In sloth mode along the Amazon
times announced by a loud splash, at other times a sigh-like exhalation, but invariably behind us, allowing just a tantalising glimpse.
I watch a small group feeding mid-river as I recline on the sun deck, slivers of pink gleaming in the brown water whenever they break the surface.
Then there are all the beasts that elude us, but the very thought of which makes the forest seem even more enticing: the rare Amazonian manatees that surface only for a gloop of air beneath the cover of the water lettuce; the jaguars that, according to guide Juan Tejada, are spotted just two or three times a year; and the anacondas, giant serpents of legend.
We nearly meet an anaconda. Spotting the imprint of its massive coils pressed into the floating vegetation where it was lying just moments earlier, we cut the engine and scrutinise the tangle. No monster snake appears but Victor spies a baby fer-de-lance, Latin America’s most feared snake, draped innocently across a raft of water lettuce. The prospect of meeting either species quickly scotches the idea of a refreshing dip for anyone as yet undeterred by the piranhas and electric eels.
After lunch on day three we reach the confluence of the Maranon and Ucayali rivers, marking the birthplace of the Amazon proper. By now we are beginning to see more river traffic: log rafts carrying people, dogs and chickens; dugouts laden with bananas. These boats are a reminder that communities also live along the Amazon. And to find out more, we hop into the skiffs and pay a visit to the village of San Miguel, home to a community of rivereos, or river people.
We moor beside the dugouts and wander among the wooden buildings perched on stilts that raise them above the flood. The village is coated in mud, glistening where the floodwaters have most recently subsided. A vigorous game of football hurtles past on a pitch that is still half-submerged. Meanwhile the villagers gather on a patch of dry land to spread out their curios — animals, bowls and other artefacts carved from balsa or fashioned from seedpods — and the shoppers among our party get down to business.
Such tourist experiences can sometimes feel unpleasantly voyeuristic. And yet at San Miguel I don’t feel burdened with that customary us-and-them guilt. There is poverty, yes, but also a sense of an industrious and selfreliant community living from the land (or water) in the only conditions it has known, and for which it is better equipped than anyone else on the planet.
And the outside world is not absent: following the muffled bass of a stereo system down a line of planks that doubles as a high street, I find the Toucan Bar, where football posters line the walls and beers (not necessarily ice-cold) line the shelves.
Aqua Expeditions is working closely with these riverbank communities. As well as fuelling the local economy by encouraging a handicraft industry and other ecotourism spin-offs, it provides free medical supplies and a travelling doctor who makes regular calls. Meanwhile, the Aqua naturalists are working with the park authorities to teach and encourage a more sustainable use of forest resources, including, for example, a new technique for harvesting palm fruits without felling the tree and so depriving macaws of vital nest holes.
Wild animal products, once a regrettable staple of tourist knickknacks in this area, are now seldom seen.
We end the day watching the sun set over a backwater lagoon as fishing bats swoop across the water and the ripples of river dolphins lap against our skiff. The only light is from the canopy of stars above us.
It is one of those timeless wilderness moments. Such moments do not, of course, tell the whole story. Wilderness? Just a few miles downriver, Aria is lit up like a Christmas tree, promising hot showers, a sumptuous dinner and a ride home to our real worlds. Timelessness? We read every week about how the Amazon is changing irrevocably as the forests are whittled away and the outside world makes its demands.
On our last day back in Iquitos, we visit the extraordinary floating community of Belen, where more than 33,000 rivereos have taken their aquatic lifestyle to the doorstep of the city. This Venice of the jungle, complete with churches on stilts, floating barbecues, taxi dugouts and a dedicated radio station, is living, bustling proof that the Amazon cannot stand still.
As our plane leaves Iquitos and soars above the trees, I watch the forest’s green carpet roll out to each horizon and it seems that if anywhere were big enough to slow down the plunderings of modernity, it is surely the Peruvian Amazon. The plants keep growing, the river keeps flowing and we can only hope that change, when it comes, keeps sloth time.