The caiman’s eyes shine like LEDs in the torchlight. He freezes, head just above the water, unaware that our searching beam has revealed his hiding place among the debris on the muddy bank. We close in and I pounce. Snatching the deadly reptile behind the neck, I heave him into the boat.
“Very good,” says Roland, my guide, clearly pleased at my crocodile wrestling skills, “as you can see, this little guy is just a few months old. Mum is probably not far away.”
Okay, okay. In truth the 40cm baby black caiman was easily plucked from the bank and barely made a squeak. The blue tongue and stumpy tail lizards of my childhood were ferocious monsters by comparison. After a short lesson in reptile anatomy from Roland, our caiman is delicately placed back on the bank and quickly scurries away to find a new hiding place.
Like our own crocodiles, the young caiman fend for themselves after just a few months, hunting frogs and small fish. While not truly threatened, Amazon caiman populations are still dependent on conservation to help them recover from earlier over-hunting.
Here in the Pacaya Samiria Reserve deep in Peru’s Amazon rainforest the luxury river vessel, MV Aqua, transports inquisitive, adventure seeking passengers in total comfort along such evocatively named tributaries of the Amazon as the Yarapa (turtle), Yanayacu (blackwater) and Ucayali (canoe breaker) and home to more species of fish than the entire Atlantic Ocean. How’s this? One third of all species in the world live in the Amazon Rainforest, including over 500 species of catfish alone!
Almost the size of Sicily, the reserve tries to protect the sensitive biodiversity within its nominal borders. Poaching and illegal harvesting is rife among the poor Ribereňos (River) families looking to feed their average of six children. To assist the protection of the reserve, Aqua Expeditions work with nearly 300 local communities to reinforce the importance of sustainability. Villagers are often drafted as volunteer rangers in exchange for manageable fishing and farming rights. Hunting is forbidden.
In the wet season (Nov-Feb), the river level rises over 9m, flooding almost the entire reserve. This seasonal influx forms a várzea (freshwater swamp forest) and the wildlife, particularly mammals are easier to find. In the dry season, like now, the river levels are so low some of the locals are dragging their canoes through the mud. There’s a flip side to each season though. In the wet, there are more mosquitoes to contend with when ashore and while navigation is certainly more difficult in the dry, hikes are more rewarding and the fishing is a breeze.
One of the fun distractions on any Amazon cruise is piranha fishing. These little blighters are voracious and can smell our tiny slivers of Argentinean sirloin a mile away. The tackle is simple, just a piece of line tied to a stick with a little sinker and hook. Agitate the water with the tip of your stick before dropping in the bait and the razor-toothed rascals are onto you in a flash. You almost need to creep ashore and bait your hook behind a tree. Of the 35 known species, the short-nosed, red bellied piranha is the nastiest little brute in the family. His katana-sharp fangs are clearly visible and snap noisily in protest when he’s hoisted aboard. Good eating? Sure, deep fry him whole and pick the light flesh off with your fingers or a small fork.
Unsurprisingly, the cuisine aboard MV Aqua features many dishes using the produce of the jungle like heart-of-palm soup, camu-camu fruit and the ubiquitous and delicious catfish. The soft, moist white flesh lends itself to numerous dishes and works perfectly with the rainforest-harvested wild tomatoes and kumera. House wine and beer is included with meals and no one gets up feeling hungry.
The vessel itself, while not a feat of glamorous marine engineering, is perfectly in keeping with the many traditional vessels we encounter on the river. Barges, skiffs, canoes and dinghies of all forms make up the local river fleet and their design brief is clearly based on function. MV Aqua’s capacity is just 24 passengers in 12 spacious air-conditioned suites, each with quality amenities, fittings and furniture. Common areas are generous and dining is akin to an intimate restaurant environment. Tables can be arranged for couples, families or groups as you wish. In 2011, Aqua Expeditions launch a slightly larger second vessel, MV Aria, on similar 3- to 7-night voyages. Depending on the total length of your stay, four nights is enough.
Beyond tracking capybara, caiman and iguana in the vast Amazonian expanses, there are several opportunities to visit local communities and native villages. On one occasion, Roland takes us shopping in the markets at the little port town of Nauta and, laden with fruit, fish and vegetables, we turn up on the doorstep of a shanty family for an unannounced visit. This little heart-warming gesture leaves our small group glowing momentarily, but tomorrow we know they’ll be back to square one. Sustainable tourism is growing in the region and beginning to bring benefits to these isolated populations, but there is still a long way to go. Aqua Expeditions, at least, are holding up their end of the bargain.
Aqua Expeditions operate 3-, 4- and 7-night journeys departing Iquitos, Peru. Prices start from $2250 per person twin-share for the 3-night expedition. Includes all excursions, meals, house wine and local beers. Gratuities are extra. Bring binoculars, camera with long lens, tropical strength insect repellent, sunscreen, sun hat and light, long-sleeved shirts. Don't forget village donations like exercise books, pencils and clean used clothing.
For bookings or further information, contact Scenic Tours on 1300 723 642
LAN Airlines flies six times weekly from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, and offers service to over 50 destinations in 10 South-American countries. From Santiago, LAN flies daily to Lima, Peru, and on to Iquitos. For more information visit www.lan.com or call 1800 221 572.
Learn more about Peru.
-The writer was a guest of LAN and Aqua Expeditions.
About The Expeditionist
Roderick Eime has spent his whole life getting lost and the last two decades doing it professionally. From 4WD journeys across Australia to icebreakers in the polar seas, Rod isn't happy unless he's wondering where he is. In his quest to find oblivion, he's sailed all five oceans and many of the great rivers reporting for magazines and newspapers but has yet to fall off the edge of the world.