Watch out for those jaws.
In the jungle darkness, the reddish glint of the spectacled caiman's eyes betrayed her as she lurked silently, just below the water's surface. So as night fell on this remote corner of the Amazon rain forest in northeastern Peru, 27 passengers in a steel skiff looked on in astonishment as the yellowish-green reptile was wrestled aboard by one of the guides, to be inspected, photographed, then slipped back into the murky creek.
A relative of the crocodile, with facial contours that lend it an earnest, professorial appearance, the spectacled caiman is famously aggressive, keen to sink its needle-point teeth into anything that moves. This one was about a metre long, perhaps 18 months old and clearly displeased.
"Can I hold her for a moment?" the group's most voluble member piped up. Absolutely not, replied guide Usiel Vasquez, the beast firmly in his grip as the cameras flashed.
"You would not have all your fingers when you finished."
Ecotourism is thriving in dozens of venues worldwide, often hailed as a win-win strategy that raises awareness about endangered wildlife and fragile habitats – and injects cash into needy communities – by bringing travellers as up-close as possible.
And it doesn't get much closer than this, here in protected parkland on the Maranon River, 40 kilometres upstream from where it joins the Ucayali River to become the mighty Amazon.
Nine countries share the vast, 7,000,000-square-kilometre Amazon basin, and most is in Brazil. But 13 per cent lies in Peru. This rain forest is definitely not for everybody. If humid, tropical jungle teeming with reptiles, huge insects, predatory fish and sinister-looking plants holds no appeal, go elsewhere.
Plenty do. Of the record 2.8-million foreign visitors Peru hosted in 2012, less than 4,000 visited the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a pristine 21,000-square kilometre expanse and the largest protected refuge in South America. That's fewer than troop through Peru's Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and nearby Cusco on a busy day.
A boat is the only way to get inside Pacaya Samiria, a triangle-shaped protected area that's home to more than 40,000 indigenous people, and a refuge for endangered species of all types.
I am here on a pretty decent one. Were it a hotel, the five-level Queen Violeta, built in 2006, measuring about 50 metres by 10 and with an average cruising speed of six knots, might rate three to four stars: clean cabins, tasty Peruvian-oriented cuisine, a well-stocked bar, dinner-hour entertainment from crew members who morphed into musicians, and hammocks on the top deck.
But that's hardly the reason to come here.
The rain forest's biological diversity is legendary – 14,000 different mammals, 1,500 types of birds and 1,000-plus amphibians. Encountered for the first time it is breathtaking, a dazzling array of colour and sound.
"You can come here 20 times and each time it will be different," said tour leader Jorge Curo as the skiff chugged through the darkness and back to the main ship.
But you had better be with people who know what they're doing.
If you want to handle an anaconda, catch and eat a fierce, red-bellied piranha (crunchy) or examine a tarantula the size of an ashtray, this is the place. A hike through towering vegetation along the river bank? No problem. Just watch where you put your hands and feet, and be mindful of the highly venomous fer-de-lance snake; a good-size specimen was killed one evening, next to the boat.
At the right spot in the river, you can even dive in and swim with pink dolphins – an exhilarating experience, especially in a torrential rain. But it had better be the right spot (look for where the water is dark and glassy). If not, some seriously unpleasant parasitic fish may join you on your dip.
The company behind this particular trip, G Adventures, has specialized in such jaunts for years, and its experience showed during the seven days. Other tour companies – there are more than 20 based in fast-growing Iquitos, where the voyage started and finished – are also well run, in an increasingly competitive trade. Certainly you can pay more than this group of Canadian, American and British tourists did, and there are some pricey jungle lodges, too.
But what made the adventure sparkle was the expertise of the three Peruvian tour guides – walking encyclopedias about all things Amazonian, fluent in English and passionate about their precious heritage.
Not all the travellers were in top physical shape, nor did most know more than a couple of words of Spanish. With a blend of showmanship and well-honed good humour, the guides quickly became friends, yelling encouragement as the gringos clambered in and out of the boats, and up and down muddy jungle trails.
The program encompassed a cultural component – visits to small, riverside communities of indigenous Amerindians, who seemed glad enough to meet us. But exotic wildlife remained the chief draw. Peru's rain forest brims with it – not as thousands of different species, it swiftly becomes evident, but as a giant organism in which all the life forms, including the humans, connect and sustain each other.
As the rivers recede in August, for example, the banks are dotted with holes, left behind by catfish and now the homes of snakes and birds.
More than 800 species of birds live in the Peruvian Amazon (the country is home to more species than any other), and we encountered dozens: kingfishers, parakeets, egrets and herons; squawking macaws, martins, woodpeckers, cormorants and toucans (not the best fliers in the jungle), hopping from treetop to treetop high above the thick growth.
A rain forest, one quickly discovers, is made up of layers, and the plant life at ground level is extraordinary: giant, cartoon-like ficus trees; strange walking palm trees that move around the forest floor looking for sunlight; vines and lianas dangling from high up in the forest canopy; fungi, huge flowers and ferns, epiphytes – plants that grow out of tree trunks – and that brightly coloured spiky thing you almost put your hand on.
Reptiles, too, abound – about 180 types. We saw snakes, green poison-dart frogs, a rare endangered black caiman and iguanas the size of small dogs lumbering around in the trees.
Plus all those mammals. In the Peruvian Amazon alone there are almost 300 species, big and small, from monkeys of all kinds to bats, agoutis – nimble rodents that resemble big guinea pigs – and (ever more rare) jaguars. A family of four giant otters, also hunted close to extinction for their waterproof hides, was spotted flopping into the river, and at one point the skiff paused on a rescue mission: a baby three-toed sloth with its distinctively circled eyes was stranded on a tree stump, resembling a forlorn-looking ET.
On the outskirts of Iquitos, the capital of Loreta region and hub of the Peruvian Amazon, is a manatee rehabilitation centre. Here orphaned manatees – endangered, gentle vegetarians popular as pets by some rural Peruvians – are nurtured in pools and fed from bottles, later to be freed and trackedwith chips.
Peruvian authorities will tell you they are striving to conserve the rain forest – dubbed "the lungs of the Earth" because it absorbs up to 20 per cent of the planet's carbon output. But the pressures remain formidable, and each year, here and elsewhere in the Amazon basin, the forest continues to shrink.
In neighbouring Ecuador last month, the government scrapped plans to protect 10,000-plus square kilometres and announced that oil drilling would go ahead, saying economic dictates left it no choice.
And in Peru, which has 70 million hectares of tropical forest, an estimated 224,000 hectares are lost each year to oil drilling, logging and the migration of farmers from the highlands, United Nations data show. How to slow that process? Tourism like this can help, suggests my guide Curo, who earned a degree in biology before joining G Adventures as a tour leader.
"We want people to learn about conservation because they can help save this place," he said. "But you cannot just go looking for wildlife – this is also about the communities around here, the cultural stuff. Me, I want to be optimistic and think the visitors who come can respect the ideas and culture of the people who live here in the Amazon, and not just take pictures."
IF YOU GO
The Amazon Riverboat Adventure is a nine-day trip departing year-round. The next available voyages depart Oct. 26, Dec. 7 and Dec. 21. Fares from $2,449 a person do not include flights to Lima. For more information, call 1-888-800-4100 or visit gadventures.com.
Tim Appleby is a former Globe and Mail foreign correspondent and crime reporter. He travelled courtesy of G Adventures, which did not read or approve this story.