Life is everywhere in the upper Amazon wilderness. Life that creeps, crawls, slithers, sprouts, burrows, scurries and slinks – and dies. Dank odours rise from the mulching forest floor.
Nature is on fast-forward here. Trees jostle each other in the search for a share of the sunlight; they grow to enormous heights and spread their foliage like a green umbrella at the top. Creatures use stunts and flim-flam to befuddle or repel predators, lure prey, seduce mates and gobble food. Caterpillars masquerade as snakes, plants imitate the smell of rotting meat to attract flies as pollinators, and trees rely on fish to distribute their seeds when the rivers flood.
Not all cruises are on ocean-going palaces where hundreds of passengers flop in deck chairs between all-you-can-gorge buffets and shore excursions to trendy shopping venues. There are alternatives – so-called niche cruises, which use smaller ships that go to destinations inaccessible to bigger vessels.
Fewer guests mean a more intimate travel experience that emphasizes history, culture and respect for the environment. I am one of 24 passengers cruising the Peruvian Amazon, aboard La Amatista, a 38-metre replica of the riverboats owned by 19th century Amazon rubber barons.
In a one-week program developed by International Expeditions, we visit rain forest villages, fish for piranha, and watch a shaman display his arsenal of herbal cures. We sail 482-kilometres on the Amazon and its tributaries; along the way we spot exotic birds and animals – but no other tourists.
My perception of the Amazon had been largely coloured by old documentaries and fanciful tales of lost cities, 18-metre snakes and Indians with blowguns and poison darts. I was in for a surprise.
It begins with a warning from Robinson Rodriguez, one of our two naturalist guides.
"The Amazon is not a zoo. We do not know what we will see today. Every day is different out here, and we will see what we see. We never know."
The Amazon experience is quite different from an African safari, where big game is easily spotted. Amazon animals are well camouflaged. Rodriguez says that in 17 years as a nature guide he has never seen a jaguar.
The next morning our group boards two 12-metre, steel-hulled skiffs and zoom off toward the shore. It is dawn, nature's rush hour. Everywhere, there is the chirp and warble of birds. Among our first non-ornithological sighting is the world's slowest mammal, the sloth. It stares at us with beady eyes set in a flat face and a round head, anchored with long curved claws upside-down in a tree.
"Once a week the sloth climbs down the tree to defecate at its base," Rodriguez says, squinting into his binoculars. "It does this to nourish the tree from which it eats the leaves."
We would see dozens of other creatures throughout the week – otters, turtles, monkeys, caimans and the fabled pink dolphins of the Amazon.
But after the first day, it became apparent that the most interesting species here is homo sapiens.
Riberenos – "people of the bank" – comprise 85 per cent of the Peruvian jungle population. They are mestizos, mixed Spanish and Indian, whose ancestors came to work on the rubber plantations in the 1880s.
You'll never see a ribereno in a tourist brochure for the Amazon rain forest. They don't wear colourful costumes, they're not headhunters, they don't wear strange lip ornaments – and if they're not overly friendly it's only because they're busy making a living. Mostly, they raise chickens and fruits to sell in local markets – and it's not easy.
The banks are lined with villages made up of neat, thatched-roof houses on stilts. Every one has a school and a soccer field. Men fish, women wash clothes, children swim, pigs wallow.
At the village of Nuevo Curahuaytillo (population about 50), we watch barefoot boys dribble soccer balls around a makeshift field with goals fashioned from logs. Women walk erect under water pots.
The community consists of a small huddle of dwellings surrounded by exuberant tropical foliage. In the distance are harvested rice paddies bristling with stubble. The school is an open wooden building whose faded colour is more a memory of blue than actual blue.
A teacher named Carmen invites us to join a classroom of 19 primary pupils, who shyly smuggle giggles to each other. They introduce themselves and sing songs, including the Peruvian national anthem. Their innocence seems shining and intact. We have brought school supplies – pens, pencils, notebooks, rulers – that we give to the teacher.
We have been cautioned not to give the children money.
"Our Amazon children are not beggars," says Rodriguez, "and we don't want them to become beggars." In the village of Curandero, we meet Tito Armas Panaito, a shaman, or rain forest healer, who is wearing cargo pants, a striped T-shirt and Reebok running shoes.
"My mother left me the gift when she died," he says with Rodriguez as a translator. "I was 10 years old. After many years of study, I began practising."
Panaito passes us his botanical remedies – lemon juice for insomnia, wild basil for saladenas ("bad luck"), mistletoe for healing broken bones after they are set, wild garlic for gallstones.
Like most Amazon shamans, Panaito has no successor in sight.
"Each time one of our shamans dies without passing his arts on to the next generation," Rodriguez says, "the world loses thousands of years of irreplaceable knowledge about medicinal plants. It's as if a library has burned down."
The next evening, in grey, creeping twilight, we board the skiffs and head up the River Pacaya. The boat slices through meadows of surface plants that clog the propeller. We step off and walk down a jungle path. Stopping in a clearing, Rodriguez instructs us to turn off all flashlights and listen. In the inky void, our ears focus on the night hum of the forest: cicadas grinding their scissors, the excited jabber of monkeys, an owl filling the night with questions.
On the return trip to La Amatista, the dark sky veined and forked with lightning, and then unzipped a rain of Biblical proportions. We go to our cabins drenched, but happy.