Iquitos: An Amazonian journey

By Donna McIntyre

On an Amazonian ecological discovery journey in Peru, Pamela Wade finds the going luxurious and the sights unique.
A less-stately river craft. Photo / Pam Wade
A less-stately river craft. Photo / Pam Wade

Really, a pink dolphin would be an unexpected sight pretty much anywhere - but to see one from your loo? That's rare.

It was my first morning on a five-day expedition in Peru with Delfin Amazon River Cruises and it was starting well. Arriving on board the Delfin II the previous night, my first impressions had been solely of the boat itself, and they were all positive: friendly crew, spacious rooms, lots of polished wood, air-conditioning - and a large green and pink praying mantis on my bed.

Not real, thankfully: woven from straw by women we would visit further upriver, it was just one of the artworks on the boat, all focused on the natural world. That was why I was here, of course, to experience the unique wildlife and ecology of the Amazon rainforest, but without all that tedious explorer-type discomfort.

The stately Delfin II. Photo / Pam Wade
The stately Delfin II. Photo / Pam Wade

Judging by our first dinner - four beautifully-presented, delicious courses of fresh local ingredients - there would be no roughing it of any description; and our first expedition next morning confirmed this. Comfortably seated in a long, narrow skiff, we were piloted along the shores of a lagoon, naturalist/guide Luis giving us our introduction to the birds that would become familiar to us over the next few days.

Clearly, remembering their names was going to be our most demanding task.

Vultures, kingfishers, egrets and cormorants I knew already; but there were also oropendulas, caracaras, macaws, potoos and hoatzins. The latter were extraordinary: like startled chickens, with blue faces and Mohican haircuts, they blundered about in a bush just metres away, apparently too stupid to fly off. Most of the other birds were much more wary, and we were all grateful for the sharp eyes of the skiff driver and our guide, who had superpowers when it came to spotting them in among the thick vegetation.

It also was thanks to Luis, Denis and Juan's laser-like vision that we saw the three-toed sloth high in a tree, moving in comical slow-motion through the branches; a family of owl monkeys, peering back down at us, equally fascinated; and turtles sunbathing on logs. Because of the racket they made, even we could find the troops of spider monkeys swinging through the jungle; but we would certainly have missed the caimans.

Cruise guides with a baby caiman. Photo / Pam Wade
Cruise guides with a baby caiman. Photo / Pam Wade

These are river crocodiles that can grow up to a scary 5m, but happily for our peace of mind, we saw only cute babies, the biggest just a metre long. We did get up close, though: it was a matter of pride among the guides, once having spotted the caimans' eyes and nostrils sticking out of the water, to pounce on one and bring it into the boat so that we could feel for ourselves the soft smoothness of its scaly skin.

It was a different story with the piranhas. Even though we learned their reputation for stripping a horse carcass within seconds is wildly exaggerated, when we stopped at a village to buy local crafts, the dried piranha skulls on display there made us gasp. It's not that they or, more to the point (sorry), their triangular white teeth, are big: it's that they are so astonishingly sharp.

So when it was suggested that we went fishing for them, it was really only the thought of the bragging rights afterwards that got us signing up. In fact, it turned out to be surprisingly difficult: not to find them - apparently any shallow water in the Amazon system will have piranha, another good reason to be glad I was a pampered guest in the Delfin II and not an explorer - or even to attract them to the bait. It was beef tenderloin from the kitchen, after all, and I could personally vouch for its tastiness.

No, the problem was that they were so quick: drop the hook in, and within a nano-second it was empty. Cranking up our own reactions, eventually we caught a few, though our respect for these fierce little orange fish increased enormously when one flipped off the hook into someone's bag, and was gingerly fetched out with a chunk of torn-off lining clamped in its jaws.

A whistle-stop visit to a riverside village. Photo / Pam Wade
A whistle-stop visit to a riverside village. Photo / Pam Wade

We got our own back at dinner. Scored and grilled, they made a boast-worthy starter, despite being far too bony for serious eating.

Even more memorable, though, was our next meal: "Welcome to the jungle cafe," said Denis as we sat in the skiffs moored under a huge fig tree, and were served a typically stylish Delfin II breakfast on the river. "This isn't the best breakfast you've had with us, but it will be the most memorable," he promised. Actually, it was pretty good - fruit kebabs, ham rolls, pastries, coffee - but he was right about the memory. Flocks of green parakeets squawking overhead, fish jumping alongside, blue and yellow macaws, their long tails trailing, swooping across the wide river: it was Amazon magic.

And then came the pink dolphins, snorting like pigs as they rose up to breathe: fast, flexible, and 100 per cent freshwater. They were, we were assured, the only creatures sharing the lake with us as we slipped into the warm water for our one Amazon swim, wallowing happily as black vultures and white egrets soared overhead.

All that was missing were manatees: a type of sea cow, they're huge, gentle vegetarians, and becoming rare in the river system. The Delfin people fixed that for us though, with a consolatory visit on our way back to Iquitos to a rescue centre, where we delighted in feeding water lettuce into their whiskery muzzles.

Even so, not one of us was reconciled to having left that lovely ship. No more lying in bed watching real-life nature programmes through our panoramic windows? No more relaxing in the open-air lounge, no more amazing food, no more sunrises and sunsets over the water? No more Amazon? Shame.

Pam Wade with a freshly caught pirahna. Photo / Pam Wade
Pam Wade with a freshly caught pirahna. Photo / Pam Wade


Getting there
LATAM Airlines has return Economy Class fares to Iquitos, via Santiago, Chile from $2010.
Viva Expeditions and Chimu Adventures create customised itineraries throughout Latin America and Antarctica.


- NZ Herald

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