A recent guest, and frequent New York Times contributing writer, shared notes from a low water Aria Amazon 4 Night Cruise:
The sun should be beating down on us though its only 6:30 am when we board four aluminum skiffs at 6.30am for an early morning bird watch, apparently the optimal time of day to spot birdlife here in the Amazon. The threat of rain, and then actual wet pellets appear at first to derail our plans but even from the lower deck where we wait, I spy a pair of blue and yellow macaw perched on a naked branch lunging out over the swaying currents. “They mate for life,” our guide Roland explains, while handing me his powerful binoculars, which vastly improves my take on these two lovebirds.
Sensing my simultaneous fascination with the wildlife and frustration at the weather, another guide, Juan promises, “When the rain breaks, we will go somewhere that pink dolphins will swim up and kiss you.” With that, I head upstairs for a breakfast of fresh Amazon fruits and sweet tamales wrapped in yellow leaves.
“We might see macaw,” I hear Juan tell the group at 8:30 am as we board the skiffs under now clear skies. We’ve not even left the Aria when I see flying fish jump out of the black river water. Today we’re starting with a jungle walk, possible now in the low season when the water level drops to reveal pathways between the towering trees. When we climb on shore to trek into the muddy rainforest, I ask for a helping hand that our impeccable Aqua Expeditions guide for this excursion Julio gives without hesitation. Soon, the sun that the Incas once worshipped disappears behind the dense tree canopy as Julio discusses our route with a local Amazonia native who, knife in hand, leads us into the jungle.
Slashing branches in our path with his left hand, the native guide points up at an electric pink bromeliad flower in the branches overhead, while Julio informs us this is a relative of the pineapple. “The jungle is eternal competition,” Roland says somewhere in the distance, meaning that everything we see has triumphed over some other species to survive in this steamy web of branches, leaves and creatures. Turns out that the long blade has another purpose, to check tree roots for tarantulas.
I spot two squirrel monkeys frolicking in the branches of a kapok tree intertwined with strangler figs then again, closer to us this time, I hear Roland remark, “beautiful termite’s nest” as though that’s not an oxymoron.
When we turn around to head back to the mother ship, I nearly step on a delicate hummingbird’s nest, and leave the steamy scene amazed that something so small and intricate survives at all amidst that cacophonous tangle.
Back on the boat, Roland offers me his binoculars again. Looking through these from the Observation Deck, I spot black vultures, a yellow billed tern, a tree full of snowy egret and a single laughing falcon alight on a naked branch jutting above the tree canopy. Others are reading or resting but I can’t take my eyes off the Amazon.
Lunch however proves a worthy distraction, a generous spread of Amazon organic greens, hearts of palm with creamy avocado, grilled corn on the cob, roasted pumpkin, BBQ beef and river fish skewers, crispy chicken wings, rice and one of Peru’s astonishingly numerous varieties of potato. I wash it all down with homemade passion fruit juice that I already foresee missing when we disembark. Joining us at the tail end of our feast, Juan reiterates the importance of where we walked today, explaining that some 30,000 medicinal plants grow in the Amazon rainforest.
Tomorrow we’ll go catch and release fishing for the Amazon’s “vicious” red-bellied piranha, so Juan leads the group in a lecture about the river’s abundant fish, including armored catfish, paiche, neon tetras, hatchetfish and piranhas, a Guarani Indian word meaning for tooth fish. Six species of piranha are carnivorous so Juan reminds us not to touch what we catch while I catch sight of the undulating current outside and try to remember the lines to Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow.”
After a short break, which I spent skimming the latest book of images by Peruvian photographer Mario Testino in the cool refuge of the Indoor Lounge, we set off again by skiff at 3:30pm. The afternoon’s excursion, I’m promised, will end with shooting stars, but I’m already busy counting the red howler monkeys that Julio has spotted for us in the trees on shore. He suggests we get off the boat for a closer look, which I do with surprisingly little concern for what might slither around our feet. Travel is all about trust, I always say. Suddenly he points off to the right. Only a native could have spotted this single three toed sloth curled up asleep so high in the tree canopy.
Back on the boat, we skim the dark marine surface, heading deeper down a narrow tributary. Our skiff captain Victor slows then stops entirely, pointing to a black caiman with its beady-eyes casting about while its elongated scaly body glides alongside us. Off to the left, I see the water’s surface shimmer and a single pinkish dorsal fin breaks the river surface in front of us, then another, and another until we’re literal encircled by these graceful creatures that prove impossible to photograph but enthralling to watch.
Fireflies begin to sparkle in the dusk when we come upon what appears to be a screaming tree but is actually just home to a flock of black capped donacobius birds, otherwise known as alarm birds for their frantic bird call. Julio hears a capuchin monkey but we never see it, which is ok because he’s also spotted a smaller caiman, one he manages to lift from the water long enough for us to admire its scaly skin and whipping tail.
Only when the reptile is gone do I realize that night has fallen. As we skip across the water in darkness, I count three shooting stars before the lights of the Aria Amazon come into view, and I start to wonder about the exotic dishes that await us back on board.