We asked a recent guest, and regular Conde Nast Traveler contributor to describe a typical day on, and off, the Aqua Amazon:
It’s our second day on this great South American river and, along with my fellow guests who number 20 and hail from Athens, London, Tokyo and Texas, I board one of three aluminum skiffs at precisely 6.30am. Already I feel warm but know we’re in for more heat as the day progresses. Its low water season, which lasts from June to November in Amazonia which I’ve been warned is the warmer season here with temperature averaging about 98 degrees Fahrenheit, yet despite its name, we’ve already had some notably heavy rains though these had no impact on our outings thanks to Aqua Expeditions trusty ponchos and the experienced skiff captains.
Buckled into our camouflage life jackets, we set off to explore the Amazon’s largest tributary, called the Ucayali River, but first our guide points out a great egret perched on a branch jutting out from the shore on our right. When I look, its wings are spread for takeoff. Overhead I spy a grey breasted martin fluttering past and a tree full of bright white snowy egrets on the riverbank ahead. I’m not surprised, having been told that Amazon birdlife is particularly active in the early morning hours. As we turn into the Ucayali, I wonder with anticipation what, or who awaits us.
Over these mesmerizing early-morning hours, we skim the brownish water while peering through binoculars into the towering tree branches on both banks in search of yellow headed caracara, ring kingfishers and short tailed parrots. Someone behind me sees the curved dorsal fins of two grey dolphins swimming together. While I miss this first dolphin spotting of the day, I console myself that we saw so many on yesterday’s adventures that the odds of more remain high. Thanks to our guide Daniel’s eagle eye, we stop to watch a single capuchin monkey prance along a tree branch, grabbing the small jungle berries that we’re told are his diet staple. A few moments later we ogle three rare Taricaya turtles lumbering along the muddy riverbank and gaze up at an electrifying flock of blue and yellow macaws, known locally as guacamayo amarillo. How to look up and down at once, I wonder, as three black caimans poke their beady-eyed heads and elongated scaly bodies out of the enigmatic water in front of our skiff while literally scores of pink river dolphins, or as Daniel calls them delfines rosados, roll dorsal fin first over the river behind us.
Only a breakfast of banana pancakes like the fluffy ones served back on board is enough to distract my mind from all the wildlife we saw this morning while most of the world was still asleep, well, most of the world beyond Amazonia anyway, as we did see fishermen paddling their dug-out canoes trawling for armored catfish.
There are more locals to meet after breakfast when we climb aboard the skiffs again only to disembark moments later. As we stroll through the village of Madgalena, a small community of just ten families, we are joined out of nowhere it seems by a band of curious children who attach themselves to our group, giggling shyly as they gaze upon us. Daniel leads the way through bamboo and kapok trees to a magnificent lake where giant Victoria Regia water lily, some as much as six feet wide, appear to bask in the morning light. On the walk back, I stop by buy a handful of Amazon seed bead necklaces handmade by the ladies of Madgalena that others in our group assure me look ‘perfecto,’ as there is no mirror to be found in this riverside village.
Still mesmerized by the wildlife, when we return to the Aqua Amazon I disrobe from the lifejacket but hold onto my binoculars and climb onto my cloudlike king size bed back in our suite to continue gazing into the dramatic distance. Two great vultures flap past, followed by a capped heron that I recognize from its electric blue beak. I take my eyes off the river only to climb up one flight for lunch in the sun lit dining room where fresh hearts of palm salad, grilled plantains and manioc empanadas stuffed with local vegetables capture my attention almost as much as the Amazonia landscape. Definitely the camu camu pie takes my mind off the river entirely, for the few moments this indulgence takes to savor with the Peruvian coffee I find quickly and pleasantly addictive.
We’ll be fishing for the river’s notoriously vicious red bellied piranhas during our cruise so after lunch, another guide Ricardo presents his short lecture upstairs in the Indoor Lounge where I have already staked “my” cushy perch amidst the many cozy couches, leaving me about equidistant from the screen with examples of the 28(!) species of piranha swimming in the Amazon’s freshwater eco-system that’s also home to armored catfish, rays and paiche fish that we call sturgeon. These we learn can grow up to 12 feet long. I glance at my own nails when Ricardo informs us that local villagers use paiche scales as nail files. Also impressive is that Aqua Expeditions donates equipment and technical advice to these villagers on sustainable fishing techniques. “Don’t try to take the piranha off line yourself or you might get bitten,” are the last words I hear before its time to head off again by skiff.
At 4pm on the dot, we head out again on the motorized skiffs for more Ucayali River exploring, passing the balseros as I have learned to call these Amazon fishermen and a highly photogenic “banana balsero” raft, loaded with hundreds of clusters of colorful bananas and plantains en route to a market town nearby. Wind brushes my face, keeping me cool in the afternoon heat but soon this gives way to rain. On go our ponchos then off again just as quickly since the rain was no more than a passing cloudburst. I proudly call out “Yellow headed caracara” while someone else on the boat shouts “Red bellied macaw” even louder. We seem to have sailed into a winged super highway, with mealy parrots crisscrossing slender billed kites overhead, a wattled jacana taking off from the left shore while a black tailed trogon with its bright red belly alights on a branch at the far right of my vision field.
I’m still holding out hope of seeing a toucan with its sculptural black and electric yellow beak when suddenly our skiff is surrounded by pink and grey river dolphins frolicking in the black water. I run out of fingers counting them then start banging on the aluminum siding to attract their attention. I can’t get too sad when they swim away, as we’ve cruised up alongside a family of squirrel monkeys. Daniel explains that those with more orange fur are older while the younger ones still look brownish. Counting them would be simply impossible so I sit back in the skiff and watch these entertaining creatures forage for jungle gooseberries, as the daylight begins to fade.
Stars peek out as we skim across the inky water at dusk. The Aqua Amazon looks even grander after our adventures among the jungle’s small creatures. Our guide says goodnight and revs up our imaginations by pointing out that “Tomorrow there is even the possibility of spotting a jaguar at this time of year.”
After I take a rain shower of more intimate dimensions in the privacy of my suite, we toast the day on the Observation Deck with camu camu sours, then descend for dinner: pumpkin and tangerine cream soup, black eyed pea and cecina salad followed by shrimp with Inca corn and coconut sauce along with crispy duck enchiladas, which we enjoy along with a glass of Chilean Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon.
One last linger on the Outdoor Deck, counting constellations then I return to my suite, to rest up for more adventures in Amazonia.