"A Leisurely Trip by Riverboat Through the Amazon Rainforest" — by Ginger Dingus

Congratulations to Ginger Dingus, whose article A Leisurely Trip by Riverboat Through the Amazon Rainforest (a.k.a., “Riverboat Rambler”) won the Gold BATW Best 2010 Travel Writing Award for “Best Text/Photo Combo Article.”
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birdwatching on the Amazon (photo © Ginger Dingus)
Travelers to the Amazon train their eyes on the treetops to spot hundreds of bird species. (photos © Ginger Dingus)



The barefoot fisherman, weathered and sun-browned, silently paddled his dugout canoe up to our drifting motorboat. He carried a handmade spear, two fishing poles cut from twigs and a well-worn rifle.

To him, it was just another day’s hunt for groceries – fresh fish, wild pig, maybe even a capybara, the Amazon rainforest’s dog-sized rodent. The capybara is the world’s largest “rat” and, according to our knowledgeable Peruvian guide, George Davila, it makes a tasty meal.

“Can you imagine people still live like this?” says Michael Barth, an intrepid traveler from Switzerland, shaking his head in disbelief.

Our group – 11 American and European adventure seekers taking a weeklong riverboat journey on the Amazon River in Peru – felt equally amazed. It was easy for us to pop open our picnic baskets and tuck into a breakfast of ham and cheese sandwiches, tangerines and piping hot coffee.



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guide with piranha
Amazon River tour guide George Davila shows off the catch of the day -- fresh piranha caught with sticks and string.Little did we realize that we would soon be using sticks and string to catch our own dinner - a meal of fresh, feisty piranhas.


It was 7:30 on a sunny, humid, not yet too-hot morning. Already we were an hour into the day’s first motorboat safari, heading deeper into the jungle than our 125-foot riverboat could navigate.

So far, we had chanced upon four species of monkeys and a three-toed sloth hanging out in the branches of a mimosa tree. Among the hundreds of birds whirling overhead, George identified scarlet macaws, white-throated toucans, bright green parakeets, various hawks and a yellow-rumped cacique, aka “butter butt.”

We handed the lone fisherman a couple of sandwiches and packets of juice. In exchange, he showed us how he threw his spear to catch fish. We watched him paddle away as we polished off breakfast.

An hour later, we cruised past four happy hunters busily chopping up a freshly caught caiman (small crocodile) on the muddy riverbank.

The men eagerly held up their prize for photos. The tail was missing, so they jokingly put it back on the gutted body. One man pulled open the caiman’s toothy jaw, inserted his arm and pretended he was being attacked. Another used sign language to show us their bait, a large hook hidden inside a catfish. Only the chewed fish head remained.

Even today, life on the Amazon, at least on this isolated part of the river, is a far cry from the concrete jungle. There’s no running water. No cars. No cell phones. Electricity is by generator, if at all. Pocket money comes from selling plantains to a middleman and handicrafts to the occasional tourist.



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tiny poison arrow frog
Tiny poison arrow frogs sometimes pack deadly toxins.


Surprisingly, meeting the villagers proved as fascinating as seeing the spectacularly colored birds and jungle wildlife that originally attracted most of us to the trip.

Our riverboat odyssey, offered for 13 years by Alabama-based International Expeditions, began in Iquitos in northeastern Peru. The once-booming, rubber-producing town can only be reached by air (we flew in from Lima) or by boat.

At 2,300 miles from the mouth of the Amazon on the Atlantic Ocean, it’s the world’s most inland seaport. From Iquitos, our riverboat headed another 300 miles upriver on the Amazon, Ucayali and Maranon rivers, far off any beaten tourist path.

I traveled on the 31-passenger La Amatista (amethyst), one of three riverboats operated by International Expeditions. Each was built locally of native woods and designed to look like a houseboat owned by a 19th-century rubber baron.

Think “The African Queen,” and you’ll get the idea. Cabins are small but comfortable. They feature air-conditioning and private bathrooms with hot water in the shower filtered from the Amazon. (There’s plenty of bottled water to drink.)

Meals are casual buffets in a dining room with a view. The menu is hearty, healthy fare such as catfish, Peruvian potatoes stuffed with tuna, chicken, rice, plenty of fresh veggies and luscious tropical fruits.

Our days typically began with breakfast around 7 a.m., followed immediately by a motorboat ride on the river or small creek in search of rainforest wildlife. We were back aboard around 11, in time for a nature lesson before lunch. Who knew the Amazon discharges as much water in two hours as New York City uses in a year?

During the hot midday hours (the area lies about four degrees south of the Equator), we enjoyed siestas. We climbed back in the motorboat around 4 p.m. for more critter encounters or to visit primitive villages. Civilized cruising began at sunset with cocktails on the upper deck. Dinner and a stargazing or caiman-hunting boat ride in the dark rounded out the day.

On every excursion, George, who grew up on the Amazon, made a new discovery – green iguanas sunning in the trees, a troop of 50-plus squirrel monkeys toting babies on their backs, a family of bug-eyed nocturnal owl monkeys peeking from a hole in a tall tree, a slow-moving sloth, pink dolphins, giant lily pads, blue Morpho butterflies and exotic birds by the hundreds.

His technique? He listened to the jungle “telegraph” and could recognize individual voices. To us, chattering monkeys sounded like screeching parrots.

One afternoon, George figured he had found a fishing hole by watching vultures perched in overhead branches. He was right on. The instant we dropped our beef-baited hooks into the muddy, cocoa-brown river, the piranhas started biting. In 20 minutes, we caught a feast of 46 fish.

Bob Tracht, an overeager traveler from Ohio, got an unexpected souvenir. Instead of letting the guide unhook his catch, he learned the painful way that fingers make easy targets for a piranha’s razor-sharp teeth. At dinner, the rest of us discovered piranhas are bony little devils and a lot of trouble to eat.



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children in the Amazon
Children take a dip in the river outside their thatched-roof huts in a remote Amazone village in Peru


The river people, or “riberenos,” were the biggest surprise of all. Curious children ran to meet us as we cruised to their villages. They giggled at our digital photos, picked flowers for the ladies and eagerly recited their lessons when we visited their rustic schools. The adults proudly showed off their one-room, thatched-roof huts built by hand that rest atop stilts as protection from seasonal flooding.

“They get everything they need from nature,” George commented. “Water, food, houses.”

Nature even supplies free transport in the form of wood to make dugout canoes and paddles.

“Maybe they’ve got a better life than we do,” Michael mused.

Maybe, but I’ll stick with the riverboat’s creature comforts to explore the Amazon.

IF YOU GO …

Amazon riverboats:

When to go:

Expect high humidity and 80-degree temperatures. It rains about 250 days a year, often at night. Riverboats can navigate deeper into the rainforest during the rainy season, December through May. In drier months, June through October, visitors do more hiking and may see more diverse wildlife.

Getting there:

LAN Airlines (866-435-9526; www.lan.com) flies nonstop from New York to Lima. LAN and American fly nonstop from Miami to Lima. International Expeditions arranges the 90-minute group flight between Lima and Iquitos

Ginger Dingus

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