Delfin II: 'Voyage Of The Dawn Treader' Recounted
| Delfin II
There was an alligator on my bed when I entered the luxury master suite we had booked on the Delfin II. Well, a caiman actually, with beady red eyes and a lascivious grin.
He Had Me at Hello
When Miles Buesst, co-owner of Rainforest Cruises mentioned in passing his newest offering – a luxury cruise in the Peruvian Amazon – I was captivated. My mother, who just a month previously had been assiduously planning her funeral, has always wanted to explore the Amazon. The news that she would be doing so to celebrate her birthday diverted her from choosing hymns to picking out outfits to wear every night. This was obviously going to be the aquatic equivalent of a first class berth on the Orient Express.
My mother had “done” Peru in 1961 when she was a young Jamaican woman training as a diplomat for the short-lived Federation of the West Indies: from gauging the political climate in Universidad San Marcos by carrying a copy of all the daily papers under her arm to see what comments each would attract; to climbing to Cuzco on foot; and roughing it to Lake Titicaca. But a family emergency had recalled her prematurely and she has always regretted not completing the dream and exploring the Amazon.
In those days, no doubt, her expectation was a hammock on a sturdy cargo boat with the mosquito bites offset by the romanticism of the unknown. Fair enough for your twenties, but now, having just turned 81, she deserved a somewhat more luxurious experience.
Having been seduced by Miles and a nice discount, I emailed her and the deed was done in just a few days. Flights, forms, insurance, all these insuperable barriers fell and lo and behold I had lured her back on a flight to Lima, a city whose atmosphere left my asthmatic mother reeling the last time she came to visit me.
After a few careful days in Lima we embarked on the recommended LAN flight to Iquitos and were duly met at the airport by the Delfin II team. Our luggage having been identified and tagged with our cabin number, we surveyed our fellow guests and had a speculative gossip.
It was a mixed bunch: Two Australian couples who, from their conversation, appeared to spend their lives trekking, exploring, skiing at high altitudes and generally displaying the legendary hardiness of their breed. A family of four – mother, father and two sons – from Israel via Oklahoma. The younger son was a long-haired rocker type, headphones clamped firmly to his skull, pointy-toed black shoes, black slacks and an Andy Capp hat, earnestly in search of ayahuasca and spiritual oneness. A Peruvian expat couple based in Los Angeles; a Peruvian family of three (mother, daughter and grandson); a couple of New Yorkers; and three hardcore nature photographers: weather-beaten individuals sporting jungle-drab cargo pants, ironic T-shirts, five o'clock shadows and manly, thrusting lenses.
A 90 minute air-conditioned bus ride later we arrived in Nauta, at the private pavilion where the Delfin II docks. Having been promised a welcome Pisco Sour we got somewhat belligerent when presented with a glass of juice at the welcome terminal. However, once aboard we were handed a native pisco-based brew which restored our mood and, after a briefing of what to expect in the way of excursions, we were shown to our cabins.
The Delfin II was built from scratch in 2009 and, at 120 feet, boasts 14 guest suites, an elegant dining area, observation deck, bar, entertainment center, library, and hammock sun deck complete with elliptical exercise machine. All beautifully designed to the standard of a five star hotel anywhere in the world. You may enjoy the boat so much you will have to buy postcards at the airport to augment your holiday snaps of raised glasses and haute cuisine.
For the first day and a half my mother refused to be prised from the comforts of the Delfin to participate in the various wildlife watching excursions. Her excuses included: “my eyesight is not what it was, so why sit in a skiff and squint unsuccessfully at distant blurs when I can send my daughter to take notes and photos in which I can pretend to have played a part” and “this morning´s excursion starts at 5am. I am here to see, above all, pink dolphins. Dolphins are highly intelligent creatures and therefore not stupid enough to be out and about at that ungodly hour.” On entering our cabin, a wonderland of monogrammed bathrobes, blond wood, cream drapes, wicker wildlife, and lifejackets discreetly tucked behind the easy chair, I feared that the only creature I would be seeing on the trip was the raffia caiman perched menacingly atop my bath towel at the foot of the bed. The boat was full of these creatures, commissioned by artists in the local villages. A snail delivering goodnight chocolates; gaily coloured frogs clinging to the dining table centerpieces; iguanas guarding the bar. The items are for sale and the proceeds support education in the communities where they are made.
And indeed there is enough to keep you glued firmly to the Delfin II. Fine dining is provided by chefs trained in Lima under Peru´s international celebrity Gaston Acuria. The food is beautifully presented, delicious and a bit spartan at first, until the final night´s splendid buffet.
My husband, Limeño born and bred, tends to scoff at the laid-back, fun-loving reputation of the people of the selva. “Those people” he says, “will invite anyone into their homes as soon as they meet them.” This instinctive openness may baffle the more cold-blooded denizens of the coastal region but it perfectly demonstrates the warmth of the Peruvian rainforest. As my mother commented, they were neither surly nor servile, just sharing hospitality.
After dinner the first evening we were treated to an impromptu concert by the crew. Peruvian pipes played by Juan our cabin attendant, accompanied by Naturalist Juan Luis and the ex-army medic on cajon, bartenders Mario and Jorge on percussion and various others on cuatro, guitar and vocals. There was no visible command structure among the 19 crew members. Chef, sous chefs, captain, tour guides, boat drivers, cabin stewards and crew were all confident, knowledgeable and friendly.
Despite the attractions of the boat itself, it would be a great mistake to miss the excursions.
In 2000, a five-nation National Geographic expedition definitively identified the source of the Amazon as originating in Arequipa in the Peruvian Andes. While most of the Amazon flows through Brazil, it is the Peruvian Government that is taking important steps to preserve the river and its biodiversity. The Delfin II cruise concentrated on the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, more than 5 million acres of rainforest located between the Amazon tributaries of the Marañon and Ucayali.
Pink perverts and son of a sloth
The Delfin II tour guides are all natives of the Amazon and enhance their wildlife spotting expertise with fascinating facts about the flora and fauna. Bird watching being fairly low down on my list of gripping activities to do while on vacation, I was surprised to learn that they are some of the most fascinating inhabitants of the Reserve.
Take for instance the gallinazo de cabeza roja (translation: Big red-headed chicken), the bird of prey with the keenest sense of smell in the world which can spot and catch its prey while flying. Or the shansho, which has an unusually large stomach, lives on leaves and purposely builds its nest on branches overhanging the river so that when predators approach the chicks can dive into the water to hide, poking their heads out to breath until the danger is past, at which point they climb back up into their nest using the unique hooks on their wings. Another avian prodigy is the water jacaranda, also known as the Jesus Christ Bird because its long toes give it the appearance of being able to walk on water. My personal favourite is the tuqui tuqui, a polyandrous species in which one female has several male minions who guard the nest and mind the chicks while the she gets busy with other males.
And here are a few more Amazon fun facts: The nightly ritual of the spider monkey is to pee on his hands and then rub the trunk of the tree to mark his territory. The Amazon manatee is a giant food processor. Up to 40% of the food it eats is excreted in smaller easy-to-eat particles for other smaller creatures in the water. The manatee eats between 80 and 100kg per day of a kind of water lettuce which floats on the surface of the river, thereby acting as a sort of aquatic lawnmower.
The famous pink river dolphins are more effectively protected by superstition than legislation. People of the river believe that the dolphins are demons and will bewitch you if you bother them. If you eat dolphin meat you will go crazy and a male pink dolphin can impregnate a woman who will then turn into a mermaid and give birth to a manatee.
The lyrically named oso perezoso (now the third of my favourite Spanish words along with izquierda (left) and serenazgo (a kind of district security force)) or “lazy bear”, also has a profound effect on women. It is said that if a woman looks at the sloth in the later stages of her pregnancy the baby will emerge with the same lethargic characteristics.
In fact, it turns out that the biggest traditional villains of the Amazon have merely been suffering from bad press. According to our tour guide, piranahs don´t eat tourists, tourists eat piranhas. They might bite you if there is very low water and few fish in the lagoons and nothing else to eat but they won´t swarm.
The evil-looking caiman are often hunted for their meat but do not often return the favour. And, despite JLo and Ice Cube´s experiences in that monumentally crappy movie, giant animatronic anacondas do not stalk every passing tourist boat.
Piss Off Pizarro
But the real charm of the Amazon lies in its timelessness. Scientists estimate that the river originated 11 million years ago. It was here before we were and will quite probably be here long after we are gone. According to one guidebook scientists now believe that human settlements existed from 20,000 years ago. Satellite pictures have indicated the presence of at least one of the fabled lost cities that the Spaniards were told about but scientific expeditions have so far failed to reach it.
Despite the influx of T-shirts from European football clubs, the lifestyle here is basically the same as it was before the Spanish arrived. It certainly put things into perspective for my mother, who – by Amazon standards – is a mere babe in arms.
On our final night the 81-year-old Diva of the Delfin II was presented with a surprise birthday cake and serenaded with everything from El Condor Pasa to the Beatles.
My mother is an incurable proselytizer. No sooner had we had our last glimpse of the sinuous river through the plane window and been restored to the convenience of the internet that she shot off her first assessment of the trip:
“No sense of hierarchy or top-down management visible on this boat … I would like to replicate that equity management style in all tourism. If we humans are stupid enough to succeed in destroying “our” world, life in the Amazon will still somehow continue to evolve. If this is the uncivilized world, then let's all hurry back”
I suspect she won´t have much time for selecting hymns in the foreseeable future.
About the writer
Juliet Solomon lives and writes in Peru. Her book about her experiences in Lima,“Yes…But It´s Different Here”is available on Amazon.com.