It is one of the world’s longest rivers, flowing through the largest remaining rainforest on the planet; it passes through nine different countries (Guyana, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, and Peru) as it meanders from a trickle of water from rocks high in the Andes Mountains to its mouth on the Atlantic Ocean, 4,010 miles away. To truly explore and appreciate the magnificent Amazon River would require many lifetimes. We come to explore but one tiny corner of the immensity, Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, nestled in the triangle between the Marañon and Ucayali Rivers, where the two join forces to form the mighty Amazon.
Apart from a single 58-mile stretch of paved road between the city of Iquitos and the riverside town of Nauta, there are no roads in the Peruvian Upper Amazon. So if you want to explore this magnificent, mysterious, wild part of the planet, the only way to do so is by boat. Our journey begins with a flight into Iquitos, Peru’s largest rainforest city that can only be reached by air or by water. From here, a two-hour bus ride takes us to Nauta where we board the Delfin II riverboat, our home for the next week.
This 135-foot long riverboat is unexpectedly luxurious with 14 cabins (for a maximum of 28 passengers) spread out over two decks. Each room is exquisitely decorated floors and furniture of polished local wood lead your eye to enormous panoramic windows, providing a view of the ever-changing scenery. Beds made up with Peruvian cotton sheets and blankets are accented with a raffia butterfly. Towels are folded on the bed. Each day the stewards use origami techniques to fold them into different shapes — dogs, birds, flowers. Exotic tropical flowers in a glass vase on the desk provide a dash of bright color.
The second deck hosts a cosy dining room with panoramic windows providing a 180 degree view of the passing countryside. A blackboard by the entrance lists the menu for the meal. In the center, an enormous slice of tree trunk serves as a buffet table. The stewards relate how the trunk was seen bobbing in the water, retrieved and cut to provide the centerpiece of the dining room. Above it, lampshades made from the scales of the paiche or arapaima fish provide muted light. (The paiche is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world). The personal touch of one of the owners, Lissy Urteaga, is evident everywhere on the boat, but especially in the dining room where each table setting includes linen tablecloths accented with local handicrafts — raffia and seed place mats … whimsical raffia creatures of the rain forest…. fresh tropical flowers.
The food is unfailingly delicious, made almost entirely of produce from the rain forest. Every meal includes a starter, a main course and dessert. Often the dessert is ice cream or sorbet made from a variety of jungle fruits, most of which do not have English names. It is quite humbling to learn that of the 3,000 fruits that grow in the rain forest, only about 200 are known to the rest of the world. The white-gloved waiters have obviously been very well-trained in the finer points of food service and etiquette. Dishes are placed and removed from the correct side; wine is served holding the bottle in the right hand, the left folded behind the back. They even wear white gloves when they serve us a breakfast picnic on the skiffs, deep in the rain forest.
There are 18 crew members on board the Delfin II including the captain stewards, naturalists and skiff drivers. They are all happy and enthusiastic and seem to love their work. Whatever their other functions, they are also musicians, playing infectious toe-tapping music for us with guitars, cherangas and panpipes, using an old wooden crate as a drum. Eventually they have most of the passengers up and bopping around the dining room’s central table.
On the top deck an observation platform, complete with bar, entertainment center, library and wooden-slat hammocks, provides the gathering place for us to sit in the comfortable rattan and linen armchairs and sip Pisco sours as the sun sets over the vast ever-changing river in a fiery display of orange, yellow and purple light.
The schedule for the next seven days is simple — sail the river, tie up against the riverbank, then use skiffs to explore the many tributaries looking for wildlife. The 8,000 square mile Pacaya Samiria National Reserve is Peru’s largest and is home to enormous biodiversity. There are 449 species of birds, 102 mammals, 69 reptiles, 5 amphibians, 256 species of fish and 1, 204 types of plants. Among its more exotic inhabitants are the Amazon pink river dolphins which, together with grey river dolphins, gambol in the waters off the boat, frustrating would be photographers who snap away in the hopes of capturing an image of these elegant creatures.
Although the Delfin II is luxurious, make no mistake. The rain forest is anything but, as we find out when we begin to explore our surroundings. But that is another story.
IF YOU GO
Cruises on the Delphin II can be arranged through Lindblad/National Geographic Expeditions (www.expeditions.com).