The Amazon River cruise available through Natural Habitat Adventures can be a noisy affair—with the sounds of birds. © WWF-US/J.J. Huckin
Originally published January/February 2017
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The mythology of the Amazon
The extreme silence, the brightness of the midday sun, humidity, and lack of breeze along this great river can hypnotize you, and beguile you, with its magical powers.
By Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Pink river dolphins undulated through the still waters of the Amazon River like half-submerged rose petals in a glass of chocolate milk—and they looked just as out of place.
I was sitting in the open-air lounge on a riverboat in the Peruvian Amazon, watching the dolphins cut through the flat surface with barely a splash. My fellow travelers were on an excursion in the nearby Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, and I decided to stay back to enjoy the quiet of an afternoon alone.
It was mid-day and quite warm. The riverboat crew had retreated to their cabins to rest; the howler monkeys and birds that filled the air with chatter all morning were equally quiet. The extreme silence, brightness of the midday sun, humidity, and lack of breeze had a hypnotic effect on me. I felt like I was in a hazy dream. So when a trio of pink river dolphins appeared right next to the anchored riverboat, I thought I was hallucinating, as if I were suffering from a 105-degree fever, or seeing flower petals floating in my beverage.
That’s precisely the effect that botos, as they’re known locally, have on the indigenous people who live along the river. A crew member named Jorge told me later about the stories he heard as a child growing up in a village upriver from the city of Iquitos. Pink river dolphins hypnotize you, beguiling you with their magical powers, he said. And as a woman of child-bearing age, I needed to be especially careful.
During the daytime, pink dolphins go about their usual dolphin business. But once the sun dips, Jorge explained, they morph into handsome men and go ashore strictly for the purpose of seducing the women of local villages and impregnating them. Before the sun comes up, these shape-shifting encantados turn back into dolphins. That’s just one of a number of special powers the dolphins possess.
Whether you believe in the magic, you have to respect the role that such mythology plays in the lives of the local people, called ribereños. Cautionary tales involving animals and nature have been around for millennia and are as woven into the lives of the Amazon people as the vines wrapped around the rainforest’s skyscraper-like trees. For the purpose of immersing completely into this far-away place, I decided to embrace the mythology of the rainforest.
I was thankful I didn’t go ashore with the other passengers that day: One of the activities was a swim in the river. And while that sounded so refreshing and thrilling, I could have fallen victim to another of the sneaky dolphins’ tricks: If one found me swimming alone, he would whisk me away to a secret underwater city, and I’d have to live the rest of my life there.
My guess is that this myth started as a way to get people, particularly children, to use the buddy system when bathing in the river. Dolphins bite. So do the piranhas that congregate in pools shaded by overhanging branches along the river banks.
Piranhas congregate in pools shaded by overhanging branches along the Amazon River banks. Like river dolphins, piranhas are at the center of their own set of myths. © GalleryStock/Alexander Crispin
I remembered this the morning we rose early to go piranha fishing. With egg sandwiches, muffins, and coffee packed in wicker picnic baskets, we motored in skiffs to an offshoot of the Ucayali River, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River.
We arrived in a tranquil spot where lime-green plants covered the water’s surface, and the crew handed out simple fishing poles made from a bamboo-like reeds. Bait consisted of bloody chunks of rotting beef—not a very appetizing smell first thing in the morning! I made sure I didn’t lean too far out of the skiff as I slapped the water surface with the reed to attract the steely eyed little monsters. Almost as soon as the pole went into the water, I felt greedy, omnivorous nibbles on the end of my line.
The fish proved easy to catch: I hooked seven red-bellied piranhas. The guides collected them in a plastic bin and took them back to the riverboat, where I asked the chef if I could help him prepare them for dinner. In the small galley, with towels wrapped around our hands to protect us from their razor-sharp scales, we cleaned the fish, dredged them in flour and spices, and fried them.
Like the river dolphins, piranhas are at the center of their own set of myths. Some Amazonians consider it taboo to dine on predatory fish like piranha; others say it’s an aphrodisiac. Either way, it’s not very tasty, even drenched in freshly squeezed lime juice.
Piranhas are also the most hyped creature in the Amazon. They rarely, if ever, go into ferocious feeding frenzies, and rarely attack humans. Still, it’s hard to convince yourself they’re angels when you take an up-close look at their serrated teeth, which indigenous people use to make tools and weapons. I showed the piranha my utmost respect.
The foundation of life
Respecting nature is the foundation of life for the people of the Amazon. For ribereños, nature provides shelter, drinking water, food, religion, and medicine. One myth says that protective spirits reside in the lapuna tree, and even illegal loggers know that if you cut down the wrong lapuna, really bad things will happen to you.
Maestro Juan, local shaman—a spiritual medicine man who has spent his lifetime committed to understanding the healing power of the rain forest, both spiritually and medicinally. © Elissa Leibowitz Poma
The No. 1 person in the Amazon to respect the power of nature, myths and all, is the local shaman. My Amazon riverboat expedition afforded me an opportunity to meet a local shaman for a ceremony and educational lesson in medicinal plants of the Amazon.
A shaman is a spiritual medicine man who has spent his lifetime committed to understanding the healing power of the rainforest, both spiritually and medicinally. The rainforest is his university, and his professors are other shamans who have orally passed their knowledge down to him.
Sadly, Amazonian shamanism is a dying practice—not many young people want to commit themselves to the intensive self-study, which new generations may see as antiquated. Yet so many inhabitants of the rainforest rely on the shaman, often visiting him for healing before venturing by boat—sometimes for days on end—to see a doctor schooled in Western medicine.
Once again, I decided to believe what I didn’t completely understand. One afternoon, we gathered on the hand-hewn benches in a small village and sat rapt for an hour before the shaman known as Maestro Juan. While I’d like to say he was wearing some sort of inspiring, of-the-rainforest getup involving scarlet macaw feathers and the vine of ancient plants, Maestro Juan was dressed like a regular guy in a polo shirt and ripped jeans.
He lit a hand-rolled cigarette of sacred mapacho tobacco and blew the smoke from his mouth onto the crowns of our heads. Following the instructions provided through an interpreter, I used my hands to “wash” my body with the smoke. I listened as the shaman described the purpose of a half-dozen murky liquids in old plastic soda bottles. They all healed different ailments.
I took a whiff of ayahuasca, the legendary hallucinogenic potion that induces spiritual journeys. This particular expedition doesn’t include an ayahuasca ceremony, but we were grateful for the opportunity to learn about the plant-based potion that’s said to relieve people of emotional burdens.
And, really, you don’t need to go through a painful, drug-induced journey to be changed by the rainforest. You still can experience its magic on a comfortable riverboat with a fully stocked bar and air conditioned cabins. As long as you immerse in the experience—and its myths, whether believable or not—you will go home changed, as I did.
Just do me a favor and don’t look a pink river dolphin in the eye while you’re there—unless, of course, you want to have the most dreadful nightmares for the rest of your life.
Elissa Leibowitz Poma is a travel writer based in Washington, D.C.
Need to know
Boulder-based Natural Habitat Adventures offers nine-day expeditions in the Peruvian Amazon in June and July 2017. The riverboat-based trip covers 600 miles along the Amazon River and its tributaries, including a visit to the headwaters of the Amazon.
While the destination is quite adventurous, the trip is not strenuous by any means. Most of the wildlife viewing—including some of the most spectacular bird watching on the planet—is done from motorized skiffs. Several walks of up to 1.5 miles on unpaved trails or through villages are also offered. To ascend to the villages, you may need to climb stairs—some of which are simply dug into the earth and are muddy or uneven. Staff are on hand to assist.
The weather is warm and humid, and downpours are common—this is the rainforest, after all. Protection from mosquitos is a must, though note as of press time, this expedition is not in a malaria or zika virus zone.
Only 28 guests maximum are on each expedition. Rates start at $6,990 per person plus airfare.
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Scenic crown jewel
People hiking in the Torres del Paine National Park, which the photographer is convinced “will be the next Iceland for visitation.” © Kerrick James
By Kerrick James
Chile is an extraordinary country that encompasses the Andes paralleling the scenic Pacific Coast; a world-class desert replete with volcanoes, geysers and lofty lakes with pink flamingos; a breathtaking fiordland to the south that surpasses Alaska in peaks and waterfalls; and wine country. Add in a dash of European influence to this South American milieu and you have a memorable destination one could return to again and again, as I have.
For me, Patagonia is the crown jewel, reminding me of the American West of 40 years ago—less crowded and so very friendly. Note that the seasons are reversed; my favorite time is autumn, in April. The crowds have thinned, and the famed zephyrs that can blow one off their stride tend to be lighter.
Rent a car in Punta Arenas or hire a drive/guide service to take you north to Torres del Paine National Park. Ride a boat on Lago Gray to the calving face of Gray Glacier, day hike to the Valley of Silence under the famous Torres (Towers), and greet the sunrise at one of many stupendous cascades with sheer spires rising in dawn alpenglow.
These sights and so many more pull me back to Patagonia, which has unusual creatures to view, such as the Andean Condor and guanaco, and also offers the ability to comfortably speak English or practice your Spanish with the gauchos on the steppes. Don’t miss Patagonia, and reserve at least 10 days to roam and relax at the tail of the Americas.
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The rediscovery of Carmenère
Chief oenologist Edward Flaherty tastes Carmenere from an oak barrel in Isla de Maipo, Chile. © AP Photo/Roberto Candia
By Claire Walter
In the late 1800s, a nasty aphid decimated much of the European wine industry. Desperate growers tried various remedies. The most successful was grafting French vines onto American rootstock from, of all places, Missouri. Some French grapes were saved. Others were not.
Fast forward across the Atlantic and across the decades, to Chile in November 1994, when a French ampelographer (that is, a botanist who specializes in grapes) visited Chilean vineyards. There, he found two Merlots—one a French Merlot, the other marketed as Chilean Merlot. He suspected that the latter was a long-lost variety, Carmenère, known for its deep red color and aromas of red fruits, spices and berries; DNA tests confirmed it.
It isn’t even necessary to leave Santiago to sample the Carmenėre. Accessible by subway is Viña Santa Carolina, established in 1875, Santiago’s only remaining building constructed of cal y canto, a mixture of egg white and limestone. Salud!
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That Indiana Jones look
Tourists admire the view of Yucatán from atop ancient Maya ruins in Lamanai, Belize. © Alamy/Jan Wlodarczyk
By Pat Woodard
On my first trip to Belize, I asked the hotel clerk in San Ignacio how far I’d have to drive to see a Mayan ruin. “You can walk to one from here,” was the unexpected reply. Sure enough, on a hill overlooking town, Cahal Pech boasts 34 structures, including temple pyramids and ball courts. Set on two acres, Cahal Pech provides a wonderfully accessible introduction to fabulous Maya treasures scattered throughout Belize.
Feeling adventurous, I decided to go further afield—all of 15 minutes by car to Xunantunich, an impressive ruins site that has a bit of an Indiana Jones flavor to it. The approach to the site’s hilltop location requires crossing the Macal River by hand-crank ferry. Xunantunich is dominated by El Castillo, a towering pyramid adorned with story glyphs and a view from the top that stretches into Guatemala.
You can take the Indiana Jones feeling much further with a trip to Lamanai, one of the most picturesque Mayan ruins in all of Belize. A 26-mile boat ride up the New River from Orange Walk Town winds through the rain forest to a major Maya city with three large pyramids and several open plazas, plus monkeys and macaws for company.
There’s no scenic boat ride to what may be the most significant Maya site in Belize. Caracol is just 55 miles from San Ignacio, but it’s a three-hour drive over rough mountain and rain forest roads that all but disappear at times. The massive Caana pyramid is still the tallest building in Belize, and a climb to the top is rewarded with the awesome silence of a rainforest ghost city.
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Wildlife and history
Embera woman in a dugout canoe on the Chagres River, Soberania National Park (near Panama Canal). © Blaine Harrington III
By Blaine Harrington III
Aside from Costa Rica, which has long been a bastion of peace and democracy in Central America, most American travelers have not ventured widely in the area that connects North and South America, both geographically and culturally. For the most part, Panama is known as home of the Panama Canal.
In order to have a closer look at the canal myself, I decided rather than staying in Panama City, I would travel 30 minutes outside the city to the Gamboa Rainforest. I took an excursion into the canal by powerboat to Monkey Island to see howler and capuchin monkeys up close. Other excursions brought me to Soberania National Park. The park is a birdwatchers’ paradise, where more than 400 species of tropical birds can be viewed.
Another day, I went by dugout canoe to visit the Embera Indian tribe, the indigenous people of Panama and Colombia. I spent the day walking through the jungles escorted by Embera tribesmen dressed in loin cloths, which considering the high tropical humidity, seemed a pretty reasonable way to dress.
On the way to sightsee in Panama City, I stopped at the Miraflores Locks along the canal to watch ships lowered 54 feet, in two stages. Much of the vista of Panama City is covered by the dense Hong Kong-looking skyline of its business district. Nearby, on the southwestern tip of the city, I walked the streets of Casco Viejo, the old city, which is a World Heritage Site. Also known as San Felipe, the old city reminds me a bit of the French Quarter in New Orleans. A walk through the district is a walk through history, past arbors of bougainvillea, Spanish, and French-style colonial buildings, small squares, and plazas that lead to historic theaters and churches that have been beautifully restored.
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