South America has been around no longer than North America, and yet there seems to be more history in Peru: more pre-Columbian history and more colonial history and quite a lot of recent history. There are more birds in Peru, and they have more colors in their bright wings. More foods come originally from Peru—including both potatoes and tomatoes—than from any comparable square mileage anywhere else. There are more languages spoken in Peru, even if some are spoken by very few people. There are more climates there, packed in tight next to one another, most of the world’s ecosystems in narrow-wale stripes. When it rains, there is more rain; and when the sun is overhead, there is much, much more sun, and you need much more sunblock to survive it. The rivers are bigger and wider and faster, the earthquakes stronger. Peru has the Americas’ deepest canyon and the world’s driest desert. There is more luxury than you might have expected, even if there is also more privation than you might have hoped. There are definitely more holidays in Peru, because there is more faith in Peru, and from the darker wilds of the country on moonless nights, there seem to be more stars in the sky. It can get a little tiring, this maximalism; you wish from time to time that there were not so many waterfalls and inexplicable stone walls, but it cannot be denied that when you think of home from Peru, home seems pallid.
My partner and I began our trip with a week on the Amazon, which officially originates in northern Peru at the confluence of the Ucayali and Marañón rivers. The Amazon Basin has a dry and a rainy season, but it rains almost as much in one as in the other. It is more useful to think of them as the flooded and low-water seasons, for melting Andean snow and highland rains engorge the river between November and June, when it ignores its moderate winter banks and spills into the jungle that was previously its border, rising by as much as 40 feet. Geological time speeds up here. You can see riverine erosion and accretion as if you were watching a stop-motion film. We saw an entire grove of bamboo mudslide into the water, and, later, a snarl of the plants catch firmly on the opposite bank. The river’s water is brown with churned earth, and great messes of wood and broken things rush past you as if they were late for a party in Rio.
The canopy of the rain forest is more accessible when the river is flooded; indeed, you can float within reach of last month’s distant treetops. High-nesting birds are closer, though the soaked ground hampers walking. There are few large mammals, and the vegetation is so thick that one seldom sees them. Even our guides, jungle-born and -bred, had rarely spotted an ocelot, or a jaguar, or the world’s largest rodent, the two-foot-tall capybara. You visit the Amazon to see birds, monkeys, the pink river dolphins, and the much-maligned piranhas, and to bask in a seemingly limitless ecosystem. There are tiny villages and ranger stations here and there, and every so often a banana boat passes by on the main river, but essentially you are away from human habitat. There are no satisfactory maps of the Peruvian Amazon because it is in a state of permanent flux; it wriggles around like an insomniac, flinging itself this way and that way, rolling back to where it was in the first place, carving estuaries into yesterday’s land.