Caimans and shamans are all part of an amazing adventure in the heart of the Peruvian rainforest
Our watery path is faintly lit by stars as the small safari boat creeps forward beneath the inky night sky. Suddenly our guide Victor raises his hand and signals for the driver to cut the engine and we drift towards the bank. Victor plunges his bare hands into the shallows and there is a communal gasp as he holds up a small caiman.
He expertly grips the carnivorous semi-aquatic member of the alligator family that lives in the Amazonian rainforest. We get a close-up view of how the spectacled caiman takes its name from the dark ridge between its eyes, which give it the appearance of wearing a pair of glasses, and quickly take photos before Victor lowers it back into the water and it swims silently away.
The night-time expedition is one of many mesmerising and totally unexpected moments on a cruise deep into the heart of the Peruvian section of the mighty Amazon and its basin that boasts a diversity of life unequalled anywhere else on earth.
Covering more than 60% of Peru, the dense mantle of vivid green rainforest is home to more than 25,000 different plants, 1,800 species of birds, 360-plus mammals, 250 amphibians, 300 types of reptiles and 2,500 varieties of fish. They share their habitat with just 6% of the Peruvian population.
Our journey began and ended with a stay in the capital Lima, with time to wander through the Spanish colonial quarter, UNESCO-listed old town and modern waterfront where a small statue honours one of Peru’s most famous expatriates – Paddington Bear. A two-hour flight leads to the Amazon River gateway of Iquitos, a riverside town founded by missionaries in the 18th century.
The enormity of South America’s largest river was evident the minute we boarded G Adventure’s 30-passenger vessel Amatista. At Iquitos the river is already half a mile wide, and as we set sail it broadens out further, flanked on each side by the seemingly impenetrable expanse of 8,000 square mile Pacaya Samiria Reserve, the largest protected natural environment in Peru.
Taking off our watches we quickly adapted to jungle time and the following days saw us waking at dawn to the guttural roar of howler monkeys and birdsong. We embarked on early morning expeditions in the boat’s two skiffs, arriving back for breakfast and then relaxing on board to avoid the peak of the sultry midday heat when the rainforest sleeps. In the afternoon we would usually set off again, with dusk heralding the clicking cicada chorus signalling the onset of the evening shift when the Amazon once again comes to life.
In the evening, after a hearty buffet dinner, we’d head to the lounge to listen to fascinating and insightful talks by the guides, who stayed with us on Amatista. On some nights the multi-talented crew members performed as a band and we sipped pisco sours while they played bamboo panpipes, the traditional stringed instrument called the charango and Peruvian drums.
Ensuing days brought a mix of land and water-based excursions. Although we had to be quick to get a shot of the caiman, other Amazonian inhabitants were going nowhere in a hurry. On one daybreak trip we all scrabbled for cameras and binoculars when Victor’s eagle vision spotted a sloth high up in a tree and virtually indiscernible to our untrained eyes.
Oblivious to the mass excitement going on below, the sloth snoozed on as Victor explained that their super slow metabolism enables them to go for days without food and sleep for up to 20 hours at a time.
Back on dry land we embarked on short treks where the guides tracked down brightly coloured frogs, insects and snakes (you don’t have to go up close unless you want to) that were again, to us, totally camouflaged by the lush foliage.
For local tribes the rainforest is their supermarket, providing all they need for food, house building and medicine. The majority of the small villages are totally isolated and only accessible by boat. One afternoon we inexpertly paddled canoes through along small river creeks, the village helmsmen and women giggling at our efforts and helping us to get back on course when we veered towards the bank.
Another day we met Carola a local shaman, and notably a woman. Practicing animism, the belief that trees, plants and creatures possess a spirit, she lined up rows of old bottles containing liquids created from jungle plants that have long been revered for medicinal purposes. Our guide explained that she provides the health care for nine surrounding villages.
Victor also talked about the worrying rise of South American quacks who entice tourists into taking part in spiritual awakening ceremonies using the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca, sometimes with very serious or even deadly consequences. We learn Carola imbibes it twice weekly and she showed us a bottle, but of course there was no suggestion we should try it. Instead she demonstrated the healing powers of the wonderfully named dragon’s blood, a crimson tree sap that turns milky white on the skin as it soothes cuts, insect bites and other irritations.
Unlike some safaris, the Amazon is not about ticking off boxes by spotting large and often uncamouflaged animals. The magic of the rainforest is listening until you hear its heartbeat and watching until your eyes finally see what makes it tick. One day Victor made us wait after hearing a faint rustle in the treetops. We stood patiently and minutes later were rewarded with the unforgettable sight of a colony of squirrel monkeys running and leaping through the forest from branch to branch.
We returned to Lima with a sense of awe, both for the flora and fauna that live deep in the Amazonian rainforest and the hardy people that co-exist alongside them.
Tel: +44 (0)344 272 2060
On Board Facilities: Restaurant, lounge, and sun deck with bar.
Number of cabins: 14
Price Band: Low
Insider Tip: Don’t weigh down your luggage with waterproof gear as the boat provides excellent heavy-duty rain ponchos and rubber boots.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
Factfile: G Adventures offers three Amazon itineraries ranging from 6 to 10 nights. The week-long Amazon River Adventure holiday is priced from £1,095, based on departures from January 2020. The fare includes internal flights, two nights in Lima, four-night cruise including all meals, excursions and on-board cultural programme.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by G Adventures and Jeannine Williamson