Noel and I had wanted to visit the Amazon since our first trip to Peru in August 2007 when we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, flew in a small plane over the Nazca Lines, and toured Lake Titicaca and the incredible markets in Puno. We were in Peru when the 2007 earthquake, registering 8.0 on the Richter amazonscale, shook a good portion of the southern part of the country. However, our knowledge of what comprises “the Amazon” was abysmal. In simple terms, it is not just a huge river flowing through a rainforest. It is a huge river basin with two large rivers, the Marañón and the Ucayali and their tributaries, that join a bit east of the Peruvian town of Nauta to become the Amazon River flowing eastward through a small section of southern Col0mbia into Brazil and finally emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The origin of the Marañón and the Ucayali rivers is the Andes with its winter snows melting and feeding into the rivers’ tributaries.
The current leading geological theory of the river’s history places its origin as a transcontinental river about 11 million years ago when it flowed west as part of a proto-Congo River system that started from the interior of what is now Africa. It is believed that the continents of Africa and South America were joined as part of a mega-continent called Gondwanaland (the southern half of the supercontinent Pangea). As a result of plate tectonics, the South American plate had started breaking away from the African plate about 150 million years ago.
As the South Atlantic Ocean formed, the South American plate continued its westward movement. 15 million years ago the Andes arose when the South American plate collided with the Nazca plate. The emergence of the Andes blocked the river and caused the westward flowing water to become a huge inland sea that evolved into an enormous swampy, freshwater lake in what we now call the Amazon Basin. Eventually, give or take a million years, the lake water seeped through sandstone and began to flow again but eastward in the opposite direction.
During the Ice Ages which began 2.4 million years ago sea levels dropped with the formation of glaciers, thus draining the lake and forming what is now the eastward flowing Amazon River. The Amazon rainforest emerged from all of this activity. Over time the marine life in the lake adapted to living in freshwater.
Our journey aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ Delfin II explored the upper Amazon Basin between the Marañón and Ucayali rivers and their tributaries and went as far east to where the two rivers merge to become the Amazon River. The area between the rivers is the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, the second largest government protected land in Peru. The co-sponsor of our expedition was National Geographic.
We arrived very early on a Saturday morning in Lima after an all-night flight from Chicago via Atlanta on Delta Airlines. We walked across the street from the airport to the Wyndham Hotel where we were booked to stay that night. Fortunately, we were able to have access to our room and breakfast that morning for an extra $65. I was afraid we might have to hang out in the bar all day until the 3:30 pm check-in time.
I have to say that Peru is very strict about COVID protocols. Everybody in the airport and the hotel was masked up and we had to show negative COVID test results to the desk clerk. Late that afternoon we underwent more PCR COVID testing with results available later that evening.
Dark clouds were hanging low when we left early Sunday morning on the short flight to Iquitos, an urban area of about 500,000 people located on the Great Plains of the Amazon Basin. Iquitos is the largest metropolis in the Peruvian Amazon and the largest city in the world inaccessible by road. You can only get there by air or by water.
I would have liked to have spent some time in Iquitos which has a very interesting history particularly during the era of the rubber boom that took place in the 1860’s up through the 1920’s. However, Lindblad and National Geographic had eliminated all visits to local communities as part of their COVID protocols. As an avid collector of folk art with an intense interest in different cultures, I was very disappointed to be isolated for the most part from the local Amazon population. Nevertheless, I do remember saying to our daughter before we left that the local Amazon folks would find some way to sell us their handicrafts, even if they have to paddle out to our ship to do it. I was not entirely wrong.
From Iquitos we boarded a bus to the town of Nauta where our ship awaited us. In Nauta we noticed how flooded the streets were. In the Amazon Basin there are only two seasons, the wet season roughly from November into April and the dry season roughly from May into October. The seasons are determined by the snow melt from the Andes. We were traveling in January which is summer south of the equator, ergo snow melting, ergo wet season.
There also seems to be more rain in the wet season. Apparently, there had been a significant rain storm the night before which caused a lot of flooding and heavy mud in the streets. Our bus got seriously stuck in the mud outside the elegant Lindblad VIP lounge on the riverbank, but folks there know how to deal with mud just like folks in Maine know how to deal with snow. As a “Mainer,” I can say that with some authority. The rain started up again before dinner but didn’t interfere with anything.
The bar onboard the ship was great and Richard the bartender on this cruise was terrific. He also seemed to be in charge of the dining room. We were heartened to learn that most liquor was included with the cost of the cruise. When I was introduced to Pisco sours on our 2007 visit to Peru, I wasn’t really crazy about them. I remember their being a bit bland, but not this time. Richard made a Pisco sour convert out of me.
Noel and I had booked a stateroom at the bow of the ship on the main deck. The view of the river from our room was amazing with panoramic windows on two sides.
By the end of the day, we had become somewhat well acquainted with our 8 fellow passengers. The ship can accommodate up to 26. We were all Americans, senior citizens in some state of retirement, reasonably well-off and well-traveled. I’m guessing the ratio of crew to passengers on this voyage was at least 3:1. We had experienced a similar ratio on our Danube cruise in September 2021 and loved it, one of the few positives of traveling during COVID.
The next day was Monday and we began our first exploration at 8 am in two skiffs, small river boats that hold roughly a dozen passengers and a one- or two-person crew. The mother ship, the Delfin II, was moored on the Ucayali River while we explored Clavero Lake, a small bay off the river, in the skiffs.
At the entrance to the lake, we spotted several pink and gray dolphins feeding off a school of fish. I remember first hearing about pink dolphins in India when I was on the Brahmaputra River but I never saw any. Apparently, they are very endangered in India. That’s not quite the case in the Amazon Basin, but the Amazonian pink dolphins definitely face their challenges. Both pink dolphins are remotely related.
The pink and gray river dolphins that we saw that morning are examples of animals that originally evolved in the salt water of the ocean but adapted to fresh water as their environment changed. The Amazon pink dolphin is the largest species of river dolphin with the males weighing in at over 400 lbs. and reaching well over 6’ in length. The gray dolphin is much smaller at less than 5’ long and weighs about 110 lbs. It congregates in groups and frequently jumps up out of the water.
Apparently, all kinds of Amazonian legends have emerged about pink dolphins. They are believed to be shape-shifters, males changing into handsome fishermen at night who seduce and impregnate young girls and females turning into beautiful young women who seduce married men and then place babies into the wombs of the men’s wives.
Each skiff had a naturalist on board who pointed out the exotic (to us) birds and animals mostly high up in the trees along the banks of the lake. I had brought an older digital camera with limited zoom ability as well as my trusty phone camera and a pair of older binoculars, none of which were really adequate to shoot or observe up close the birds and animals being pointed out to us by the naturalist on our skiff.
Photography is not really my calling. I only use it to illustrate what I’m writing about, so I was somewhat frustrated at first, but then I adjusted to the sounds, sights and movements of the life around us and was able to relax and enjoy our water sojourns. Much of the life we observed like the dolphins, monkeys and birds moved so fast that the effort involved in capturing their images took away some of the pleasure of just being in their world for a little while.
We passed a human settlement on the lake. Even though the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve is a protected area, residents are allowed to stay in their villages. 100,000 people live in over 200 communities along the boundaries of the reserve. The government is attempting to meet the needs of the human population by integrating it into the work of preserving the natural world. For example, some folks are engaged in hatching turtle eggs, others in sustainable fishing, and, of course, tourism. Rangers can’t be everywhere and work with local folks to discourage poaching. No doubt the restrictions necessitated by the COVID pandemic have put a strain on these efforts.
In the late afternoon we went on another skiff tour in another lake that borders the Ucayali. We had spotted a sloth on our morning tour, but the creature was too far away to make much of an impression even with high-powered binoculars. However, this time we located a female sloth hanging from a very visible branch and she even started slowly moving. One of the naturalists pointed out the nests of the russet-backed oropendola bird hanging like fruit from many of the trees along the shoreline of the lake.
On Tuesday morning we had an early skiff ride before breakfast along the banks of the Ucayali River. We experienced a pretty intense rain storm, but the crew had outfitted us with heavy ponchos to keep us dry. The river was totally brown with sediments. Later in the week we would be given an opportunity to swim with the dolphins, but I wasn’t thrilled about swimming in brown river water.
On this skiff tour and on the subsequent ones later in the week, I focused my attention on the life close to us along the riverbanks that I could easily see. For example, we saw several clusters of very small bats hanging off nearby tree trunks and a brush-tailed rat peeking out from its hole in a tree trunk. It was interesting to note the high-water marks of the river from the discoloration of the tree trunks and other vegetation along the river bank. The depth of the river can vary dramatically by more than 20 meters or 65’. Many of the residences and encampments are on stilts because of the flooding.
After breakfast our expedition leader Carlos Romero Franco gave us a presentation about the primates in the Amazon Basin. This was followed by a delightful talk and tasting of the fruits of the region by Carlos and Jorge, one of the naturalists. I should point out that the food on board was excellent and included lots of locally caught fish as well as regional fruits and vegetables.
We were offered an opportunity to kayak in the afternoon on the El Dorado River. I would have liked to, but Noel has serious back issues so we opted out. We did take advantage of a late afternoon skiff ride before dinner that overlapped with the sunset, so we could experience some of the night creatures, caimans in particular. I was quite amazed at the ability of our naturalist guides to spot caimans by just noticing their eyes flashing when our guides scanned the riverbank with a light. We also paused for several minutes to listen to the night sounds.
We had a late dinner that ended as usual with a wonderful dessert. This evening it was a tiramisu. The pastry chef was fantastic and everything, including an amazing assortment of rolls and bread, were all made on board. The platings of each course were always elegant. The tables were also decorated with local hand-woven straw handicrafts that changed every day.
We finally made it to bed after a long day, but I had a terrible time sleeping because the noise of the boat’s engine was so loud and emitted such strong vibrations. The ship seemed to be stuck in some deep mud where it had been tied up on the river bank. I learned later that boats don’t anchor in place in this kind of river system. They are literally run aground and tied up to tree stumps and other objects on the shoreline. Anchors don’t work in this kind of a river. The next time we book a cruise I’ll have to check out the location of our stateroom so we’re not sitting right over the engine room.
On Wednesday morning we had another early start in the skiffs, this time on the Río Pacaya to Yanayacu Lake. The journey started with the usual sightings of fascinating creatures too far away for me to shoot, including the very interesting crested hoatzin bird.
As we emerged from the river into the lake, we were suddenly greeted by hundreds of white egrets flocking everywhere on this small island in the middle of the lake. We had spotted lone white egrets before from the skiffs, but the sheer number of these wonderful birds was an astounding sight. Accompanying the egrets were dozens of cormorants roosting overhead in the small trees and bushes. It’s still not clear to me why all these amazing birds were congregated there. It probably had something to do with food. It was a sight I will never forget.
From the skiffs we saw many small tourist lodgings that looked quite attractive, simple thatched roofed cottages high up on the riverbanks, many on stilts. The local mode of transportation of choice is the dugout canoe motorized by small and very noisy gasoline engines jerry-rigged with long propellers that skim the surface of the water, rather than rotating below, thus enabling the canoes to be used during the dry season when the water is not very deep. The local fishermen make use of old plastic bottles to anchor their nets. The muddy riverbanks are pockmarked with holes made by catfish to shelter their eggs when the water is high.
After each morning sojourn on the skiffs, I started looking forward to returning to our stateroom to see what kind of sculpture the cabin cleaner would make with the day’s clean towels on our bed. One morning it was a dolphin, on another day a mermaid.
On Thursday we celebrated the Amazon Confluence, the meeting of the Ucayali and Marañón to form the Amazon River. The celebration basically consisted of a toast and having our picture taken with the ship’s captain. The Amazon is the largest river in the world, only rivaled by the Nile which is the longest.
One afternoon at Noel’s recommendation, I had a great massage. However, a terrible thunderstorm blew through while I was dozing on the table. Afterwards, I learned that the storm had caused a major leak in the stateroom directly above ours. We had some seepage but that was it. According to our friends in the flooded stateroom, the crew had their room back in shape in no time with no harm done.
We passed up the afternoon skiff tour and just hung out in the bar reading and watching life flow by on the river. I understand that normally we would probably have had the opportunity to spend a half day in an indigenous village talking to folks and buying handicrafts but not with COVID. We did have a chance to watch the crew tie the ship up with a rope to a tree stump after the captain had run it aground. Tying and untying the ship can be a very hazardous job.