Tom Mulak stood among a dozen people on the flat-bottomed metal boat bobbing gently in the brown waters of the Amazon River in Peru’s jungle preserve and dropped his beef-baited fish hook over the side to see if the piranhas were biting.
With a shout, he jerked his pole and line from the water as an orange colored piranha, razor-sharp teeth gleaming, twisted futilely on the hook.
“I was in a state of shock because it happened so fast,” said Mulak, a 59-year-old pharmaceutical publisher and editor from New York City, who had never fished before and was having a spectacular eco-adventure on the Ucayali tributary, one of 1,100 tributaries that feed the amazing Amazon River.
Mulak joined 20 other travelers for a unique, 10-day natural history experience with AAA travel partner International Expeditions along 412 miles of South America’s 14,000 miles of Amazon waterways.
Memorable activities for the group included fishing for piranhas – nearly everyone caught one, and the sweet-tasting but bony fish were served with supper later that evening. They also paddled dugout canoes, traipsed through dense jungle foliage and visited native villages surrounded by smiling school children.
Many fondly remember the night the bare-handed guide plucked a caiman, a small alligator-like predator, from its hiding place in the water lilies about half-hour after sunset.
Afterward, to return safely to the Amastista, the 12-cabin, air-conditioned riverboat, the riverbanks had to be illuminated by a prow spotlight, attracting literally tens of thousands of gnat-sized, harmless water spiders that swarmed around – virtually a snow blizzard of bugs – as bats swooped overhead gorging themselves on the flying delicacies.
Nothing in North America prepares you for the Amazon.
The river basin covers nearly 2.3 million square miles of rainforest, fed by the tributaries that push 500 million cubic feet of water eastward daily from the headwaters in the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean – enough fresh water in one day’s flow to satisfy New York City’s water needs for nine years.
Eleven of the 1,100 tributaries are larger than the Mississippi and flow through Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia, with the Amazon exiting into the ocean on Brazil’s shoreline. The river basin supplies, through transpiration, 20 percent of the world’s oxygen, leading scientists to describe the Amazon basin as the “lungs of the world.”
Scientists have spent lifetimes cataloging 25,000 species of plants, 4,000 species of butterflies, 2,000 species of fish – more than have been identified in the entire Atlantic Ocean – and 3,000 species of birds. All acknowledge there are thousands more species to be discovered.
Then there are reptiles and amphibians, mammals, ants, spiders and the people who live among it all – Riberenos – Peruvian river people who fish, hunt and farm to survive today the same way their ancestors did centuries ago.
They exist simply, living in harmony with the land and the river’s power, which can erode 150 yards of right shoreline in one season, while depositing silt on the left bank as it always charts a new course. There are no roads; the river is transportation everywhere.
The Amazon journey began with an evening flight into Peru’s capital, Lima, located in the south and home to more than a third of Peru’s 22 million people. Lima’s cool and dry climate is the opposite of the rainforest, which is always humid with temperatures in the 80s during the day and in the 70s at night any time of year.
Next came a flight into Iquitos in northern Peru, a city of 400,000 that is considered the most populous city in the world reachable only by air or the Amazon River, and boarded the Amatista, the rugged 148-foot-long, 27-foot-wide, three-deck riverboat that navigates the 12- to 40-foot-deep Amazon with a 7-foot draw.
The top deck served as bar and entertainment venue for a band of six musical crew members who entertained nightly. The second deck held cabins and an air-conditioned dining room surrounded by windows so passengers could watch the journey's progress. The bottom deck held eight cabins, all with showers, air conditioning, comfortable beds and plenty of storage space.
The first day of the voyage began the daily pattern of leaving the ship and climbing into one of two flat-bottomed metal boats powered by two 75-horsepower Evinrude engines and traveling along the Amazon to view shoreline wildlife.
The guide, George Davila Flores, 30, grew up in Rio Napa 70 miles north of Iquitos in a village of 20 families. Leaving at age 16, he got his doctorate of ecology at the National University of the Peruvian Amazon and daily regaled passengers with fascinating stories while identifying hundreds of birds, monkeys, sloths, bats and river inhabitants, like freshwater pink and gray dolphins.
For example, soldier termites contain a type of turpentine in their bodies and don’t bite humans. So river people will grab them and crush them against their skin to protect against biting insects – a natural insect repellent.
Another tidbit involved the sandbox tree, used to make the low-slung dugout canoes that are paddled or motored by long-shafted engines up and down the river. It contains cyanide in its sap, so natives cut a ring around the base, let the cyanide drain out, then fell the tree and carve the canoe from it. The remaining cyanide keeps the canoe from being infected by bugs or fungus, thus lasting three to four years before becoming water-saturated and in need of replacement.
At the confluence of the Ucayali, the fifth-largest Amazon tributary, and the Maranon Rivers, the eleventh-largest, George led a group pledge asking people to recognize the importance of preserving the Amazon and the rainforest.
Passengers then proceeded upstream on the 1,600-mile long Ucayali, which flows through primary forest – Terra Firma – where mature, tall forest species are located on higher, drier ground, not always affected by the river’s rise in wet season – December to May – when the river level may rise 45 feet in some places and riverbank trees display previous high-water marks on their trunks.
Requena, a village of 65,000, survives with many living in floating houses, farming ashore during the dry season, usually planting rice that can be sold downriver at Iquitos, and fishing for food in the wet season.
The next day, passengers stopped at San Vincente, a small village where the children sang their national anthem. Flores gave the teacher school supplies passengers had been asked to bring along for such visits. Afterward, the children took the bravest passengers, one by one, in their dugout canoes, which sit low in the water and look and feel unstable. Once underway, however, they maneuvered easily.
“They were so enthusiastic, showing us their homes and culture,” Mulak said. “It was an exhilarating experience.”
Villagers showed how to crush sugar cane for sweet juice, weave palms for rooftops, color palm fronds and weave baskets. Handicrafts were purchased from villagers on two visits, although visits aren't scheduled to keep villagers from relying solely on tourist craft purchases to survive.
Passengers left the Amatista twice daily to scout wildlife, ending up at the Reserva National Pacaya Samira, a pristine jungle preserve where a ranger wielding a machete and Flores guided them on a two-hour walk through thick jungle.
They saw enormous mulberry trees so high you couldn’t see the tops, thick underbrush, palm trees with nuts laying below on the ground full of maggots the natives find nutritious, listened to howler monkeys keeping their distance and viewed the Tangarana tree, called a punishment tree by the river people.
Hollow inside so it can grew quickly, the Tangarana tree is home to an ant species that lives in the hollow area and defends the tree from fungus and other insects – a symbiotic relationship. Captured enemies, in decades past, were tied to the tree, the tree struck with a machete, causing the defending ants to swarm and devour the human flesh in less than 24 hours.
Such anecdotal tidbits were a trademark of Flores, whose sense of humor was every bit as sharp as his ability to spot and identify dozens of bird species, groups of monkeys frolicking in the foliage, three-toed sloth clinging to tree tops, bats attached to river logs while awaiting sunset and butterflies, moths and plants.
A guide for 14 years, Flores understands that visitors influence the natives’ lifestyle, but he relishes the idea of “making new ambassadors for the Amazon and our culture.”
“I love sharing what we know and helping educate our people to the outside world,” he said, “They need to know what is out there while still maintaining their ability to survive in the rainforest, love and respect their ancestors and their culture.”