There’s something very special about exploring the upper reaches of a great tropical river. Our journey begins in Peru, where the Maranon and Ucayali Rivers merge to form the Amazon. This vast body of water then rolls east across the northern half of South America before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean from Brazil.
In the dry season the Amazon River is between 2km and 10km wide. During the wet it floods surrounding forests and expands to 48km or more. This makes it the largest river in the world in terms of volume. The Amazon Basin is also the world’s largest river basin.
And so the river, its tributaries, lakes and lagoons form a limitless expanse that lies in readiness to astound even the most jaded traveller. Waterways teem with marine life – around 3000 species are recorded, with many more identified every year. The same goes for plants and other wildlife; one third of all species known to man are to be found in the Amazon Basin and it is estimated that millions more await discovery.
My goals are modest. I’ve come to the Peruvian Amazon to sight the pink dolphin, actually an ancient river whale characterised by its unusual pink hue. There’s also much talk of the paiche, a freshwater fish that grows up to 4m long. No doubt our expedition will also encounter the spectacled caiman. These crocodilian reptiles are common hereabouts. We’ll see monkeys – the red howler, the monk saki, the squirrel monkey, to name just a few. We hope to sight a three-toed sloth, also. And we’ll fish for piranha. These are plentiful, with 25 recorded species.
Our transport for this adventure is Delfin I, a 69ft river vessel refurbished in 2010 to accommodate eight passengers in comfort and luxury; concepts, I confess, that failed to figure in my dreams of an expedition to the Amazon. And yet here we are in my 32sqm master suite on a river vessel with interiors as sleek as the finest hotel.
Have you ever idly pondered a radical lifestyle change? Most merely dream, but some people make it happen.
“What got you into this?” I ask fellow traveller, Lissy Urteaga, who, with former senior banker, Aldo Macchiavello, co-founded Delfin Amazon Cruises in 2006.
“I had always dreamt of running a boutique travel business in my country, Peru,” Lissy replies. “In 2006 we heard about the Delfin. She had been built some 20 years earlier by an American guy – he was the real pioneer of Amazon cruising in Peru – but he went bankrupt. We came here to see the Delfin, fell in love with the Amazon and decided that we wanted to become involved.
“First we refurbished it with six small cabins, then we built a larger river cruiser, the 120ft Delfin II, which accommodates 28 passengers, all in large suites. Before long we were introducing the suites to Delfin I. Plus fine dining with quality china and crystal ware.”
“That’s what I call civilised,” I say, plunging an elegant fork into a most delicious local fish – but more on the pleasures of Peruvian cuisine later.
We had boarded Delfin I in Nauta, a riverside town 100km south of the regional capital, Iquitos. It was evening and all we could see were a million stars. Come morning, we’re presented with a perfect Amazonian scene – a calm backwater in Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. This is a 2,000,000ha area between the Maranon and Ucayali rivers, which can only be accessed by private boat.
In aluminium skiffs we press deeper into dense jungle via streams and small lagoons. Our guides, Remi and Rudi, know these tranquil waterways like the back of their hand and at a low speed we glide into Cedro Cano, a seasonal black water creek flanked with dense vegetation. Nobody lives here; this swampy location is not suitable for native villages. We cut the engine and listen to the sounds of the jungle.
Most landscapes have a voice. Surely jungles are meant to heave and groan? Here, though, there is stillness and absolute silence. We venture further. A caiman lizard pokes its head through floating vegetation. Watched by a striated heron, a wattled jacana bird wades across the lush, floating leaves. We see bromeliads growing in their natural environment. Squirrel monkeys rustle a tree. Their minor domestic quarrel builds in intensity and shrieks shatter the tranquillity and scatter the birdlife.
Now we see fish; thousands of tiny ones, their rapid movements creating the impression of raindrops falling on what had been a mirror-like surface. Then, as a grand finale, we sight a brown three-to ed sloth hanging languidly from the branches of a tree. All this before lunch aboard Delfin I.
In the mid-afternoon we take to the skiffs again, this time in search of the pink river dolphin, but, alas, to no avail. Instead, we see a family of night monkeys asleep in the hollow of a tree, totally unperturbed by our presence. Macaws fly above our heads – natives once hunted them for their colourful feathers. There are toucans, great egrets, roadside hawks and white-winged swallows. Someone spots a monk saki monkey, its inquisitive face hooded with a thick band of fur, like a monk’s hood.
Again, there’s no sign of human life. Natives sometimes fish here, but village life takes place on broader waterways. The riberenos (river people) rely on the natural resources of the Reserve for food and income from fishing and hunting, plus small-scale agriculture. Our lives and theirs meet face to face next morning on the Zapote River.
Here, village life is simple. Families live in houses constructed from materials gathered from the forest. Members of this small community watch our arrival with absorbed interest. First to greet us are young boys in dugout canoes, who’ve just returned with their catch. They proudly show us bass, dogfish and piranha. Soon we’re also trying our hand at catching piranha.
These are the wiliest of fish. They snatch our bait and disappear. But their reputation as ferocious carnivores suffers when our guide explains how piranhas like nothing better than to swim beneath the branches of trees and feast on the fallen fruit.
Night falls. Frogs are croaking their heads off in a mad chorus as we set off on a night safari armed with spotlights. The eyes of spectacled caiman are reflected from a distance of a hundred metres or so and, as we advance very slowly, they don’t submerge until we are almost at arm’s length. Great egrets are asleep in the bushes. Catfish fill the river edge to edge, like a slowly moving carpet just below the surface of the water as far as our powerful spotlights can reach. We glide on, lighting up the river while the stars of two constellations light up the sky. And so the days and nights go by in Amazonia…
It would be true to say that no day ends without mention of the paiche, the pink dolphin and the equally elusive piranha. So I’m happy to report our success with the last two.
Dolphins, pink and grey, inhabit slow-moving tributaries, lakes and streams, and we encounter them during an excursion to the Pacaya River. It was a perfect day. We had slipped into a small lake that’s considered a safe spot for swimming and, just as the members of our group hit the water, dolphins appeared and performed a water ballet.
Some had pink underbellies, while others were various shades of pink or grey. Of course, the pink ones sent the wow-factor soaring. No one really knows what causes this unusual pink hue. Dolphins don’t begin life this colour; baby dolphins are mostly grey, so age may be a contributor. Water temperature could also be a factor, but level of activity is a consistent theory and scientists believe that increased blood flow to capillaries close to the skin contributes towards the distinctive pink flush.
As for piranhas, we encountered them in a fishing spot near another tributary, the Dorado River. And we reeled them in in pleasing numbers. There were barracuda, too. In fact, so many sharp-toothed fish are jumping that I’m almost relieved to get out of the skiff.
AMAZON IN BLOOM
Just when we think this adventure can’t get any better, we have a complete change of pace. Early one morning we float into the warm, sensuous waters of a small lagoon, where the swan-like petals of the giant water lily Victoria Amazonica are blossoming in their natural environment. And then we slide into a bank of water hyacinths for breakfast in the skiff – local fruits and freshly baked bread rolls made from sliced sweet potato and yucca, dried in the oven, crushed to the consistency of flour and used for dough by Delfin I’s chef.
Sometimes I wonder what the busy guys in the kitchen will come up with next. Their food is delicious. There’s no shortage of fish and the vegetables, fruit and rice are purchased from local villagers along the way, while free-range chicken and meat come from the regional capital, Iquitos.
“It was very important for us to rescue the local products and the local cuisine and take it to a more contemporary style that will fit the taste of our guests,” says Lissy. “That’s why we decided to work with local people. We looked for local talents in Iquitos and met Isaac Saavedra, a local cook. We started to work with him and took him to Lima, just for him to see how the cuisine has developed in Peru’s capital. To see how it is served, and how to combine looks, colours, textures and tastes.”
And so the cuisine is also a highlight when exploring Amazonia.
As our days on Delfin I draw to an end we find ourselves in the headwaters of the Amazon River in the place where the main tributaries, the Maranon and Ucayali Rivers, merge and give birth to the greatest river on earth. It is breathtaking to see this vast expanse of fast-flowing water – likened to the contents of a Sydney Harbour constantly on the move.
Some geographers now claim that the Amazon is longer than the Nile. First the National Geographic Society established that the waters that go on to form the Amazon begin as a glacial stream in the Peruvian Andes. Then scientists from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics calculated the Amazon’s length from source to mouth at 6992km; slightly longer than their calculations for the Nile, at 6853km.
Irrespective of length, no one would deny that both are amazing rivers. Still, the Amazon is bigger, bolder, and its remote waterways create a sense of absolute seclusion in previously unexplored territory, as deep and as far as you could ever wish to go.
For more information about Delfin I or Delfin II goto:www.delfinamazoncruises.com, and for general information on Peru go to: www.peru.travel. ¿