This was one of the first photos I took on our incredible Amazon River Cruise with International Expeditions and, for me, it sums up the magic and mystery of this expansive ecotourism utopia. We’d set out from the port at Iquitos, Peru at sunset the night before, meeting our naturalist guides, getting a quick safety briefing, and enjoying a refreshing Pisco Sour in our welcome toast. This morning we were up by 6AM, too excited about our adventures to sleep, and us early birds were treated to exciting sightings of egrets and jumping dolphins before we’d even had our first cup of coffee.
The avid birdwatchers on board were blessed with another spectacular sighting before the sun had fully risen. This colorful fella is a Capped Heron, which is found in many parts of Central America and South America and is noteworthy for the brilliant blue and pink on his beak, bright yellow feathers, and those long skinny plumes that made it look like a more refined distant cousin to Africa’s famed Secretary Bird.
In what became a daily routine, after breakfast we loaded up our gear into little skiffs and bid farewell to the Aquamarina, which would be our home away from home for the next week. The steel-hulled ship was precisely what I’d imagined in my fantasies about what an Amazon River cruise might be like, with 12 spacious passenger rooms, a great open bar/lounge area, an air-conditioned dining room, and a sweet little sun deck on top that was perfect for soaking in the surrounding view. But it was the skiffs by which we would do most of our exploring, venturing 600 miles up and down the Amazon and its various tributaries.
It didn’t take long for us to get a gander at some of the Amazon’s amazing animal species. In the case of this pretty pink-toed tarantula, the wildlife came right to us! As our skiff was motoring along, the little fella suddenly emerged from his hidey-hole near the front of the boat, to the delight of pretty much everyone. Here, our naturalist guide Usiel Vasquez shows how tiny and friendly the spider is, and I love the way his hairs glisten in the morning sunlight.
One of the things that struck us most about our time in the Amazon was the challenges the Ribereños (“river people”) faced in their daily lives. Living on a tropical, biodiversity-rich floodplain that regularly undergoes drastic environmental change (see: flood waters that annually rise over 40 feet) requires great tenacity and resourcefulness, not to mention learning to live in harmony with the often harsh elements. We were amazed by people who traveled miles every day to fish, hunt and trade, with their only mode of transport a dugout canoe fashioned from massive logs and a single paddle. This father and son shot was the first of many photos we took of Ribereños during our journey.
As we got further away from Iquitos, heading towards the convergence where the Marañón River and the Ucayalli River fed into the mighty Amazon, our wildlife sightings got better and more frequent. It was a bird-lover’s dream, from grey-headed kites and longneck terns to various egrets and the beautiful black collared hawk (we spotted over 200 different bird species during our week in Peru). But this green iguana was much more rare, and looked positively prehistoric as he sunned himself in the trees.
After a much-needed afternoon siesta, we loaded back onto the skiffs for our first trek into one of the Amazon’s many tributaries, the Yatapa River. At this point, we began to realize how far from “civilization” we’d gone: There were no other commercial boats to be found (only the occasional fisherman in a dugout canoe), and the water was as still and reflective as mirrored glass. As the sun began to drop low in the sky and massive clouds loomed on the horizon, it created opportunities for stunning scenic shots such as this.
In the Amazon, everything looks so extraordinary that it can become difficult to decide what to focus on. I’m sure that, to the Ribereños, the tree seems decidedly commonplace. But when I first noticed its pink, white and iridescent green markings, I’m fairly certain that I was all, “Holy crap! Look at that TREE!!!” If anybody knows the name of this awesome tree, please leave a comment below so we can identify it in the caption.
I’d have plenty of time to check that tree out, as Usiel tied the skiff to it for our evening adventure in piranha fishing. The process was simple enough: Skewer a piece of raw chicken as bait onto a hooked line attached to a thin pole (no reel involved), then wait for the toothy suckers to bite. Our new friend Cindy proved a pro, pulling 5 piranha in in fairly rapid succession. Mary and I only caught 2-3 each, but were thrilled by the experience, which included lots of near misses and a few piranha flopping around the boat after they managed to wiggle off the hooks.
Here, Usiel gives us a closeup look at the sharp teeth that have earned the piranha such a fearsome reputation. Found throughout the Amazon basin and other parts of South America, these omnivores average 5.5 to 10.25 inches in length, though specimens up to 17 inches have been reported. Their mythological reputation as ferocious predators who hunt in schools is somewhat unfounded, as research has proven them to be timid opportunists who school, not to hunt, but for protection from predators such as caimans and dolphins. But, as we saw first-hand, they will resort to cannibalism of their own kind of the opportunity arises.
In the end, we caught dozens of piranhas in about an hour. Their reddish-orange bellies made them as beautiful as they are dangerous: Many a local fisherman (who catch them for subsistence) bears the scars of carelessness when handling piranhas, though everyone in our group managed to escape completely unscathed.
As we made our way back up the Yatapa River to rendezvous with the Aquamarina, we were surprised when two families in large fishing boats pulled up alongside our skiffs and immediately began pulling out a variety of baskets, carved gourds, woven necklaces, and a variety of other handmade Amazonian souvenirs. One of the things we loved about traveling with International Expeditions was the relationships they’d established with local Ribereños communities, and we intentionally saved most of our cash to buy mementos directly from these indigenous artisans.
After we had a chance to shower and change clothes, we were treated to an expected surprise that became our favorite nightly ritual. Every evening at 6:30, our naturalist guides Usiel (drums) and Johnny Balarezo Malatesta (maracas) would join members of the ship’s crew to form the Aquamarina Band. In a running joke, the name of the band changed every night to reflect something that had happened that day, and the music they played veered from traditional Peruvian folk music to American rock ‘n’ roll played on Peruvian instruments such as pan flute and charango (the tiny lute pictured above). Video to come!
Immediately afterward, they rang the bell calling us to dinner, and everyone got excited as bar/kitchen manager Charlie (a.k.a. Carlito) brought out this platter stacked with our catch of the day. So what does cooked piranha taste like? Honestly, it tastes very similar to any other light, flaky, white fish, albeit slightly bony overall. But the tender bits of meat were moist and succulent, and perhaps took on an added bit of tastiness because we knew we’d worked for our supper.
It was somewhat tough to go back to our room at the end of the night after a day filled with fun and excitement. But after the sun went down and the notoriously nasty bugs came out (more on that later), we welcomed the cooling blast of air conditioning and the comfort of our cozy little beds. We had been up for over 14 hours at that point, and we knew we’d have to be up bright and early for day 2 of our incredible Amazon adventure… –by Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
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