I was a woman on a mission when I set out on my Peruvian Amazon riverboat adventure with International Expeditions. Like most of my fellow passengers, this was a bucket-list destination, one that promised to be significant and momentous. My objective was to learn firsthand about this unique environment and its diverse wildlife, as well as about the people who inhabit its lush and verdant rainforests. I had another goal, though. I wanted to see an Anaconda, up close and personal. The Amazon is the Anaconda’s home and I knew this trip represented the best opportunity for me to finally come eye-to-eye with this storied reptile, not to mention the endless creatures I would find along the way.
The Amazon is by far the largest river system in the world, containing over two-thirds of all the unfrozen fresh water on earth. There are over 1,100 tributaries within this system, seventeen of which are over 1,000 miles long. The mouth is up to 300 miles wide and up to 500 billion cubic feet of water surge out to sea per day. In a 24-hour period, the flow into the Atlantic would sustain New York City’s fresh water needs for nine years.Such mindboggling facts can be difficult to process and are usually met with jaw-dropping amazement from visitors to this legendary destination.
The extensive waterways and favorable climatic conditions of the Amazon Basin have fostered the greatest development of rainforest to be found anywhere on this planet. Over twenty percent of Earth’s oxygen is produced in this area. Though the exact number of plant species existing in Amazonia is unknown, over 25,000 have been identified thus far with new species constantly being discovered.
As for wildlife, the place is a veritable utopia for bird lovers. Its rich canopy of tropical vegetation is home to an astounding number of the world’s bird species. Each day, when we left our mother ship, La Estrella Amazonica, and went on variousnaturalist-guided excursions via skiffs, we were treated to the sight of countless numbers of birds of every color and size. Their musical sounds created a melodic symphony in the forest. And they possessed delightfully descriptive-sounding names such as Wattled Jacana, Laughing Falcon, Glittering-throated Emerald, Spangled Cotinga, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Masked Crimson Tanager and Cobalt-winged Parakeet, among many others. One of my favorites, the Horned Screamer, a large bird with a small chicken-like bill and spiny structure projecting forward from its crown, is known for its quirky attributes. It flies like a vulture, walks like a duck andmakes a noise that continued to elicit laughter among our group no matter how many times we heard it. It actually sounds like a donkey!
Our naturalistguides, Segundo and Usiel, and our expedition leader Dennis,never ceased to impresswith their eagle eyes and encyclopedic knowledge of the Amazon. While on the skiffs, our heads and bodies were in constant motion. We jockeyed in position, whipping our binoculars around in every direction each time a different bird was spotted. It was a dizzyingly dazzling experience that left us in awe. And although I am not a birder, I took great satisfaction in being able to recognize a few species after a while, even having enough confidence, for example, to excitedly call out, “Yellow-headed Caracara at 3 o’clock.” The reward was a nod from the naturalist confirming the identity.
The Amazon is also a dream come true for butterfly enthusiasts, with more than 4,000 species of these delicate creatures and some 20,000 species of moths. They are an incredible sight as they flutter by the water’s edge or along a jungle trail adorned in their brilliant apparel. They join the parade of flamboyant insects such as the Rainbow Grasshopper and the Pink-toed Tarantula, along with all the glittering frogs, toads, lizards and turtles that we found along the river.
So much of the wildlife, from the Green Tree Iguana and Three-toed Sloth to the Long-nosed Bat and Olive Whip Snake, artfully conceal themselves to prevent predators from finding them. They seamlessly blend into the environment, appearing as parts of leaves, sticks and branches. It took me some time to train my eyes and even then, I would have missed dozens of creatures had not the guides pointed them out. I realized quickly on that the Amazon teems and pulsates with life, even when you can’t see anything moving. It’s a living, breathing system; a complex organism that never sleeps.
Though there are some large animals in the Amazon, many are nocturnal and remain inactive during the day or choose to remain hidden. Monkeys, however, are the exception. They are out in full force, jumping and almost free-falling from tree to tree high up in the forest canopy. Their noises identify them long before they’re visible. We reveled in their sight and took great joy in observing their behavior. It’s hard not to fall in love with the cute Pygmy Marmosets or the Owl Monkeys and Capuchins, but I think the Red Howler got the most attention for its amusing sounds and mischievous antics.
As it was high season and the water levels were high, we spent much time on the river, as opposed to the land, which provided an ideal perspective for spotting wildlife. It also gave us a great opportunity to examine the creatures that reside within the river itself, from themultitude of exotic fish to the eely water snakes and caiman. The Pink River Dolphin was the star attraction. Born grey, these dolphins become pinker with age because their skin gets more translucent, allowing the blood to show through their bodies. When we came upon a small pod of these flamingo-hued, playful mammals, everyone jumped up in the boat and tried to take pictures of them. Most of us were unsuccessful in capturing that special Kodak moment, as the dolphins spent only a nanosecond above the water, teasing us with their splendid color. Instead of being frustrated, however, I decided to sit back and fully absorb this spectacular sight, taking my own mental photos for later. The dolphins reappeared several times during our trip and even made an appearance while we were swimming in the river.
Though observing and studying wildlife is the main focus of an Amazon riverboat journey, there are so many other aspects to this adventure. When we weren’t riding in the skiffs in search of creatures, our group visited villages and interacted with the local people. One morning, we went to a school where we donated supplies, taught the children the “Hokey Pokey” and learned about the educational system. Educational opportunities are few for kids who grow up in the Amazon, unless they opt to move to the city of Iquitos, the capital of the Peruvian Amazon, where secondary schools and colleges exist. Iquitos, with a population of 400,000, can only be reached by river or air as there are no roads connecting it to the outside. Surrounded in all directions by forests and a maze of rivers and streams, it is an oasis in the midst of the Amazon. The city is the hub of civilization in the region, and is also thearrival and departure point forriverboat trips.
During the trip, we met with Maestro Juan, awise and wizened shaman, who shared information about his eight-yeartraining regimen, which began at the age of seventeen. He told us he was born with the ‘gift’and that he has the ability to talk with the spirits of plants after ingesting a highly hallucinogenic botanic substance, which sends him into a deep trance. He grows his own plants for medicinal purposes and treats others who are ill with his portable‘rainforest pharmacy’. At the end of the session, he offered us each a blessing for safe travels.
We came across many Ribereños, or river people, of all ages in their various water craft, ranging from dugout canoes to small motorboats, as boating is the sole method of transportation in the region. The river is life on the Amazon and all activities are centered on it. It is a main source of drinking water and food with fishing the dominant industry and livelihood of the people. Kids at a young age become very adept at handling boats because they use them as a means to get to and from school each day.And during election time, the government sends in the military to set up floating booths along the Amazon, insuring that all the people are able to cast their votesas voting is mandatory in Peru.
Sunsets in the Amazon are pure magic. Most of the time, by late afternoon, we were back onLa Estrella Amazonica, enjoying happy hour on the top open-air deck and listening to our multi-talented naturalists and crew play everything from traditional Peruvian folk music to American rock ‘n’ roll. We watched the skyturn slowly into a palette of fiery colors before darkness set in and paved the way for the stars to give us a double feature. One evening, we took the skiffs out for a ringside seat to this performance. We were serenaded by a chorus of frogs, while fireflies and glow worms winked flirtatiously at us. Our guides and boat drivers used their beacons and spotlights to locate nocturnal wildlife. Seeing the red eyes of a caiman blaze in the darkness and knowing that these and other creatures in the jungle were watching our every movegave me an eerie feeling, to say the least.
The naturalists are not only guides extraordinaire, but musicians and storytellers. They enjoyed regaling us with Amazonian folklore, which often dealt with superstitions and myths about such creatures as the jaguar, sloth and pink dolphin. Many of the tales had morals and warnings that people in the villages continue to adhere to even today.
In the span of our week-long trip, we went a total of 640 miles on the river. We explored several tributaries of the Amazon, as well as the famed Pacaya-Samira National Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in Peru with a size near to that of Belgium. Its main purpose is to preserve the ecosystems of the Omagua Region and to promote the sustainable development of the local villages. The reserve’s biodiversity is immense and the level of involvement of the residents in regards to conservation is remarkable. Nearly 93,000 people live in and around the area within 208 communities. Rangers work with the residents to preserve this unspoiled locale and they take their role seriously.
Throughout the journey, I kept my eye out for the elusive Mrs. Ana Conda. As the days went by without a sign, I began to accept the reality that this legendary snake and I were destined not to meet. At the tail end of the trip, we went on a jungle walk, where local trackers came along to assist the naturalists in finding various creatures. As we trekked through the thick foliage, lined by Walking Palms and massive Banyans or “Avatar-like” trees with their gnarly roots and thick trunks, the intensity of color was almost blinding. After examining such creatures as Bullet Ants, Poison Dart Frogs, Horned Toads and a Red-tailed Boa Constrictor,we heard a sudden shout. Mrs. Conda had been found, exactly where expected – on the edge of a boggy swamp, well-camaflouged in her eco-green skin. The tracker picked up the snake and held it out to us for a good look, keeping his hands and body away from its fangs, while it struggled mightily and forcefully to be released.Though the Anaconda is not venomous, it is incredibly powerful and employs constriction to subdue its prey. We noted that the snake’s girth was large (some grow as big around as a grown man), but that it was not very long in size, and one of the naturalists commented that it was probably a very young one. I was ecstatic nevertheless with this younger version, a Miss Conda, if you like.
About the Author Deborah Stone is a features and travel writer, whose column has covered everything from Washington’s San Juan Islands to exotic Egypt. She enjoys writing about soft adventure experiences, cultural forays, wildlife encounters, romantic getaways and spa retreats. A long-time resident of the Seattle area, she is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association.
About the Author
Deborah Stone is a features and travel writer, whose column has covered everything from Washington’s San Juan Islands to exotic Egypt. She enjoys writing about soft adventure experiences, cultural forays, wildlife encounters, romantic getaways and spa retreats. A long-time resident of the Seattle area, she is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association.