Amazing Amazon: Tropical Adventure Starts in Peru, Where Environmental Wonders Await
Discover the magnificent flora and fauna of Peru’s Amazon River Basin by land and water.
(My story and photos were published by Journal and Topics Media Group on November 9, 2016.)
The Amazon River basin is a tropical wilderness that is pretty much unchanged from when European explorers discovered it nearly 500 years ago.
It’s a place where palm trees walk on above-ground stilt roots and where dolphins are pink. And where frogs can be as big as a soccer ball or as tiny as a fingernail.
We experienced these and other environmental wonders on land and water during our spring sojourn to Peru with International Expeditions, also known as IE Travel. On land, our home base was Ceiba Tops, a modern riverfront lodge with a Swiss Family Robinson vibe. Our riverboat was La Estrella Amazonica, or Amazon Star, a stately 31-passenger vessel with white-tablecloth dining and teak parquet floors.
The adventure began in Iquitos, Peru’s gateway to the Amazon. The Andes Mountains separate the city from Lima, and no roads cut through. The most expedient way to get there is a two-hour flight northeast. Iquitos is a vibrant albeit shabby metropolis of half a million people, most of whom depend on the bounties of the river or the jungle that enfolds it for their livelihoods. The primary modes of transportation are tuk-tuk, which is a motorized rickshaw, and boats of varying size, power and seaworthiness.
An afternoon tour of Iquitos led us to the Manatee Rescue Center, where we stroked adolescent fuzzy-faced, toothless manatees and fed them their preferred cuisine of water lettuce. The endangered manatees are critical to the river ecosystem because they rid it of contaminants, but they often are injured and killed by boat propellers. They also are hunted by the river people, or Riboñeros, seeking a change from their everyday diet of fish. Meat is hard to come by in this waterlogged region.
The next stop was the Museum of Indigenous Cultures. Exhibits and artifacts portray the history and culture of native tribes and their near-decimation by war against European invaders, most notably Francisco Pizarro in 1532, and lack of resistance to the diseases they carried. Interestingly, in the capital city Lima, Pizarro is considered a hero—he is buried in the cathedral he founded there.
A one-hour trip by motorboat took us to Ceiba Tops (“ceiba” is a type of tree) on the Amazon riverfront. Amid tropical foliage and cultivated gardens are 72 air-conditioned cabins, swimming pool with water slide, hammock house, dining hall and lounge. The lodge’s permanent guests include a pair of jewel-toned macaws and two tapirs, which are pig-like mammals with trunks rather than snouts.
At Ceiba Tops, we explored with our feet on the ground. That is, except for the freaky treetop canopy hike of 14 narrow plank-and-rope bridges that zig-zagged more than 10 stories skyward and down again. The bridges are linked by rough-hewn wooden platforms that provide short respites for photos and a deep inhalation of courage to continue. We were high above the treetops but not alone. At Platform No. 6, the highest at 109 feet, a sleepy pea-green pit viper was coiled at the end of the railing.
For the water portion of the trip, we boarded the riverboat Estrella at the confluence of the Marañon and Ucayali rivers. They border the bio-diverse Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and then merge to form the Amazon before it flows eastward into Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean.
Our roomy cabins were handsomely appointed with indigenous-crafted furnishings and private baths and balconies. The upper-level open-air lounge provided cushy seating for viewing the villages and lodges that dot the shoreline and the pink and gray river dolphins at play.
The rainforest is home to all sorts of fascinating creepy-crawlies and flying creatures, but it’s a game of hide-and-seek to find them. To get up and personal, our group split into two small motorboats, or skiffs, and cruised in and around the reserve. Pacaya Samiria is twice the size of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and during this high-water season, 90 percent of it was submerged. The skiffs nimbly navigate narrow creeks and channels to reveal the habitats of acrobatic monkeys, sweet-faced tree rats, bat colonies, nesting macaws and other exotic birdlife.
Our guides seemed to have laser vision and finely-tuned ears. They know where to find the rare “Victoria amazonica” water lilies, which are named for Queen Victoria of England and are the largest in the world. They know the best spots for us to fish for piranha (murky water) and how to cook our catches (deep fry in oil, add salt and lemon).
The guides work in tandem with the skiff drivers, hand-signaling them like major league baseball players, to slow down, back up, go this way, cut the motor. The drivers obey, and while we see nothing but a maze of tall grasses or a dense carpet of water hyacinths, the guides lean far over the side of the boat and fetch a pinky-toe tarantula or a juvenile caiman alligator for us to admire and photograph.
The rainforest’s human residents were more inviting and less secretive. One afternoon we docked at a small village of about 30 families. The homes are simple wooden structures, standing on pillars to keep the water out and roofed with palm leaves and corrugated metal. A fisherman we met showed off the anaconda snake he found in one of his traps that morning. A broad-smiled woman invited us inside her home to look around. She has a flat-screen television, but electricity is available only a few hours a day. Her children keep a baby sloth as a pet.
We approached the two-room schoolhouse, and about two dozen children greeted us with cheers and high-fives. They did not speak English, and we did not speak Spanish, but we communicated through the common language of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and the Hokey Pokey dance.
While we were in the school, the village’s artisans lined the main pathway with their handicrafts of baskets, beads, gourd carvings, paintings and sculpture for sale. It was time to head back to the Estrella, but none of us left the village empty-handed.
IF YOU GO: A handful of tour operators run Amazon River cruises, including International Expeditions, Avalon Waterways, National Geographic Expeditions and Smithsonian Journeys. Plan to spend a couple of extra days touring multi-faceted and historic Lima—that’s a story for another time.