Swallows and Amazons: a cruise in the South American rainforest

Amazon river

Enter South American rainforest on cruises into the Amazon and Amazon Basin. By Bridget McGrouther

There can be few destinations as exciting as the mighty Amazon, the world’s largest river that flows through nine countries from Peru to French Guiana. Gushing through swathes of virgin rainforest, the jungles still hide tribes that have never been in contact with the outside world as well as undiscovered species and medicinal plants that may yet hold the key to hidden cures.

Squirrel MonkeyHome to more mammal, bird, amphibian and plant species than anywhere else on earth, this magical destination is full of unique surprises. Discover capybara along the river banks, comical squirrel monkeys in the trees or aptly-nicknamed stinky turkeys.

The locals paddle tea-coloured channels in dug-out canoes or more modern motorboats, their engines whining like persistent mosquitos. Perhaps not surprisingly, tourists prefer to travel more luxuriously on cruise ships or traditional riverboats that can provide on-board creature comforts while travelling through what is, at times, inhospitable terrain.

The largest city in the Amazon basin, Manaus in Brazil, boasts the colonial-era Teatro Amazonas opera house, museums and a market. Boca da Valeria (“Mouth of the Valeria River”) is home to 100 or so locals who live in wooden houses on stilts facing the river, while the Anavilhanas Islands, a chain of 400 islands in Rio Negro, are about 43 miles from Manaus.

Amazon RainforestAlthough larger vessels can sail as far as 1,000 miles inland to the ‘Jungle City’ of Manaus, only smaller cruise ships and riverboats can venture further upstream. Guided shore excursions include meeting the friendly indigenous people with shy, wide-eyed children who enjoy sharing customs from blow pipe target practice to dancing or a game of barefoot football.

Startle clouds of dazzling butterflies, luminous birds and unique wildlife on nature walks or canoe trips through steamy, lush foliage with Tarzan tree creepers and fluorescent flowers. No wonder inquisitive visitors are flocking to the Amazon like rainbowfeathered parrots to a clay lick.

THE ONLY WAY IS UP

Visitors who want to see rare pink river dolphins, giant otters or the Amazonian manatees should head to the deepest, darkest backwaters of the smaller Amazon tributaries trickling through Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park in Napo or Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.

Poisonous red back FrogFor this adventure of a lifetime, intrepid travellers need to leave large cruise ships behind to board traditional riverboats with shallow drafts. Yet there is no compromise on comfort – vessels like the Manatee Expedition Explorer and the Anakonda Amazon still provide air-conditioned en suite cabins, fresh fruit cocktails and mouth-watering meals.

Sharp-eyed and specialised naturalist guides will help to point out the Amazon Big Three – the paw print of the rarely sighted jaguar; the majestic harpy eagle and deadly anaconda, whose jaws can devour an unsuspecting tapir or goat. A fishing trip along the Pañayacu (Piranha River) will bring you face to face with the toothy predators as it doesn’t take long to catch one on hook and line. Paddling silently on Limoncocha Lake under a crimson sunset is especially memorable for guests. As dusk falls, the frog chorus reaches a crescendo and the red eyes of lurking caimans glow menacingly in the gloom. Turn out the torch beams and reeds come alive with fireflies, like fairy light decorations, while the starry Milky Way reflects in the mirror-still water.

AMAZON RIVER CRUISE LINES

The mighty Amazon is deep enough at its mouth to accommodate larger ships so Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises and Cruise & Maritime Voyages all offer Amazon itineraries, some combining the Caribbean, Azores, Brazil, Peru, the Galapagos Islands and Antarctic. The Amazon is a favourite of the luxury market and therefore Silversea Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises are all found here.

However, in tributaries such as the Napo River in Ecuador and along Peru’s Yarapa and Dorada Rivers, smaller, more traditional riverboats are required to navigate the shallower waters. The Manatee Amazon Explorer on the Napo River can be booked through Titan Tours, the Anakonda Amazon through Sunvil Latin America and Avalon Waterways sails from the Inca Empire to the Peruvian Amazon.

BEST TIME TO GO

Parrots on treesThere are pros and cons to cruising the Amazon during the wet (or flood) season from December to May or during the hotter, dry season from June to November. Bear in mind, of course, that it is always humid and still rains frequently during the ‘dry’ season but jungle paths should be more accessible, although there is the risk that the ship will ground occasionally on shifting sandbanks. In the wet season, it’s easier to explore smaller tributaries as river levels are higher and the flora is in full bloom attracting birds, butterflies and wildlife that gorge on berries and nectar. Storms will also be dramatic to watch, but the down side is that more mosquitos may feast on you.

PACKING ESSENTIALS

Prepare for rain and plenty of it. Take a light, hooded waterproof as well as perhaps a foldable walking stick for the paths that end up muddy and slippery. Don’t steady yourself on branches or tree trunks before checking there are no giant ants or snakes there first!

◆ Sturdy, non-slip walking shoes are advised, although wellingtons may be provided on board.
◆ Cover up in light trousers and longsleeved shirts as protection from the sun, thorns and bites.
◆ Jungle-strength insect repellent is a must along with sunscreen and a hat.
◆ Binoculars will help you to spot those tricky-to-see sloths and snakes hanging around in the canopy.
◆ A head torch is essential for night-time walks.
◆ A water bottle is environmentally friendly, ensuring plastic bottles are not discarded.
◆ Anti-malarial tablets are advised as are vaccinations. A certificate of vaccination for Yellow Fever may be inspected. Check fitfortravel.nhs.uk

Sunset on the AmazonAlthough most riverboats can get Internet via satellite, wifi is often slow or unavailable, so be prepared to switch off from the world for a while.

Guides and ship’s crew appreciate tips. Souvenirs may be sold on board (where credit cards may be accepted) as well as at river lodges or villages. Otavalo market, near Quito, is excellent for buying local handicrafts.

necessary to reach your riverboat or for exploring smaller tributaries, so this type of holiday is unsuitable for wheelchair users or anyone with back problems. Due to the remoteness of the location, emergency services are not easily accessible.

SELL IT!

Tourism is increasing to the Amazon, especially loved by intrepid travellers in search of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sustainable tourism may help to protect this pristine environment from oil exploration, gold mining and farming. The Amazon offers a unique opportunity to spot rare wildlife and meet indigenous people. A true get-away-from-it-all destination with pristine rainforest and unmatched biodiversity. Cruising the rivers is a safe and comfortable way to experience the jungle.

Amazon - Turtle

The perfect add-on to 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Galapagos Islands or Machu Picchu. Extra For eco-enthusiasts, the 4,000-mile-long Amazon, the second longest river in the world, is a treasure trove of natural discovery — meandering through the heart of South America en route to the Atlantic Ocean. The river or its tributaries flow through Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and several other countries. Both ocean vessels, including many luxury and premium lines and small river and expedition vessels navigate along the Amazon and its tributaries..

WHAT ’S TO SEE?

Cruisers often view dolphins, bull sharks, eels, piranhas, caimans and manatees, while hundreds of species of birds — many brilliantly colored, including scarlet macaws — inhabit the rainforest along the river. More than a third of the world’s animal species live in this rainforest; cruisers might spot tamarin monkeys, otters and three-toed sloths. The Yacapana Isles are famed for their population of iguanas, while the Yarapa River is where to seek out pink and gray freshwater dolphins.

Pink River dolphinSouthwest of Iquitos, Peru, the starting point for Peruvian Amazon cruises, is the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. Consisting of lush tropical rainforest, it spans three river basins and also encompasses canals and lakes. Eco-walks, small-boat exploration, tiny villages and wildlife spotting are the draws. Cultural immersion is also important to cruisers picking an Amazon voyage. Vessels carry onboard guides and naturalists who will point out wildlife and birds along the river and accompany cruisers to small, remote villages deep in the rainforest to learn about the villagers’ lifestyle.

On Ecuadorian Amazon voyages, cruisers visit the Pañacocha Biological Corridor andPanayacu River delta, among other eco-spots. One spectacular occurrence is the “parrot licks,” pools of mud that are rich in minerals and draw hundreds of parrots, parakeets and other birds. On Brazilian Amazon voyages, cruisers see small villages and big cities alike as the ships visit Santarém, Parintins, Boca da Valeria, the Anavilhanas Islands and Manaus.

WHEN TO SAIL?

June through November is normally the low water or dry season, but it still has some rainfall. However, during this period, guides often lead cruisers on trail walks through the rainforest to get closer to the Amazon’s birds and wildlife. It’s also a time to fish for piranhas in the river.

ALL ABOARD THE AMAZON DREAM

River expeditions company Pandaw has announced its first departures in South America in conjunction with the Amazon Dream.

Five 14-night departures in 2016 exploring the lesser-visited region of the Amazon River from Santarem, where the blue waters of the Tapajos River and the Amazon meet for several kilometres, creating a delightful, ever-changing spectacle.

Hugh Clayson, Pandaw’s Commercial Director told Cruise Ports & Destinations: “This is an exciting addition to the Amazon DreamPandaw partner programme and it has been introduced due to requests from Pandaw travellers, who will be able to discover the natural wonders of the great rainforest with its varied wildlife, flora and fauna as well as visiting friendly local villages and discover the unique way of life of the people living on the Amazon”.

Amazon Dream, carries 18 passengers offering a comfortable base with French influenced cuisine. The nine-night cruise is combined with three nights at the elegant 5 star Sofitel Hotel, Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, with an included excursion to Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountain, and a two-night stay at the iconic Hotel Das Cataratas located next to the jaw-dropping Iguacu Falls.

Travellers can also choose to extend their journey with two nights in both Manaus and Salvador. The 14-night Rio, Iguacu Falls & the Amazon tour costs from £4,995 based on January 16, 2016 departure.

 

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