The water is comfortably warm but so murky that I can’t see my hands. When something slimy brushes against my leg, my mind races with the possibilities: piranha? Caiman? Anaconda?! This is what swimming in the Peruvian Amazon is like — wildly thrilling and a touch mad.
My naturalist guide assures me I have nothing to worry about. “You’re not bleeding, right? Then you’re fine!” he says with an unnerving grin.
That’s when we hear it: a droning burble followed by the unmistakable hiss of water shooting from a blowhole. I whirl around just in time to see a rosy metallic fin glinting in the equatorial sun — a pink river dolphin. It’s like a unicorn, only real.
Swimming with dolphins in the Amazon is exactly the kind of bucket-list experience I was hoping for on my nine-day journey through Peru with premium outfitter Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. I spend the first leg of the trip touring gilded basilicas in Cusco and summiting Machu Picchu, which is just as phenomenal as everyone says it is.
I’m traveling with a dozen other guests, including a statistician, a Silicon Valley retail legend, and a transcendentalist with the world’s largest private plane collection. What we all have in common is a thirst for adventure, which is why I’m most looking forward to this five-day cruise on the Amazon River — the biggest in the world, flowing 4,150 miles from the Andes to the Atlantic.
When I step off the plane in the gateway city of Iquitos, the humidity slaps me like a hot, wet rag. Our naturalists for the week — an enthusiastic trio with the nicknames Tarsandro, Eagle-Eye Erickson and Jorge of the Jungle — greet us at the airport, cold towels in hand. A few hours later, we’re gliding past gnarled trees and little villages aboard the Delfin II, a Relais & Châteaux riverboat with 14 elegant staterooms and a 27-person crew. Our destination? The Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, the second largest protected natural area in Peru.
On our first outing, we set off down the Ucayali, the main headstream of the Amazon. With mist rising from the chocolatey-brown water, last night’s supermoon hanging like a wheel of brie in the pale morning sky and fellow passengers dressed in head-to-toe khaki, I feel like an extra in an Indiana Jones movie. Here in the middle of nowhere, it’s just us, the fishermen in their dugout canoes and park rangers hunting for poachers. Fuzzy-faced capuchin monkeys swing from branches Cirque du Soleil–style, giant river otters with big fangs scamper up the muddy shoreline, and spotted river turtles leap into the water, one after another, like synchronized swimmers. Our cameras are trained on the riverbanks, where we spot a crimson-crested woodpecker with a Bozo-red mohawk and a yellow-headed caracara furiously chasing a great black hawk away from her nest.
On a separate night safari, Lindblad expedition leader Jonathan Aguas has his fingers crossed for a jaguar sighting, but the big cat proves elusive. Instead, our spotlight lands on the glowing red eyes of caiman, a NASCAR-fast cousin of the alligator, and capybara, a large shaggy rodent that looks like the love child of a beaver and a bear.
When we’re not exploring the Amazon by motorized skiff, we’re traversing its silty waters by kayak, swilling pisco sours on its vast, empty beaches and hoofing it through the tangle of jungle greenery. Eagle-Eye Erickson, whose father was a shaman back in Brazil, leads the rainforest hike and points out magic mushrooms and other medicinals along the route. He is accompanied by Federico, a machete-wielding tracker from a nearby village who finds an anaconda coiled like a curly fry around a branch and a Goliath bird-eating tarantula with jaws big enough to swallow a hummingbird. (Tempting as it is, I decline the opportunity to take a selfie with the oversize arachnid.)
We marvel at an orange and blue poison dart frog, the tiniest amphibian in the Amazon, and gasp in unison at a brown-throated three-toed sloth clinging to a tree mere feet above our heads. When a red-tail boa constrictor slithers across our path, it elicits oohs and aahs and one emphatic “No thank you!” from a particularly skittish guest (not me, though I’m not taking a selfie with him, either).
As hair-raising as some of these wildlife encounters are, they fuel animated chatter among the guests at dinner each night. Even the food on our plates has a story to tell. The baked doncella, for instance, is a 20-pound tiger shovelnose catfish that the crew bartered for cold sodas; the local fishermen wouldn’t accept cash because they consider the fish a gift from the Amazon.
Our final morning on the riverboat, I make my way to the top deck just before sunrise. The pink dolphins are already putting on a show that feels tailor-made just for me. Less than 24 hours earlier, I learned that my father died of a heart attack while I was traveling. The news shook me to my core, but the Lindblad team jumped to action, helping me re-route flights to return home as soon as possible. His death was a shock but not unexpected. And in a way, I couldn’t have found out in a better place — deep in a jungle that is home to three million species, where the circle of life plays out a thousand times a day in ways grand and minor, but always meaningful.