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Take Me to the River

Pink dolphins and pisco sours come together on a wild stretch of the Amazon.

Photo by Andrew McCarthy

Photo by Andrew McCarthy

By Andrew McCarthy

It’s dark. There’s almost a chill in the humid night. On the distant horizon, a silent lightning storm is slicing open the sky. Overhead, the three-quarter moon breaks through the clouds. The orange glow from a half-dozen kerosene lamps are visible on the riverbank—the only sign of a passing village whose name I’ll never know. Beyond them, above the silhouette of the jungle canopy, the Southern Cross hangs low. I’m on the bow of a hundred and thirty foot riverboat, three days out of Iquitos, heading upriver in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. And I just finished a five-course meal.

Few places excite the imagination more than the Amazon—with images of the dense, unknowable rainforest, primitive tribes, and exotic, treacherous creatures. From its origins high in the Andes, with headwaters in eight countries, the Amazon travels more than four thousand miles across South America until it delivers seven million cubic meters of fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean per second—per second. The Amazon has been exploited for its rubber, its lumber, its oil, and more recently, for tourism.

Not long ago the most common way to experience the world’s second longest river was to sling a hammock on the deck of one of the local boats transporting goods, livestock, and people, up and down river. It was raw going, not for the squeamish.

Then four years ago, Francesco Galli Zugaro saw an opening and decided to fill it. A citizen of the world, Francesco was born in Switzerland to an American mother and Italian father. He was educated in the U.S., married a Peruvian woman, and ran boats in the Galapagos Islands off Equator, before deciding to set up a luxury Amazonian cruise out of Iquitos. “No one was doing anything out of Peru. The jungle here is teeming with wildlife, the flora will blow your mind, and logistically, it’s quite simple to get here.” (True enough- I eat dinner in New York and the next day I’m lunching on freshly caught dorado at a floating restaurant on the Amazon River).

Francesco hired Peruvian architect and designer Jorei Puig to reconfigure a steel hulled riverboat into twelve cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows, cherry-wood floors and slate bathrooms. He’s peopled it with a staff of twenty-four, serving an equal number of guests, for cruises of three, four, or seven days—and he just launched a second, slightly larger, boat in May. Using local ingredients like freshly caught Amazonian dorado and zungaro, the kitchen on board prepares three gourmet meals a day, turning out local dishes like ceviche and juanes, as well as more international fare.

After sundown, I climb on board the Aqua outside of Iquitos, a rough and ready river city of more than a half-million, and Peru’s largest Amazonian port. At dawn the next morning I wake in my California king bed with four-hundred thread count sheets, and watch the sun come up over the green canopy of the rainforest as the brown water of the Amazon rolls past.

Not far above Iquitos, the Amazon splits into two major branches, Rio Maranon to the north and Rio Ucayali to the south. We ease onto the Ucayali and chug up river. The water level in the Amazon varies up to forty feet from wet season (December – May) to dry (June – November), and in late April, the rainforest is flooded.

“Last year was the highest the river has been in recorded history,” Ricardo Valdez tells me. “And this year is higher. Everywhere is flooded. This is great for viewing the wildlife, but it’s very difficult for the villagers. You will see, many have been flooded out of their homes. And the river isn’t done yet.” Ricardo comes from a village five hours down river from Iquitos, he’s one of three guides that lead the guests on twice daily, small boat excursions out into the winding estuaries and backwaters off the main river.

After a glass of freshly squeezed camu-camu juice served beside French toast, we spilt into three groups and set out in aluminum skiffs with sixty horsepower engines. We skim over the brown river and slip beneath low branches and emerge into a smaller, black-water tributary. The rainforest hugs close. We float high up in the swollen river, beside the canopy of the trees. Within minutes the show begins.

Half-a-dozen Bolivian squirrel monkeys scamper from branch to branch in a strangler fig, then leap to a nearby bromeliad tree. “They are like kamikazes,” Ricardo shouts. Four blue and yellow macaws fly over-head. A red howler monkey is heard, then spotted, on the other side of the river. A crimson-crested woodpecker is rapping out a rhythm on an acacia tree. We duck under a wasp nest hanging low from a kapok and a great black hawk sits draping its wings in the sun on the top of a cecropia. For three hours it goes on like this. Folks snap endless pictures, daydream, and chat the kind of chat that drifting over still water encourages. What at first seemed an impenetrable mass of foliage evolves into an accumulation of minute details. Animals that were at first difficult to spot become readily visible. A three-toed sloth hugs the branch of a eucalyptus. Prehistoric-seeming pink river dolphins roll through the water, teasing the boat.

In the after noon, we do it again.

One evening, under cover of the night, we go on the prowl. Mr. Valdez beams a spotlight along the waterline into the black. “We’re looking for small red dots,” he says. It feels like looking for a needle in a haystack—in total darkness, but within minuets we spot something. The boat eases closer and suddenly Mr. Valdez lunges over the side and comes back with a 4-foot-long caiman, its large jaw working hard. There are a thousand eyes on us,” he says, “We just don’t see them.” Further on, we come upon a tarantula the size of my open hand, perched on the trunk of a fiscus tree.

Between excursions, life on the Aqua rolls on, with pisco sours being served up in the glass enclosed lounge, while travelers download photos and swap travel tales. It’s a strange juxtaposition, all this luxury in such a primitive place, and one I struggle to reconcile. But there’s a low-key, grass roots interaction between Aqua and the local communities. The on-board medic quietly offers medical assistance to a village girl, and food is silently passed to locals. There’s an understood give and take, a knowing that life on the river, no matter how it’s being lived, is all connected and inter-dependant.

One afternoon we come upon a small village of perhaps fifteen primitive huts, made from local woods, palm fronds for roofs. We’re days from electricity, there’s no running water other than the river. The huts are built high on stilts, but still, the river has overtaken them. Small children paddle over in low-slung, dugout canoes. Some offer us beads and simple carvings, some just look. A man paddles up with a seven-foot long anaconda coiling over his shoulder.

Deep up river we ease through the Pacaya Samiria Nature Reserve, and come to a bend in a twisting tributary. A yellow-headed vulture swoops overhead. Four young men are standing atop a dozen large cedar tree trunks, tied together with chains, floating downriver.

Illegal logging, especially for hardwoods like mahogany and cedar, is a constant challenge in the Amazon. We’re silent as we pass the improvised raft. The men eye us, one nods his head.

“That didn’t look completely legal,” I say once we’re clear.

“The further down river they get, the more legal it becomes,” Ricardo shrugs. “It’s difficult.”

The Amazon is a wild, uncontrollable, and perhaps ultimately ungovernable, wilderness. One that makes its own rules and follows the dictates of its own whims. Anyone passing through does so at its mercy. But tonight, standing at the rail of the Aqua, the vast sky clearing and the dark mass of the river below coming alive with the reflected glow of the waxing moon, the big river just rolls on, welcoming and wide.

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