Read Part I here.
I woke up after the second night aboard The Aria so grateful that I was on a four night itinerary — there was no way I’d have been ready to leave the next day! The ship was already beginning to feel like home and I knew I’d soon miss waking up to Amazon floating by my window like a version of a flat screen TV, constantly tuned to National Geographic. The brutal 6am wakeup call that day would allow us to travel by skiffs deep into the Pacaya Ramira Reserve. One of the downsides of traveling the Amazon in the low water season is that the deciduous trees are bare and give the riverbanks a barren look. (An upside is the relative lack of mosquitos — I totaled just one or two scratchy spots throughout the trip.) Not so down this lush tributary.
Once our group — remember, we were named the Chunky Monkeys — started complaining of rumbling stomachs, we tied up the dinghies together and had breakfast bobbing in the water. Aqua Expeditions is all about this kind of unique experience — there’s nothing quite like sipping passionfruit juice while rocking with the slight bob of a boat and watching a hawk swoop overhead. I’d say it was one of my more memorable picnic settings. Soon after taking off again, we heard excited Spanish crackling over the radio. As we joined the other skiffs at the river bank our guide, Neysir, leapt off the boat. Soon, the guides managed to wrestle – and I mean that literally – an anaconda out of its nest along the riverbank. They looked like a couple of kids, which made sense when they revealed to us that anaconda-wrangling was a key component to their boyhood mischief, growing up along these rivers. Sitting in the front seat, feet away from where the anaconda head was thrashing around, I felt I was in a somewhat precarious position. But as the group whooped and cheered, I was swept away in the fun. It was a spectacular sight to see, and a horrible smell to smell.
Eventually we returned the snake to his nest to go about his snake-y business, and continued into the reserve. Again we watched families of monkey play in the trees, and spotted a few sloths curled up like balls in the branches. We found a few caimans lurking in the shallows, but they always slipped beneath the surface before the guide could rush over with a net to repeat their anaconda show. The sky was coated in a thick and stubborn cloud, making for a dramatic and moody setting.
We stopped to fish for piranhas, though blessedly it was a shorter activity than it had been at Heliconia. Once again, I was failed spectacularly to catch even the smallest fish while the rest of the group seemed to be qualifying for the piranha-fishing Olympics. Taking pity on me, Nancy insisted that I pose with one of her catches. “No one will ever know!,” she insisted, which might be true had I not just written it here now.
One of the catches we saved, and fed to a hawk which swooped down and grabbed its lunch so quickly I only caught his hind feathers through my lens. We spotted so many other birds, including a family of colorful macaws and a group of prehistoric looking Mohawk-rockers. For the first time in my life I heard the distinctive call of the howler monkey, and I truly felt for the first time that I was deep in the jungle. In total, it was almost five hours on the skiff – in my opinion, a little long, though perhaps I would have felt differently had the weather been better. Back on The Aria, the rain only picked up in intensity, and after a lovely meal I spent the afternoon siesta time editing photos from Iquitos and the cruise from the comfort of my bed, with the drapes cast open to watch the rainy world float by.
After the afternoon lecture I simply couldn’t bring myself to go on the excursion. Instead I continued working and also hit the treadmill for the second time — it may be small, but that little gym has a world class view! Later I heard I hadn’t missed much – it was more of the same from the morning, with the one moment of excitement being a caiman wrestled from the water and brought onboard in the dark of night. I was slightly bummed I missed that, but I had loved my productive and peaceful time aboard The Aria. I did think the days excursions were a bit repetitive, but they may have been limited by weather.
Again, we were treated to a fantastic tasting menu dinner. I simply could not get over the presentation, the tastes and textures, and infusion of local ingredients that came out course after course. But even more than what was on the table, I enjoyed those sitting around it. The passengers onboard The Aria were some of the most well-traveled people I’d ever met, and I loved taking turns getting to know the various couples, families and friend groups onboard. I was closest, of course, to my new surrogate “moms,” as they had previously dubbed themselves. One of the couples was excited to hear that I have three sisters, as they themselves have three daughters. Reminding me of my own father, the dad said he was offended when people ask him if he wanted boys instead, saying daughters are a blessing. “Plus,” he quipped, “have three pretty girls and you’ll have all the boys you want around.” Have I mentioned I really loved my fellow Aria passengers?
The next morning, I was relieved to see blue skies and see a more active itinerary on the schedule. We started out with a short excursion out to The Black Lake. There, a fleet of dugout canoes commandeered by local village woman were waiting for us. It was a little gimmicky but I enjoyed the chance to practice my Spanish with my local paddling partner, and it is a nice way for Aqua Expeditions to support the local community. Also, getting off the motorized skiff and into a man-powered (or in this case, woman-powered) canoe helped me slow down and appreciate the true pace of The Amazon.
Once our arms were good and sore, we had a chance to swim. And of course by “swim” I mean jump in the water, shriek, and exit back onto the boat immediately. On my previous jungle trip I had passed on the swimming, but when all the other members of the Chunky Monkeys jumped in I just couldn’t be upstaged.
After a quick stop back on The Aria to change, we departed again for a morning jungle walk. I was excited to get back int0 the rainforest on foot. While the sloth-like traveler in me loved sitting on the skiffs and lazily looking in the direction the guide points, I think the best sightings (and photographs!) come from being up close and personal. We were on the hunt for giant water lilies, which had been kind of a letdown on my first jungle trip. Here, not so – they were massive and lush, and situated in an Eden-like clearing in the jungle.
Towards the end of our walk, already feeling fairly satisfied by spottings of bushy black jungle squirrels and blue morpho butterflies, I excitedly called out to the group that I had found a walking stick bug. Our guide was skeptical until he spotted it with his own eyes, at which point his tone turned congratulatory. Perhaps there is a future as a naturalist guide ahead of me yet!
It was a great find, slightly one upped by the small yellow tree boa snake that the guide ahead of us stumbled upon while trying to nab a tree frog. We went running when we heard the excited cries ahead of us, and were rewarded with an up-close look at a coiled, golden-hued serpent.
Though it might seem we had already done enough to fill a full day, after lunch and siesta time we headed out once again. This time our destination was a local village, one of the forty or so Aqua Expeditions rotates between visiting. We were invited, pre-departure, to bring school supplies to the children living there, and we were lucky enough to meet a few of them. The small group shyly introduced themselves and then proceeded to repeat each of our names along with a clap for each syllable, as we introduced ourselves right back.
Broken into small groups, we were each invited into a community members’ home. I always find it fascinating to see how people live around the world. The family I visited had a large wooden house, however for three months of the year, during the peak of the high water season, the entire family is relegated to a small loft in the back of the house – the rest of it is simply flooded. It reminded me greatly of the communities I had seen living along the Tonle Sap river in Cambodia.
As we left, I heard someone asked if we should give our hosts money as a thank you, and the guide replied it was better to support the wife by buying some of her handicrafts — an answer I much appreciated. They village woman had gathered to sell jewelry and other souvenirs, the most creative of which being handmade paintings of The Aria for just 50 soles. I was wildly impressed with their entrepreneurial spirit, and wished I had had enough cash on me to buy one. Instead, I bought simple strings of beads that will add to my global (and already overflowing) jewelry collection.
We waved goodbye and our skiffs sped off into the middle of the Amazon, just as the sun dipped below the riverbanks. This was it — our final sunset on the river, and our final night on The Aria. Mimosas were passed around while the group chatted like the old friends we’d quickly become. I looked around and saw happy people. Guests who had just had magical experiences in a whole new world, and guides and drivers who were honored to show off that world, and valued by their employers for doing so. The vibes were as warm as the color of the sky. We raised our glasses and toasted to a trip through the jungle we’ll never forget. Salud.
I was a guest of Aqua Expeditions in order to promote the cruise line via various freelancing outlets. They did not request that I write a positive review, in fact they did not request that I cover the experience via Alex in Wanderland at all.