The faded jungle city of Iquitos was created by the 19th-century rubber boom, and is only accessible by air and water. It was here that I boarded the M/V Aria to sail west to the headwaters of the Amazon basin, where the Marañón and Ucayali rivers meet. The area is rich in wildlife but on this elegant, 16-suite vessel – built by Peruvian architect Jordi Puig with acres of wood and glass – gastronomy is also high on the agenda.
Each day we’d set out on motorised skiffs to explore the remote Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, where the Aria’s knowledgeable local guides spotted pink river-dolphins, sloth, monkeys, bats, caiman and an astonishing variety of birds.
Amazon kingfishers nose-dived for breakfast, prehistoric hoatzin perched in the trees like strange fruit, and we heard the strident horned screamer – which, according to our guides, “sounds like a donkey, walks like a duck and tastes like a chicken” – before we even saw it.
While much of the Amazon basin’s bounty is still untapped, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the Aria’s executive chef, has been dubbed the ‘Heston Blumenthal of South America’ for his use of unusual Amazonian ingredients at his Lima restaurants. Onboard, his delicious menus utilise as many local products as possible: chonta (heart of palm), paiche fish, cecina (dried, salted pork), minuscule freshwater shrimps and catfish (for kebabs).
At the ramshackle wooden market in Puerto Bellavista Nanay, men struggled to weigh still-jumping catfish, women sat on the floor peeling beans and the air was heavy with heat and smoke. Locals ate fish straight off the grill, washed down with a sweet mix of plantain, evaporated milk and sugar, or the even sweeter national institution, Inca Kola, a yellow soft-drink that smells and tastes like bubblegum.
The rainforest has its share of endemic super fruits – such as aguaje, rich in vitamin A. But it provides more than nourishment – it’s the world’s biggest pharmacy: 60% of medicines come from the Amazon.
On a rainforest walk we discovered that wild garlic can cure a fever, squashed termites make an effective mosquito repellent and suri grubs can help asthma – with the bonus of tasting like pork crackling when they’re fried.
Back on the Aria, I sipped on a jungle-style pisco sour, blended with cherry-sized camu-camu that, gramme for gramme, deliver 30 times as much vitamin C as oranges. It seemed even the cocktails in Peru are out of the ordinary.
Photography: Aqua Expeditions
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