Machu, Machu Man
Swamps, snakes, savages… The Peruvian wilderness isn’t for lightweights — it’s a jungle out there, says Freddy Barker
On arrival in Lima, you soon realise that bugs immune to insect repellent aren’t the only risk. The cab journey from Chavez Airport to Miraflores (think Mayfair) is quite the cultural introduction. Seemingly the Peruvians regard lanes and lights as suggestions, while speed in this demolition derby is decided not by law but by what your motorised death-trap can handle.
The city is best viewed on foot. Far from the armpit of the universe, it’s very 21st-century. Skyscrapers and security men line every street, but not in a Little America way like Santiago in Chile. Rather, Lima is sweating with colonial architecture. A hangover from Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors of the 1530s, it crystallises in everything from German Baroque to Italian Renaissance to Russian Gothic, all coloured in pinks, oranges and yellows to counter the typically grey skies.
Scour the guidebooks and you’ll read how run-down downtown is. They cite examples such as the Hotel Bolivar, which was once the smartest hotel but since the Seventies has plummeted from five stars to three — yet this misses the point. As with former Communist Europe (especially Budapest), noble rot adds to the style. The locals regard the centre as a slum, but they haven’t caught on to the European epiphany that the beauty of buildings is not in their freshly born states but in the tales that their dents and chinks whisper.
To be fair, the realisation that your heritage is worth saving only comes from perspective. A taxi driver summed up the dilemma: ‘The Australians are surrounded by kangaroos but they don’t care. Equally, we are surrounded by ruins.’
Someone needs to decree otherwise if the City of Kings is to be saved. Watching roads being built through the third-century temple Huaca Pucllana, seeing churches being converted into cinemas and hearing about Peruvians visiting Miami before Machu Picchu paints a picture of a country in danger of sacrificing its own identity for someone else’s.
At Two With Nature
Lima’s metropolis is alien to the rest of Peru. It’s not just the culture, it’s also the weather. The capital gets two inches of rain per annum, meaning no one owns an umbrella, whereas from the Amazon to the Andes, the heavens machine-gun the earth. It’s not called a rainforest for nothing.
Flying to the jungle takes 90 minutes. The journey, only possible by air, instantly gives one a sense of the extremities to come. The Peruvian Amazon is the second largest jungle in the world — behind the Brazilian Amazon. The Amazon is as large as the USA and a third of the planet’s species reside there. It is Eden. I was up bright and early for the 6.30am bird-watching, jumping aboard the skiff to investigate the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a swamp close to the size of Belgium.
You need good eyes to spot animals in the Amazon. You have to peer intently into the undergrowth — a thousand shades of green, the curtains of foliage either side of the river part only occasionally to allow glimpses at the feral inhabitants. But the real action starts onshore, as you don’t so much see a jungle as feel it. The bites, heat and claustrophobic vegetation are all-consuming. The ecosystem around you is so pregnant with danger that you cannot sense beyond the present. This is after all a land where the beasts run wilder than your imagination.
The Pacaya Samiria National Reserve is far from a colour block on a map; it’s a rainbow with a wild vitality to it. When walking through the bush, you’re painfully aware that you’re not alone. Snakes hissing on the ground, insects buzzing in your face, monkeys whooping above your head: the jungle is everything and nothing. To triumph over this orgy of nature is the apex of human achievement, because it lays the foundation for everything else.
It’s 10am. The sun is merciless. The air itself is sweating. I’m gliding across the Maranon, an Amazon tributary half the width of the Serpentine and twice as murky. Bewildered faces stare out from the riverbank, which is hardly surprising as this encampment of ten huts and 150 people has never been visited before, so the 500-ton Aria may as well be a UFO.
As I land at Arianza it’s unclear who’s more hesitant — the natives or me. Out of a swarm of children emerge two village elders — one a woman seemingly aged 150, the other a squat, shoeless, athletic man wearing a purple football shirt and piercing gaze. ‘My name is Milko,’ he says.
After a response in Spanish worthy of Basil Fawlty, I let my translator take over, asking why these people are happier than tourists. ‘We have everything we need to survive,’ the chief says. ‘The forest is a green pharmacy.’ When I point out the difference between sustained and nourished souls, he says: ‘Ninety-five per cent of my village are Christian evangelists. What keeps us happy is our belief in God.’ This leaves me wondering whether simplicity is what Westerners lack.
I ask for a tour, suspicious that the indigenous Amazonian tribes play up to tourists, doing the dance of the dollar before retreating for Buds in front of TV soaps. But a short stroll reveals neither this nor the sun-baked stereotype. Indeed, they appear actively to reject 21st-century life. Why not, too, as they don’t have to pay for food, land or taxes?
Yet there are recognisable rituals, football being the most obvious. In a hamlet of ten reed-thatched wooden shacks lies the most immaculate pitch. The pride of the community, its grass is perfectly level, its borders lined with benches, and its commentary system — the only sign of electricity for miles — is on. Every year Milko and his tribesmen host a rainforest cup where men, women and children gather from villages near and far. Yet the real sport starts at night as, for these isolated communities, jamborees like these present an excellent opportunity to stir the gene pool.
Talking of pools, there’s no better way of washing away the jungle than in the open-air plunge pool of the Aria. A floating boutique hotel, this sixteen-suite vessel, a blend of earth-toned hardwoods and panoramic windows, is the best way to navigate the Amazon without sacrificing creature comforts. Over three, four or seven nights, you and 30 other adventurers witness the full spectrum of God’s progeny.
What makes the enterprise special is that you don’t encounter any other tourists. Exploring from dawn till dusk makes for a continuous adventure. Although strenuous, it’s countered by three trips to the dining room daily, with menus designed by chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino — South America’s Heston Blumenthal — so what you eat on the water is just as exotic as what you see on the land. Tasting menus of Peruvian fusion food from catfish caviar to grilled paiche to chilli marshmallows have lured even the likes of Ferran Adrià aboard the Aria. But high-profile guests bring challenges: two years ago it was robbed twice in a week by armed bandits. ‘They were bad times. I was blown away,’ confides the owner, Francesco Galli Zugaro.
Considerable efforts have been made since then. Although it’s impossible to patrol all 7,000 miles of the Amazon, heightened security has been added to the Iquitos area, where fifteen lodges and five boats operate, with the Aria in particular guarded night and day.
So is the nineteen-hour journey from London worth it? At £600 per person per night, the Aria looks good value beside African lodges at £1,000. Moreover, the latter tend to suffer from being in a fixed spot which scares away wildlife, while life on the Aria keeps you away from the bugs, gives you a speedboat breeze to counter the 35°C sun, and allows you to cover more ground, maximising your chances of seeing wildlife.
As with any nature-based holiday, though, satisfaction is not guaranteed. The kings of the jungle — jaguars and anacondas — are rare. And the general rule for other beasts is ‘be seen and be eaten’, so they do their utmost to hide. You have to put your faith in the Aria’s Iquitos-raised naturalists to breathe life into the world’s living lung. And they do it — one, Victor, jumped into the river at night, bats swarming overhead, to wrestle a cayman.
The Amazon river is the lifeblood of the indigenous tribes, and a trip to its source will have a lasting effect on you even once you’re back in the concrete jungle — not least as Air France sprays insect repellent on you before allowing you to fly home.
Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, journeylatinamerica.com) offers a week in Peru, with three nights in Lima and four nights with Aqua Expeditions’ M/V Aria (aquaexpeditions.com), starting from £3,733pp, including all flights and full board on the cruise.
Freddy Barker is head of the Spear’s research unit