Pink Dolphins and Deadly Piranhas: Into the Secret World of the Peruvian Amazon

A luxury cruise goes deep into hidden, Avatar-like jungles.  
Almost 22 per cent of the oxygen on the planet is believed to be generated in the Amazon. The rainforest, which covers 60 per cent of Peru’s total area, is a place of astonishing biodiversity and indigenous cultures. Photo by: Loren McIntyre/Stock Connection/Dinodia Photo Library
Almost 22 per cent of the oxygen on the planet is believed to be generated in the Amazon. The rainforest, which covers 60 per cent of Peru’s total area, is a place of astonishing biodiversity and indigenous cultures. Photo by: Loren McIntyre/Stock Connection/Dinodia Photo Library

Nights on the Marañón River have a dark, viscous texture. They turn ficus trees along banks into looming Dementors. Like echo chambers, they magnify wet slithers on forest floors, turning up the shrieks of bulldog bats that fish in this part of the world.

We streak across waters that are eerie black mirrors due to the tannin released by the vegetation. Our wooden skiff stops abruptly. Something hisses in my left ear.

“Today is your birthday.”

The portly figure of Juan Tejada rises at the prow, bending to part the foliage of the jungle beyond.

“Today is your birthday, and the Amazon is your present,” whispers our naturalist. “You know you will get gifts. But what will they be: Anaconda? Tarantula? Or a hungry jaguar?”

***

Earlier this morning, as my plane flew into the port city of Iquitos in northeastern Peru, I saw something I will never likely forget. All earth was a tightly bunched, bottle-green rainforest. A muddy river snaked through it in a perfect sine wave, as if a rhythmic gymnast had twirled her ribbon across. I was in the Amazon, the world’s largest river by volume, and was looking down at a fraction of its seven million square kilometres of rainforest. Two decades ago, I had crammed its mindboggling proportions for a school exam: The Amazon is the planet’s largest tropical rainforest and is almost twice the size of India. It spans nine countries—Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. About 50 Amazonian tribes have no contact with the outside world. The scale of this place is larger than what a pigtailed schoolgirl could imagine.

Expeditions into the Amazon are deep immersions into its way of life. Photo ops with tarantulas are guaranteed by Jorge, an expert tracker (top right). Some days start by fishing for savage piranhas (bottom), and end with buying handicrafts (top left) made by the local Cucama community. Photo by: Sergi Reboredo/age fotostock/dinodia photo library (handicraft), Photo Courtesy: Jungle Experiences/Amazon River Cruises (piranhas), Kareena Gianani (tarantula)

Expeditions into the Amazon are deep immersions into its way of life. Photo ops with tarantulas are guaranteed by Jorge, an expert tracker (top right). Some days start by fishing for savage piranhas (bottom), and end with buying handicrafts (top left) made by the local Cucama community. Photo by: Sergi Reboredo/age fotostock/dinodia photo library (handicraft), Photo Courtesy: Jungle Experiences/Amazon River Cruises (piranhas), Kareena Gianani (tarantula)

Juan revels in the Amazon, with an ease that comes from having grown up here and swimming with endangered pink dolphins as a boy. He leans deeper into the ferns—he has spotted two glinting red dots—and returns with a foot-long baby black caiman. The species is the largest and one of the deadliest crocodiles in the world; and its bitter-gourd-like texture makes me squirm. Juan carefully puts it back. Then Marcos, the helmsman, switches off the skiff’s engine and light for a few minutes. I listen to the mixtape of the jungle: hoots, yips and trills meshing with murmurs and sounds of fish cutting water. “Y’all listenin’ to the soundtrack of some of the 1,400 endemic bird species of the Amazon, my friends,” says Juan. “These waters hold the deadly paiche fish, a carnivore with teeth on the roof of its mouth and on the tongue. There are electric fish too, that emit 600 volts to stun their prey.”

We return to our vessel, the Zafiro, which reminds me of the other extreme of my Amazonian adventure: luxury. Lights blink from its 19 cabins, bar, restaurant and deck. Inside, 21 crew members—most of them born in Amazonian villages—work tirelessly to give me and 14 others an intimate glimpse of a largely secret, fragile ecosystem that not even many Peruvians have explored. Starting from the port town of Nauta, which lies 100 kilometres from Iquitos, over four nights my portable home will cover the depths of tropical forests enclosed by two tributaries of the Amazon, Marañón and Ucayali. The area they enclose is part of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peru’s second largest rainforest, which is the size of Belgium.

There’s no mobile network on the ship. So, the first thing I do every morning is push the curtains away from the floor-to-ceiling window in my room. The wallpaper changes every day; I could wake up to swaying palms, or houses built on stilts. One morning, bleary-eyed from sleep, I spot three grey dolphins gambolling in the river. I wait, and two more join in, oblivious to the manic grin of a woman in a bathrobe with toothpaste foaming in her mouth.

***

“Don’t lean on that!”

I leap away from an innocent-looking cedar.

Juan points to its base; it is teeming with ants the size of my little finger. “Bullet ants, the deadliest of all. Their sting hurts for a full day. I was once paralysed for six hours.”

The Pacaya Samiria National Reserve brims with birds and mammals, but only a few lucky visitors spot the saddleback tamarin monkey (top left) and the prehistoric bird, hoatzin (top right). Spine-tingling adventures in the Peruvian Amazon often include encounters with caimans (bottom left) and Amazon tree boas (bottom right). Photos by: Ger Bosma/Moment Open/Getty Images (Tamarin Monkey), Michael Sewell/Photolibrary/Getty Images (Hoatzins perched), Gerald C. Kelley/Science Source/Dinodia Photo Library (Caiman), Matthijs Kuijpers/Biosphoto/Getty Images (snake)

The Pacaya Samiria National Reserve brims with birds and mammals, but only a few lucky visitors spot the saddleback tamarin monkey (top left) and the prehistoric bird, hoatzin (top right). Spine-tingling adventures in the Peruvian Amazon often include encounters with caimans (bottom left) and Amazon tree boas (bottom right). Photos by: Ger Bosma/Moment Open/Getty Images (Tamarin Monkey), Michael Sewell/Photolibrary/Getty Images (Hoatzins perched), Gerald C. Kelley/Science Source/Dinodia Photo Library (Caiman), Matthijs Kuijpers/Biosphoto/Getty Images (snake)

We plod deep into the Fundo Casual jungle trail in terra firma rainforest, one that’s on a higher ground and never gets flooded. This part of the jungle is unbelievably dense—only three per cent of the sunlight reaches the ground. I hear growls of thunder, and rain, yet only the faintest drizzle reaches the soggy, salad-like ground. We cross a series of high, wobbly bridges that put us face to face with the lush forest canopy. Huge, twisty liana vines coil around other trees to reach the top. “The presence of lianas is proof that you’re in a primary forest; one that has never been logged,” Juan tells me. I silently repeat this trivia so I never forget—I am in one of the world’s primeval places, one that has existed continuously for 20 centuries.

***

For our companion Jorge, the selva (tropical jungle) is an extension of his wiry body and senses. A tracker extraordinaire, he darts into gaps between trees I’d never dare enter. One time, he emerges with—well, just a palm leaf.

But Juan is visibly excited. “Poison dart frog,” he says, and I notice an electric orange-and-black frog smaller than my thumbnail. Seeing a lady baby-talk to it, Juan chuckles, “German scientists are studying its toxin to make a substance 30 times stronger than morphine.” Over the next 20 minutes, Jorge returns with a hairy but otherwise cute tarantula, and leads us to a 25-foot anaconda napping after a heavy meal. “You’re in Earth’s green pharmacy,” I hear Juan say, as we photograph the anaconda from a foot away. Cornell University, he adds, set up a research lab here in 2001 and is studying bullet ants to treat epilepsy. Amazonian shamans have long known that the cat’s claw herb helps with diabetes, prostrate and kidney ailments. Only a small percentage of the Amazon’s 20,000 species of medicinal plants are known to Western medicine. The rainforest, says Juan, might hold a cure for cancer.

***

A wooden skiff racing along Amazonian creeks and rivers opens up a new window into its stunning ecosystems. Excursions with naturalist Juan Tejada (first, left) often include sightings of toucans and hummingbirds, and hilarious imitations of a sloth bear looking for his mate. Photo by: Kareena Gianani

A wooden skiff racing along Amazonian creeks and rivers opens up a new window into its stunning ecosystems. Excursions with naturalist Juan Tejada (first, left) often include sightings of toucans and hummingbirds, and hilarious imitations of a sloth bear looking for his mate. Photo by: Kareena Gianani

Dinner on the ship is a tasting platter of Peru’s bounty; it comes from the rivers and jungles I visit by day, and from the fertile Andes. There’s wild cucumber stuffed with the purée of cocona, a tart tropical fruit. I grab packets of juane like they are candy, relishing the rice and chicken steamed in parcels of bijao leaves. There’s huge Doncella catfish cooked with local chorizo sauce. I scoop ladles of locro, a thick hearty stew of pumpkin, cheese, beans, corn and mint that makes you miss your mother for no reason. A lady in the group pairs every dish with camu camu juice, a delicious Amazonian berry packed with Vitamin C. I on the other hand learn to never refuse a second helping of the aji de gallina—a creamy chicken dish with yellow pepper, egg, and crackers, garnished with black olives.

One evening, before dinner, the ship’s manager Angela Rodriguez joins me on my simple quotidian ritual on the deck: to watch the Zafiro glide past creeks, lagoons, and the rare kayak. The clouds look like whisked cream floating on pink skies. At twilight, lights begin to flicker in the homes along the banks. Angela tells me she was born in one such village along the Ucayali. And her only dream was to build a life around the Amazon, not escape it. Angela’s mother asked her “not to bother about finding a husband,” and moved to Iquitos so Angela could
study English. They sold cookies and ice cream in the morning, and cakes in the evening. “But we were happy, because Mama sang all the time!” laughs Angela. I see how she brings a proud, Amazonian sensibility aboard the Zafiro, why she works with women from 20 riverine communities who make jewellery and handicrafts. She picks up a gorgeous, frog-shaped napkin-holder from a table, woven from fibres of the porcupine palm I saw one morning. Angela is relentless; she’s doing a diploma on Amazonian communities to understand her own region better. “You’ll get a real idea of the Amazon only if locals feel that they have a stake in the tourism,” she says.

***

Every day at dawn, as we step into our 12-seater wooden skiff, I take the liberty of believing six impossible things before breakfast. This isn’t Africa, I remember Juan telling me, so we are never promised anything. But one excursion into the rainforest is enough for me to know one thing—

“Amigos, here’s another day of many firsts! Vamanos.”

Largest of South America’s big cats, jaguars (top) are expert swimmers and get their name from the Native American word yaguar, which means “he who kills with one leap.” The three-toed sloth (bottom) mostly lives on trees and sleeps for 15-20 hours every day. It seems to move in slow-motion and can turn its neck to about 270 degrees. Photos by: Kim Schandorff/Moment/Getty Images (Jaguar), Sergi Reboredo/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library (Sloth Bear)

Largest of South America’s big cats, jaguars (top) are expert swimmers and get their name from the Native American word yaguar, which means “he who kills with one leap.” The three-toed sloth (bottom) mostly lives on trees and sleeps for 15-20 hours every day. It seems to move in slow-motion and can turn its neck to about 270 degrees. Photos by: Kim Schandorff/Moment/Getty Images (Jaguar), Sergi Reboredo/age fotostock/Dinodia Photo Library (Sloth Bear)

For hours, we enter the high-definition, Avatar-meets-Jurassic Park kind of rainforest that keeps the strangest creatures for company. The bird, red-capped manakin, called the Michael Jackson of the Amazon, moonwalks on a branch to woo the ladies. The wattled jacana or the ‘Jesus bird’ walks on water. Something sounds like gigantic bubbles bursting? Must be the bird colony of russet-backed oropendola. Juan is a blur, pointing in all directions at once, shooting off names faster than we can turn. On one walk, someone swears they saw pieces of leaves “walking” on their own. “Leaf-cutter ants,” replies Juan. “Crunchy things. And tasty!” Sure enough I spot an army scurrying with leaf fragments in their “jaws.” Our senses can detect just 20 per cent of the sounds and movements here.

Next, Juan takes us in search of the river’s darling—the Amazon dolphins, who are bubblegum-pink with a bulbous forehead. They have a pretty rad life story: Largest of the four river dolphin species, pink dolphin have evolved over 15 million years to adapt to the unique conditions of the Amazon. Their thin, long beaks help them fish amid submerged branches, and on a good day score some shrimp and crayfish. Marcos stops and starts the skiff’s engine. Soon we whoop as one, two, then three dolphins blow and disappear into the water. If we ride towards them, they friskily emerge behind us, as if playing a game. “Every time I see them feels like my first time,” grins Juan.

Later, Juan and I canoe on the river in silence. He allows me to cut through the water lettuce and glimpse the jungle within. It feels untouched since centuries, and resembles Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Rooms” with its burst of light and green colour. I itch to step inside; Juan jokes about the chullachaqui, a legendary limping gnome who tricks people into the forest until they are lost. I ask him what’s left on his Amazonian wish list after 30 years of sightings. “Oh, lots,” he exclaims. He has never seen a manatee, the pillow-like aquatic sea cow, in the wild; only at a rescue centre. Too many creatures, he worries, are disappearing because the Amazon is threatened by hunting and logging.
“I visited the Amazonian tributary Napo in 1988, and spotted a prehistoric bird, hoatzin. On a recent trip there, nothing. All gone. Maybe forever.”

***

Owl monkeys (left) are some of the most fascinating tree-dwellers in the Amazon. They are nocturnal, and one of the five per cent of mammals that are monogamous. The poison dart frog (middle) is a mesmerising creature. Its brilliant colours and small size belie its toxicity. Some indigenous communities dip their blowgun darts into the frog’s poison to hunt. Macaws (left) darting across the rainforest are a spectacle, with their plumage looking like a burst of colours, and their squawks and screams ringing through the trees. Photos by: Danita Delimont/Gallo Images/Getty Images (Night owl monkey), Kareena Gianani (frog & macaws)

Owl monkeys (left) are some of the most fascinating tree-dwellers in the Amazon. They are nocturnal, and one of the five per cent of mammals that are monogamous. The poison dart frog (middle) is a mesmerising creature. Its brilliant colours and small size belie its toxicity. Some indigenous communities dip their blowgun darts into the frog’s poison to hunt. Macaws (left) darting across the rainforest are a spectacle, with their plumage looking like a burst of colours, and their squawks and screams ringing through the trees. Photos by: Danita Delimont/Gallo Images/Getty Images (Night owl monkey), Kareena Gianani (frog & macaws)

Some things, however, aren’t lost yet. One afternoon, Juan takes us to meet Carola, the local shaman, to give us an understanding of the life of ribereños (riverine communities). Allopathy is not common here, and there aren’t too many shamans around anymore. Carola alone treats locals from nine communities. Dressed in an embroidered shirt and skirt—traditional attire of the Cucama tribe—Carola shows us her stock of medicinal herbs, and the famed ayahuasca vine that she brews to make a hallucinogenic drink. The ayahuasca is a purgative, and cleanses a shaman physically and spiritually. “She drinks it to diagnose serious ailments, and it tells her where she’ll find the medicinal plant in the forest that could heal her patient,” translates Juan. Shamans aren’t born, says Carola. Older shamans pick those with the right aura. Carola was chosen to be a shaman when she was 14, and underwent rigorous training for eight years. She still follows a vegetarian diet.

***

The luxury ship Zafiro (top right) pampers guests with creature comforts like jacuzzi, and lavish spa treatments and buffets. It is also a gateway to canopy walks along the rainforest’s giant trees (left), and provides access to Amazonian villages that cast stunning reflections on the waters (bottom right). Photos by: Kim Schandorff/Moment/Getty Images (homes), Kareena Gianani (bridge), Photo Courtesy: Jungle Experiences/Amazon River Cruises (ship)

The luxury ship Zafiro (top right) pampers guests with creature comforts like jacuzzi, and lavish spa treatments and buffets. It is also a gateway to canopy walks along the rainforest’s giant trees (left), and provides access to Amazonian villages
that cast stunning reflections on the waters (bottom right). Photos by: Kim Schandorff/Moment/Getty Images (homes), Kareena Gianani (bridge), Photo Courtesy: Jungle Experiences/Amazon River Cruises (ship)

It is my last evening aboard the Zafiro. The crew, like on most days, puts up the kind of show that makes your heels sore and heart sing. I love how each crew member becomes a whole new person: Milton Gonzales, the shy server who chats with me over breakfast, croons Peruvian ballads, plays the guitar and the wind instrument zampogna—simultaneously. I cheer as hawk-eyed Juan makes his cajon criollo boom; he later tells me about the box-shaped percussion instrument’s 450-year-old Creole connection. However, no one astonishes as much as Angela, who dances like the river beneath her feet. Her liquid grace makes us want to clear the dance floor, and we often do, until she laughs and pulls us back in. The crescendo builds up, we cheer hoarsely, and the music stops only when Angela is out of breath.

“Here,” she walks up to me later, pressing a pen drive with hundreds of photos of this trip into my palm. I thank her, and tell her something else too will connect me to the Amazon.

“I planted a mahogany in the reserve.”

Angela understands, and we walk to the deck one last time.

Essentials

Jungle Experiences’ luxury ship, Zafiro, offers twice-a-day guided excursions into the Amazon’s Pacaya Samiria National Reserve (www.jungleexperiences.com; from $4,135/Rs2,64,785 for 3 nights/4 days, per person double occupancy). Amazon’s dry season is Jun-Nov. The river floods the region in the wet season between Dec-May.

  • Kareena Gianani is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

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