Sunset at the Amazon River is breathtaking — the sky becomes pink and gets darker into golden red. In this picture, it looks like the Aria Amazon is floating in outer space.
DOWN TO THE AMAZON RIVER
Cruising along the Amazon River
is many travellers’ dream
STORY & PHOTOGRAPHY
Although the Amazon River is not the longest river in the world — that title belongs to the Nile River — the length of its hundreds of tributaries and streams combined is long enough to wrap around the earth twice. More importantly, the Amazon River is like the lungs of the world.
Those living near the Amazon River use it for transportation. Cruising along this river is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that many adventure lovers dream of, because they will get to see wild animals, including the anaconda snake.
COLOURS OF AMAZON
1. Even if you can’t see them, you can hear the macaws singing in the woods.
2. The rooftop of the Aria Amazon is a large living room with a bar on one side. You can see the panoramic view of the river.
3. Heliconia flowers emerge all over the forest and ants surround them looking for nectar.
4. In the rainy season, the water goes up a third of what you can see here.
5. Here, you can see pink dolphins. They aren’t as friendly as sea dolphins, but you can see them jumping up from time to time.
6. Piranhas are very colourful. It’s hard to believe something so beautiful can be so deadly.
CLOSE TO NATURE
7. Capuchin monkeys are very curious. They like to hide in the bushes and peek at passing boats.
8. Sunrise at the Amazon is just as beautiful as sunset, but the colour of the sky is not as red.
WIDE WILD SCENARIO
9. The Aria Amazon is designed to offer a full view of the river no matter where in the ship you are.
10. Golden sunlight bathed the ship. In this picture, you can see the river disappearing into the horizon.
However, what you see in documentaries can be different from the reality. Usually, if you want to cruise along the Amazon River, you will be on a three-storey ship, most of which do not have a separate passenger’s cabin. You must bring your own hammock, and wait at the pier 5-8 hours before the embarking time. The reason for being extra early is that you can get a good spot to hang your hammock and set settled for the trip, which takes 3-5 days.
Food and drinks are usually available, but it is better to carry bananas, energy bars, or water with you. During stops, you can buy food, but it’s hard to determine the time. The top deck is a big space with music. Sometimes you can leave your luggage in the storage room, but that means you won’t see it again until you have arrived.
Every day of this adventure along the Amazon River, you can hear birds singing, but you might not see any animals. You won’t even see homes. You actually see the same view all through the trip, nothing more.
So, if you want to have an adventure, this kind of trip isn’t for you. It is better to go on a tour on a special ship. Although it’s quite comfortable, it doesn’t make the adventure boring. Rather, you can reap more good memories this way.
I had a chance to be on the luxury Amazon River cruise ship, the Aria Amazon, by Aqua Expeditions. The trip starts at the Amazon River in Peru, before the Aria Amazon journeys towards the union of the Ucayali and the Marañón Rivers. The starting point is Iquitos City in Peru. The definition of “city” in this context might be different — it doesn’t have skyscrapers, but it is home to many people.
At the market, you can get fishes freshly caught from the Amazon River. The locals like to cook their fish with tomato, chili, coriander and a squeeze of lemon juice.
From Thailand, you can fly to Peru, and connect on a domestic flight to Iquitos, which takes about an hour and 20 minutes. From the plane, you can see dry mountains and specks of villages near the lakes. Soon, you can see a lush green jungle with a silver line running through it. That’s the Amazon River.
Reports say that an area equivalent to about five football fields a minute are destroyed in the Amazon due to deforestation. However, you can still see the vast forest as far as the eyes can see. Despite its deteriorating state, it is still home to wild animals and trees, and a source of medicine. Conservation is greatly called for.
The river was named by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana who, on his voyage of exploration, said he was attacked by “fierce females” looked like Amazons of the Greek mythology. They were actually long-haired males wearing colourful feathers. Soon, the area was taken over by the Spanish.
When we’ve arrived at Iquitos, we met our local guides, who are naturalists. They have been very well-trained. Throughout the five days we travelled together, they expressed their deep knowledge about the Amazon, and taught us about eco-tourism. We travelled from the airport in a van, passing into Iquitos on a recently built road. However, the locals are more familiar with water travel.
11. Our skiff takes us to smaller rivers and shallow waters.
12. This is the only place where Hoatzin birds can be seen.
13. These bright feathered birds are a little bit bigger than hummingbirds.
14. The skiffs are heading back to the ship after a riverside picnic.
The Aria Amazon was anchored at Nauta. It had 12 rooms and 23 crew members to look after the passengers. The number of crew members depends on the number of passengers. There are 16 suits, and the food and beverages are prepared by Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who has a Michelin-starred restaurant in Lima. The ingredients are all from the Amazon.
The Aria Amazon is a sight of grandeur. Painted matte black, decorated with glass windows, it has a floor-to-ceiling hall which offers a full view. It was the idea of Aqua Expeditions CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro, who wanted a boutique cruising experience for his customers. You’ll hop into a skiff to explore smaller rivers. A skiff is motorised boat which makes it convenience to go to every corner of the Amazon River.
The exterior is sophisticatedly decorated with natural materials. The mattress is comfortable — not too soft and not too firm. The temperature is set at about 20-something degrees Celsius. The weather around the Amazon is quite stable. There’s no TV because the most interesting thing you should be watching is through the large window. There is also no Wi-Fi, and phone signals are only available near big villages. Don’t forget this is a forest. In case of emergency, you can use the phone on the ship, which is quite expensive.
The upper deck has a lounge, which has both an indoor and an outdoor zone. You can enjoy juices, teas and coffees for free, but cocktails are available at an extra cost. The lounge is decorated with rattan furniture, and there are Jacuzzis and sunbathing chairs for those who want to relax.
A cruise with Aqua Expeditions is available in 7-day, 5-day and 3-day programmes. The best option would be the 5-day one. On the first day, you can take a skiff to walk in the jungle. Each skiff can transport six persons at most, and two naturalists accompany each skiff.
The forest here is quite similar to the forests in Thailand. There are many Tetrameles nudiflora trees with expansive roots, and many termite hills. Termites play an important role in the eco system — they work together with fungus and bacteria to turn dead plants into humus, which nourishes the soil and brings fertility to the forest. The locals also use termites to make medicine. Their pungent smell can help treat asthma. The locals will not break termite hills on the trees.
15. The port in Nauta is always vibrant because there is a market and it is linked to other villages.
16. They cut the fish in stripes to make it easier to cook and eat.
ABUNDANCE OF AMAZON
17. Colourful fishes are the fruits of the Amazon River’s fertility.
18. Piranhas have really strong jaws and they are among the deadliest fishes of the Amazon River.
COLOURS OF LIFE
19. People here still use paddle boat. Old boats are taken to the carpenters who will repurpose the wood.
20. The locals catch fish for food, and notice that there are fewer and fewer each yearthanks to global warming.
DAWN OF THE DAY
21. Local women take visitors to explore the lake. When the water recedes, this part becomes a big lake.
22. At dawn, everything is quiet. The birds are flying in the sky and the wild animals start to look for food
It was quite dry when we were there, so we didn’t see orchids. There were some bromeliads, but we only saw them as red dots on high trees. The best time to visit the Amazon is during the monsoon season because the water level is higher, meaning you can sail to many places. The black marks on the trees showed us how much higher the water level could be.
We heard macaws chirping on the trees but we could not see them. In the afternoon, we hopped on the skiff once again to see animals. The light was golden and beautiful, and the wind was gentle. We saw small monkeys jumping from branch to branch looking for food. Further out, we could hear guariba monkeys, which our guides said are quite mean and we should not go near them. We saw them on big trees, munching on cannonball fruits. The locals don’t eat this kind of fruit, but use its pulp to make medicine.
As the sun was about to set, the sky turned pink before slowing getting dark. The clouds were bright pink as light shone from their back. That’s the Amazon sky that everyone talks about.
The next morning, we took the skiff to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve at the headwaters. This reserved forest is said to be among the most fertile parts of the Amazon in Peru. We saw storks high up in the trees, and hoatzin birds, a species of tropical bird found in the Amazon. Hoatzin birds are very rare, and can only be seen from this spot.
We also spotted aplomado falcons and black caracaras along the way. In the morning, there are many birds along the river, such as colourful hummingbirds and harpy eagles. If you like birds, you will be blown away by this place. Make sure you have your bird-watching tools with you, but they are also available for rent.
We were lucky to spot an anaconda snake. Our guides said they weren’t sure whether we would get to see one that day, but as we approached a thick patch of water hyacinth, our guides called the other two skiffs, and all the six guides caught the anaconda snake. They told us that the anaconda was injured, and they wanted to apply medicine on it. They put some yellow powder, probably sulfa, on the anaconda snake. It was about 10 metres in length, possibly in its youth. After less than 20 minutes, it was released back into the water. Our guides said a part of their job was to take care of all the animals, and they wanted visitors to see these animals closely.
These guides are those whose families have lived here for generations, and their greatest teachers were their fathers, who taught them everything they needed to know about life in the forest. After moving to the city, their lifestyle has changed, and while they cannot live in the forest like their ancestors, they can work as guides.
We stopped for a morning picnic, and were greeted by capuchin monkeys climbing the trees around us. We also saw red bromeliads on high trees. Some of the bromeliads had so many fruits they looked like they were wearing a jacket. A sloth was seen sitting on the tree, looking at the view beneath it. Sloths are very slow, but once a day, they go down to the ground to poop.
We went to a village to see pink dolphins.It was where the river separates, forming a triangle. The house we went to was built high off the ground so that it wouldn’t get flooded when the water rises. We heard loud breathing noise from the river, and we saw pink dolphins swimming, emerging and disappearing into the water.
That afternoon, we had an adventure — piranha fishing. Piranhas are the “killers of the Amazon”. We caught them and let them go back into the water, using chicken meat as our bait. In less than a minute, we caught one. We were afraid to go near it, but our guides assured that it’s safe because they were hooked. They showed us their sharp teeth and strong jaws — piranhas could easily eat a whole ox.
We asked our guides what would happen if we fell into the water. They explained that piranhas are actually easily scared — they would probably just scatter away. However, if you are bleeding, they can smell your blood, and they will approach you. Larger Amazon fishes, otters, pink dolphins, and birds like to eat Piranhas.
Our dinner was delayed because we were waiting to see caimans. They look like small crocodiles, and you can only see them after sunset. While waiting, we had a chance to see sunset at the lagoon. As the sky turned dark, we could see lights shining. They weren’t stars — they were the eyes of the caimans.
The ship made its way to Nauta, and on the way, we explored local villages to see how they lived. We had clothes, notebooks and pencils to offer to the children in those villages. If you hadn’t brought any, you can buy a goodie bag at the souvenir shop.
The goodie bag also contains a packet of salt, fishing hooks, fishing rods, matches, and others. Salt is very important for those living in the Amazon. They are encouraged to consume iodised salt to prevent iodine deficiency. They have electricity from generators, but not too much of it, so they do not have refrigerators at home. They would preserve their fishes and meat with salt. The children also do not have a lot of notebooks and pencils, so they’re very happy to receive them.
Back in Nauta the next morning, we had a chance to go to the local market, where we saw strange-looking fishes. Fish is the main food here. Before going to the airport, our guides took us to Amazonian Manatee Rescue, which looks after injured animals, whether naturally or by humans. In addition to manatees, there are many other animals, such as caimans and turtles. Some of the manatees were injured by fishing tools, or intentionally hurt by people. The centre also illustrates the importance of forest and trees in the Amazon in Peru. On Sundays, children from various schools would visit the centre.
This trip brought us closer to nature and showed us the beauty of the Amazon River. It also taught us about nature conservation, because ultimately, we are a part of Mother Nature.
*For more information, contact World Surprise Travel (www.worldsurprise.com) or www.aquaexpeditions.com.