Look for Michael Jackson!” urged our naturalist guide, Julio, on our first morning in the Amazonian rainforest of Peru. Truth be told, we weren’t summoning the late pop icon’s spirit, but searching for the monk saki monkey. “We call it Michael Jackson because it has a black body with a white face and white hands,” he chuckled.
I was on a cruise out of the rainforest town of Iquitos on the Aria Amazon, a 45-metre modernist river ship that plies the upper reaches of the Amazon, which rises in Peru and flows through Brazil to the Atlantic. The passengers—with numbers capped at a maximum of 32 per sailing—had been split among three aluminium skiffs, each helmed by a guide who’d grown up in the area, for an excursion on the river and a walk in the jungle. Nobody glimpsed the pop-star primate, though we did spot plenty else. Hook-nosed vultures lazing in the sun. Snowy egrets flitting from bank to bank, their haphazard version of a morning commute. Black-collared hawks perched on tree stumps, enjoying a moment of Zen while waiting for prey. Cormorants peppered around the branches of kapoks like lights decorating a Christmas tree. Three-toed sloths, howlers, common squirrels and woolly monkeys silhouetted in the canopy.
We were soon tramping through the jungle. “Sixty per cent of all medicines used in the world,” said Julio, “are derived from the Amazon”—a rainforest that’s twice the size of India and is constantly being stripped by loggers. We learned from our guide that the sap of the Ficus insipida is a digestive cleanser for local villagers, and that the fruit of the Genipa americanacan be used as a remedy for sore throats. The cat’s claw vine supplies ingredients for cancer and Aids treatments, while another plant helps treat snakebite. Not all the jungle’s flora is of the healing kind, Julio warned us as he pointed out the spiky-trunked catahua, a tree whose sap is poisonous and used in darts (“Put a drop in your eye and you’ll go blind”)—but its bark is good for warding off negative spirits, he said.
At one point, Julio cracked the shell of a termite mound and asked for a volunteer. Instinctively—or foolishly?—I raised my arm. “Put your hand in,” he said. I did so and termites enveloped it. “Don’t worry, they don’t bite… much,” he quipped. After a minute, he told me to brush off the termites; they left behind sticky trails with a pleasing woody aroma. “This is a natural insect repellent the tribes use,” he explained.
Less appealing was the slender palo santo, which Julio knew as the “punishment tree.” He tapped the trunk and legions of biting red fire ants streamed out of a small hole. “When we were young and naughty, our parents made us hold the trunk for 10 minutes—and we learned to not be naughty again.” The two-hour jungle stroll was equal parts edifying, inspiring and alarming. Here ants or snakes could attack but, if you knew where to look, a cure was close at hand. We returned to the skiffs, where Julio handed us cold towels and chilled Cusqueña beer.
More delights awaited back on the Aria, whose sleek black hull houses 16 cabins that turn traditional stateroom design on its head. The cabins measure a generous 270 square feet, and feature a king-sized bed and a welcome shower roomy enough for two. Three floor-to-ceiling panes of glass act as the fourth wall and almost place you directly on the mighty river.
The ship has three passenger decks: two host the accommodation and dining room, while the top floor has a library and lounge, a shaded observation area, a teeny gym and massage rooms. Each day supplies a couple of enlightening excursions, but the pauses in between are restorative pockets of decompression where you leave the world behind—quite literally, since there is no internet or phone coverage on board.
Days settle into a comforting rhythm. A wake-up call comes well after sunrise, then a fortifying breakfast of fruit, cereal, yoghurt and eggs, followed by a morning excursion. Lunch is light, with cuisine that celebrates Peru’s wealth of endemic products, including such superfoods as quinoa and kiwicha. The evenings’ fine-dining tasting menus come with fantastic South American wines. Free time, carefully built into the itineraries, allows for post-prandial siestas, sipping of pisco sours on the deck and watching fishermen idle in their dugouts, or the opportunity to mingle with the affable guides, easily accessible given the Aria’s Lilliputian dimensions.
Excursions are planned so as not to be repetitive. “Today we look for dolphins, jaguars, caimans and anacondas,” our guide, another man named Julio, declared as we headed towards the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve after an early rise. “And we’ll fish for piranhas,” he added—a statement met with gasps of apprehension. Patches of mist rose from the river as the climbing sun heated the air. The still water acted as a mirror, reflecting the tender clouds and flanking columns of green trees. Swathes of wild cane, used for fishing rods because it floats, rose from the shallows and swayed above the river banks.
One side of the river appeared eroded, the other built up, the result of the action of the currents. Clumps of water hyacinth floated by and the fragrance of orchids scented the air. A pod of river dolphins appeared, their fleshy pink backs rhythmically breaking the surface of the water. Everyone buzzed with excitement some minutes later when we spied a family of capybaras—rodents the size of shorn sheep—scurrying into a thatch of fallen branches. This necessity to focus attention away from ourselves amplified the sense of escape, and because the sightings weren’t staged or contrived, it made each one all the more rewarding.
The Amazon supports more than 500 species of catfish, including one that apparently can walk. It’s also home to the endangered paiche, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish (it can grow beyond four metres) and 17 species of piranha, though we were hoping to catch just one—the infamous red-bellied piranha. “Hollywood has given piranhas a bad image,” Julio explained, referring to the 1978 schlock film Piranha. “They don’t attack humans except during the breeding season in November, and that’s just to protect the young. The fish have strong jaws and sharp teeth because they eat nuts and seeds that fall off the trees.”
I didn’t entirely buy this, especially after we were handed rudimentary fishing rods with cubes of raw beef as bait. After I dropped the line and felt a firm tug, I quickly yanked it up, only to find the hook stripped of meat with disheartening efficiency. This kept happening, but eventually I landed a slip of a fish. It was the length of a ballpoint pen, but with razor-sharp triangular teeth that could make quick work of my tender flesh. The guide unhooked the little terror and threw it back in the water—seeds and nuts indeed!
On one jaunt upriver, the driver cut the boat’s engine to enjoy the silence—except there was none. What became apparent was the density of life here. Us city slickers forget that entire societies survive in the treetops and below the water. The jungle pulsed with the sounds of cicadas, crickets, monkeys and birds, and the water constantly jittered with rising bubbles of gas. Sure, the Amazon is a river and a rainforest in South America, but it’s also an ever-evolving fountain of life.
Another morning we visited a small riverside settlement and its school, and saw how villagers live in their stilt-borne, thatch-roofed homes on meals of plantains and fish cooked over a fire. Around the homes grow peppers, watermelons, bananas and papayas. The jungle provides for all species and enables those who live here to lead a stripped-down, refreshingly slow life that makes the crush of civilisation seem painfully disruptive. That afternoon, we swam in a vast oxbow lake where bands of warm and cold water caressed us, but without the saltiness of the sea. A rainbow appeared, but as a storm approached we climbed back onto the skiff. Our guide congratulated us for “swimming with piranhas, electric eels, caimans and anacondas—and surviving.” We thanked Julio for saving the joke until after the swim.
On the last night, following another sigh-inducing sunset and with the water brightened by the sharp light of a brilliant moon, a gaggle of new friends gathered on the observation deck to recap the many highlights of the trip. We never saw an anaconda or a jaguar, but I for one didn’t mind. I was always secretly looking for a reason to come back.