Our guide promises us a gentle twilight cruise on the Rio Madre de Dios.
After half a day of travelling, my husband and I have just arrived at our lodge in the Amazon rain forest. We’re knocked sideways by the tropical heat. A sedate outing sounds appealing.
“It will be very relaxing,” says Alan Huisa de la Pena as he introduces himself as our leader for the next four days.
So we join eight other travellers aboard a wooden longboat and set out to spot white and black caimans, night monkeys and maybe a jaguar slipping down to the water’s edge to drink.
After just a few minutes, we run aground on shoals in shallow water. The second the motor stops, we see dark shapes slide down the nearby rocks, followed by gentle splashes.
Every childhood nightmare I’ve ever had is coming true.
But I’m determined to overcome my fears of the Amazon at night because I don’t want it to stop me from experiencing the splendours of the rain forest during the day.
We sit in stillness and listen to the cacophony of night creatures. The helmsman and his deputy make several attempts to power us forward – then backward.
Eventually, they slip barefoot over the side and into the water. My mind drifts to the hazards lurking under the surface of a river whose name translates as “Mother of God.” It turns out the boatmen need our help.
All of us on board must rock the boat in order to slip free. We lunge back and forth – some so energetically it seems the aged watercraft will capsize or break apart.Then suddenly – amazingly – we are free and back on our way.
“All part of the adventure,” says Alan, as he turns to casting his lantern on the banks and trees.
With that bout of excitement behind us, the night sky and the inky water do seem more tranquil. By the time we make it back to the warm torchlight of our lodge, we’ve spotted the promised caimans. I am relaxed – but also exhilarated – as we gather around the bar.
Our home base for this rain forest adventure is Hacienda Concepcion. It’s an eco-friendly lodge opened last year by the Peru-based Inkaterra group on a former cocoa and rubber plantation.
The Hacienda is aimed at travellers who find Inkaterra’s five-star Reserva Amazonica (a little farther down the river) too tame. This resort is smaller, less expensive and set deeper in the jungle.
To get here, Jim and I have flown to Puerto Maldonado in south-east Peru, then boarded a boat for a 20-minute trip downriver, followed by a short hike. Our room is one of eight in the two-storey main lodge, while members of our group stay in private cabanas down by the lagoon. The light cedar construction of the lodge makes it feel open to the jungle, but we’re well-protected behind screens. Ceilings soar to a roof of hand-tied thatch.
At breakfast, we get a better look at our group from last night.
Since all 10 of us arrived the day before, we will do all of our excursions together. We’re a diverse bunch, including young honeymooners from England, a couple from the U.S. Midwest and a trans-Atlantic pair rekindling their romance after 30 years.
“It’s like summer camp for grown-ups,” my husband, Jim, says as we set off for Lake Sandoval.
Back on the river, we board the same wooden boat for the trip to the Tambopata Reserve, a closely protected area of bio-diversity and a sanctuary for some of the Amazon’s most endangered creatures. The sun is an orange ball above misty treetops, and, as we travel downstream, the landscape that seemed so threatening the night before is ethereal in the morning light.
At the ranger’s station, we register our passport numbers before we trek for three kilometres into the forest.
About one kilometre in I realize why. Alan stops, and points out the marshy territory underfoot and the dense canopy above.
“This is ideal territory for anacondas,” he says, adding that the world’s largest snake can reach a length of more than nine metres and weigh more than 225 kilograms.