Fly over the Peruvian Amazon in a plane and what you can see is an endless array of mist-covered broccoli florets only interrupted by the mighty river barging in fiercely, drawing a snake-like pattern.
The spectacle leaves you with a million emotions; that of excitement, curiosity, wonder, thrill – all at the same time. All you want to do is get off the plane and set foot in the jungles to find out what the little-visited wildlife haven would be like.
The Amazon Rainforest is a life spring of the planet. It produces more than 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen and 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water. More than half of the world’s estimated 10 million species of plants, animals and insects live in these tropical rainforests.
Given names like “The Jewel of the Earth”, “World’s Largest Pharmacy”, “The Lungs of the Earth”, the dense tropical rainforest and the jungle region of Peru makes for the 60 per cent of the country’s territory and shares its borders with Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia. If you have around four to five days on hand, it is a good idea to explore the northen selva which is accessible from Iquitos; a flight of an hour and a half from the capital city Lima. Sitting at the mouth of the Amazon, the jungle-locked Iquitos can be reached by boat or plane and is the only gateway to the remote and extraordinary Pacaya Samiria National Reserve.
There are several ways to spend your time in the magical setting of the Amazon rainforest depending on whether you prefer luxury lodges and cruises or no-frills cottages and survival expeditions. However, one of the most sought-after and unique experiences is sailing aboard a cruise while admiring the beauty of the reserve.
Unlike most luxury cruise holidays that are more about on-board entertainment; Amazon river cruises, with their limited capacity, encourage you to disconnect, relax and discover the true essence of the jungle.
Here’s where you get to soak up the beauty of the ever-changing landscape from the panoramic windows of your room, unwind in the warm waters of the jacuzzi as the cold wind passes through, and devour regional delicacies and exotic fruits and vegetables extracted from the jungles.
The Amazon river in Peru starts at the confluence between the Maranon and Ucayali Rivers near Nauta City. The interaction of water and sediment between these two large rivers is very significant for the Natural Reserve of Pacaya Samiria, a region that houses the large diversity of wildlife as well as aquatic life.
Jaguars still roam the forests, tamarin monkeys leap from tree to tree, sloths hang from the trunks, gigantic anacondas lurk in the swamps and toothy caimans and turtles sunbathe along riverbanks.
Butterflies and flamboyant birds like scarlet macaw, toucans and parrots add a dash of colour and vibrance to the greenery while pods of charismatic pink dolphins frolic in the waters. Trees rise like giants from the forest floor and the myraid plants and herbs make for natural remedies for a variety of maladies. Above all, shallow waters and lakes of the Amazon river basin are the only place in the world where you get to witness water lilies with pads that grow over 4ft in diameter, large enough to support the weight of a small child. Such is the allure of this ecosystem of unrivalled size.
One of the most striking things about the vast, sweltering Amazon basin is its esthetic beauty that instantly soothes your eyes. Venture deep into the jungle and you’ll notice little villages dotting the backwaters, blending spectacularly with the scenery painted in blues and greens. A common sight might be some children waving at you saying “Ola!” or fishermen paddling down one of the tributeries. Many indigenous tribes like the Boras, Cocamas, Yaguas, Ticunas, Jibaros and Orejones still reside here in small communities. The indigenious tribes living in this region may have adopted the western style of dressing and given up on hunting as a means of living, but they still live in harmony with nature and uphold age-old culture and traditions. It’s hard to believe but they are people who have never had contact with outside civilization!
Investing quality time interacting with them is a good way to get a sense of the area’s distinct culture and connect with the place in a whole new way.
Most tribes in the Amazon are friendly and open to sharing their way of life with you. Bolevar is one such hamlet where the little kids would happily show you around and teach you some fun poems and rhymes in Spanish while the elderly would be eager to give you an insight into their past. The women living here make beautiful handicrafts, accessories and knick-knacks like earrings, necklaces, wooden masks, bowls, pens, keychains, serving trays, and bird and animal hangings; all out of natural materials like wood, seeds and shells of fruits, dried grass and cane. These items are reasonably priced and make for ideal souvenirs to take back home; so make sure to carry your soles (Peruvian currency) on your river adventures.
There are many reasons life in the rainforest is radically different from anywhere else on the globe. Even today, most native tribes in the jungle rely on a shaman to cure their ailments and nowhere on Earth would you find as many shaman offering magical brews as you may do in Peru. While thousands of travellers travel to Iquitos and the Amazon basin, out of sheer curiosity or in search of ancient wisdom, to experience the magical powers of ayahuasca (traditional hallucinogenic drink), it is certainly not something everyone can cope with. The effects of the vine can often be challenging; you’re likely to see colourful visions that may be spiritual, erotic or terrifying or even picture yourself having a conversation with loved ones from the past or present. At the same time, it can also lead to a blissful, healing session. Results usually vary from person to person.
The safest way to know more about shamanic healing rituals as a traveller, is to meet a jungle shaman through a local. The typical setting involves having a session with the ayahuasquero (jungle shaman) in their tambo (hut) located on a riverbank.
The session starts at dusk with the shaman introducing various stimulating plant medicines. Shortly post sunset, the shaman begins to rattle and chant to get in touch with the spirits of the world. Soon, you have the shaman blowing thick tobacco on your face and lightly tapping your head with a bundle of leaves. All you need to do is stop thinking and feel the calm in the moment as you tap into the energy of the rainforest. This simple spiritual experience is sure to turn into a fond memory you may cherish for years to come.
Your journey into the Amazon is incomplete until you get a taste of its cuisine. Local vegetables, exotic fruit juices, fresh seafood and typical Amazonian flavours make for sheer gastronomic delights. You literally look forward to your mealtimes here! Juane (Chicken and rice cooked and wrapped in bijao leaves with local spices) make for delicious, portable snacks that can be carried on long river trips. Roast picuro, a species similar to the guinea pig; apinchado, pork stewed with peanuts and corn; and patarashca, fish wrapped in leaves cooked on hot coals are among other specialities found on the dining tables in the Amazon. The plantain is another key ingredient used here. The Amazon river also provides plenty of fresh water fish like paiche, sabalo, bagre, tilapia, palometa and even piranha that are used in various dishes including soups and stews.
Savour sumptous salads with hearts of palm leaves – slender, pale ivory stalks harvested from palm trees that particularly grow in the surrounding forest areas.
No matter what you’re served in the Amazon, there’s one thing that remains consistent throughout all meals – juices made out of fruits, many of which do not grow elsewhere. In the Amazon jungle, there is plentiful of fruits such as papaya, maracuya or passion fruit, paw-paw, chirimoya, camu camu, cocona, aguaje, custard apple and mangoes among others. Also, bananas are eaten fried, grilled, boiled, mashed and raw.
As you near the end of your edifying and inspiring journey in the Peruvian Amazon, you come to realise that the enchanting expanse of arboreal wilderness has given you a lot more than you could ever imagine or desire.
Touring the Amazon is all about finding joys in subtle ways – watching the rosy-pink dolphins and carefully listening to the signature sound they make as they dive in the water, observing the the phenomenal variety of plant life, appreciating the compassion in the native communities and the simple feeling of occupying a tiny place in the vast expanse of nature. There are so many things you end up taking back from the Amazon, even if they are in an intangible form. The complete experience is incredibly satisfying!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
– You can practically visit the Amazon any time of year. The weather patterns of this tropical rainforest do not change much from season to season, characterised by daily rain, humidity, and heat.
– The official currency of Peru is the Nuevo Sol (PEN) divided into 100 cents. Make sure to exchange currency before you enter the jungle areas.
– Most common language in the area is Spanish. Try and learn the basics of Spanish language before you head to the Amazon. This way you have an upperhand when it comes to communicating and connecting with the locals.
– Mosquitoes and bugs thrive in large numbers in the hot, humid and densely vegetated environment of the tropical rainforest. Don’t let them be your recipe your displeasure. Make sure you have ample musquito repellent and are covered at all times.
– Purely for precaution, it is recommended to take the vaccine against yellow fever and malaria, when traveling to the jungle of Peru. Consult with your doctor, at least one month prior to entering the Peruvian jungle.
TOP 7 EXPERIENCES IN THE PERUVIAN AMAZON
– Night boat ride in the glistening black waters of Nauta Creek where you can observe lizards, frogs and different kinds of nocturnal animals
– Piranha fishing using traditional and local methods in the black water stream of San José de Zarapanga called Shiriyacu
– Visit to the village called Bolevar to spend a day with the natives and learn about their ancient traditions
– Meeting with the jungle shaman for a mysterious, spiritual experience
– Canopy walking while spotting wildlife in the rainforest near San Regis
– Kayaking to experience the sheer size and vastness of the Amazon river
– Enjoying a hearty, local breakfast on skiff, in the middle of the mighty river
HOW TO REACH PACAYA SAMIRIA NATIONAL RESERVE
The Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve is located 180 km south-west of Iquitos. The quickest route to the reserve is first by road to the small town of Nauta, and then down river by boat to the reserve. A permit is required to enter the reserve, which can either be obtained from INRENA – Peruvian National Parks Authority, or more conveniently, from your tour operator.