Surrounded by Peru’s tropical rain forest, where the Ucayali and Marañon Rivers meet to form the mighty Amazon, sits the 8,000-acre Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. With no roads, the only way to explore is by riverboat, but just reaching this remote part of the planet requires effort.
Our journey begins with a flight from Lima, over the Andes Mountains, to Peru’s largest rainforest city, Iquitos. From here a two-hour bus ride on the only paved road in the entire Peruvian rain forest takes us to Nauta where we board the Delfin II Riverboat, our home for the next week.
The 135-foot long, air-conditioned boat is unexpectedly luxurious. Fourteen en-suite cabins are spread over two decks. Included in these are four suites on the bow with 180-degree panoramic windows providing views of the ever-changing scenery.
The cabins are exquisitely decorated with local hardwood and earth tone fabrics. Exotic, fresh, tropical flowers provide a dash of color. Peruvian pima cotton sheets cover the beds, accented with a locally-made raffia butterfly perching on the end.
Meals are served on the second deck, in a dining room with wrap-around windows, where tables are set with linen tablecloths, china settings and crystal glasses. Local handicrafts – whimsical raffia creatures of the rain-forest, fresh flowers and raffia place-mats – give the tables a festive air.
A blackboard at the entrance lists the menu for the meal. The food is unfailingly delicious, made almost entirely of produce from the rainforest, including novelties like carpaccio from local Donatella fish and sorbets created from jungle fruits, such as Ungurawi (the fruit of an Amazon palm tree), most of which do not have an English name.
The servers are professionals, well-trained in the finer points of food service and etiquette. They even wear white gloves when they serve us a breakfast picnic on skiffs, deep in the rain forest.
Whatever their other functions, in the evening the 18-person crew become musicians, playing infectious toe-tapping music with guitars, charangas and panpipes, using an old wooden crate as a drum. Eventually they have even the most introverted passengers up and bopping around the dining room.
On the top deck, an observation platform, complete with bar and comfortable armchairs, provides a place to meet for a Pisco Sour (Peru’s national drink) and a front row seat as the sun sets over the river in a fiery display. You can even opt for a sunset workout or massage.
Our schedule for the week is simple: sail the river, tie up against the bank, then use skiffs or kayaks to explore the many tributaries, landing periodically to look for wildlife. Early each morning and late in the afternoon, we board our 10-passenger aluminum skiffs, each staffed by a local naturalist who knows the area intimately.
This is one of the richest habitats on earth with the most types of plants and animals per square acre. By the end of the week we have seen over 160 species of birds, monkeys (including howlers, squirrel monkeys, and the diminutive owl monkeys) and three-toes sloths, as well as many amphibians and reptiles. We have also caught sight of the grey dolphins and the Amazon pink river dolphins, gamboling in the waters.
Our exploration of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve is not limited to cruising the river. Several times during the week, we don knee-high rubber boots, cover ourselves with insect repellent, and pick our way gingerly through the rainforest. Within minutes we are drenched in sweat in the dank, musty jungle, so much so that upon our return to the boat many people simply walk into the shower fully clothed to cool off.
Distances in the rainforest are measured in hours not miles as you plod through ankle-deep mud in a dim landscape. In certain spots, only about 1 percent of sunlight reaches the ground. You can walk for an hour and only cover a few hundred yards. Lianas, some twisted into corkscrews, hang from the 180 ft. high trees. Water drips from everything, including the wildly colorful lobster claw flower (heliconia) and the enormous kapok trees.
As outsiders our eyes don’t immediately see the treasures hidden within. Periodically, our guide reaches down into the leaves and triumphantly finds something unusual– a neon-colored poison dart frog, an enormous land snail, a red-tailed boa constrictor, hissing at being disturbed. We even see a 17 ft. long anaconda, captured by fishermen after it becomes entangled in their nets.
During one hike we climb to a 1,000-foot long canopy walkway that gives us an unobstructed view 90 feet above the rainforest. As we look across the never-ending tree line, iridescent blue morpho butterflies flit about in the sunlight. It is a pleasant sensation to be away from the oppressiveness of the forest floor.
Another hike takes us to a quiet backwater lagoon where giant water lilies, their leaves up to nine feet in diameter, float on top of the water, their nocturnal pink and white flowers still unfurled in the early morning light.
Most days we are safely cocooned on the riverboat, wine glass in hand, before sundown. However one day, after dinner, we embark on a night hike. Armed with headlamps, and feeling just a little apprehensive, we set off to experience the jungle. All around us eyes peer from the bushes and from the edges of the river where caimans lurk.
We turn off our lights and stand perfectly still to experience the sounds of the night – cicadas and a myriad of other insects, the distant hooting of an owl, an alarm call from a group of monkeys, the annoying high-pitched whine of a mosquito that has taken a liking to my neck. In the complete darkness we try not to brush up against anything, afraid of what passengers we might inadvertently pick up. Clearly, we are the interlopers in this unique land.
Yet for thousands of years, tribes have lived along these rivers. As we move through the waters, we periodically see thatched huts on the shore. Fishermen in log dugouts are a common sight, pulling piranhas or barracudas out of the water. We wave and sometimes they wave back. Mostly they ignore the intrusion.
The riverboat company is deeply committed to social responsibility and to ensuring that the villagers are not overlooked as tourism develops in the area. We stop at two villages to drop off school supplies that we have brought. The children, with deep dark eyes and beautiful smiles, stare shyly. Some of the bolder ones gather around giggling and pointing to see pictures of themselves in the camera viewfinders.
They thank us by singing songs, and we return the favor, our out-of-tune voices attempting a rendition of “Row Your Boat”. They laugh and clap before running alongside as we board our skiff and “row” away, regretting that we cannot stay longer in this enchanting land in the Peruvian rainforest.
IF YOU GO
LATAM offers flights from the US to Lima, Peru with connections to Iquitos. Other airlines (Delta, United, American) offer flights that connect in Panama City to Lima.
If you are an independent traveler, you can arrange a river cruise on the Delfin II, direct with
DELFIN AMAZON RIVER CRUISES: www.delfinamazoncruises.com
tel. (844) 4-DELFIN).
If you prefer to have someone make travel arrangements for you or want to visit other parts of Peru as well, Lindblad Expeditions / National Geographic offer several cruises on the Delfin II with the option of add-ons elsewhere.