head for a morning in the jungle. Our skiff’s driver, John, takes a machete and hacks a path through untrodden land.
Peru’s natural forest is the second largest in South America and the ninth largest in the world, covering some 73 million hectares and 60 per cent of the country.
We stop to observe uva fruit, like grapes, hanging from trees, a crickets’ nest, hidden bats and a camouflaged lizard buried underground, one blue eye wide open. I brush a bullet ant, so called because of its painful bite, from my arm and examine a Brazil nut tree up close. Despite repeated sprays with bug repellent, I’m covered in mosquito bites.
We walk about a mile and a half. On a carpet of vine, through muddy pools and up and down hill, avoiding termites’ nests, it seems a lot further. It’s humid and remote. Juan Carlos remains barefoot and climbs trees to tell us about botany and biology. Not for the first time I feel I should maybe pinch myself and see if this is really happening. I grab on to tree trunks or branches to ease my way through challenging terrain. Sometimes it stings and I hastily pull my burning fingers away. The crew has supplied wellies to help us cross swampy ground, precariously balancing on logs at times.
A downpour erupts and soothes my itching skin. Raincoats are optional, I’m caked in mud and my T-shirt is dripping wet. But I’m soon dry, as we speed back towards Amatista with a breeze blowing in our faces. Exhilarated, I close my eyes and feel the elements lifting my hair skywards. “Now you’re a real adventurer,” laughs Juan Carlos.
Every day brings something remarkable – including bird watching to spot some of a fifth of the world’s feathered population: kingfishers, toucans and herons among them. We savour a plentiful breakfast picnic wrapped in banana leaves eaten on a river carpet of water lettuce. One memorable morning we swim. Pink dolphins are close by again as we negotiate the strong current. Juan Carlos calls this area a “little piece of paradise” – it’s easy to see why.
On a sloth-hunting walk we find four, straining our necks to look above and see them lazily peering down from their tree-top vantage points. They move so slowly algae grows on their backs, someone jokes – but how cute they are. This may be Peru’s largest region, but it’s the least populated.
We spend four days in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, a green triangle known as the Jungle of Mirrors on the Maranon and Ucayali. It’s the size of Belgium with a population of 42,000.
Juan Carlos and his colleague Neil explain more in onboard presentations throughout the Amazon river cruise. Amazon ribernos have a diverse culture and heritage, with around 180 languages spoken. They live off the land, growing fruits and vegetables including bananas, passion fruit, papayas, corn, beans and popular so-called “super fruit”, acai.
We dock at Monte Alegre village, where we are welcomed by Louisa, a mum of 11 children, who has prepared a feast. It feels a privilege to meet her as she busies herself bringing our meal and recruiting volunteers to help serve it. Here, children grow up playing freely, respecting nature and learning from their grandparents and parents how to live off it as well as protect their way of life. Pigs and dogs roam wild and during our Amazon river cruise we learn farming, fishing and hunting are still major occupations.
From dishes placed on giant banana leaves, I choose tasty catfish steamed in garlic with red peppers, wild boar, boiled egg, banana and rice cooked in vine leaves. Other dishes are mashed plantain, chicken, a powder called farina and a spicy salsa. I’m offered sugary lemongrass tea or a warm banana and water-based liquid to drink. By way of thanks to our hosts, we are encouraged to buy handicrafts from the villagers. As more rain disrupts the morning, there’s a muddy scramble to a line of women and girls offering carvings, purses, wall hangings and more.
At Puerto Prado, near Nauta in the Loreto region, there’s a chance to see the world’s biggest water lilies. This comes as no surprise as nothing about this river is small.
One of the most extraordinary onboard experiences during our Amazon river cruise is our session with Carola, a shaman.
The plan was that we would visit Carola in her home. We learn quickly that plans don’t always come to fruition on the unpredictable Amazon. Instead, because of torrential rain, Juan Carlos goes to collect Carola. Most shamans (or yachais) are seen as mediators, communicating with spirits. They’re also known for administering the notorious Ayahuasca – this is a local Quechua-language word meaning “vine of the soul”. It’s a hallucinogenic concoction said to cure various ailments. It also can make people appear to fly or float. I wasn’t allowed to experiment.
Then I’m mesmerised as Carola performs a healing ceremony. She slowly draws on a hand-rolled cigarette, puffs on black tobacco and exhales the smoke into my face, asking me to wipe the fumes over me while she chants. Carola explains the benefits of lots of natural lotions made from plants and herbs, including an alternative to Viagra made from the maca plant.
On our way back to Iquitos we visit a manatee rescue centre. Volunteers here feed these orphaned creatures (sometimes known as sea cows) with milk until they are ready to be released back to the wild. It’s a joy to see them hear about volunteers’ work, not only with manatees but monkeys, ocelots and turtles, too. A definite highlight of our Amazon river cruise.
My last day is spent in Lima after a night in the four-star San Agustin Exclusive Hotel. I walk eight miles, loving the sweeping views across the Pacific, a pleasant stroll through two parks and an upmarket shopping centre at Larcomar. Here, to the delight of friends back home, I find a statue of Paddington Bear.
As for the piranha I caught on our Amazon river cruise, I ate it served alongside a slice of pizza and papaya pieces. It seems a surreal but ultimately satisfying dish with some unknown flavours – just like the adventurous feast of experiences served up by the mighty Amazon.
A seven-day Amazon Riverboat Adventure with G Adventures starts from £1,279pp, excluding flights. The number of departures for this Amazon river cruise depends on the time of year and can be from one to three times a month. Find out more by calling 0344 272 2060 or visiting gadventures.co.uk.