Peru: Trees like giants in the Amazon jungle, pink dolphins frolick and shamans make magical brews

By Shikha Shah, ET Bureau

Flying over the Peruvian Amazon jungle, what you can see is an endless array of mist-covered treetops that look like broccoli florets and the dark blue of the mighty river snaking its way through the deep green. The spectacle leaves you with a million emotions — excitement, curiosity, wonder — all at the same time. All you want to do is get off the plane and set foot in the jungle to find out what the little-visited wildlife haven is like.

Called the “jewel of the earth”, the “world’s largest pharmacy” and the “lungs of the earth”, the dense, tropical rainforests of Peru make up 60% of the country’s territory and are part of its borders with Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia. If you have four-five days, it is a good idea to explore the northen selva (tropical rainforest), which is accessible from Iquitos, a flight of an hourand-a-half or a long boatride away from the capital city of Lima.

Reign Forest
Sitting at the mouth of the Amazon, the jungle-locked Iquitos is the only gateway to the remote and extraordinary Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. There are several ways to spend your time in the magical setting of the Amazon rainforest, depending on whether you like luxury lodges and cruises or no-frills cottages and survival expeditions.

One of the most sought-after and unique experiences is taking a cruise while admiring the beauty of the reserve. Unlike most luxury-cruise holidays that are more about onboard entertainment, Amazon river cruises, with their limited capacity, encourage you to disconnect, relax and discover the true essence of the jungle. Here’s where you get to soak up the beauty of the everchanging landscape from the panoramic windows of your room, unwind in the warm waters of the jacuzzi as the cold wind passes through, and devour regional delicacies and fruits and vegetables extracted from the wild.

The Amazon river in Peru starts at the confluence of the Maranon and Ucayali rivers near the town of Nauta. The interaction of water and sediment between these two large rivers is very significant for Pacaya Samiria, which houses a large diversity of wildlife as well as aquatic life. Jaguars roam the forests, tamarin monkeys leap from tree to tree, sloths hang from trunks, gigantic anacondas lurk in the swamps, and toothy caimans and turtles sunbathe on riverbanks. Butterflies and flamboyant birds like scarlet macaws, toucans and parrots add a dash of colour to the greenery while pods of charismatic pink dolphins frolic in the waters. Trees rise like giants from the forest floor and myriad plants and herbs supposedly make for natural remedies for a variety of maladies. Above all, the shallow waters and lakes of the Amazon river basin are the only place in the world where you get to witness water lilies with pads that grow over 4 ft in diameter, large enough to support the weight of a small child. Such is the allure of this ecosystem of unrivalled size.

One of the most striking things about the vast, sweltering Amazon basin is its beauty that instantly soothes your eyes. Venture deep into the jungle and you will notice little villages dotting the backwaters, blending spectacularly with the scenery. You would see children waving their hands, saying, “Ola!”, and fishermen paddling down one of the river’s tributaries.

Meet the Shaman
Many indigenous tribes like the Boras, Cocamas, Yaguas, Ticunas, Jibaros and Orejones reside here in small communities. Some of then may have adopted the western style of dressing and given up on hunting as a means of living, but they live in harmony with nature and uphold their age-old traditions. Interacting with them is a good way to get a sense of their distinct culture and connect with the place in a whole new way.

Most tribes in the Amazon are friendly and open to sharing their way of life with guests. Bolevar is one such hamlet where little kids would show you around and teach you some fun poems and rhymes in Spanish while the elderly would be eager to give you an insight into their past. The women make beautiful handicrafts — accessories and knickknacks like earrings, necklaces, wooden masks, bowls, pens, keychains, serving trays, and bird and animal hangings — all out of natural materials like wood, seeds, dried grass and cane. These items are reasonably priced and make for ideal souvenirs to take back home; so make sure to carry your soles (Peruvian currency) on your river adventures.

There are many reasons life in the rainforest is radically different. Even today, most tribes in the jungle rely on a shaman to cure their ailments and nowhere else would you possibly find as many shamans offering magical brews as you do in Peru. While thousands of travellers go to Iquitos and the Amazon basin to experience the magical powers of the ayahuasca, a traditional, hallucinogenic drink, it is certainly not for everyone

The effects of the vine are unpredictable; you are likely to see colourful visions that may be spiritual, erotic or terrifying. At the same time, they claim it can also lead to a blissful, healing session. The safest way to know about shamanic healing rituals is to meet an ayahuasquero ( jungle shaman) through a local. The typical setting involves having a session with the ayahuasquero in their tambo (hut) located on a riverbank. The session starts at dusk with the shaman introducing various stimulating plant medicines. Shortly after sunset, the shaman begins to rattle and chant “to get in touch with the spirits of the world”. Soon, you would have the shaman blowing thick tobacco smoke on your face and lightly tapping your head with a bundle of leaves. People claim that at that moment they feel incredible calm and can tap into the energy of the rainforest.

Amazon Takeaway
Your journey into the Amazon is incomplete until you get a taste of its cuisine. Local vegetables, unusual fruit juices, fresh seafood and typical Amazonian flavours make for a sheer gastronomic delight.

Juane — chicken and rice cooked and wrapped in bijao leaves with local spices — makes for a delicious, portable snack that can be carried on long river trips. Roast picuro, a species similar to the guinea pig; apichado, pork stewed with peanuts and corn; and patarashca, fish wrapped in leaves and cooked on hot coals, are among the other specialties found in the Amazon.

A key ingredient here is the plantain. The Amazon river also provides plenty of freshwater fish like the paiche, sabalo, bagre, tilapia, palometa and even piranha that are cooked in many ways, including soups and stews. Savour sumptuous salads with the hearts of palm — slender, pale ivory stalks harvested from palm trees that grow in the forest. No matter when you are served in the Amazon, a constant are juices, mostly made from fruits that do not grow anywhere else. In the Amazon jungle, there is plentiful of papaya, maracuya or passion fruit, pawpaw, cherimoya, camu camu, cocona, aguaje, custard apple and mangoes, among others. Also, bananas are eaten fried, grilled, boiled, mashed or raw. As you near the end of your journey in the Peruvian Amazon, you come to realise that the enchanting wilderness has given you a lot more than you could ever imagine or desire. Touring the Amazon is all about finding joys in subtle ways — watching the rosy-pink dolphins and carefully listening to the signature sound they make as they dive into the water; observing the phenomenal variety of plant life; appreciating the compassion in the native communities and enjoying the feeling of occupying a tiny place in the vast expanse of nature. There are so many things you take back from the Amazon, most of them intangible and yet unforgettable.

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