Aria to the Ama­zon

A jun­gle voy­age in Peru pro­vides adventures aplenty

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

UN­LIKE the first sight­ing, which may well have been a branch, this is def­i­nitely a sloth. In a dead tree high above us, its parabola body sways in a con­spic­u­ously sloth-like (as op­posed to branch-like) man­ner.

Nat­u­ral­ist Julio Mozam­bite is de­lighted with our find but also mildly as­ton­ished. ‘‘That’s the most ac­tive sloth I have ever seen,’’ he mar­vels.

It’s the star sight­ing of what is, frankly, an un­der­whelm­ing wildlife count. This is, af­ter all, the world’s largest trop­i­cal rain­for­est — heart­land of global diver­sity and home to 10 per cent of the world’s species.

The epiphany of the Ama­zon is not the abun­dance of wildlife but its in­vis­i­bil­ity. Dur­ing four days cruis­ing the Peru­vian edge of the basin I see a hand­ful of mon­keys, a dead snake, sev­eral species of birds, many pi­ranha, some pink river dol­phins and one sloth (or pos­si­bly two).

The pal­try an­i­mal count makes sense when you see the Ama­zon up close. This is no land­scaped zoo­log­i­cal set­ting but a wild, im­pen­e­tra­ble world where terra notso-firma and swaths of for­est are de­voured by a gi­gan­tic tor­rent that rises an av­er­age of 12m in the wet sea­son.

Any crea­ture with a keen sur­vival in­stinct would dwell well away from the very river­banks where we’re search­ing for signs of life. For­tu­nately there are am­ple nonan­i­mal dis­trac­tions to make the jour­ney worth­while.

The Ama­zon River un­furls across seven South Amer­i­can na­tions but Peru of­fers the most pam­pered tour­ing op­tions. Aqua Ex­pe­di­tions, es­tab­lished in 2007, pi­o­neered lux­ury wilder­ness cruis­ing and of­fers itin­er­ar­ies aboard the 24-pas­sen­ger MVAqua and the 36-pas­sen­ger MV Aria. Both de­part from the fron­tier jun­gle cap­i­tal of Iquitos, a city of 400,000 res­i­dents and stran­gling hu­mid­ity ac­ces­si­ble only by river (the At­lantic is 3700km to the east) or air (a 90-minute flight north­east from Lima).

Wereach the port in dark­ness and ride ten­ders to Aria, a glass palace con­spic­u­ous both for its megawatt glow and its strik­ing ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign. Aria’s 16 in­dul­gent suites com­bine in­dige­nous ma­te­ri­als such as hard­wood huayruro floors and Peru­vian cot­ton sheets with Ital­ian­designed bath­rooms and an en­tire wall of glass to cap­ture ev­ery nu­ance of light, land, wa­ter and sky.

On board­ing, we’re treated to the first of sev­eral ex­tra­or­di­nary tast­ing menus de­vised by Pe­dro Miguel Schi­affino, the star Peru­vian chef whose pas­sion for fus­ing rain­for­est foods with haute cui­sine pro­duces such de­li­cious nov­el­ties as a ‘‘tofu’’ of palm hearts paired with ar­moured cat­fish roe and a sashimi-like tira­dito with Fruit Tingle lime dress­ing.

When not graz­ing in the glass-walled din­ing room, laz­ing on the sun­deck, at­tend­ing lec­tures or per­haps a towel- art demon­stra­tion ( make your own sloth), frater­nising with fel­low cruis­ers at the bar or day­dream­ing through af­ter­noon sies­tas, pas­sen­gers join thricedaily ex­pe­di­tions by sk­iff to ex­plore the fa­mous river at closer quar­ters.

On the first dawn out­ing we mo­tor past tow­er­ing trees that teeter at the edge of dis­solv­ing river­banks. A pink dol­phin sur­faces nearby to re­lease a puff of air from its blow­hole. A wake of vul­tures picks silently over a car­cass on the nearby mud­flats.

Mozam­bite leaps to his feet. ‘‘Mono! Mono! Mono! Mono!’’ he cries. A troop of dusky titi and squir­rel mon­keys (mono in the lo­cal di­alect) dis­turb the canopy over­head.

Each an­i­mal en­counter in­spires a nat­u­ral his­tory anec­dote from our ex­citable guide. Dusky titis en­twine their tails at night for se­cu­rity. The dol­phin’s pink colour­ing comes from veins that mesh its thin epi­der­mis. Sloths

Take in stun­ning views from the MV Aria deck

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