Peru: Go with the flow

Simon Calder experiences perfection on a freewheeling trip on the Amazon

Perfect green: that defines the amazingly narrow yet startling spectrum of the Amazon rainforest. And it also happens to define what I have right here. They are perfectly green, fresh and clean, and I am counting them out: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50. Five $10 bills, straight from the US Mint, and the perfect conclusion to a trip as close to ideal as you could ever wish for in travel. Here you are, Segundo –
gracias y hasta la próxima.

Aboard the Río Amazonas, Segundo Mesia fulfils a range of roles: tour director, ensuring the merry band of tourists – mainly American – are kept informed, fed and entertained. He was born in Iquitos, one end of the usual voyage of this most unusual vessel. Río Amazonas (the ship, as opposed to the body of water) was built on the Clyde in 1896. She sailed across to the Río Amazonas (the world's greatest waterway) as part of the merchant fleet that linked the UK with the Amazon. The city of Iquitos, hub of Peru's Amazonia, is inaccessible by road or rail. So until the aircraft was invented, Liverpool was closer to Iquitos than was Lima.

For the 19th-century mariners from Merseyside and Clydeside, the banks of the Amazon must have felt like a different planet. In the 21st century, it still does. The locals are friendly – or at least the ones to which Segundo introduces us. He speaks a dozen alien languages, being able to summon up the cry of Technicolor birds, the electrical chatter of outsize insects and the howls that earned the Amazon's apes their names. We met heckling howler monkeys, slothful sloths and a million other creatures on our frequent trips ashore.

As it happens, we also met Peru's leading living artist. Francisco Grippa (go on, Google him) studied and painted in Paris, New York and Lima, but has chosen to make his home – and his studio – in the village of Pevas. This village is midway between Iquitos and Santa Rosa, the eastern end of the ship's shuttle. It comprises a ramshackle straggle of huts and houses that seems to have grown organically from the forest. But towering above the urban huddle is a jungle mansion that doubles as a studio – and trebles as a gallery.

"I can paint here like nowhere else I know," says the artist, pouring a beer for any of the ship's visiting passengers who wants one. "If I need an idea I just look at the rainforest, the river and the sky, and I feel inspired."

The best viewpoint in the Amazonian basin for this constantly changing universe is directly above his studio. A series of timber ladders clambers to a mirador with a tin roof, which gives a splendid sweep above the jungle. Inspired by the bold colours in the gallery below, you can discern the greens within greens that make the forest so entrancing – and compare the soupy, brown Amazon with the soupy, brown skies.

At river level, earth and sky are separated by the thin green line of low-lying land topped with vegetation so thick that Segundo needs the sharpest machete in the Amazon to cut a path through it. Every expedition on to land, though, is compensated with hours of blissful indolence aboard the Río Amazonas. "Like Death on the Nile, only it's not the Nile, and nobody's died" reads one of the more legible notes in my journal. I started writing nonsense all too easily, as the endless flow from breakfast to chatter to coffee to natter to lunch to nap to, gosh is that the time, beer, to dinghy for night expedition accompanied by an orchestral cacophony, finally to bed while the vessel purrs through the night and through South America's dark heart.

In some of the more energetic moments I contemplated the absurd statistics of the river. Is the Amazon or the Nile the longest in the world? The average Amazonian cares not two hoots. Their river undulates just south of the equator, and carries about one-fifth of all the fresh water that enters the oceans worldwide. Even 3,000-plus kilometres upstream from the mouth, it is so wide that it is effectively unbridgeable.

The collective drain for much of the northern part of South America is not just vast; it is also fast, with an average speed of 5km/h in the December-to-May rainy season. Should velocity be important to you, perhaps you should take the trip downstream from Iquitos to Santa Rosa, literally going with the flow. But if you simply want to experience the joy of the river, you won't care which way you're heading; immersion in the natural hyperactivity of Amazonian Peru is reward enough.

This is not a nation for people who just want to fly out and flop on a beach for a fortnight – though it has a long history of sun worshipping, and the national currency is the sol, or sun. This is a country with 10,000 years of history and 5,000 archaeological sites. Here in the sultry north-east, ancient history is thin on the ground – but that's because the ground is so bounteous, the rainforest so all-enveloping. Segundo knows it intimately, pointing out wild sugar cane hidden amid flowers the colour of fire on the banks of this serene superhighway.

This river is a giver of abundant life, as our guide explained during a visit to what amounted to a jungle pharmacy that promised herbal remedies for everything from rheumatism to impotence. There is a constant, happy alliteration of Amazon and amazement.

"Hasta la próxima". I wonder if I can really be true to Segundo, and return to take the Río Amazonas further upstream? Perfection is difficult to repeat.

Simon Calder paid £713 for a return flight via Miami on Virgin Atlantic and American Airlines. He travelled between Bogota and Leticia (across the river from Santa Rosa) on AeroRepublica for a one-way fare of £97, and between Iquitos and Peru on Star Peru for a one-way fare of £60. He paid $250 (£135) – plus a $50 (£27) tip – for a three-day cruise with Amazon Cruises (00 51 65 231611) based at Requena 334, Iquitos

Jungle style

Hard-core adventurers can still find all the thrills they want in Peru, but the high-end traveller who expects a bit of luxury has an increasing range of options. Cusco has the Hotel Monasterio, part of the Orient Express chain, and its sister is the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge at the gates of the ancient Inca site. Lima is attracting plenty of interest and investment in new boutique properties – and even the Amazon can offer increasing levels of luxury.

In Iquitos, the top place to stay is the El Dorado Plaza (00 51 65 222555; Facilities range from hot tub to disco. The foyer walls are decorated with the lush forest-inspired paintings by the artist Francisco Grippa.

For a genuine jungle experience, the established operator Amazon Explorama (00 51 65 252530; has over 35 years' experience and more than 500 beds spread across a spectrum of differently targeted lodge-style accommodation.

The company's most luxurious site is Ceiba Tops (pictured above), just 40 minutes' downstream by boat from the city. Its swimming pool gets visited at night by rare potoo birds, owl-like and visible under floodlights. An elegant restaurant serves delicious jungle fish, game and tropical vegetable dishes. Bungalows are tastefully finished with hot showers, flushing toilets and air-conditioning. Deeper into the forest, the company's ExplorNapo Lodge is located in a patch of primary rainforest; you can also try out one of only two canopy walkways so far constructed in the Peruvian rainforest.

Explorama's prices range from £50 to £200 a day, depending on size of group, length of trip and amount travelled between lodges or on excursions.

The round of daily tourism activities varies little between jungle lodges. Guided day walks follow trails in forest where typical flora, insects, birds, monkeys and other mammals like a sloth or wild boar might be spotted. Larger animals like tapirs and jaguars are around but very rarely observed even on safaris of more than a week or two.

Offering a rather different experience, the Iquitos based tour company Muyuna (00 51 65 242858; has a jungle lodge located upstream along the Río Amazonas about 120km (two or three hours by speedboat) on a black-water tributary, the Río Yanayacu. This river is extremely rich in fish, and also attracts exotic birds. Prices start at around £40 a day for full board, plus transport from Iquitos and an English-speaking guide.

Accommodation is in private mosquito-proof cabins each with shower and toilet and connected by wooden walkways to a large central communal space for meals, drinks and meeting guides or fellow travellers.

Luxury Amazon cruises have been launched this year by Aqua Expeditions ( These high-end river trips aboard the MV Aqua boast suites with extra-large windows, and are likely to prove very popular as the region opens up to tourism.

If you prefer to set things up in advance, companies such as Scott Dunn (020-8682 5030; can organise tailor-made trips to all parts of Peru, including the Amazon.

Suggested Topics

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
nflAtlanta Falcons can't count and don't know what the UK looks like
Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions

Powerful images of strays taken moments before being put down

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London