It starts as a trickle of spring water from a rock face high in the Peruvian Andes. This is the source of the Amazon River, and all that marks the spot is a white wooden cross. Some 4,000 miles away, the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean at a rate of 55 million gallons a second – that’s more water than the next seven largest independent rivers combined.
I grew up in the desert, where rivers are things you can throw a pebble across. As I stand on the riverside promenade in Iquitos, taking my first look at the muddy brown water, I can’t help but think there should be a different word to describe it. 'River' just isn't enough.
This is the Amazon, the largest river on the planet. Although it flows through six countries, its source (and 16 percent of the entire basin) lies in Peru. And in many ways, the Peruvian Amazon continues to exist on the edges of the map.
Iquitos, gateway to the Amazon
Belen neighborhood of Iquitos — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
The Amazon River Basin comprises some 14,000 miles of navigable waterways. It’s Mother Nature’s highway system, where dugout canoes and river barges take the place of cars and 18-wheelers. For the nearly 900,000 people who live in Peru’s Loreto region, the Amazon serves as a highway, food source and livelihood, whether in shipping, tourism, oil and gas or agriculture.
My journey into the Peruvian Amazon begins and end in Iquitos. This city of several hundred thousand people sits on the banks of the river – the world’s largest city inaccessible by road. Tuk tuks and cars buzz through its busy streets, past tiled mansions built during the rubber boom of the late 19th century. A single two-lane highway connects Iquitos and Nauta, some 46 miles away. If you’re heading out for a weekend joyride, this is as far as you can go by car.
It’s in this perplexing Amazonian metropolis where we board the Zafiro, Exodus Travels’ 19-cabin luxury river vessel that’s been sailing the waters of the Peruvian Amazon since 2015.
The Zafiro, chartered by Exodus Travels — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
Into the wilds, without roughing it
Many a traveler, upon hearing the word 'Amazon,' likely imagines mosquitos, stifling humidity, giant bugs and muddy boots. While these are all realities of the tropical climate, the Zafiro provides an oasis of air conditioning, spacious ensuite bathrooms, and floor-to-ceiling windows in every cabin, where you can watch the world go by in cool comfort.
Guests can sip pisco sours in a climate-controlled lounge or al fresco on the observation deck (complete with its own whirlpool tub), squeeze in a workout in the small onboard gym, or get a massage between skiff excursions, rainforest hikes, piranha fishing sessions and visits to local villages.
Traditional Peruvian ceviche, made from Amazon River fish — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
The Zafiro provisions from local communities when possible, which not only supports the economy in the Amazon, but gives passengers the opportunity to sample local ingredients, like the cloudy pink juice of the camu camu, ceviche made from fresh-caught river fish, and a variety of hot peppers blended into fresh and fiery sauces.
There are no TVs and no Wi-Fi aboard this floating hotel. Instead, I take this rare moment to unplug and soak up the spectacle of the rainforest as the Zafiro plies the waters of the Amazon, as well as its Ucayali and Marañon tributaries, transporting us deep into the heart of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.
The circle of life
Pacaya-Samiria, the jewel of the Peruvian Amazon, covers 8,042 square miles, about 1.5 percent of Peru’s surface. This vast expanse lies between the Pacaya and Samiria rivers and is known as the "Mirrored Jungle" for the way the foliage reflects off the still black waters of its streams and tributaries.
The rainforest here ranks among the most biodiverse on the planet, with 449 species of birds, 102 mammals, 69 reptiles, 256 fish, 58 amphibians and more than 1,200 plants.
The glassy black waters give this region the nickname "Mirrored Jungle" — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
A cursory scan of the landscape reveals a sea of greens and browns, but look closer and the diversity begins to reveal itself. Pink and gray river dolphins break the river’s glassy surface for a breath of air, a brown-throated three-toed sloth lingers over a meal of young leaves at the top of a kapok tree and troops of common squirrel monkeys leap through the foliage (their presence made known by their high-pitched squeaks). And then there are the birds. So many birds.
Dozens of great and snowy egrets take flight as we zip by in a skiff, while kites, vultures, hawks and caracaras soar overhead in search of their next meal. Bobbing beneath the jungle canopy reveals even more winged creatures flitting from branch to branch.
There’s an undeniable thrill to spotting the bright feathers of a scarlet macaw through the branches, the distinctive bill of a toucan or the mohawk-like "haircut' of the hoatzin roosting in a tree. It’s the ultimate scavenger hunt that will make a bird watcher out of the least interested.
My personal checklist includes 38 species before breakfast on day one. By the end of the week, it’s well over a hundred. But I had help.
"That’s a juvenile macaw, perched," says Segundo, a naturalist aboard the Zafiro, his ear toward the jungle and his eyes scanning the treetops through a pair of Nikon binoculars. Where most of us grew up with the sounds of car engines and TV sets, Segundo grew up with the sounds of the jungle, and his ability to identify a bird species (and often its age and sex) based on its call borders on supernatural.
Segundo, a naturalist aboard the Zafiro — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
He’s also quite the caiman wrestler.
The jungle by night
It’s dark. Segundo and his fellow naturalists, Edgar and Juan, scan the waters with spotlights, illuminating quick flashes of fishing bats swooping toward the water, as they look for treacherous debris and the red glow that indicates an eye in the night.
Segundo’s light stops; he’s spotted something my city eyes are unable to perceive. The boat slows and he gets down on his belly, face hanging over the front of the boat. He puts a finger to his lips, asking for our silence, just moments before his hand plunges into the water. When he stands back up, he has a young spectacled caiman in his hand. This cousin of the alligator is known for its strong jaws and sharp teeth, but both caiman and naturalist leave the encounter unscathed.
Young spectacled (white) caiman — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt
We make our way down the river for a few minutes, then stop and cut the engines.
The Amazon rainforest does not sleep at night. After the red howler monkeys and horned screamers belt out their final calls of the day, a symphony of tree frogs and Peruvian tree rats take over, filling the night air with sounds that seem impossibly loud coming from such small creatures.
Here, surrounded by darkness and enveloped by the sounds of the Amazon, floating on what is but a tiny spot in the larger river basin, I can feel the immensity, and the majesty, of this planet we call home.
It’s a clear night, the Milky Way spills across the sky above our heads. There’s no moon to illuminate the darkness as we float in silence on the black waters of the Pacaya River. Only the stars reflecting off its surface and the green glow of fireflies blinking in and out all around us break the velvet black. It’s one of the most peaceful moments I’ve ever experienced, but it’s far from silent.