On the fourth day of our Amazon River Cruise with International Expeditions, we made our way deep into the remote heart of Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria Reserve– deeper than any other tour operator is able to go. The further into the reserve we went, the more animals we saw. The trip was a birdwatcher‘s dream come true: This brilliant Orange-Backed Troupial (the national bird of Venezuela) was one of several hundred birds we saw, and the first of many excellent wildlife species we spotted that day.
In all my world travel experience, I’ve only ever seen one owl in the wild during daylight hours (in the Galapagos Islands). Had our eagle-eyed naturalist guides not pointed it out, I’m fairly certain none of us would’ve spotted this Great Potoo either. It was so well camouflaged against a tree in the early morning hours, it was only when our skiff hit this angle that we were able to make out the feathers and beak of his side-profile.
We made our first stop of the day at Pacaya-Samiria Reserve Ranger Station #1.5, where we had a chance to use the restroom and meet some of the volunteer park rangers who work to protect the area’s rich wildlife from poachers. The open-air thatch hut was buzzing with bugs that laughed at our pathetic attempts to spray them away, which made us even more impressed by the rangers’ dedication to the wildlife conservation cause.
Taking photos of tropical flowers from a moving boat tends to be an exercise in futility. But, when we visited the ranger station bathroom, Mary and I noticed these Amazon Passion Flowers rising from the waters behind it. We loved its vibrant red color, the curled tendrils of the vine, and the black bees busily harvesting its nectar. So Mary held on tightly to my shirt as I leaned out over the water, 400mm zoom lens in hand, to get the angle on this shot.
We’ve seen quite a few howler monkeys in our travels (particularly in Costa Rica), but this was the first time we’d seen Red Howler Monkeys, which can be found throughout the Western Amazon Basin. These beauties typically live in groups of 5-7 (we actually saw one mama carrying a baby monkey from a distance), with one dominant male responsible for leading the group to new food sites and defending them from rivals. Their distinctive howling calls are amazing, and can be heard up to 5 km away.
It’s bizarre to find yourself in an Eden-like environment where parrots, parakeets and macaws can be spotted as frequently as bluejays and cardinals in our back yard. These Chestnut-Fronted Macaws were among our favorite Amazon bird species, with their white faces, brown patches on their head and chin, and blue and red patches on their wings providing a nice splash of color. But their somewhat aggressive nature, which begins at puberty, earned them the species name Ava Severus (or Severe Macaw).
Here’s an even better close-up shot of the crazy-looking Saki Monkey, which was previously featured in our Day 2 Photo Gallery. Doesn’t he kind of look like he’s wearing a Gene Simmons wig? Sakis are actually frugivores, with a diet that consists of over 90% unripe fruits and seeds supplemented by leaves, flowers and insects. Whatever this guy was eating, he was clearly engrossed by it, as he and his monkey pals took virtually no notice of our skiffs despite our relative proximity.
Around lunchtime, we finally arrived at our ultimate destination– the Pacaya-Samiria Ranger Station #2– which is the deepest point in the reserve travelers are allowed to visit. This is literally as far in the Peruvian Amazon as you can go, and we were excited about having lunch there and getting a chance to explore the area. Little did we know what an amazing surprise the rangers had waiting in store for us…
See that handsome fella there on the left, glaring at Mary out of the corner of his eye as she lines up the shot? He’s almost a dead ringer for our 4-year-old Aussie Shepherd/Beagle mix Huckleberry, whom we miss like the dickens every time we travel. So I was delighted to spend some “face time” with him and his more affectionate sibling, both of whom seemed to be in desperate need of attention (and food). We’re die-hard dog lovers, and not being able to take our dog everywhere we go may be our biggest obstacle to doing long-term travel.
All week we’d been struggling to get good photos of Peruvian fishermen working from traditional dugout canoes, but without much success. Either we were moving too fast, the light was too low, or the angle wasn’t right. So, when we saw this guy repairing his fishing net as we walked upstairs to enter the ranger station, we were thrilled with the perfect balance of the angles, colors and lighting. This is one of my favorite shots we took in the Amazon.
How cool is this? WE’RE SWIMMING IN THE FREAKING AMAZON!!! Words cannot even begin to express how much I was looking forward to this experience, or how much I enjoyed floating in the cool river water after days of being baked by the sun. Mary was a little worried about piranhas or caimans in the area, but our guides assured her it was safe. I loved it so much that the first suggestion I made to International Expeditions after the trip was that they add more opportunities for swimming. Thanks to our friend Glenn Doonan for snapping this shot.
I was out on the porch alone, taking photos of a Pink-Toed Tarantula, when one of the rangers quietly mentioned that they had a surprise for us. I quickly grabbed Mary (who grabbed our GoPro), and as a result I believe we were the only ones in our group who got to see the ranger pulling this Baby Amazon Manatee (a.k.a. South American Manatee, the smallest manatee species) out of the huge canoe in which he’d been hidden to wait for our arrival. Amazon Manatees are a highly endangered species due to poaching and habitat loss, and are so rare that our veteran guides had never seen one in the wild.
As they lifted this adorable little fella out of the water to be weighed and measured, we heard how he’d gotten there. The rangers had rescued him from poachers the day before as he was being taken to be sold to the highest bidder (Amazon manatees are highly prized as a valuable food source). Knowing that our group was coming, with a representative of World Wildlife Fund and two journalists, they decided to keep him there overnight so that we could share the story of their fight to preserve this rare wildlife species. We will have some incredible video of this baby manatee’s release back into the wild coming soon!
To use my daughter’s favorite word, our fourth full day in the Amazon proved to be completely magical, with one thrilling highlight after the other. From the monkeys and puppies to swimming in one of the world’s most mythical rivers and an up-close encounter with one of the Amazon’s most endangered animals, it was one of those picture-perfect days you simply wish would never end. But when the day did draw to a close, it was with one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen– an otherworldly vision of rich orange, pink and purple hues. Or, as they call it in the Amazon, Wednesday.