Posted Tuesday, Nov. 06, 2012
In classic safari style, the first game drive begins at dawn.
As the rising sun flushes the sky, flocks of yellow-hooded orioles sing out from the bushes like a choir. Our guide guns it to a favorite viewing spot, then cuts the motor and whistles. Cue the pink dolphin, Amazon endemic, underworld spirit and one of the species that makes travel to the largest river system in the world the South American equivalent of a bush safari.
"We call it a water safari," says Francesco Galli Zugaro, founder of Aqua Expeditions, which runs two boutique ships upriver from Iquitos in Peru to the source of the river at its wildest heart. "It's a mix between the Galapagos in terms of sailing and an African safari for wildlife watching."
I've boarded the outfitter's newest ship, the 16-cabin Aria, to kick the rudder on a form of travel that has swept the cruise industry. River cruising has grown as much as 10 percent over the past five years, according to an industry group, with an additional 11 ships expected to launch next year. While most river cruises ply European channels, operators are venturing into fresh frontiers from the Mekong to the Mississippi, with new departures recently announced for 2013 in the Amazon region by Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and SeaDream Yacht Club.
Most Amazon cruises circle around the busier Brazilian port of Manaus and parts east toward the mouth of the river. In contrast, Aqua Expeditions heads upriver from the Peruvian town of Iquitos to the confluence of the Ucayali and Marañón rivers. The headwaters of the Amazon basin gird the unspoiled Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a 5 million-acre expanse of forest and waterway home to three-toed sloths, rare night monkeys and those pink dolphins now surfacing with rippled dorsal fins extending along their spines.
"They are protected by law and by lore," says guide Ricardo Valdez, a native of the rain forest. "According to our beliefs, they can change into people and kidnap you."
Smaller and friskier gray dolphins surface and dive as canary-winged parakeets circle overhead. Dozens of woven, teardrop-shaped oropendola bird nests dangle from a nearby tree as if overdecorated. Large bill terns cluster in comic profile with beaks seemingly too heavy for their bodies as the 10-passenger skiff -- the Land Rover of the tributaries -- makes its way back to the mother ship for breakfast.
Like the best safari camps, the 147-foot-long Aria provides a luxurious base in the wild. Floor-to-ceiling windows flood the cabins with light. Spacious quarters filled with platform beds, crisp linens and streamlined couches have more in common with boutique hotel rooms than compact staterooms. Lima celebrity chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino created the restaurant dishes that might include local Tiger catfish tiradito one night, roast suckling pig the next. On-board lectures cover the natural and cultural worlds of the Amazon, as well as how to shake up a killer pisco sour cocktail.
But it's the rare opportunity to spot wildlife in the lightly traveled Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, which has drawn guests like former Playboy boss Christie Hefner and Spanish celebrity chef Ferran Adrià to the ship. Twice-daily excursions take place aboard shallow-draft skiffs manned by both a driver and a guide, heading from the milky main channel off into still, black-water tributaries where tamarind monkeys forage in the branches, butterflies land on lily pads 2 feet wide and colorful birds alight by the flock.
Using long fishing poles baited with fresh fish, we drop rods into a shady back channel in search of one of the most notorious species in the Amazon, piranha. In less than two minutes, I have my first bite and nearly yank my line into the trees overhead.
"You don't need to be patient to fish in the Amazon," says guide Roland Balarezo Takahashi, gripping the red-sided fish no larger than his hand but equipped with a sharp set of small, sawlike teeth.
In high-water season, December through May, the river grows, rising up to 23 extra feet and flooding out villages visible only by thatched roofs just clearing the water line. Most residents head to high ground, where we pay a visit to a local school, offering gifts of pencils, paper and toys and receiving a musical welcome in return.
Late on the final afternoon, after tracking down sloths and scarlet macaws, we stop to watch the sun set in fiery backdrop to the inky woods. Amid the rising hum of cicadas, a champagne cork pops, and we turn to find guide Juan Tejada dispensing flutes all around in the civilized safari tradition known as the sundowner. It's a social pause before returning our attention to the beasts of the Amazon.
"It's a different world at night," says Juan, switching on a flood lamp. "Let's go get a caiman."
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