Craig Tansley takes a trip aboard the Amazon's most luxurious riverboat to find anacondas, piranhas and men in white linen gloves.
There are dolphins surrounding us – pink ones, at that. And harpy eagles, the most powerful eagles on Earth – their talons have the strength of a grizzly bear's paw. There are anacondas that grow to 10 metres. And macaws and toucans. And monkeys of all types: tamarin, squirrel, red howlers, you name it. There are piranhas in the water – hardly the monsters of the movies, but try sticking a bloodied finger in and see what happens. But the sight I cherish the most each day is a man in white gloves. That's Freddy. He's the waiter in a dining room ranked in Peru's top 10 restaurants – and remember, Peru is the gastronomical capital of the Americas – despite the fact that Freddy and I are floating down the biggest river on Earth.
It might be the creatures of the Amazon that people come here for, but in this equatorial heat and under a sun that scalds like a naked flame, nothing beats returning to the comfort of my boat to see what Freddy has waiting. Even at breakfast, he's serving three courses. And some time between this meal and the last, he'll have changed the decor entirely, as if the boat has a new restaurant I've never seen before.
But who knows, perhaps it does. The Delfin 1 is the most luxurious boat on the Amazon. There are just four guest rooms on board, so there can be no more than eight guests at any one time. And with its sprawling open-air lounge and bar upstairs, and rooms that include a jacuzzi on your private deck, it's never hard to find your own space should you find sharing the Amazon with six others cramps your style.
Nothing but jungle and river
I've flown from Lima to Iquitos to ride the rivers inside the Amazon's second-largest nature reserve, the Pacaya-Samiria. From Iquitos we drive for an hour and a half to the tiny frontier town of Nauta, where the road stops. Beyond here there's nothing but jungle and river, and the remote communities who still live entirely from it.
While the Delfin 1 has an itinerary, Iquitos-raised guide Leonel Sutta will plan our three-night trip based partly on instinct, guiding us where he thinks the animals we want to see will be, given the weather conditions. As we get aboard, ferried across by skiff under the stars, he explains his thinking.
"I'm going to change the schedule a little," he says. "There's a place on the river that's going to be best to see anacondas, I think. They need the sun, and they're so close there it will be incredible. But there are no guarantees."
Over free-flowing glasses of Peruvian wine he speaks of red-bellied piranhas with teeth like timber-saws, of creatures so rare we'll find them only here in the Pacaya-Samiria, and of jaguars, pumas and other predators that roam the reserve, but who few ever see. Sprawled here on the couches of the top deck, beneath a beaming, bright full moon that lights up the river, the thrill of the chase is contagious among us, the air of expectation thicker than equatorial humidity.
When I wake next morning it's to pink dolphins just metres from my room. Some time during the night, the captain parked the boat on the river bank. He doesn't anchor – he doesn't even have one on board, I'm told – he seems to take aim at a muddy bank, then gets the crew to tie us to a tree. The mooring process stirs up sediment in the water, which attracts catfish, which in turn attracts pink dolphins. In the cut-throat world of the Amazon, any action creates a reaction with fatal consequences for some creature.
Catfish jump out of the muddy water as they're hunted by dolphins in packs, rounding them up like sheep dogs with snorkels. A leaky-looking dug-out canoe motors past carrying women and children from a village. They seem oblivious to the dolphin show I'm focused on – they're far more intent on studying the strangers in the gargantuan riverboat.
After breakfast, black storm clouds roll across the jungle, and forked lightning charges the air with electricity. Rain falls hard and fast as a deafening boom of thunder forces the feeding show to a new fervour. As quickly as it came, the storm recedes, and the sun shines with a ferocity that draws me to shade. "This is good," Sutta says, sipping his tea with a wry smile as he surveys the forests like a hunter. "The animals are going to show up to dry out."
Each day we'll take a skiff from Delfin 1 to advance further into the Amazon. Because jungles provide the perfect environment for animals to hide in, the task of uncovering reluctant predators falls primarily to Sutta and his harpy eagle eyes. I scan the forests with my binoculars but it's mostly for show – I'm waiting for Sutta's next excited whisper and the direction his arm will point.
Refuge for endangered species
The Pacaya-Samiria is a refuge for endangered species, and the jungle is teeming with some of the most exotic fauna on Earth. The refuge is spread across 20,000 square kilometres of rainforest and river – the most extensive area of protected floodable rainforest in the Amazon. It's home to a staggering 527 species of birds, 102 mammals, 69 reptiles, 58 amphibians, 269 fish and more than 1000 trees and plants (there are also more than 40,000 humans grouped in 94 tiny communities living entirely off the land, as they always have).
This protected treasure of flora and fauna is something locals don't give up easily. A patrol boat motors past us, and its two occupants scan the forests beside us with binoculars. I ask Sutta what they're looking for. "Poachers," he answers quickly. And what do they do if they find them, I ask? "They shoot at them," he says casually. "It is a deterrent."
Within minutes we've spotted three of the endangered species on the list of many: a charapa turtle raises an unblinking eye in the muddy water below a group of spider monkeys dangling from vines above. In the canopy above two red macaws squawk blue murder to anyone in earshot. Somewhere in the distance I hear the insane calls of the world's loudest monkey – a red howler's screams can be heard from 30 kilometres. Not bad for a first morning, though when the heat and humidity gets too much as we get closer to the middle of the day we return to the comfort of the mother-ship, and to Freddy and his three-course feast.
Later, as dusk approaches, I paddle among the pink dolphins on a stand-up paddleboard. Local communities consider it bad luck to kill pink dolphins, which they say they have secret powers, transforming at night into handsome young men, who impregnate local girls before changing back to animals. They believe if you make eye contact with a pink dolphin, you'll have lifelong nightmares you can never purge. I keep that thought in the back of my head, though I'm not sure if my eyes lock with any individual dolphin. Obviously not, for that night I sleep like the dead, rocked to sleep by the gentle roll of the Amazon beneath me.
Breakfast in the jungle
Next morning I leave Freddy behind for breakfast in the jungle. Local villagers guide the way, taking us along the rainforest canopy on a set of swinging platforms 25 metres above the forest floor. They paddle an old timber boat across a dead-still lake, the jungle reflected in the mirrored waters. As we round a corner of the lake, I spot an old wooden hut built out along the water, connected by a narrow walkway. It's only as we draw near that I notice a table covered in a white linen tablecloth, and I see Freddy pouring fresh squeezed juice and dishing out fresh-cooked croissants.
There are many more surprises along the way. Next evening I fish for piranha in the last light of the day on a hand-line, across the river from two local fishermen who have pulled their canoe up a riverbank and are sleeping already under the first night stars.
Later, when the light fades entirely from the dusk, Sutta leads the skiff down a narrow tributary, using his torch to illuminate the unblinking, yellow eyes of black caiman lurking ominously in the muddy brown water. The stars blink and bulge above the river, planets and entire galaxies shine down from above with no artificial light to dim their gleam, as falling stars shoot the entire length of the Peruvian night sky.
I eventually see an anaconda – a fleeting glimpse of a beast startled by intruders, wallowing in a muddy swamp. But I discover that seeking out the specific creatures I came looking for isn't nearly as important as simply being here – watching the river communities come to life in the dawn, the water a hive of activity, villagers motoring past in their threadbare boats. Or lazing by the top-deck bar, watching the colour fade from another cloudless, equatorial day. And each wildlife-spotting experience deep in the jungle book-ended by Freddy and his white gloves, and the pleasures coming from the kitchen of one of the Americas' finest restaurants.
Fly: LAN Airlines operate seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, with onward connections to Iquitos. www.lan.com
Cruise: Delfin 1 offers three- and four-night cruises out of Iquitos year-round. www.delfinamazoncruises.com
The writer travelled with the assistance of Delfin Amazon Cruises and LAN Airlines