A luxury Amazonian river trip in Peru offers a glimpse into an exotic and breathtaking world, writes Lincoln Tan.

There are prehistoric river creatures that can breathe on land, pink dolphins that villagers believe can transform into humans and 'monkey fish' that have evolved to be able to jump out of the water to catch insects.

We've seen anaconda in the movies, but our chances of seeing one in the wild is very slim, Sandro Soria Del Ag'uila, our jungle guide tells us. Fine by me.

But as luck has it, one decides to turn up on our debut morning hike in the Amazonian forest. The walk marks the start of a busy seven-day expedition with Delfin Amazon River Cruises.

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Getting to the riverboat involves flying into Iquitos, a town with no access to the rest of Peru.

A 40-minute journey on the town's only main road brings us to Nauta, the port town on the banks of the Ucayali river.

This is where travellers board the Delfin II.

The luxury cruiser is one of several riverboats that ply the waters of the Peruvian Amazon river between Nauta and the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.

I get my first sight of wildlife the moment I walk into my spacious cabin — in the form of woven straw animals and towel art.

Mine is a straw butterfly, an artwork made by women from a local village, and a rolled up towel anaconda.

The introductory briefing gives us a glimpse of just how amazingly weird and wonderful are this patch of dense forest and rivers.

There are prehistoric river creatures that can breathe on land, pink dolphins, which villagers believe can transform into humans, and "monkey fish" that have evolved to be able to jump out of the water to catch insects.

I spend my first evening on the sheltered top deck of the boat, staring out into the darkness of the wilderness thinking of what's out there.

I would be very disappointed to leave without seeing the legendary anaconda and the flesh-eating snapping piranha.

But it doesn't take long for me to meet the first of the Amazonian famous movie stars.
A man with a machete meets us at the start of our first morning hike through Casual Forest.

Introduced to us as a local guide, he has brought poison-dart frogs, pink-toed and bird-killer tarantulas and other reptiles out from the forest to us. Twenty minutes into the walk, our jungle guide Del Ag'uila, squeals with excitement.

"Can you imagine what we just found," he says. "It is one on the most difficult wildlife to see. An anaconda!"

The creature slithers out from a running creek and is guided up a tree with a stick and machete by the local guide. At about 4m, it's only a juvenile we are told — but still a menacing sight with its flicking tongue and elliptic beady eyes.

It is the guides who do most of the work, but still it is with a sense of achievement when we return to the ship for lunch.

Meals on board the Delfin II are fancy feasts that make use of lots of local ingredients.
On the three-course lunch menu today is doncella, a popular river fish, wrapped in bijao leaves and served with fried jungle cassava. The fine-dining dinner, which usually comes with impromptu performances by the crew, are way fancier we are soon to learn.

Crew leader Cristian Garcia assures us: "Anything you need, any time, we are here working for you."

Except for a Swiss couple, all my fellow adventurers are Americans.

To the untrained eye, there is really nothing much to look at in the wilderness except for trees, sky and murky water. On our first afternoon ride out on the long and narrow skiffs, we explore the Yanayacu River.

With the help of eagle-eyed Del Ag'uila, we spotted a three-toed sloth, a swooping yellow-headed caracara and see a woodpecker hammering at a kapok tree. Del Ag'uila grew up here, has lived all his life on the river and has developed the skills to spot animals in dense forest vegetation.

He is also able to mimic the calls of Amazonian creatures from botos, the pink river dolphins, to howler monkeys.

We soon come across an amazing display of performing botos on the return leg of our skiff excursion.

Delfin II is a five-star floating hotel, with luxurious cabin rooms that come complete with polished floors, private showers and air-conditioning.

Rooms are cleaned three times a day and muddy shoes are washed by the crew after each outing. The Delfin riverboat business was started by Peruvian couple Aldo Macchiavello and Lissy Urteagra more than a decade ago.

The aim is to offer travellers the unique Amazon wildlife and ecology adventure without the discomfort that usually comes with jungle expeditions.

But in contrast to the living standards of these river dwellers on the Amazon, life on board is one of extreme luxury.

We get a first-hand glimpse of the poverty and how Amazonian communities live during stops at some riverside villages, such as San Jose, Santo Domingo and San Jorge.

Delfin works with these villages, buys the handicrafts to decorate their ships and encourages its guests to buy giftwares when the boat visits.

The money raised, we are told, is used to buy school supplies, text books and medical supplies for the community.

At the village of San Regis, we meet a witch doctor named Carola. She chants, prays and sings for us and rubs a potion on my bald head claiming it will help me regain my hair.

I'm still waiting in hope.

The covered roof-top deck is the ship's social hub. It is where the bar is and where we gather for presentations, workshops and talks that range from wildlife photography to jungle cooking. My days usually end with a drink of Pisco Sour and a full-body massage by on-board therapist Jenny.

It feels good to be a pampered guest on the Delfin II, where days can be really busy — you may be out paddling a kayak in the morning, on a motorised skiff in the afternoon and out looking for creatures of the night on some evenings.

One morning, with our skiffs moored under the shelter of trees, fruit kebabs, pastries, ham rolls and coffee are served for breakfast.

The Yavari Miri River and the Amazon Rainforest, Peru. Photo / Getty Images
The Yavari Miri River and the Amazon Rainforest, Peru. Photo / Getty Images

"Welcome to the Jungle Cafe," says Denis Gonzales, another of the jungle guides, holding a pot of coffee.

The setting is simply magical — with blue and yellow macaws flying overhead, fish jumping alongside and pink dolphins swimming in the distance.

It is my most memorable meal of the trip.

It isn't until day five that we cross the junction of the Ucayali and Maranon rivers, the start of the mighty Amazon River.

From here, the river flows west across South America into the Atlantic, more than 4000km away.

As darkness falls at Nauta Cano, we begin a night hunt for caiman, or river crocodiles.
With eyes and nostrils sticking out of the water, they are spotted by the glow of their eyes when the spotlight shines.

On the return journey, Gonzales cuts off the engine of the skiff and we sit and enjoy the night.

The moon is shining bright, stars twinkle and fire flies blink and light up the river banks.

We listen to the croaks, grunts and gronks of monkeys and frogs, and hear rustling noises in the trees.

"Listen to the wonderful sound of the jungle symphony orchestra," Gonzales says.

The next day we arrive at the country's largest wildlife reserve Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.

A baby three-toed tree sloth is a unique inhabitant of the Amazon jungle. Photo / Getty Images
A baby three-toed tree sloth is a unique inhabitant of the Amazon jungle. Photo / Getty Images

En route we stop at a ranger station, which we learn also doubles as a turtle hatchery.
A ranger shifts the sand, and from a tiny hole emerge thousands and thousands of tiny baby turtles.

"Turtle egg is a delicacy, but the first lot is always collected for hatching," Gonzales says.
"This way we ensure that the turtles will always be around, and local cravings continue to be met."

We are divided in three groups — ours gets to see red howler monkeys but one lucky group spots a jaguar.

We marvel at the arowana swimming alongside us, known locally as the monkey fish (able to leap 2m out of the water to catch insects from tree branches).

One fisherman had caught a paiche, a huge 2m long river fish with lungs that allow them to breathe on land. We stop to take a look.

When you're in the Amazon, piranhas are, if you like, the elephant in the room.

Another jungle guide, Havier Arbiido, says these famously flesh-eating fish eat humans "only in the movies. In the Amazon, people eat piranhas," he says.

Asked how he would describe the fish with scary razor-sharp teeth, Arbiido says "delicious".

To prove his point he takes me aside and dishes out a steamed piranha from a pot prepared for staff.

"Better you eat the piranha than he eat you." The meat is white, clean and tasty — like a meatier version of the flounder.

I have to agree with Arbiido: delicious.

Piranhas aren't quite as scary when they're cooked for dinner. Photo / Getty Images
Piranhas aren't quite as scary when they're cooked for dinner. Photo / Getty Images

As we reach our journey's end and Delfin II arrives back in Nauta, not one of us wants to think about leaving the boat.

In just a week, we have discovered so much about this patch of dense forest area and its mighty river.

Yet it is still just a tiny snapshot of what the Amazon has on offer — still lots more jungle secrets to uncover.

Checklist
GETTING THERE
Latam flies from Auckland to Santiago, with connections available to Iquitos, Peru, via Lima.
DETAILS
Delfin offers the first and only Relais & Chateaux cruise in the world, with three ships to choose from.