There are rainforests and there are jungles. Scientists will tell you that they are one and the same, that ‘jungle’ is a superfluous, colonial-era descriptor that is best left to the diaries and novels of adventurers and romantics. I have been to countless rainforests. I have admired their polite eco-systems, walked the 90-minute trail to the obligatory ancient tree or waterfall and have happily gone on my way, content but never challenged. That was not the case on my visit to the deepest reaches of the Amazon, a place so impenetrable, unpredictable and not yet fully understood that it truly deserves the evocative title of jungle. As the environmental degradation that comes with development and speculation continues its inexorable climb up the mighty river, to witness nature at its most powerful is to travel closer to its heart than ever before. Few are aware that the Amazon exists outside the expansive borders of Brazil but in fact its most pure, scenic and diverse pockets can be found largely beyond the borders of Brazilian development. It is for this reason I find myself travelling to Peru. Though it is best known as the country of roaming llamas and peaks crowned by Incan monuments, a large percentage of this incredibly diverse country is on the other side of the Andes, constituting a significant part of the upper reaches of one of the natural world’s final frontiers. Peru is on a mission to show the world its embarrassment of natural riches and it is now the simplest gateway to experience the Amazon at its near pristine. While the country’s record is not spotless, its efforts to preserve a chunk of the mythic basin relies largely on eco-tourism; in other words, visit it to save it.
Insist on a window seat when flying from Peru’s capital Lima to the Amazon; in impatience I opted for the aisle, and from the moment the plane lifted off from the parched Pacific coastline and began to ascend the Andes, I was rubbernecking. Graciously, my fellow passengers seemed to understand. We sat equally transfixed as plains quickly morphed into highlands, soared into mountains and then dropped away to reveal an endless expanse of deepest, darkest green. We began to circle what seemed to be an impossibly small scar of emerald green, lonely amid the dense vegetation and muddy brown tentacles of river. Once we landed, the humidity invaded the cabin, as the air-conditioning became jets of cold steam labouring against the heat. We are bound for Inkaterra’s Reserva Amazonica lodge near the outpost town Puerto Maldonado in the south.
While technically not part of the Amazon, the south has some of the most untouched tracts of forest and most exuberant wildlife. We arrive mid- afternoon and are collected from the airport by the congenial and mostly local staff of Reserva Amazonica. Inkaterra is Peru’s most established eco-tourism operator and its flagship lodge has been in existence for almost four decades. The lodge has a feeling of history, with a main house of weathered wood and a collection of elegantly simple cabins that seem to fit seamlessly into the wild surrounds. By virtue of the fact that Reserva Amazonica is a veteran of the area, its strength is in its selection of mild to wild adventures on offer, and we quickly plan our next few days with our personal guide. Tomorrow will begin well before dawn, so we settle in for the night not long after dusk. As the light fades, a cacophony reverberates from the surrounding vegetation; at first whistles, then hoots and squawking, followed by mimicry, rustles and deep lingering howls. Welcome to the jungle.
It’s well before dawn and we’re already battling through vegetation-clogged capillaries of the river in a shallow canoe. I’m barely conscious and tuned out as our diminutive guide nonchalantly reels off what begins to appear to me a list of all the ways we could die. Suddenly, I’m very much awake. She points to caimans (a kind of smaller, snappier crocodile) glowering under the murky water, laments that the boa (constrictors!) who visited the cabins last week didn’t stay longer and then begins to describe in graphic detail the tropical diseases carried by the mosquitoes who, as if on cue, have begun to assail us. It is with that last observation that Pablo, our photographer, begins to flail around and release a peal of expletives demonstrating the wonderfully imaginative vocabulary of a modern man of Madrid. “The magazine should be called Vogue Killing,” he mutters. In solidarity with my phobic photographer and trying not to rock the boat further, I hope to elicit some empathy from our guide (who seems just a little too amused) with the query: “Is there perhaps anything you are scared of?” Her brown eyes widen slightly and she steadies herself: “Well, I am very scared of puppy dogs and cows.” We are headed to Lake Sandoval, a major gathering place for wildlife. The lodge never guarantees sightings but on this day, a parade of monkeys, birds and river beasts line up for viewing. Throughout the week, each guide demonstrates a particular skill, honed by experience and affinity with the surrounds; from the slightest leaf movement or ripple in the water, they can spot and name members of the animal kingdom surrounding us. The most vivid and exciting of all are perhaps the macaws. Oversized, haughty and impossibly colourful, they are the drag queens of the parrot world.
It’s a 45-minute walk from the lodge to Reserva Amazonica’s jewel. High in the trees, 90 feet (27m) high to be precise, perches a small cabin built in 2010 that has quickly become the lodge’s signature offering. The whimsical little hut in the trees inspires a yearning to channel Kipling’s Mowgli and see out the days swinging from the trees in a loincloth. After scaling the heights of the canopy, it was time to move on to Hacienda Concepcion, a kind of diffusion line of the lodge – slightly less bespoke but no less comfortable. The Hacienda has a shady past, with a German expat using the location as a kind of tropical disease test lab. One of the more positive legacies of this Western witch doctor is a wonderfully preserved medicinal ‘garden’ in the forest jungle. The variety, adaptability and complexity of the plants are stunning. Para para (up, up!) is the natural forebear to , apparently; an aphrodisiac lure and my numb mouth attest to the powerful properties of a chewable leaf.
From Puerto Maldonado we travel to Iquitos, the most isolated and densely populated city in the Amazon. Iquitos means ‘isolated by water’; the only way to reach it is by boat or plane. Originally accessible only by a three-week journey up the Amazon, this city was the boomtown of rubber in the early 20th century but has long been deserted by the barons. Forced to fend on its own, Iquitos has grown into a strange, exotic hub. Swarms of mopeds roar around the streets and the wilds of the jungle come into port. Far from safe, the city has a lawless atmosphere, a magnet for misfits and eccentrics keen to lose themselves in isolation or via the popular hallucinogen, ayahuasca. The Belén Market that anchors the city is a floating labyrinth and possibly the most exotic marketplace on earth. With the heat, lack of basic infrastructure and shocking sights at every turn, it is not for the faint-hearted. In a few quick minutes, I observe whole turtle carcasses split open, monkeys and parrots chained, piranhas piled high and weird fruits that defy classification. It makes for a surreal and at times confronting spectacle that is a jolting reminder of the wild nature of the Amazon. Iquitos is often skipped over by tourists who embark immediately to the boats that cruise the river. For those who want to experience the unsanitised frontier, it must not be missed.
I had always thought of a holiday on a cruise ship as akin to being trapped on a floating prison: cramped little cells, dire food, a regimented daily constitution and absolutely no say in your company. It was with that prejudice that I boarded the Delfin I but, still charged with the drama of Iquitos, it did not take long to settle into the ship’s languid luxury. The wonderful wood-finished vessel has a capacity for eight guests only and is comfortably appointed with improbably large rooms replete with on-deck jacuzzi. By some act of wizardry, the three meals served on board each day are fresh, creative and often delicious. Most crucially, the crew lets you find your own pace… and space.
Over the week, Pablo has developed an obsession with piranhas. He has visions of being eaten alive by the, frankly, timid little fish. When the opportunity arises to swim in the Amazon, I take my chance to prove once and for all that the little nippers are “more scared of you than you are of them”. We take the canoe out to a safe spot, passing a school of pink dolphins and a giant expanse of water lilies. I admit to momentary apprehension after leaping into the water but it quickly dissolves as we paddle around in the mightiest, most mysterious river of all. Swimming in the Amazon struck from the bucket list. Celebratory passionfruit pisco sours await us on the deck.
I wake to witness dawn on the last day of the journey as the Delfin meanders into port. There is nothing quite like the beginning of the day on the Amazon. As the jungle world wakes up, the trees that line the shore rustle with sloths and monkeys; birds of every hue, size and song dot the sky and the river itself seems alive. It makes one feel quite small, an observer of another world in motion of which you are not really a part. It is vital that it remains so, that we tread lightly and feel the privilege of being invited into this most mysterious and precious jungle.
© Vogue Living, May 2012, Photography Credit: Pablo Zamora