“Tomorrow morning, please dress in full jungle attire.”
An urban resident for 55-plus years, my wardrobe is sorely lacking in such outfits — I’m familiar only with the concrete jungle. But here in the Amazon rainforest in northeast Peru, it’s the daily request of Renzo, our expedition leader.
On our first excursion on a skiff on the Ucayali River, which merges with the Maranon River to form the Amazon, we already hit paydirt: a pod of pink and gray dolphins frolicking in an oxbow lake. More dolphins than I’ve ever seen before in the wild are doing somersaults next to us in the mocha-colored water. Dolphins are common here because natives don’t hunt them, believing them to be spirits who turn human under the full moon and harm villagers.
Next we spot hoatzins, birds who climb and hop but rarely fly. Chicken-sized, they have bright red eyes surrounded by blue skin and a crest of long, spiky feathers topping their heads.
Our first monkey sighting is the saddle-backed tamarins, whose backs are covered by yellow-gray “saddles.” These are monkeys with feminist leanings whose males do most of the child-rearing.
The Amazon jungle, which accounts for half the world’s moist rainforest, has more varieties of animals and plants than anywhere else on earth. Nearly one-fourth of the world’s plants — about 60,000 species out of roughly 250,000 — grow here. Peru’s Manu National Park in the Amazon boasts more bird species than the entire United States. With more than 1,800 bird species, Peru has more types of birds than any other country in the world except Colombia. It’s also the No. 1 country for butterfly species, with more than 3,700 different kinds.
The world’s biggest river system, the Amazon, starts in Peru and ends in Brazil at the Atlantic Ocean, covering 40 percent of South America. The river and its tributaries produce such a staggering amount of water, the flow into the Atlantic in one day is said to be enough to supply water to New York City.
Our week-long voyage with International Expeditions on an old-fashioned-looking wooden riverboat with a dragon figurehead soon settles into an easy routine. After breakfast, a morning ride on the skiff to explore. Then, a lunch of Peruvian specialties in the dining room, where floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the Amazon. Time to read or relax, then an afternoon skiff ride. A lecture often follows.
This isn’t a party-hearty cruise with a casino, and fellow passengers include avid bird-watchers and two sets of grandparents who’ve brought their grandkids, ages 9 and 13. One grandfather is a former Oxford University professor who lives in Austin.
“Happy hour” means time for Pisco Sours, Peru’s national cocktail, while a band performs Latin American songs on guitars, keyboards and drums. The band looks familiar — no wonder, they’re our cabin housekeepers — but is so talented, I fervently hope they will trade origami towel-folding and fanatically cleaning our bathrooms several times a day for careers as musicians.
Our fauna and flora count keeps piling up. In Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, we marvel at gigantic water lily pads — almost 6 feet wide — and their purple, pink or white flowers, named Victoria Regina in honor of Queen Victoria. We pass a “meadow” of lavender water hyacinths, red lobster-claw heliconias and candlestick gingers.
Our guides’ cries alert us to squirrel monkeys, small and furry with wide round eyes accented by white “spectacles”; capuchin monkeys, named because of the “caps” atop their heads; and spider monkeys, whose elongated legs and arms and sitting-down position makes them look terribly human. Sloths hang upside-down from trees and leave them only once a week, we hear.
A flash of blue and gold through the air signals a flock of macaws. Jewel-like hummingbirds are spotted only by the passengers clutching binoculars. We hear and see “car alarm” birds, so called due to their oscillating cry, and horned screamers, called “donkey birds” for their bray-like calls.
One day, we fish for piranhas, notorious for their razor-sharp teeth. Most of the guests are reeling them in using meat as bait, whooping and hollering. But they’re small, so there’s no piranha for dinner.
One night, we’re on the skiff to hear what our guide calls the “jungle symphony.” We watch multitudes of fireflies illuminate the pitch-dark night, and look at tiny tree frogs he scoops up — it’s hard to believe a creature an inch long causes so much din — and a baby caiman, an alligator-like creature that will soon outgrow its cuteness and reach 3 to 4 yards long.
A shaman, or medicine man, in a village of river people (“ribereños”) of mixed European and indigenous ancestry gives all of us a blessing, chanting and blowing smoke above our heads. He also shows us four bottles of potions, one the famous “ayahuasca,” a hallucinogenic brew that both Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs experienced.
Ribereños fish and farm yucca, plantains, bananas, breadfruit and other tropical fruits, and live in palm thatched-roof huts along the Amazon. In one village, we donate school supplies and see the water-treatment plant built by International Expeditions so villagers will have pure water, both for health reasons and to reduce the incentive for logging by encouraging them to make more foods to sell.
On our last day on the Amazon, we glimpse a family of capybaras, who resemble goofy-looking hamsters over a yard long, swimming and hanging out in the jungle.
Some nights on our riverboat, a sunset streaks the sky with pink, orange and purple, stretching across the limitless horizon. Not one thing created by man fills the vast sky.
I spend my downtime reading a book on our recommended reading list, “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice,” by Mark Plotkin, an ethnobotanist who studied healing plants in the Amazon. I’d once met the author at a talk in the United States where he described the work of the Amazon Conservation Team, a U.S.-based nonprofit he now heads. The group has set up shaman’s apprentice programs to pass on medicinal plant wisdom from native healers before it dies out, and teaches tribes to map the Amazon jungle using GPS technology to protect against deforestation and help in securing their land rights.
“People often ask how I can deal with the heat, mosquitoes and corruption in some South American countries,” Plotkin said. “I remind them I grew up in New Orleans.”
On our final night, we watch a photo presentation of all the birds we’ve seen. We’ve traveled 700 miles and seen 142 bird species. The memories are countless.