In the rain forest’s glistening canopy, I gazed at the lone, naked tree branch two feet away. It moved ever so slightly. That was odd given there was no breeze. Juan quietly pointed inches away. It was then I saw the blunt-headed tree snake perched carelessly and seemingly oblivious to the dozen wide eyes of my staring skiff mates.
This snake would be our introduction to the rainforest jungle environment with its lush exotic backdrop aboard International Expedition’s lovely Zafiro ship, a 36-passenger, 24-crew, 2015-built vessel. Aboard Zafiro, we would traverse 780 miles in a seductive rhythm on the Peruvian Amazon and Ucayali tributary that commenced and ended seven days later in Iquitos, 630 miles from the Peruvian capital of Lima.
Flying to Peru, the oldest state in the Americas with a central government founded in 1533, it’s the third largest South American nation stretching from the Amazon to the Pacific. With 30-million residents — 45-percent indigenous (Inca and other Andeans), 37-percent mestizo (mixed), 15-percent European and three percent Asian, the largest Asian population in South America — it’s a mega-mélange.
This was my second time to Lima, so I focused on its San Isidro quarter. The centrally located Swissotel, with its enormous guest rooms, swim through indoor/outdoor pool, five enticing restaurants, and state-of-the-art gym and spa, was the perfect base to explore this delightful neighborhood of neo-classical architecture. http://www.swissotellima.com.pe
Nearby Huaca Huallamarca, known as sugar loaf, is a restored pre-Inca pyramid with a small museum. Construction started in 200 BC, and until 200 AD was used as a temple, then cemetery. In 1948 Dr. Arturo Jimenez Borja discovered 48 mummies there and since then, another 34 mummies and over 900 skulls have been excavated.
A few blocks away is Av. Conquistadores with boutiques, cafés and restaurants. A short stroll away is the lovingly maintained and peaceful Parque El Olivar with over 1,000 olive trees, the first of which were brought from Spain in 1560. Within the park is the Casa de la Cultura with changing art exhibitions.
A two-hour flight from Lima brought us to Iquitos in Peru’s northeast, 3.7 degrees south of the equator and a jumping point for the Peruvian Amazon. With about 500,000 inhabitants, it’s the world’s largest city accessible only by air or water.
Founded by Jesuits in 1757, Iquitos remained small until the 1880s when the rubber business transformed it. Elegant buildings were then constructed with European tiles and wrought iron. One of Iquitos’ most celebrated structures, Casa de Fierro (Iron House), built by Gustave Eiffel, was dismantled in Paris by a rubber baron who shipped it to Iquitos and had it reassembled.
The mighty Amazon
The Amazon is the world’s largest river system and runs through six countries with about 14,000 miles of navigable waterways. While only about 16-percent of the Amazon basin is within Peru, Peru has taken its stewardship of this bio-diverse paradise seriously. The Peruvian Amazon, an ornithological orgy with about 1,800 bird species, contains incredible flora, fauna and fish and about 20-percent of the world’s butterfly species.
Boarding the Zafiro in Iquitos, our group of 17 was warmly welcomed by its friendly crew that by the end of the week became our Peruvian family. With two onboard naturalists, Juan and Edgard, and our expedition leader Freddy, who all had well-trained eyes to spot even the most elusive and camouflaged Amazonian residents, we would explore the Amazon’s marvels in complete comfort.
Staterooms on two decks were large and air-conditioned, with marble countered bathrooms, strong showers and expansive floor-to-ceiling windows. On deck two, Chef Rabanal provided us with delicious Western dishes and Peruvian specialties in the cheerful dining room. Deck three had a massage therapist, small gym, indoor bar, lounge, and outdoor deck with bar, comfortable loungers and Jacuzzi.
Heading downstream towards the confluence where the Amazon meets the Ucayali tributary, one of the Amazon’s 16 largest, we continued southbound toward Raquena and the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, Peru’s largest, containing 5 million acres. Days had morning and afternoon excursions of two-to-three hours and included wildlife viewing, kayaking, fishing, hiking or local village visits.
Excursions were separated by onboard lunch, informative lectures and the requisite Peruvian siesta. Before dinner it was blissfully always happy hour with Peruvian beers, wines, or my favorite, perfectly prepared Pisco Sours, an excellent concoction of Peruvian grape brandy blended with egg whites, tart citrus, simple syrup and bitters. At dinner, Capt. Ramirez raised his glass to us with the all-important Peruvian toast: Arriba, abajo, al centro, al dentro (up, down, center, inside).
On skiffs, we often glided along a veritable expanse of water lettuce and hyacinths amid otherworldly tree formations and hanging vines in countless shades of jade green. Several monkey varieties swung on branches: Squirrel, Woolly, Night, Saddleback Tamarin, Capuchin and Monk Saki. Two hopped onto a nearby dugout canoe and comically sat on an occupant’s lap.
There were translucent pink river dolphin pods, hanging three-toed sloths, resting iguanas, red-tailed boas, anacondas, bats and countless colorful birds, including stunning, multi-colored macaws, toucans, parrots, parakeets and hoatzins. The jungle’s many sounds always prevailed, reminding us of the completely unseen, yet ever-present life stirring within.
Equally impressive, jet-black night skies provided an explosive cinema headlining the Milky Way in cloudy splendor that stretched across the horizon. Crystal clear Orion’s Belt costarred as a directional outpost present among other shining mythological heroes.
The Amazon and its tributaries are much like one’s birthday — you will undoubtedly get a gift, although you won’t know what it will be, until you do. Jungle canopies and tributaries have as many twists and turns as the magnificent river itself. Although there are also small poisonous frogs, enormous Anacondas, and all manner of arthropods, fortunately, the only attacking flying piranhas are in Hollywood directors’ creative minds.
As I boarded my onward flight, I thought again of Peru’s Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s statement: Expect nothing and accept everything and you will never be disappointed.” While traversing Peru’s Amazon aboard Zafiro with International Expeditions, no doubt your expectations will happily be exceeded.
Amazon if you go: International Expeditions offers escorted luxury 10-day, all-inclusive wilderness experience starting at $5,698, which includes pre-cruise night in Lima, onboard meals, local beer, wine, spirits, and excursions with knowledgeable naturalists. No single supplement for select departures. Tel 866/228-8162, www.ietravel.com
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com. Some vendors included in this article hosted the writer, however they did not review content prior to publication. Opinions contained herein are solely those of the writer.