A tale of shamans and saddlebacks
is sophisticated and creative, with exotic delights such as armoured catfish caviar, fresh muyaca berries and grilled paiche, a huge Amazonian fish. Wine from Argentina and Chile flows freely at meal times.
The highlight of the cruise is the skiff excursions, held twice daily and led by four knowledgeable riberenos (or river dwellers) who grew up on the banks of the Amazon.
Most of our time is spent in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. The excursions start early, often before breakfast.
Our first morning on the river brings us pink dolphins, squirrel monkeys, three-toed sloths and iguanas camouflaged on a lowhanging tree branch. Blue and yellow macaws, caracaras and hawks glide above the treetops.
Our guides are humorous and informative. We learn that iguanas taste like chicken and piranhas are not the vicious man-eating creatures portrayed in Hollywood movies. At Moringa Lake, we anchor among the reeds to fish for red-bellied piranhas. The gear is basic: a stick with a piece of string, hook and a tiny piece of meat. Only a few of us catch a piranha but the guides keep hooking them in.
As it’s high-water season and most of the forest is flooded, the skiffs carry us deep into the jungle, closer to the treetops than if we had been on foot. It gives us the chance to glimpse saddleback tamarinds with bushy moustaches, night monkeys and squirrel monkeys, which eat mosquitoes and cockroaches. Even so, most sightings are from a fair distance and binoculars or a camera with a good zoom are essential.
One excursion that doesn’t require binoculars is a visit to San Francisco village on the banks of the Maranon River, a tributary of the Amazon.
We gather in groups in the villagers’ homes. I visit the home of 38-year-old Segundo and his 25-year-old wife, Magale, who is frying fish for the evening meal. Their three children stare at us curiously.
From Segundo, we learn that the villagers are fishermen and farmers, who grow corn, papaya and rice. Segundo grows bananas, which he sells in Nauta, a town along the river.
The money he earns is used to buy kerosene, sandstone and medicine. Rain and river water is collected for drinking and bathing. Each family contributes $US5 ($A5) a month to buy diesel for a common electricity generator.
The villagers practise a form of