A cruise on one of the most spectacular rivers on Earth takes Mike Unwin into the flooded forest to encounter fascinating fauna and flora
It’s hard to grasp exactly where we are. The map says Peru — specifically the Pacaya Samiria National Park — and it was certainly from Peru’s ‘jungle capital’ Iquitos that we set out a few nights ago, slipping across the dark waters through a blizzard of insects to our illuminated cruise ship. But this morning, as our skiff noses deeper into the flooded forest, all I can see is a wall of green. And this greenery, the same map tells us, extends unbroken across the notional borders of at least five nations.
In short, we’re in the Amazon, the world’s greatest rainforest and arguably the most unnavigable wilderness left on the planet. Certainly not a place in which to get lost. And, without a boat, neither is it a place to get very far. For a start, these riverbanks of towering greenery soon turn out not be banks at all. At the end of the high-water season the Amazon Basin is flooded for some 135,000sq miles: an area larger than the UK. It’s not so much a forest, then, as a vast lake full of trees, their trunks rising directly from the water.
We explore deeper. Above us, the canopy is a cathedral of infinitely complex green limbs festooned in lianas and epiphytes (climbing plants). At our bows, the water is stained a murky sepia by the drowned vegetation. Logs borne on barely perceptible currents nudge against our hull, while forest lawns turn out to be floating mats of water lettuce, each bearing a menagerie of frogs and spiders. On one such mat we see the imprint of a large anaconda that had lain coiled there moments earlier — quickly scotching the idea of a dip for anyone as yet undeterred by the piranhas and electric eels.
This vast rainforest is, famously, the most biodiverse habitat on the planet. But it does not give up its secrets easily and we do a lot of fruitless staring upwards. Thankfully Victor, our guide, knows all the clues: sibilant alarm calls that betray tiny saddle-backed tamarins or shaking foliage that announces red howler monkeys. At one clearing we follow his pointing finger to a spindly cecropia tree, from which a three-toed sloth is descending in slow motion. Each long arm clutches in turn at the humid air before securing its grappling-hook grip on the next branch down.
Birds are everywhere: kingfishers dash up and down the waterways, toucans lurch overhead and blue-and-gold macaws screech unseen from the treetops. We even spy a hoatzin: a prehistoric-looking, spiky-crested species that is one of the jungle’s weirder inhabitants. Victor explains how youngsters are born with claws on their wings and how adults, because they process fermenting leaves in their alimentary canal, stink perpetually of compost.
Best, though, are the Amazon river dolphins. Known locally as botos, these striking pink cetaceans use powerful echolocation to track down fish in the murk. Their appearance around the boat is always a surprise: sometimes announced by a splash, at others by a sigh-like exhalation, but invariably behind us, allowing a tantalising glimpse but no time to reach for a camera.
After each excursion by skiff, we return to the air-conditioned comforts of our cruise ship to continue on our journey. On day three we reach the confluence of the Maranon and Ucayali, the birthplace of the Amazon proper. Here we are surprised to meet log rafts floating downriver, bearing their ramshackle cargos of passengers, bananas and chickens. We wave our greetings from the sun deck, pisco sour cocktails in hand.
Even more surprising is the small river community of Puerto St Miguel. So people actually live in this wilderness? We tie up beside a line of dugout canoes and wander among huts perched on stilts. A game of football hurtles past on a pitch half mud and half water, while women gather to sell jewellery, bowls and other curios. Picking up a balsa-wood jaguar, I glance at the wall of green behind and wonder just what other secrets the forest is guarding.