Amazon Cruising

This piece was published in 2005 in the first issue of “Wasatch Woman,” a local magazine started in Ogden, Utah by a group of three women, including the pharmacist who sold me the malaria prophylaxis for this trip. She asked where I was going, and whether I ever did any writing, then solicited a travel article for the new magazine she was starting.


“Never mind the malaria pills,” I told myself. “Thank heavens I got that tetanus shot!” It was day four of our trip on the Peruvian section of the Amazon River, and I had no mosquito bites, but I found myself in an open boat with fishhooks flying around me. A group of us were fishing for piranha as a gorgeous twilight descended on a serene tributary of the Amazon. Our guides parked the boat in shallow water in front of a thatched house raised on stilts at the very edge of the river, explaining that piranha could be expected to gather where people cleaned fish. They distributed sticks with fishing line tied at the tip, finished with hooks baited with raw chicken. I dangled the bait just below the surface. Within seconds, piranha attacked my bait, jerking it violently again and again (think the opening scene in “Jaws,” where the swimmer is pulled repeatedly below the surface). I jerked the pole upward in response, theoretically to set the hook, but never managed to do more than fling one piranha a few inches out of the water. Several other people did catch the vicious little things and swing them into the boat. Now even the tetanus shot couldn’t save me, as flying fishhooks were replaced with brilliant orange piranha the size of silver dollars swinging past my ears.

My favorite travel companion, Marian, and I took a nine-day tour of the Peruvian Amazon. We arrived in Lima, then flew over the Andes Mountains to Iquitos, the largest of Peru’s jungle towns. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was one of Peru’s great rubber-producing towns. A half-day tour of Iquitos showed us some of the beautiful architecture from that period, including several buildings covered in ornate Portuguese tiles (azuleos), and the Iron House (Casa de Fierro), created by Eiffel for a Paris exhibition, and shipped to Iquitos by a rubber baron.

At the waterfront, we boarded the three-deck, wooden riverboat la Turquesa to begin our five day cruise on the Amazon and on two of her major tributaries, the Maranon and the Ucayali, which come together near Iquitos. The two lower decks housed air-conditioned cabins with private baths, with room for about 30 passengers. The top deck consisted of a glass-enclosed, air-conditioned dining room and a large, roofed, open-air observation area. The boat was complete with a small bar and a carved, gold-painted dragonhead at the prow. Not luxurious, but more than comfortable, and a wonderful vehicle for exploring the river.

Each morning we boarded the two excursion boats, open boats with benches running the length of each side. We explored smaller tributaries, poking around in flooded forest in search of birds and wildlife, or went ashore and walked inland for views of the forest or life in the small villages at its margins. We returned for lunch on la Turquesa, followed by siesta time, while the crew moved the boat during the hottest part of each day. Most days, we boarded the small boats for a late afternoon excursion, followed by live music performed by the three cabin stewards on traditional Peruvian instruments.

Marian and I had been reading about el bufeo, the shape-shifting pink river dolphin native to the Amazon. They can reach eight feet in length and come in a range of colors, from pinkish-gray to a bright Pepto-Bismol pink. They have a prehistoric look, with more of a dorsal ridge than fin and a bulbous forehead. Stories abound of el bufeo assuming seductive human shape and enticing hapless men and women to live in an enchanted city at the river’s bottom. We saw them nearly every time we ventured out, usually accompanied by the smaller gray river dolphin. Our guides obligingly related the folklore for us, and the sightings were the highlight of our wildlife viewing. A fellow tourist from Hawaii suspiciously matched the description of the dolphins’ human appearance, and when questioned, would tell us only that he was a very good swimmer.

Terrestrial mammals proved harder to spot, notwithstanding the photos of otters and capybaras in the tour company’s catalog. We did spot several three-toed sloths moving oh-so-slowly in the tree tops, as well as several species of monkeys. The cutest were the family of owl monkeys peering out from two holes in a tree trunk at the river’s edge. In daylight, we saw a dozen small bats, camouflaged as flakes of bark, sleeping in the bark of a tree just above the waterline. Every evening, dozens of fishing bats flew around our boat, barely visible darting through the velvety darkness over the river.

The Amazon is a birders’ paradise. At the end of the cruise, with our guides’ help, we marked 63 species from the checklist provided on the boat–herons, egrets, vultures, kites, orioles, parakeets, caracaras, trogons, kingfishers, and more. I had three favorites: the horned screamer, for best name; the wattled jacana, for its ability to run across mats of plants floating on water; and the hoatzin, for the fun we had in seeking it out. We beached our excursion boats to take a muddy trail less than a mile inland. We crossed one small stream by walking across a dugout canoe held in place by our guides. We crossed a larger one by choice of a large log over the channel, or a series of boards laid in mud. I chose the boards because eight-year-old Jose, who lived nearby, busily set up the alternate crossing and was eager to act as our guide. We then reached a pond and boarded bamboo rafts to reach the other side, where the hoatzins were roosting. Again, we had a choice when Jose fetched a large dugout canoe. Again, I chose Jose, this time for the chance to try the local canoe away from the river’s current. Tiny Jose paddled us expertly right to the best viewing spot, and we spotted the hoatzin, with their distinctive Mohawk-style crests.

We passed among many settlements along the river, from one-family farms such as Jose’s, to Nueva York, a village of a few hundred. The river people were friendly and approachable, and happy to answer my poorly phrased Spanish questions. They showed us vegetable gardens and wild foods, demonstrated how to cut hearts of palm, and sold us jewelry made from jungle seeds. The settlements are connected only by the river, and the most common transportation was the handmade dugout canoe. We saw them everywhere, and the occupants invariably put down their paddles for a moment to wave at us. Two of our guides grew up in these villages, and generously shared with us stories of everyday life there.

Our last morning on the river, we awoke to a pre-breakfast show of a dozen pink dolphins feeding in shallow water near our boat. Everyone in our group left the Amazon that morning; none were enticed to the enchanted underwater city. It was a close call, though, for me and for Marian.  The river—wide, powerful, and deceptively calm, and the forest—secretive, complex, and fecund, were more than seductive enough to compel a return visit.