A VOYAGE ON THE AMAZON DISCOVERY, December 4 – 10, 2015
Best viewed on a computer with full screen. A cell phone will not do justice to the photos. All photos by the author except that many of the photos of birds high in the trees were taken by guide Eric Pineda with my camera. Click on the photos to enlarge.
The Amazon Discovery is a new ship, in service for only seven months when I boarded it in Iquitos Peru for a six night voyage on the Amazon and some of its tributaries. I detest big ships so I was thrilled to discover a huge discount from Secret Escapes for this 42-passenger vessel, the most deluxe on the river. To my good fortune, there were only 18 passengers during the off-dates just before the Christmas holidays. Here’s the link:
Passengers fly into Iquitos, Peru, with no choice other than changing planes in Lima where several small airlines and a large LAN airbus provide service to Iquitos several times a day. Those flying from the U.S., Canada, or Europe will find it difficult not to layover in Lima unless they take a red-eye which a few did, arriving exhausted. While I had been in Lima three times previously, I couldn’t resist the temptation to spend three nights in one of South America’s great capitals and the culinary capital of the hemisphere. Anyone planning on the Peruvian Amazon surely ought to spend some time in Lima. The hotel selections are varied in quality and price, taxis are inexpensive if you flag them on the street and don’t use the overpriced hotel cabs. The Gold Museum and the Rafael Larco museum are both world class and worth the trip by themselves. The restaurant selection includes three of the 50 best restaurants in the world. And at three soles to the dollar, prices are a bargain compared to most destinations. My favorite spot in Lima is the Rafael Larco Museum with its beautiful gardens, ceramics, and gold collection, photos below.
Day 1, Dec. 4. My morning LAN flight from Lima arrived in Iquitos shortly after noon. The snack aboard was junk food so I’m glad I had breakfast in the large food court in the Lima airport where one can also obtain dollars or soles from several ATMs. Most of the passengers arrived on the same flight recommended by Haimark, the operator of the ship. Only two stragglers from Germany arrived much later but boarded in time for dinner. Guide Denis Coelho took charge of our luggage and sent it to the ship in a pick-up while we boarded a small air-conditioned bus for a local tour to occupy our time until our cabins were ready at 4 pm. The box lunch was just barely satisfactory but enough to hold us until dinner aboard.
We went first to a wildlife preservation center where rescue of local manatees was the primary operation. Some were orphans, some wounded, all receiving special care before being transitioned back to the river. We saw some monkeys as well, orphaned or runaways from private homes, being cared for before being released into the wild again. A naturalist student-intern provided a detailed explanation of their work. No one expected to visit a forested area right off the plane so several people lacked walking shoes and insect repellent stored in their luggage. One person suffered multiple mosquito bites. Several people had only flip-flops for footware and donned the unhealthy plastic even on later excursions.
Next we walked around the city center and the harbor area with some decaying palatial homes from the days of the rubber barons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The metropolitan area of Iquitos, “the capital of the Peruvian Amazon,” has over half a million people, mostly dwelling in crumbling homes of cinder blocks and laminate, with an aspect of being an enormous slum. The most popular transportation is the moto-kar, a two-passenger carriage pulled by a motorbike. The guide said there are 800 thousand moto-kars in the city and that’s easy to believe as scores of them passed us on every block
Finally, we boarded a skiff that took us across the river to where the Amazon Discovery was anchored. We were welcomed by a smiling all-Peruvian crew and pointed to our suites which were delightfully air-conditioned with the outside temperature in the high 80s. The all-suite cabins boast floor-to-ceiling picture-windows the entire width of the cabin. The bathrooms are spacious with large shower stalls and the usual bath amenities. Closet space is ample and there is a love seat, a safe-deposit box, and a desk with outlets for 220 and 110 volts. Alas, there is no internet service aboard, a real challenge for me for the six days of the voyage, nor is there cell phone service for most of the trip which didn’t bother me since I’m not part of that culture. The water in the sink and shower is not potable but a large carafe of bottled water is replenished several times a day by an efficient cabin attendant.
We had time in the bar prior to the welcome dinner. Pisco Sours and other pisco beverages, Peruvian red and white wine, soft drinks, and local beer are all included at no cost. Other drinks like scotch or vodka are available at premium prices charged to one’s bill and paid by credit card at the end of the voyage. Tips are not included either but the suggested gratuities are quite reasonable and the outstanding attendants deserve more.
Meals aboard are quite ample with gourmet presentations. Breakfast is a buffet with fresh fruit, fried eggs, sometimes a frittata, cold cuts, bacon, cereal, and more. Lunch at noon is sit-down with no choice of entrée unless one specifies a special request in advance. The sit-down dinner at 7 or 7:30 pm offers a choice of chicken, beef, or fish with different variations daily. Waiter service is efficient and one’s water or wine glass stays well filled. Given the size of the ship and the remote destination, one cannot expect the bountiful food choices of a large-vessel Caribbean or Mediterranean cruise. No one goes hungry but the chicken, beef, fish trilogy got a bit tiresome at the end.
I do have a bit of a problem embarking on an excursion just half an hour after breakfast especially when there are no toilet stops for two and a half hours. The ship has three 28-passenger skiffs but we used just two, with nine passengers and a guide per vessel. The physician assistant usually joined one of the groups. The individual attention was beyond anything I expected. The guides, Denis Coelho and Ericson (Eric) Pinedo, are superbly self-educated naturalists with a native-born knowledge of the wildlife and flora, even the uses of medicinal plants and how they are prepared. They led us on morning excursions returning for lunch, siesta and rehydration time, and a second daily trek a few hours after lunch.
Day 2. Dec. 5. The first day’s adventures were both by skiff only, navigating the Amazon to the conjuncture of the Marañon and Ucayali rivers where the Amazon begins. Those rivers have their source in the high Andes of central Peru. Smaller rivers spread like dozens of fingers into the jungle all along the Amazon system, reaching into every South American country except four, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile, while the main river flows to the Atlantic coast of Brazil for about 4000 miles. Depending on how one measures, the Nile may be slightly longer, but the Amazon is the indisputable largest in the world. It’s drainage basin is over 2.7 million square miles. And its rainforest is the largest in the world with incredible biodiversity, including 20 percent of the world’s bird species. We saw an enormous number of species on our excursions.
The first morning skiff ride took us through open waters as well as tree-canopied smaller streams bordered by tropical forest teeming with birds. On the first morning we saw parrots, parakeets, oropendulas, hawks, vultures, macaws, toucans, kingfishers, cormorants, anhingas, flycatchers, and lesser-known species like jacanas and jacamars. In the afternoon, we saw more of the same as was well as sloths, river otters, and a rare pygmy marmoset monkey carrying two babies. Eric has an incredible eye for spotting birds that I couldn’t find without binoculars. On multiple occasions he took my camera and snapped many of the photos that illustrate this post. Born in Brazil but raised in Peru, he has a knowledge of the jungle beyond his 42 years and a passion for his work. It’s a joy to see how excited he gets when he spots a rare species. Below are some photos of our first morning excursion.
Day 3, Dec. 6. It was just a few hundred meter skiff ride this morning from where we anchored near the confluence of the Ucayali and Marañon rivers to the San Francisco Village with its mixed-blood population, living a life typical of many river communities. Thanks to government support the village boasts a wide sidewalk up the side of a steep bank into the village. The friendly, handsome villagers were fine with people photographing them doing their daily chores. Two women were squeezing sugar cane in a home-made wooden press until the juice flowed into a bucket. The sweetener is distilled by some for homemade aguardiente, a liquor common throughout northern South America, called cachaza in Brazil where it makes delicious caiparinhas.
The village’s thatched homes seemed to be teeming with small children, with chickens and ducks as well as pet monkeys and even a pet sloth on the porches. Our guides showed us the trees and bushes that are used for cooking and medicinal purposes. After a stroll we all gathered in a large hall where two drummers and a flute player accompanied attractive young women dancers. At least twenty youngsters from toddlers to pre-adolescents marvelled at the elderly tourists dancing with their villagers. The teen men were evidently working or fishing. Before reboarding the skiffs, the local artisans presented their wares, a colorful assortment of woven baskets, wood carvings, and native jewelry at prices so reasonable trying to bargain would be sinful.
Back to the ship for lunch and a rest, Denis led the afternoon excursion on a jungle trek on muddy paths with high heat and humidity, with sightings of an anaconda, a tarantula, a poison-dart frog, and other fauna. Having done scores of such treks in various tropical countries, I was going to sit out the afternoon to do some exercise and enjoy the small plunge pool aboard. But when Eric said he would take anyone who wanted on another skiff ride on the nearby Pahuachiro River, I quickly changed my mind. Only one other passenger joined me for a two-hour nature ride, but Eric was just as passionate as if he had a boat load.
We saw a few monkeys, too far off to photograph, but later a Saddleback Tamarin monkey who posed nicely for my camera. There were at least a half-dozen Black-Collared Hawks, one carrying a fish in its claws, a spectacular Masked-Crimson Tanager, a Red-Capped Cardinal and many parakeets and parrots as well as some shore birds. We got back to the ship with a beautiful sunset just as the other skiff arrived with those who had taken the land trek.
Happy hour included a short briefing on the next day’s activities, followed by a class at the bar on how to make a Pisco Sour. Three passengers volunteered to try their hand at what isn’t really all that complicated if you have the pisco. I preferred consumption to production. I had thought pisco was a form of aguardiente (sugar cane liquor) but no; it’s a grape brandy. Straight up it tastes like Italian grappa, and on the rocks with a twist it’s a great drink for those who don’t want the sugary Pisco Sour.
Day 4. Dec. 7. After another bountiful buffet breakfast, we boarded skiffs and circled the area near the ship where numerous pink and grey dolphins cavorted to our pleasure, but sadly always faster than one’s shutter speed. Then we headed up river again into a small lake with grassy areas favored by caiman, but we didn’t see anything other than some Wattled Jacanas, a small green frog, and more hawks. The jacana is a shore bird with huge legs that allows it to walk on river greenery, hence it’s local name of the Jesus Christ bird. Finally Denis on the other skiff found a spot with monkeys and we watched Common Squirrel Monkeys for awhile before heading out again. Before returning to the ship, both skiffs stopped in a perfect spot for a swim. We had been pre-advised to wear bathing suits under our shorts since there was no place to change. One could dive off the bow or climb down a short ladder into the tepid water. The skiff carried soft towels and we dried off before the short ride back to the ship for rest and lunch.
After lunch there was time for a siesta before a 3:30 pm video from the Amazon episode of the Discovery channel series called “Equator” with sensational photos of wildlife, fish, and manatees, illustrating the incredible changes that take place from dry to rainy seasons and how the species adapt. If you can find the video you will be in awe of the photography, which was more thrilling for us who were in the midst of all that beauty.
After the film we boarded skiffs again and headed into the nearby Nauta Caño river, making a brief stop at the ranger station to register each passenger before entering the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. With over five million acres, it is the largest protected area in Peru and the second largest in the Amazon basin. Directly across from the ranger station, Eric spotted a rare Horned Screamer. Shortly after, he went into ecstasy whooping “Oh my goodness, look at that. Oh my goodness, this is fantastic. It’s a Plum-Throated Cotinga” It was spectacular indeed with stunning blue plumage and purple throat, perched so high in the canopy it went unnoticed until Eric’s rapture.
Soon after, the pilot stopped the skiff in a shallow area and handed out bamboo fishing poles with shrimp-baited lines. Many of us caught tiny catfish but a few brought in Pirañas. (Catfish are the most common species in the river with scores of varieties including the Arapaima that can grow to 15 feet and weigh over 400 pounds). Soon it was getting dark and we moved on watching the shore for more birds until it was suddenly pitch-black and Eric brought out a strong spotlight and scanned the shoreline until he saw the red eyes of a caiman. Alas, on two different spottings the beasts dove under water before we could get photos. Denis was able to grab a small one and pass it around to his group. We returned to the Discovery at 7:30 pm for an 8 pm dinner where the staff serenaded a birthday celebrant and a 30th anniversary couple who shared their large cakes.
Day 5, Dec. 8. The morning was spent aboard ship as we moved back east into the wider Amazon. The on-board programs were consecutive talks on tropical fruits, another on medicinal herbs, and a cooking class on the local speciality, Juanes, a rice and meat dish to celebrate the feast of St. John in June, but eaten throughout the year. That dish accompanied a brochette of beef at lunch preceded by a ceviche so delicious I asked for seconds.
We had a nice break between lunch and the afternoon program, so I took advantage to enjoy a pedicure because it came with a much-needed foot massage, one of a half-dozen spa services at prices more reasonable than I had seen on other ships. Then a nice siesta and I was ready to go ashore with the group at 3:30 to visit Santa Ana village, another mixed-blood pueblo on the river.
Young children love to have visitors, and we were greeted with huge smiles as we walked up the muddy stairs from the river into the village. During the rainy season the water is so high the skiffs can land right up in the village. The homes here looked more sturdy with more wood than thatch compared to San Francisco village. We saw how they prepared their fruits and were offered samples including a delicious pineapple. They make a kind of tamale using a yucca flour made into a paste with meat or fish inside, wrapped in a large leaf, and boiled for an hour. Watching a woman chew on some paste and spit it into the mixture disabused me of any interest in tasting it.
After a tour of the village we gathered in the main hall where the curandera (medicine woman or shaman), 87 year-old Marta, performed a ceremonial cleansing of each person in the group, blowing cigarette smoke and shaking her bouquet of dried leaves at us. Then three teen women danced to the music of a flute and two drums, later inviting the visitors to dance with them. I have mixed feelings about these performances since the villagers seem to be a human zoo for outside observers. But it does bring them badly-needed donations, and the people are so smilingly welcoming there appears to be no resentment. Before we departed, the local artisans spread out their handicrafts for sale. Then back to the Discovery for happy hour, the evening briefing, and a large barbecue buffet.
Day 6. Dec 9. This was the first overcast morning with a slight mist, but it cleared up before we boarded the skiffs for a visit to Monkey Island, a privately-operated rescue operation for eight species of monkeys. There was also one Blue and Yellow Macau whose broken wing was healing before it would be released into the wild. The monkeys are mostly rescued from the black market where poachers use a corrupt system to sell them as pets. The guide told us the poachers usually kill the mother. The babies cling to the mother and are grabbed easily and taken for sale. Some have been injured and some were house pets given up by their owners. The most aggressive ones are kept in large cages until they settle down and can be integrated with the 40 or more other monkeys that roam the grounds freely.
We saw Marmoset, Tamarin, Titi, Saki, Howler, Red Uakari, Wooly, and Spider monkeys. They love to have visitors and climbed up the legs and stood on the shoulders or heads of the visitors, grabbing anything colorful or dangling like loose bracelets and the like. A small Dusky Titi took a great attraction to my cap, then went for my hearing aid so I had to pass him off quickly to someone else. I had seen monkeys in many places, especially Costa Rica, but never the Red Uakari whose bright face appears to be sunburned. The biggest predators of the animals are stealthy anacondas who have snatched and eaten several monkeys at the reserve over the years.
After lots of time for photos, we gathered in a large hall where one of the family members explained their mission and expressed appreciation for any donations to help fund their work which has no government support. The ship also donates. Clean restrooms were an unusual addition to this excursion. We were back aboard ship by 10:30, time to rest before lunch, then downtime again until our 3:30 departure for the Bora village
There are about two thousand members of the Bora culture living in remote parts of the Peruvian Amazon and another thousand in Colombia. While their villages are remote, they maintain a ceremonial center near Iquitos to sell their handicrafts, earn donations dancing for tourists, and go into Iquitos for the market and for the medical clinic when their herbal self-medication fails. The women are usually topless but dressed up to greet our group. Chief Rafael and his wife performed a welcome ritual outdoors before we moved into the large thatch-covered area where the chief gave a welcoming speech in his native language, then Spanish, which guide Denis translated into English. The villagers performed five dances with musical chanting and percussion, and invited their visitors to dance with them. Then we perused a large selection of handicrafts including blow-guns, dolls, native skirts, and baubles.
Back on the ship our last afternoon, we had tip envelopes to seal, an evaluation to fill out, personal bills to settle, and packing before happy hour and the evening briefing. The briefing featured a delightful video/slide show of the passengers taken throughout the voyage. Unlike many big ships that sell films of passengers, Denis offered a free copy to anyone who passed on a USB or camera chip. Then we were transferred by boat across the river to Iquitos to Al Frio y El Fuego restaurant for a gala farewell dinner with wine, followed by a quartet playing Andean music, and dancers dressed as Amazon fauna.
Day 7, Dec. 10. There were three different times for transfer by boat to a spot where a minibus waited to take passengers to the Iquitos airport. I was in the earliest group departing before breakfast in order to make a connection to Mexico in Lima the same day. The company provided a nice bag breakfast, and Eric accompanied us to the airport, arranging for luggage to be brought to the check-in desk. It was a sad farewell for me since the voyage had been so spectacular and I had bonded with the most charismatic guide I have had in over 150 trips. My 8:30 am LAN flight to Lima was on time, and I had a three-hour wait for my Copa flight to Mexico allowing me to catch up on mail and news articles online. I had never been denied the internet for so long, but I seldom thought about it, so intensely absorbed in the reverie of the incredible Amazon.
3 oz pisco, 1 oz lime or lemon juice,
1 oz simple syrup, 1 egg white, 6 ice cubes, Shake ten seconds. Top with 3 drops of Angostura Bitters
Make a toast in Spanish. “Salud, Amor, Dinero, y tiempo para disfrutarlo.”
Health, Love, Money, and time to enjoy it. My wish for my fellow travelers & readers. Jim
And special thanks to naturalist guides Eric Pineda & Denis Coelho.
It wouldn’t have been the same without you.