“Big cat! Puma?” I hiss in the dark to my three amigas. We’re tucked inside our mosquito nets on the deck of Dawn on the Amazon. A wild creature is making a throat-clearing sound in the jungle. Perhaps it’s choking on someone’s femur. We’d be terrified if we hadn’t been drinking gin, pisco and wine.
The next morning, I impersonate the wild animal’s coughing sounds to our Peruvian crew to determine if it was a puma. Edson, our helmsman, says, “Dolphins.” Dolphins? Dolphin lovers can hate me now, but there’s something creepy about the pink dolphins in the Amazon River. My friends (a burlesque performer, a human rights activist and a credit risk manager) and I have been making dolphin rape jokes (as in dolphins raping people) since we flew into Iquitos, the jungle capital of Peru. Half of Peru consists of the Amazon jungle, yet only five percent of the population lives there. There aren’t any roads to Iquitos. The only way to arrive is by plane or boat.
Our guide tells us of a legend: The pink dolphins turn into handsome men, seduce girls, make them pregnant and then the dolphin-men return to their dolphin forms and the river. Sounds more like a fib to explain an accidental pregnancy to me — but I’m not letting dolphins off the hook.
On our three-night and four-day private boat cruise, we see pods of pink dolphins from the safety of our hammocks and are offered opportunities to swim with them, which we decline. We also use flashlights at night to spot the glowing red eyes of caimans (alligatorid crocodilian), one of which we catch and release. During the day, we see a birder’s paradise of birds. Peru has more than 1,800 species of birds, 120 of which aren’t found elsewhere, and it is reputed to have more species than anywhere else in the world. Plus we admire an acrobatic sloth (as far as sloths go), billiard table-sized lily pads, troops of monkeys, and we catch fish for our supper.
I catch seven piranhas in a row (I could do this all day) and then Edson asks us if we’d like to go swimming. He doesn’t appear to be joking — once again we decline, but swimming does happen later when well away from the piranha-infested waters. There is also a live chicken on board Dawn on the Amazon (not running around on deck but housed discreetly in the galley). The best way to keep meat fresh in the equatorial heat — is keep it alive until cooking time.
Bill Grimes, the owner of Dawn on the Amazon (the boat), also owns one of the best restaurants in Iquitos, which is named Dawn on the Amazon Cafe. Their sweet potato in passion fruit sauce is orgasmic. An equal amount of care goes into flavor as it does into preparing the food so it is safe for travelers. You can let your guard down and eat salads and drink cocktails made with ice, knowing that they have used purified water. Dawn on the Amazon happily (and expertly) caters to special dietary needs both on board the boat and in the cafe.
Cruise prices are $209 per day, per person, based on two participants, and are $169 per day, per person, based upon a group of six. Though six on board could result in an Agatha Christie “Death on the Nile” or even “And Then There Were None” scenario, if you don’t all really like each other, due to close quarters. The price includes all meals, your fabulous crew, cook and English-speaking guide (all of whom are sleeping on the deck as well). It’s definitely an adventure (with service) — and one that boasts a toilet with a great view.
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Dawn on the Amazon: offers a variety of tours, cruises and jungle lodge stays.
Accommodation before and after your cruise: Enjoy a night at the museum. Casa Morey Hotel is a former rubber baron’s mansion on the waterfront in Iquitos. It is old-world opulence with modern-day conveniences such as refreshing air conditioning and Wi-Fi. The suites are only around $70 per night for a single ($95 double), and their tall French doors overlook a courtyard and quiet pool, or the river. Book in advance because there are only 14 suites. The staff is friendly and helpful, plus the hotel offers complimentary airport pick-up and breakfast.