Aria to the Amazon
A jungle voyage in Peru provides adventures aplenty
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