During a trip up the Amazon, John Borthwick discovers people and wildlife largely untouched by civilisation.

"If they could build an opera house, why not a laundry?" asks one of the tourists gaping at the elaborate Teatro Amazonas opera house at Manaus on Brazil's Rio Negro River.

The story goes back to the rubber boom of the late 19th century when Manaus was one of the richest towns on Earth. Rubber barons supposedly sent their shirts by steamer to London for laundering. Our local guide thinks the story is a tall one and adds that, "If the steamer captain was Brazilian, he'd have just dropped off the laundry downstream and picked it up on the return journey ... and pocketed the price difference."

The 1896-built Teatro Amazonas is a gilded palace marooned on the farthest shore of European nostalgia. Its galleries and private boxes look down on a neo-classical theatre with a grand proscenium arch. It is said that famed tenor Caruso once sang here. In fact, Caruso often promised to arrive, but never did reach Manaus.

Where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon River, our cruise ship turns towards Peru, and we begin a 10-day, 1100 nautical mile trawl back through Amazonian time and culture.

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Next day, with nine passengers to a boat, we head out on the river. At the tributary of Rio Badajos we glide among the tops of a flooded forest, spotting massive Victoria water lillies, some of them over 2m in diameter.

The water erupts with a pink flash: it's a boto, or pink Amazonian dolphin - a fleeting apparition with no dorsal fin but plenty of mythology. The caboclos, or Amazon river people, consider it a great misfortune to injure a boto, which are believed at times to take human form. Indeed, when an "unexplained" pregnancy is discovered, paternity is sometimes ascribed to the woman's encounter with the magical boto.

The air about us is littered with birds - crimson tanagers, yellow-headed caracaras and kingfishers. We spot several "horned screamers" whose title might suggest an extreme urban party animal; it is, in fact, one of the Amazon's most famous birds, a turkey-sized creature with a donkey-sized bray. Already we have seen "the Big Three" of the Amazon flood plain: pink dolphins, horned screamers and giant water lillies. Not bad for the first day out.

Our return to the ship is beneath a wrap-around sunset - rated by our expedition leader, Suzana as "a 9.6 on the Amazonian spectacle scale".

The shoreline is home to many communities of mixed-race caboclos and Indians. Living in stilt houses or floating homes, most of the families we visit possess little but a dugout canoe, fishing lines, a few clothes, farming tools, a manioc pan - and uncommonly attractive genes. In many river villages we are struck by how handsome the people seem.

All 28 families of Sao Francisco de Boca do Capivara village turn out to meet us, but more importantly to watch their football team beat the ship's crew, 7-5. On a jungle walk near the village we discover a young three-toed sloth halfway up a tree.

The aptly-named creature clearly isn't wired for making fast getaways from anything, photographers included; as a result we all shoot good close-up photos.

A boto - the pink Amazonian dolphin. Photo / 123RF
A boto - the pink Amazonian dolphin. Photo / 123RF

Squirrel monkeys, iguana, toucans, epiphytes, parasites, fish and fungi - half the smaller occupants of the Ark seem to be in the jungles we cruise past.

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But what about piranha? No one feels even a nibble when we swim in the black waters of Lago Uara. Nevertheless, the rotund Chicago lawyer at my table is appalled at the idea of swimming in the Amazon. I assure him he would be safe from attack since piranha, recognising a lawyer as kin, would exempt him through professional courtesy. He guffaws agreement.

As for that other legend of the Amazon, the only anaconda we encounter is the photo-op one that gets slung around our necks in a zoo.

On a night-time excursion our boat creeps through the forest channels, silently propelled by an electric motor. Perched at the bow, our naturalist, Hugo Hoyas, demonstrates that he's no mere "bird nerd" by suddenly scooping his arm into the water and coming up with a half-metre caiman. The little croc is as surprised as we are by Hugo's speed; after a few photos we return the startled saurian to the dark waters.

Once we're in Peru, we zip up the Rio Ampiyacu to visit two tribal communities, the Boras and Huitotos. They're obviously expecting us. Dressed up - or in many cases, down - in tapa-style clothing they whoop out their traditional steps, like the anaconda dance in which a row of men rhythmically bangs a massive log against the earthen floor while the women glide from side to side before them. Their large communal hut, its walls festooned with handicrafts, functions as both theatre and village gift shop.

A caiman crocodile on a giant water lily. Photo / John Borthwick
A caiman crocodile on a giant water lily. Photo / John Borthwick

Hours later, we return to the boats laden with Huitoto necklaces, paintings and canoe paddles.

A fire and brimstone sunset - at least 9.4 on the Amazonian scale - dims as the Captain's farewell dinner lights up.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Several companies run Amazon cruises on vessels of different standards. The M/V Desafio offers a 4-day cruise from Manaus. See worldjourneys.co.nz for more information.

Visa info: NZ passport holders do not require a visa for Brazil. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is recommended.

Tips: Bring head-to-toe protective clothing, block-out, insect repellent and plenty of digital photo storage capacity.

Best season: March-April, when temperatures are moderate and river levels high.