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Adventures in the Amazon

A riverboat expedition journeys
to the tangled heart of the Peruvian jungle

By Troy Bringle

Vacations Magazine: Adventures in the Amazon
Troy Bringle

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

Amid the peaks of the Peruvian Andes, glacier-born waters slip through jagged crevices and leap from craggy cliffs, flowing to streams that feed the uppermost stretches of the Amazon River system. This network of tributaries and rivers gives life to one of our planet's most biologically rich regions. My wife and I had a chance to explore this unique area on an Amazon River cruise this spring.

The Amazon is a haven for the mysterious. Its forested walls are said to house a lost civilization with advanced technologies, cannibalistic indigenous tribes and El Dorado, a forgotten city made wholly of gold.

Added to these legendary intrigues are more commonly accepted tributes to the Amazon's eccentricity: fanciful pink river dolphins, miniature monkeys that tip the scales at less than five ounces, garishly colored frogs with a lethal touch, eels that electrocute fellow swimmers, 500-pound toothed serpents that don't need to chew, fish that favor flesh, and even parasitic river dwellers with a knack for pervading human orifices. The prospect of seeing fascinating creatures, but not necessarily all the above, ultimately drew me to this place.

Amazon River cruises are available in Peru and Brazil. Cruises on the Peru side usually begin in Nauta, a small town situated within the rain forest, while sailings in Brazil (where the river is wider and the boats somewhat larger) travel to or from Manaus, a city that gained fame during the rubber boom at the turn of the 20th century.

The Amazon has two seasons -- the rainy and the dry -- though they could perhaps be called the "very rainy and hot" and the "not quite as rainy but even hotter." During the rainy season, much of the land is flooded, so exploration is done mainly via small, motorized boats that travel with the ship. On these skiffs, you'll traverse narrow waterways and grassy swamps to find wildlife and other sights. In the dry season, you'll spend more time hiking as more of the region is navigable by foot.

My wife and I opted for a cruise during the wetter season, which runs December through June, on the Upper Amazon in Peru. I booked with Gap Adventures, a company that specializes in taking customers down roads (and rivers) less traveled.

Our journey began in Lima, where we were greeted at the airport by Gap's friendly and energetic representative, Dania, who helped us with our transfer to the hotel after a late-night arrival. We had the next morning free to roam the Peruvian capital before leaving on a flight to Iquitos. Our Amazon guides then joined us for a two-hour bus ride to Nauta.

In Nauta, we boarded a 19th-century-style ship, La Turmalina. Here our group of 29 adventurers ages 13 to 78 -- including couples, singles and mother-daughter and father-daughter pairs -- would spend the next six days surveying the Amazon.

I didn't expect luxurious accommodations -- we were in the Amazon, after all. I found La Turmalina to be a comfortable home base for our weeklong expedition. The ship had a crew of 12 plus two naturalist guides, Victor and Alan, all eager to show us the expanse they call home.

The food was fantastic, though the dining experience differed from that of larger, traditional ships. Guests were called to meals by the ringing of the dinner bell, and all meals were served buffet-style. The menu featured Amazonian staples like paiche, a fish that can grow to 400 pounds, and heart of palm, the tender core of the palm tree.

There was no dress code in the dining room or anywhere else on the ship, which was a welcomed policy given the need for loose, comfortable apparel on most days. Laundry service was complimentary, another plus for guests who travel light.

Days started early on the skiff seeking wildlife, and ended late in the ship's bar sampling frozen pisco sours (a favorite Peruvian drink). All excursions, though optional, were included in the cost.

In the Amazon, the river and rain rule the clocks and calendars, so itineraries are flexible. Guides announced morning activities the night before and shared afternoon agendas during lunch.

Our itinerary called for one night of camping in the jungle, a highlight of the tour for me. After watching a downpour through the dining room window, we stepped off the ship and into the steam room for an authentic rain forest experience. A one-hour hike took us to Kapok Camp, where coolers brimming with water and beer glistened through the misty haze.

After a cooking demonstration and subsequent feast, we ventured into the shadows for a night walk in search of things that flutter, slither, creep or crawl. Survival is a tough chore here, so just about every critter either bites or stings or secretes poison to prolong its brief existence. With a superhuman grip on my flashlight, I shuffled across the jungle carpet and hoped to avoid triggering one of these defense mechanisms.

Flashlights beckoned the crawlers to us. A bullet ant, about an inch long and named for the intensity of its sting, joined us on the walk. We also saw dead-leaf crickets, oversize katydids, monstrous cockroaches and long-legged spiders settled on leaves and twigs.

Dense canopy blocked the light from the moon and stars, and for a moment we turned off the flashlights and sat in blackness. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face -- or anything else in front of my face, for that matter. We soon flipped on the lights and returned to camp. I dozed off to sleep that night listening to the screeches, honks and whistles of Mother Nature's metropolis, grateful for the tent that shielded me from the traffic.

During a hike the next morning to a jungle lodge owned by Gap's local operator, we learned how Amazonians live off the land. The material beneath the bark of one type of tree, for example, is pulled away and used to make rope. Palm leaves are woven together to build a roof for a house. Resin from the copal tree serves as lighter fluid for fires, and you might guess how the "blowgun" and "dart palm" trees are used.

At the lodge we had access to an inviting pool and icy beverages. A shaman, or medicine man, from a nearby community stopped in to explain his practice. One of his principal treatments is an elixir made with ayahuasca vine, tobacco and several other ingredients, creating a potent brew that evokes visions and purges the body of impurities.

That night, Victor informed us that our next jaunt would be a swim in the river. The concept was first met with roaring laughter, but the hilarity faded to fright when his sincerity became clear.

After breakfast, we cruised to a serene spot on the Nahuapa River that from the surface showed no signs of life-ending beasts. Termed "blackwater," the river here is actually dyed golden brown by tannic acid released by leafy plants.
Splash went the first daring soul, then the second, and I was next. Nearly the entire group took the plunge. We enjoyed a cool and refreshing swim as gray and pink river dolphins playfully circled the group.

Later that day, we visited a local village for a glimpse of life on the Maranon River. One of our naturalist guides, Alan, was raised in this town of 80, and his family welcomed us into their home.

All quick to share a smile, the residents seemed genuinely happy to meet their guests. Children escorted us through the village, posed for pictures and methodically examined our cameras. Our tour concluded with a game on the village soccer field. It was a special afternoon, and as the sun ducked beneath the horizon, we said goodbye to our new friends and returned to the ship.

When we weren't camping or hiking in the rain forest, treading water with dolphins or cheering on soccer teams, we were on the skiffs foraging for flora and fauna. On these excursions -- usually one or two a day -- we spotted lethargic sloths, exotic birds, giant lily pads, colorful caterpillars, beautiful butterflies and teams of playful tamarin and squirrel monkeys. We enjoyed front-row seats to luminous daybreaks and kaleidoscopic twilights.

One creature our guides guaranteed we would see was the mosquito, but this turned out to be a minor and manageable nuisance.

After a piranha fishing excursion on our last day, we were treated to one more grandiose sunset, with strokes of orange, red and pink painted across an indigo backdrop.

As the sun's rays fell into the water that evening, I reflected upon the week's adventures. Far removed from familiar surroundings, we learned about other cultures, tasted unusual cuisine and saw remarkable sights.

I only wish I had seen El Dorado.

Visiting the Amazon

In 2011, Gap Adventures offers numerous South America itineraries that sample the Amazon. "The Inca Journey" is a nine-day trip that combines visits to Machu Picchu and Cuzco in Peru with a two-night excursion into the Amazonian jungle; prices start at $1,649 per person. On the 12-day "Amazon to the Andes" journey, guests hike the Inca Trail through the mountains before boarding motorized canoes bound for a lodge deep in the Amazon's rain forest; rates begin at $2,049 per person. On the 16-day "Inland and Amazon" participants have an opportunity to stay in the home of a Quechua family near the village of Cando in the Ecuadorian Amazon; prices start at $1,029 per person.

For more information on Gap Adventures, contact the escorted tour specialists at Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858. To learn about all the ways you can explore the Amazon River, from small-ship expeditions to sailings on large oceangoing vessels, visit Vacations To Go's river cruise division or call (800) 510-4002.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in November/December 2010.

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