Photo: Nanay River Amazon boat sunset

The sun sets over a small river that feeds directly into the Amazon.

Photograph by Richard Olsenius

By Keith Bellows

From the September 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

More than 50 years after he first heard the word “Amazon,” the writer explores where travelers rarely go. Until now.

When I was a child my father spun the big globe beside my bed. “Just point your finger to make it stop,” he said. “Maybe you’ll go where it lands someday.” My father would do this often; it was his way of teaching me geography. The globe stopped at places like Cairo and Easter Island, Kansas City and Sydney. When it stopped on the Amazon rain forest, it was prophetic. I had never heard of the place, but my father loved the Amazon, which he visited in the mid-1940s. Through-out his life he would speak of it reverently. To him, nothing on Earth was quite like the Amazon.

More than 50 years later I’m in the ragged Amazon town of Nauta in the region of Loreto, which makes up a third of Peru. Now, at the peak of the rainy season, Loreto is 80 percent flooded, which is why most of the area’s inhabitants live in homes built on stilts. The temperature is in the 90s, and I look longingly at the black waters of the Marañón River, a tributary of the Amazon River. I badly want to swim.

“Go for it, if you like,” says Francesco Galli Zugaro, a friend who has invited me to join him on his boat, the Aqua. He grins. “People do it. Me, no. I’d be worried about the fish that look for intimate openings.” The Amazon is the world’s largest river by volume, carving through a basin that, if superimposed on North America, would cover almost all of the continental United States. It still harbors lost tribes like the one spotted two years ago on the Peru-Brazil border that brandished arrows at a research plane and supposedly is home to legendary creatures like Sach’amama, a giant black boa, and an old dwarf named Chullachaqui, who, our driver to Nauta told us, can take many devious forms in order to lure people deeper and deeper into the forest until they are lost. “There are many weird things in this jungle,” he said.

The pure scale of the Amazon is astonishing: 28 miles wide, on average, when the water is at its highest, a half-mile when it drops to its lowest ebb. At its most swollen during the rainy season, the mouth of the river can be 300 miles across, dumping 7.1 million cubic feet of water per second into the ocean—60 times the discharge of the Nile and 11 times that of the Mississippi.

The Aqua, built to Francesco’s specifications by the Peruvian Navy, towers above the water like a citified condo. It's one of only a handful of large boats running regular trips down the Peruvian Amazon (it will be joined by a bigger sister ship, the Aria, next April). The Aqua accommodates 24 travelers and a 24-person crew that includes pilots and naturalists who know the jungle intimately.

Most visitors to the region stay in landlocked lodges, limiting the area they can explore. But the Aqua has the advantage of ranging much farther afield, using its small skiffs, twice daily, to penetrate deep into previously inaccessible jungle. In the next four days it will take us roughly 280 miles, ending the journey in Iquitos.

The rainy season came two months early this year. Fed by an average annual downfall of more than 120 inches, the river rises and falls 30 feet throughout the calendar in Peru and more in Brazil. Only the wildlife sense what the skies will bring.

As we settle into our cabins, curtains of lightning accompany window-rattling gusts, and the skies drive rain down hard. The Aqua is not anchored; instead it is lashed securely to riverbank trees.

My fellow travelers and I dine off a menu prepared by Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, one of Peru’s top chefs and owner of Malabar, a prestigious Lima restaurant. Throughout the trip we are told to expect Peruvian dishes, South American wines, and local ingredients. Juices like cocona and camu camu. Fresh heart-of-palm soup with avocado puree. Regional pastries like aguaje muffins and sachaculantro and sweet chili bread. And such entrees as Amazon bass tiradito, tiger catfish ceviche, and river snails with Amazon salsa. After we eat, we huddle in the boat’s top-deck lounge in front of a huge picture window. “Some people ask me if we have TV on board,” says Francesco. “You’re looking at it.” He motions to the plate glass. “A moving window on the Amazon.”

Later, as I settle to sleep, I consider what lies ahead. We are in Pacaya Samiria, the second largest rain forest reserve in Peru and one of the world’s most diverse. It is home to anaconda, manatees, pink dolphins, jaguars, anteaters, giant otters, tarantulas, and more than 500 species of birds. Accessible only by water or air, it is a five-million-acre monster that has only 92,125 inhabitants and saw fewer than 6,000 tourists last year.

We steam through the night, lulled by the rolling gait of the boat. Light creeps up by 5:30 a.m., and I am treated to a doublewide-window view of a rain forest smorgasbord of mangroves and palms. On our first day in the reserve we motor in a 24-foot-long skiff powered by an eco-friendly four-stroke, 40-horsepower outboard. Photographer Richard Olsenius and I share the boat with our guide/naturalist Juan Tejada, Francesco, a driver, and the Aull family from Los Angeles—Robert, Jan, and high-schooler Nick.

We pass a shoreline that is constantly being reshaped—a landmark submerged 30 feet one month might suddenly reappear the next. (“Maps are just a way to locate villages that will eventually vanish,” says Francesco.)

We turn into the Yanallpa, a narrow ribbon of water that at low season would be unnavigable. We will go up almost seven miles, covering territory seen by only a handful of non-Peruvians. Juan makes kissing sounds to coax out red howler monkeys. The sound coming from the wall of jungle is deafening. Juan machetes through suffocating brush. Excitedly, he swings around, machine-gunning bird names as he points this way and that: purple-throated euphonia, white-headed marsh-tyrant, Amazonian royal flycatcher. He could spot a dollar at a thousand feet, but on that first morning we miss a lot of what he sees.

We stop at the base of a ficus and crane eyes upward. Visible near its crest are the heads of four brown monkeys, slyly peeking down at us. Twenty minutes later we watch a saddleback tamarin monkey leaping, vaulting, and dancing on tiny boughs in search of insects. “Very unusual to see that species up so close,” says Juan giddily. More wildness follows: a caiman lizard lounging on a tree branch, a snail kite, hanging bromeliads, clouds of ani birds with their shiny blue-black feathers, scarlet bursts of passion flowers at water’s edge, glades of birch-like cecropia trees.

We cut the engines and float, soaking in the soundtrack of the Amazon: layers and layers of hoots, warbles, grunts, yelps, buzzes, clicks, fish leaps, and a chiming background choir that is mesmerizing. “A lot of birds and animals are territorial,” Juan explains. “Stop here and you will hear one set of sounds, then 300 feet downriver, you’ll hear something completely different.”

I am under siege by mosquitoes and have forgotten my insect repellent. Juan grins and nudges the boat close to an immense termite nest. “This will help you,” he says. “Go on, put your hands in there.” The nest swarms.

“Are you sure?” I ask.

He nods.

I plunge my hands into the nest. When I yank them out they are covered with an undulating blanket of insects.

“Rub them on your face and arms,” he says.

I look at him in disbelief, then lather up. The result? No stings, no stickiness. Just a sweet aroma, and as the day progresses, no mosquitoes.

“There are a lot of secrets in these jungles,” says Francesco. In fact, we are floating through a medical treasure house. “Countless medicinal plants are still waiting to be discovered here,” Juan says. Curare is taken from hanging lianas. The bark of the uña de gato vine contains anti-inflammatory alkaloids. Indeed, researchers now hunt out shamans and village elders in search of new discoveries. “The rain forest is the future of the world,” he adds.

The jungle is a babushka doll, revealing itself one layer at a time. As the days roll on our eyes adjust, and we begin to see things for ourselves: a horned screamer (“flies like a vulture, runs like a dog, and tastes like chicken,” says Juan) and the monk saki monkeys, which locals call Michael Jackson monkeys for their sashaying style and white-glove paws. We learn to recognize the bark of the toucan, the distant roar of a howler monkey, and the banshee cry of a hoatzin.

The river is virtually empty, save for the occasional dugout canoe or banana boat. But one morning we encounter a skittish crew on a flotilla of bound logs. They are armed. “They live on that for two or three weeks, make a little fire, keep animals, and move those logs to Iquitos,” says Francesco.

“Is it illegal?” I ask.

He shrugs. “It gets more legal the closer it gets to Iquitos.”

Francesco tells me that just 15 park rangers and a ragtag assembly of deputies and volunteers patrol the reserve—hardly enough to keep poachers and illegal loggers from scratching out a living. “All they have is a dugout, a chainsaw, and an engine.”

The next day we are trolling down El Dorado Stream in search of pink dolphins. Up to ten feet long, they have a hump rather than a dorsal fin and an unfused neck vertebra that allows them to turn their heads 180 degrees. Local legend holds that the creatures shape-shift at night into spectral figures that enter villages on foot to steal the loveliest girls. “That’s why,” says Juan, “women ask strangers to remove their hats—to see if they have a blowhole.”

We find the dolphins where muddy-brown and tannin-black waters meet, and their diet of crayfish and shrimp is most plentiful. The creatures are playful, cresting not much higher than the depth of their hump, following the thrum of the engines, growing pinker as they become more excited. They blow and dive, crisscrossing from one side of the boat to the other, clearly using their sonar to coordinate a seemingly calculated strategy to bedevil those trying to get the perfect photo. Eventually, the dolphins peel off and disappear.

Later, we see a three-toed sloth rigidly still, ensconced in a 40-foot-high crook of a tree as nonchalantly as if it were in an armchair. Sloths digest leaves slowly to extract as many nutrients as possible, descending only once every week or two to do their business before finding another leafy branch to chew on.

As the days pass and we steadily move downriver, we begin to encounter more of the river’s characters. We pass a ranger boat pulling two dugout canoes. “Poachers,” says Juan. Standing regally at the bow is the object of their efforts—a blue and yellow macaw. It has been confiscated; the poachers will be fined or jailed. We encounter a villager with an eight-foot-long baby anaconda that he coils around his arm before setting it free into the water. We see two fishermen scooping up their catch. “These men use another secret of the forests,” Juan tells me, pointing to a catahua tree. “For centuries, we have used it to make dugout canoes. The sap contains a compound similar to sulphuric acid. They mash it with leaves and spread it on the water. When the fish eat it, they’re stunned—and easily captured.”

We stop at Lago Prado, a village of 14 dilapidated, stilted, open structures that house 120 villagers, half of them children. Chickens, a black pig, runty dogs crowd the settlement. The mayor wears shorts, sneakers, and a baseball cap. Two children walk about wearing jaguar skins. The kids sing us songs and accept simple gifts—pens, T-shirts, paper. Maybe one percent will make it to university. Most won’t finish primary school, having to work alongside their parents so they can survive this world of constant water.

We leave to fish for piranha in shaded glades using a crude pole with a simple hook baited with beef. When I get a hit, I hoist aboard a half-foot-long, red-bellied piranha, the most ferocious meat-eater of the species. It drops off the hook and clatters menacingly along the length of the boat, driving us all up onto the seats until the guide subdues it with his foot. When another passenger snags a baby, the guide ghoulishly demonstrates the breed’s atavistic cannibalism. He offers it to the bigger piranha, which takes less than three seconds to eat through its victim. I later dine on my catch despite having to navigate its unpleasant array of pointed weaponry. The fish is mostly bone, but the flesh is light and tasty.

Night is falling. And we nose deeper and deeper into the dense underbrush, discovering lake after lake, the sulphurous scent of decay suffusing the air. We are on another Amazon tributary, the Picaya River. “We are in the middle of something bigger than I can comprehend,” says Richard. We enter a grove of entangled vines, stark, tilted trees, and sheets of dense bush. “Where do we go from here?” asks Jan. Francesco assures us that the guide knows. And the boat pushes still deeper into the maze, through great slabs of water lettuce.

“This is the heart of darkness,” says Francesco. “We really are far in now.”

“Just as long as we know how to get out,” I say, realizing that soon it will be pitch black. Then I wonder: “Do you ever break down out here?”

“Nah, never,” Francesco replies. But then he tells me the story of when he scouted the black lagoons of the Pacaya Samiria reserve to map out an itinerary for the Aqua. He went by speedboat with a photographer, a cook, a guide, and a skiff pilot. “Even the skiff pilot didn’t know exactly where we were going,” Francesco recalls. “Then the skiff broke down, and we had to row six hours to the main river to catch the current. We had no radio, no navigation, no mosquito nettings. We had one broken oar to use as a paddle.” They were eventually rescued, but the tale is not reassuring.

We hit a stretch where, as if a zipper has been pulled, the water opens into a boulevard through the lettuce. We surge forward past stands of gray trees, dribbling thick, ropey lianas. But mostly we motor past endless miles of green—blue green, yellow green, purple green, so many variations of green that the most masterly painter would be defeated trying to capture them. We encounter more pink dolphins and linger with them as the sun dips lower. We begin home, stopping at an immense lake for a sunset that saturates the horizon with otherworldly colors. Now, we all silently think: Can the guide really find his way back through this labyrinth?

For 45 minutes we scud down a wide stretch of the Picaya, with only a small spotlight to cut the pitch black, accompanied by aerial squadrons of bats. Suddenly, Juan signals the driver to slow. He has spotted telltale red dots glowing at the waterline. We nose in under dense ferns. Juan scoops up a two-foot-long baby caiman. It writhes, terrified, as we gently stroke its rubbery skin. Juan returns it to the water and we move on.

Suddenly we slow, sluice right, and enter an eerie glade flooded with insects. Imagine a haunted house amusement ride under a starless sky: We inch our way through the watery canal that earlier in the day we could at least see. A tiny tree frog drops on Jan’s head. She screams. Feathery foliage tickles our faces. We watch by spotlight as a moth dispatches a tarantula in seconds. We fear what we had heard: that a deadly fer-de-lance would drop from a tree branch. Every few minutes the boat grinds to a halt as the prop becomes entangled in water plants. We hold our breath: Will we break down? Miraculously we emerge. We see the boat. We are home.

It's our last night on the river. We are at the mouth of Supay Creek when a pod of pink dolphins appears. They trail the boat, showing more of themselves than at any time since we arrived. It’s as if they are saying good-bye. We play with them for an hour, then head downriver. We encounter more cascades of unimaginably complex greens, filigreed with vines, immense plants that look like abstract sculpture, waterfalls of leaves, sprawling acacias and towering wood leviathans, with deep caverns cut into the plant wall that signal the opening of another tributary. We motor in silence for miles, surveying a new variant of the astonishing landscape we have witnessed in the past four days. “You have a feeling back here that you’re the first to see this,” says Francesco. “And you’re not far off.” The scene is truly primordial; Jurassic Park meets Doyle’s Lost World. We end the day at Supay Lake just as sunset approaches. The driver positions the boat off a small island that catches the dying rays, as if someone has switched on a lightbulb inside the foliage. It glows, and the colors that have dazzled us all week take on a new vibrancy, straight from the paint box of the gods. We all whoop. We know what we’re seeing is truly Amazonian. And then the sun lowers. The light flattens. And we are left with something merely extraordinary.

And I’m left knowing that the Amazon, now my Amazon, can’t be much different than the one that so touched my father more than a half century ago.

Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler. Richard Olsenius photographed our story on Newfoundland in the May-June 2009 issue.

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