Marcel Proust once famously said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” While traveling solo can be a very enjoyable experience, traveling with an experienced guide can open our eyes in new ways to details we never would have noticed alone. Such details can turn a trip from merely enjoyable to downright transformative. 

Caiman Lizard in the Peruvian Amazon

The Peruvian Amazon is not a place many foreigners go off to explore by themselves—and with good reason. At first glance, the dense South American jungle can appear impenetrable. Left to our own devices, we may hear a few birds in the distance or see them flying overhead but perhaps not spot a single mammal or reptile. But a great guide can show us the path and reveal to us that right there within our line of vision, there is a gorgeous tree snake wound around a branch, a sleeping sloth and a timid monkey in the canopy, and 12 different insect species on the ground or camouflaged in tree bark next to us.

Suddenly, the same impenetrable and empty landscape appears full, vivid and alive, and we are immediately filled with curiosity and wonder. As the guide explains the characteristics of the flora and fauna or tells stories about the local culture, we further engage with our surroundings. We begin to pay more attention, and when we do, we learn more, we care more and we carve stronger memories as we fully interact with the environment. 

Yellow-rumped Cacique in the Peruvian Amazon.

Get to Know: Renzo Zeppilli, Amazon River Expedition Leader

Renzo Zeppilli is one such guide. Born and raised between Peru’s capital of Lima and the nearby Andes Mountains, he studied nature tourism business management at the University of Nueva Sparta in Caracas, became a licensed guide, and then went on to attain a Master’s in environmental education.

Now a field expert, Renzo worked tirelessly as a researcher on conservation projects and as a naturalist/bird guide in Brazil’s Pantanal, the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the Ecuadorian cloud forest, and also in Cuba. But he was always drawn to the intense biodiversity and biomass of the Upper Amazon rain forest. Realizing his great love of birds at the early age of 13, Renzo is currently a board member of the Peru Bird Records Committee and has seen more than 1,500 bird species in his native country.

Today, Renzo is a beloved Expedition Leader for our Great Amazon River Expedition. D. Goudy, a traveler who joined us on a past Amazon River trip, sums it up nicely: “Renzo is that rare Expedition Leader whose energy and love of the natural world is boundless. His enthusiasm about the many varied aspects of the Peruvian Amazon is infectious and motivates the traveler to want to learn more and to participate in all activities of which he is a part.”

© Elissa Poma/WWF-US

Experience Our Great Amazon River Expedition

On our Amazon River expedition, our destination is the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve at the mighty Amazon River’s headwaters. We cruise through Peru’s largest protected area on our comfortable riverboat, the Delfin II. The reserve is a 5-million-acre mosaic of flooded and dry forest, filled with islands, blackwater creeks and some of the greatest biodiversity on Earth. It’s home to 250 fish species and protects more than 130 species of mammals, 150 reptile and amphibian species and 450 kinds of birds.

The reserve also contains the largest variety of flora in Peru, including gigantic bromeliads and 22 orchid species.

Although it’s home to the largest wildlife populations in the Amazon Basin, the wildlife of the Amazon is highly skilled at staying out of sight! It takes an expert eye like Renzo’s to spot animals in the dense vegetation. He enthusiastically points out birds like snail kites, festive parrots, olive-spotted hummingbirds, Amazonian parrotlets, woodcreepers and endangered scarlet macaws. He also demonstrates how to scan the riverbanks for spectacled caiman, frogs, owls and capybara, the world’s largest rodent. Sometimes, sleek pink river dolphins can be seen slicing through the water.  

Water lilies in the Peruvian Amazon.

While spotting animals is entertaining and rewarding, learning local culture makes the experience even more enriching. For example, Renzo shares that the river dolphins, or botos, are thought by some to be mythical beings that live for centuries. Some locals claim that the pink-and-gray speckled creatures have kingdoms underwater and can turn into humans during celebrations. Others say that if you look one in the eye, you will have bad dreams for the remainder of your days. Thankfully, for conservation’s sake, it’s considered terrible luck to kill and eat these bewitching animals.  

> Learn about World Wildlife Fund’s work in the Amazon.

Heart of the Amazon

When asked during this Daily Dose of Nature webinar to share what he felt the “heart” of the Amazon was, Renzo began by sharing that the Amazon is unique in the way that it welcomes visitors. “It’s the air—the temperature and the humidity. It receives you as soon as you get out of the plane. It embraces you, like you are in a cloud.” He goes on to passionately speak of the area’s “dynamic balance.” The amount of energy flow being exchanged is tangible, he says, if you pay attention. And there is a whole world under the water’s surface: fish chasing each other, snakes swimming and even mating in the current, light changing constantly.

Renzo paints a scene of constant movement, yet it somehow all appears calm at first glance. He also uses the example of when there is no river current. This type of motionless environment hosts the Amazon’s giant lily pads—which he happily notes happen to be heart-shaped—and he explains that even in apparent tranquility and stillness, the place comes to life. Amphibians gather, butterflies dance above, and parrots and macaws serenade while overhead light refracts. 

A spectacled caiman in the Peruvian Amazon.

Weaver of Tales

Exploring the Amazon with a talented, passionate guide like Renzo goes beyond the skiff rides and jungle walks. Even while simply enjoying sunset views from the open-air top deck, sipping a refreshing drink made of regional fruits or pisco (Peru’s famous national brandy), Renzo captivates you with tales of the Amazon. Imagine hearing that in some parts of Peru, dragonflies are considered evil and are associated with sorcery, or that there are Indigenous communities that believe that the act of being photographed steals your soul. Or that a distant bird sound (ay ay, ma ma) is actually thought to be two small children who didn’t listen to their mother and are now lost in the jungle.

Renzo can weave stories effortlessly about the freaky-but-fascinating local arapaima, a 10-foot long, upwards-of-400-pounds fish that surfaces and uses not gills but actual lungs to breathe. These are the experiences that make the place come alive through wonder and curiosity and that make a guided trip to the Peruvian Amazon River Basin all the more impactful.

All photos © Guillermo Knell