Our sleek, modern 130-foot boat, the Aqua, has set out to bring luxury to one of the earth’s most daunting wildernesses. When we caught sight of it from our excursionary skiffs, it looked as out of place against the torn shores of the tempestuous waterway as Fitzcarraldo’s boat pulled up a mountain. Sometimes, conversely, we would lie on beautiful pillows and gaze out huge plate-glass windows, and the torrid water and dense jungle seemed like multimedia projections because they were so incongruous with our urbane suite.
The Aqua was conceived of and built by Francesco Galli Zugaro, a dashing 36-year-old who rides on the boat for a few days each month. It is the love project of his fertile imagination, and his exuberant aura of discovery seems woven into its very fabric. He has had to contend with a turbulent debut: not long after our trip, the Aqua was twice attacked by armed bandits, who made off with guests’ valuables. No one was hurt, fortunately, and security has since been dramatically increased, provided by the Peruvian Navy and the national police.
The Aqua was designed and decorated by the noted Peruvian architect Jordi Puig with the spare, elegant coolness of Richard Meier: wall panels of soft white lighting, bathrooms with the latest eco-sensitive technology, Brazilian slate walls, floors of handsome local wood, California king–size beds, and those astonishing outer walls of glass. It’s as if 12 rooms from the W Hotel had decided to run away to sea together. The boat holds 26 passengers and 21 crew members, so the feeling is intimate. The menus were devised by Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Malabar, one of Lima’s leading chefs, to meld jungle flavors and classic dishes: a soufflé made of fresh hearts of palm; broth of armored catfish with wild cilantro; a warm passion-fruit tart that sang in the mouth.
It is a truism of cruises that staff tend to be jolly, but it is in general a rather forced jolliness. On this trip, the staff seemed genuinely to be having a good time. They worked like the dickens: a team of trained naturalists who could whistle the call of any bird or primate, seducing them into view as surely as the Pied Piper, or spot a camouflaged toad at night as we careened by in the skiff; a bartender who could make a mean camu-camu-infused pisco sour. When we returned to the boat at the end of an occasional night tour, going in our dark skiffs around a bend in the dim river, the miracle of the Aqua struck us again: it looked like some river-bound constellation recently fallen from the night sky.
We explored the black water, the stiller areas, rich in tannins, which reflect everything as in a glass, darkly. On one particularly memorable day, we took the skiff for almost five hours until we found a lagoon so dense with floating water lettuce and water lilies that it covered the entire surface, and we motored slowly through what appeared to be a field, an impression made stronger by the long-legged jacana birds that skittered across the unmoored plants. The green parted for, then closed behind, us; earth was water, and water, earth. In a tree at the end of this green wonderland we found a three-toed sloth, perhaps nature’s weirdest creation, E.T. draped in a moth-eaten fur coat. The name “sloth” suggests laziness, but a sloth’s slowness is more like that of a smack addict. They hang from branches, turning their heads as if tomorrow might lie in any direction, occasionally munching on the hallucinogenic leaves of the cecropia tree. That night, we went to see nocturnal creatures, and I expressed regret that it was impossible to photograph the spectacled caiman, a carnivorous reptile closely related to the crocodile. Minutes later, while the captain held his legs, our valiant guide, Víctor Coelhos, cantilevered himself off the front of the skiff, plunged his arms into the muddy waters, and lifted a squirming juvenile into the air, holding it in such a way that we could photograph it and it could not remove his fingers.
If you go to the rain forest during the rainy season, chances are you will encounter rain. We did, but it was usually brief, sometimes giving way to clear skies and more frequently to clouds that softened the heat. On our penultimate day, we came through a dense patch of water hyacinths and found ourselves looking head-on at a rainbow, and as we drew in our breath, a flock of perhaps 40 green parrots skittered across our path. Pink is the navy blue of Amazonia: there were not only the pink river dolphins we loved, but also the pink-toed tarantulas and cascades of pink morning glories, more delicate than bougainvillea, a confetti dangled over the black water. In a week, we had traveled 500 miles, from Iquitos to the Pacaya River and back, and seen more than 80 species of birds, two dozen kinds of mammals, and an eccentric array of fish and reptiles. I had draped an anaconda around my neck, and then a boa constrictor; we had fished for piranhas with stick-poles. We had been received in one village by dancers and musicians, and in another by the old men who repaired the nets and broke the husks off rice. We had learned the names and cries of the prehistorically plumed hoatzins (pronounced “watseens”), the red howler monkeys, and the horned screamers with daft feather-like tufts on their foreheads. We had seen parrots and macaws, toucans of every shape and size, and, once, an anteater up in a tree. We had learned (but did not exercise this knowledge) that you can scoop up termites and rub them between your hands to make a natural mosquito repellent. We had seen dragonflies with red heads like matchsticks, and blue morpho butterflies, cerulean as the eyes of a fairy-tale princess. Everywhere we found water hyacinths in bloom; Monet’s lily pond had nothing on these streams. At night, in perfect isolation, we had gaped at a sky overcrowded with jostling stars and striped with the Milky Way.