Next up was how to read the forest. From the river, the trees lining the banks form an impenetrable wall of green, broken only by the pale trunks of kapok and cecropia trees and the fragrant white chandeliers of mimosa blossom.
You have to train your eyes to seek out the spaces between their branches to discover what they hide. A swaying bough may be the only clue to the presence of a foraging monk saki or squirrel monkey.
Even brightly coloured birds, such as macaws and toucans, can appear dull in the deep shade, making them tricky to spot, while morpho butterflies rest unseen on tree trunks right in front of you, their mottled brown underwings camouflaging them perfectly until put to flight, when their cerulean blue upperwings shine in even the dimmest light.
Iguanas masquerade as branches, basking high in waterside trees like reptilian gargoyles, whip-like tails dangling. Spotting these large lizards requires keen eyes and quick reactions. We were startled when one leapt from a great height into the river beside our boat, but Ado assured us that they are good swimmers and often use this strategy to escape predators.
Even sloths – those paragons of unmoving stolidity – somehow manage to hide in plain view. Every morning, they perch high in the bare, upper branches of their own favourite tree – usually a cecropia or kapok – waiting for the sun’s first rays to warm away the night’s chill. But their curled posture and algae-tinged fur make them surprisingly hard for novices to spot.
We came across no fewer than four sloths during our daily skiff excursions, but would have passed them all by without Ado’s sharp eyes.
One day, as he pointed out a green-brown blob high up in a tree, we could both tell that my companions were sceptical. But by imitating the shriek of a harpy eagle – the sloth’s only predator – Ado persuaded the ball to unfurl into a sloth. The creature lifted its head, short-sightedly seeking the source of the threat, but when no raptor raced out of the sky, its chin sank back onto its chest and it promptly dozed off again. That’s enough excitement for one day!
Eyes, ears and noses
Our final lesson was that, in the Amazon, simply looking is not enough – you must use all of your senses. Listen for the braying of Peru’s largest and most ungainly birds – horned screamers – which you usually hear before you see (they’re not called ‘donkey birds’ for nothing).
And follow your nose. The smell of dung may reveal the presence of one of the Amazon’s most peculiar avian residents – the hoatzin.
This extraordinary creature has a digestive system that is unique among birds. It feeds almost exclusively on leaves, which are ground into a large ball and then fermented in its oversized crop. The aromatic compounds in the leaves and bacterial fermentation give the hoatzin an odour like manure, hence its local name ‘stink bird’.
Join the initiated
A week in the Amazon was not enough to uncover all of its many mysteries, but the skills we learned gave us a privileged glimpse into this magical kingdom and its strange and beguiling inhabitants. And if you (understandably) don’t feel like swimming with piranhas, don’t worry. Simply grab a stick and some shreds of beef, and you can go fishing for them instead. Ado tells me they’re very tasty.
SOPHIE'S TOP SPECIES TO SEE
Pink river dolphin
- ID: A stout pink or grey cetacean with tiny eyes and poor eyesight. Can be hard to see as it reveals little of itself when surfacing from the river to breathe. Usually found in small groups.
- Where: At river junctions, where fish flow from lagoons into the main river, and in flooded forests, where it uses sonar to navigate in the cloudy water. Flexible vertebrae enable it to weave between submerged tree trunks and squeeze in and out of tight spaces.
- ID: A large bird with a bare blue face, spiky crest and russet wings. Always in groups. Eighty per cent of its diet is shoots and leaves, which are swallowed and ground into a bolus in its large crop. Here, the bolus ferments and is digested, giving the bird an unpleasant odour resembling cow manure.
- Where: Usually perched low in trees over still or slow-moving water, such as oxbow lakes, lagoons and sluggish rivers.