In the Amazon Rainforest, you'd expect to be impressed with the abundance of plant and animal life on display. And I was: where else could you possibly hope to spot such natural wonders as glossy pink river dolphins, vibrant blue macaws, and giant green lilypads in a matter of only three days?
But it is the indigenous people of this magnificent ecosystem who left the biggest impression on me - it is them I picture when I think back on my journey to the Peruvian Amazon, a place that seems so distant and magical my trip there could almost have been a dream.
People like our genial guide, Julio, a short, solid Peruvian with the straight, white teeth of a Hollywood star; the San Francisco village children who giggle with fascination as they study their own image in our digital camera screens; and Gustave, the wise- eyed village shaman who talks proudly of the power of his ancient craft.
It is these memories that make the six sets of vaccinations, the course of anti-malaria tablets, the 20-hour flight and the countless mosquito bites all, without a doubt, worthwhile.
I get my first glimpse of the Amazon river from the air, a seemingly endless stretch of khaki water, snaking through an expanse of green forest. We land in Iquitos, a ramshackle city which Lonely Planet placed sixth in its 2011 list of the top 10 cities in the world (Wellington was fourth). Iquitos is the biggest city in the Peruvian rainforest and the world's largest city that cannot be reached by road. Surrounded by the Nanay, the Itaya, and the Amazon rivers, the only way in is by boat or by plane.
Stepping off the plane is like stepping into a Bikram yoga class - the heat is oppressive and beads of sweat instantly appear. Temperatures here range from 28 to 38 degrees but humidity is usually 80 per cent or more. As we drive into the city, we pass packed buses with open sides for makeshift air conditioning, while by the side of the road children sit in plastic paddling pools keeping cool.
We take an afternoon walking tour of the city and Julio gives us a potted history of Iquitos. Once a hive of industry during the rubber boom of the late 1800s, the city's fortunes changed after the first world war when Englishman Henry Wickham smuggled thousands of rubber tree seeds from the rainforest, establishing plantations in Malaysia, Africa and India. Now ghostly reminders of the city's former glory remain - the once grand European-style buildings which have seen better days; the Caso de Fierro designed by Gustave Eiffel - an iron house brought over piece by piece from Belgium - which apparently used to be twice the size but no one looked after it so half of it fell down, perhaps an accurate analogy for Iquitos itself.
As the city turns to darkness, the rain begins and the dusty streets become slick and black. We drive to the port and climb aboard awaiting skiffs which transport us to the luxury boutique river cruise ship MV Aria.
Operating every week of the year, the impressive-looking ship travels upstream on the Peruvian Amazon and its tributary rivers Ucayali, Yarapa and Yanallpa in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve - a protected area covering more than 20,000 square kilometres which is home to an estimated 449 bird species, 102 mammals, 69 reptiles, 58 amphibians, 256 fish and 1204 plants. During the wet season (October to April), the river levels rise, flooding a large area of the forest and creating a series of smaller rivers and creeks - the plant and animal life has evolved to adapt to the changing water levels.
I'd always imagined travelling to the rainforest would involve roughing it in the wildnerness, sleeping under canvas with the sounds of nature echoing through the trees. I never thought I'd be sailing the mighty river on a luxury cruise ship, eating gourmet cuisine and drinking pisco sour cocktails, with a Californian king- size bed waiting for me in my tastefully decorated cabin. But that's exactly what the MV Aria and its sister ship the MV Aqua offer travellers who want to get close to nature without having to foresake the luxuries of a five-star hotel.
The Aria has only 16 cabins, catering to a maximum of 32 guests at any one time. As we approach the embarkation deck, the darkness conceals us and the boat's interior is illuminated - we watch passengers already on board dancing for joy as they see their rooms for the first time. Each cabin's most impressive feature is its panoramic, floor to ceiling window, looking out to the river beyond, providing an ever- changing cinematic outlook on this remote natural paradise. I sleep each night with my curtains open - in the darkness I watch shooting stars and a distant electrical storm, in the morning glorious sunrises peek over the horizon, and I wake from one afternoon siesta to see dolphins emerging from the water to catch their breath.
The ship's other highlight is its cuisine. Executive chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino is one of the leading lights in the Peruvian culinary scene. In 2011, his Lima restaurant Malabar was named one of the world's top 50 restaurants, thanks to Schiaffino's commitment to using unique ingredients from the Amazon to the Andes, creatively blending Peruvian tradition with modern techniques. On board, Schiaffino has created a distinctly Amazonian menu which changes each day - hearts of palm, armored catfish caviar, sapote fruit, muyaca berries and paiche fish are just some of the intriguing ingredients we feast on during our three night-cruise. For the less adventurous guests, the chefs also offer a western-style a la carte menu with chicken, pasta and burgers. But if you're the kind of person who would prefer to order from this menu, you really should think twice about travelling to the Amazon.
Leaving Aria's air- conditioned comfort for our first early-morning excursion, Julio waits for us in the skiff with our ex-navy boat driver Armando. Julio's knowledge of the area is second to none - he grew up in a local rainforest village, then moved to Iquitos to attend high school. He has worked as a guide for the last five years and his enthusiasm for his job is still palpable.
"Mono! Mono! Mono!" he shouts - "Monkey! Monkey! Monkey!" - as he spots a family of dusky titi monkeys jumping in the trees. Later we strain to see a three-toed sloth, clinging to the top of a towering tree. These creatures can spend up to 20 hours of each day sleeping, the rest of their time is spent eating or painstakingly slowly climbing down to the ground for their ablutions. The sloth's lethargic movements are almost undetectable from our vantage point but Julio assures us it's "the most active one I've seen in my life".
As the sun falls lower in the sky, pink river dolphins break the surface of the water next to our skiff. Everyone quickly snaps away but the dolphins tease us, ducking in and out with only momentary appearances above water. "You'll get a great photo of the river," Julio jokes. "Not much else."
Fishing for deadly red-bellied piranhas, my heart races as I dangle my makeshift fishing rod over the edge of our skiff, a chunk of raw beef as bait. Within seconds, I feel a strong tug on the line and anxiously pull my rod from the water. Hanging from the end is the meanest looking fish I've ever seen - small but with a lurid orangey-red tummy and sharp, shark-like teeth protruding from an underbite jaw. "Errr . . . what do I do now?" I say as calmly as I possibly can muster. Julio takes the fish from the hook and holds it up so I can take a photo of my prize catch. The fish flaps and wriggles, Julio drops it and I find myself leaping onto my seat to keep my toes safe from its vice- like teeth.
On a walk through the rainforest, he points out the weird and wonderful quirks of nature all around us - a poisonous furry red caterpillar which looks like a Weta Workshop creation, the capinuri or "naughty" tree whose phallus- shaped branches used to be offered as a gift of betrothal, and the "punishment tree" with a trunk covered in thorns and armies of large ants to which naughty children or cheating wives used to be tied. "What about cheating men?" we ask. Julio just shrugs and smiles.
Emerging from the jungle, we enter Magdalena village where we're greeted by curious children, many with distended bellies, hacking coughs and runny noses. The health of the indigenous children depends mostly on their water supply - those in villages with rainwater tanks do much better than those who drink the untreated, bacteria-filled river water. Infant mortality here is 50 per cent - as a group of 20 or so children line up in the classroom of their school to sing us songs of welcome, I wonder how much death they've already witnessed, how many brothers and sisters they have lost, and whether death scares them or if it is just a harsh reality of life.
We meet another group of villagers on what becomes the highlight of the trip - a sunset swimming and canoeing excursion on a black water lake which we've been assured is completely safe. Peering into the dark, opaque water, I ask with trepidation "How exactly do you know there are no piranhas in here, Julio?" He gives another gentle smile. "Well, we've been swimming here for four years and nothing has gone wrong yet."
We transfer into dugout canoes expertly paddled by local children. There are holes in the bottom and an increasing pool of water at our feet but Jennifer, the petite teenage girl in charge of my canoe, doesn't seem worried. We swap smiles and giggles as I struggle to paddle the heavy wooden vessel but her laughs lessen as she begins to realise just how useless I am at manoeuvring us through the water.
Climbing back aboard the skiff, Jennifer paddles away with ease and I ask Julio to translate an apology for my lack of co- ordination. She sighs and rolls her eyes, and I draw comfort from the fact teenage girls are surly and hard to please no matter where in the world they come from.
Standing on the bow of the skiff, a local boy stands beside me, his eager eyes urging me to dive in. I make nervous jokes about piranhas, while internally praying I'm not about to make the biggest mistake of my life. I clear my mind of what might be lurking beneath the surface, give a countdown in my amateur Spanish - "Uno, dos, tres . . ." - and together we jump into the dark water below. The coolness of the lake is deliciously refreshing and as I rise to the surface, there are splashes, shrieks of laughter and smiling faces all around me. In the water, the language barrier doesn't matter any more - we're just a group of newfound friends, having the time of our lives.
Back on the skiff, the sun is setting and Julio hands me a cold beer. We watch the villagers expertly navigate their canoes back across the lake, laughing and joking - no doubt about the pink- skinned gringos who couldn't steer a canoe if their lives depended on it.
As we head back to the Aria, I feel exhilarated and full of the kind of joy brought by surviving something completely out of your comfort zone. When faced with challenges, sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, hope for the best and dive in.
Getting there: LAN Airlines operates six weekly nonstop flights from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Lima, Peru and beyond to Iquitos - gateway to the Amazon. For more information or to make a booking contact travel agents, call LAN reservations on 0800 451 373, or visit lan.com
Natural Focus Safaris have been specialising in travel to exceptional places along with their sister company African Wildlife Safaris for more than 27 years. Their knowledgeable staff are experts in the destinations they offer and are well-versed in creating private itineraries for both individuals and small groups, throughout Africa, Egypt, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, South America, Canada and Alaska.
For further information email email@example.com or go to naturalfocussafaris.com.au. The MV Aria offers three, four and seven night itineraries, leaving from Iquitos (3 and 7 nights) or Nauta (four nights). For more information visit aquaexpeditions.com
Stephanie Holmes travelled to Peru courtesy of LAN Airlines and Natural Focus Safaris.
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