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.
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, but perhaps not see a single animal. 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 and 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.
Renzo Zeppilli is one such guide and he leads our Great Amazon River Expedition. 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. This prepared him to become a field expert. He 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 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, he is currently a board member of the Peru Bird Records Committee (PRBC) and has seen more than 1,500 bird species in his native country. D. Goudy, a traveler who joined us on a past Amazon Expedition 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.
On our Amazon expedition, our destination is the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peru’s largest protected area, at the mighty Amazon River’s headwaters. We cruise languidly and attentively on our comfortable riverboat, the Delfin II. This reserve is a 5-million-acre mosaic of both flooded and dry forest, filled with islands, tannin-filled creeks, and some of the greatest biodiversity on Earth. Its 85 lakes are home to 250 fish species, and it protects 132 species of mammals, 150 reptile and amphibian species and 450 different kinds of birds. The reserve also contains the largest variety of flora in Peru, including gigantic bromeliads and 22 orchid species. While it is home to the largest wildlife populations in the Amazon Basin, it’s important to know going in that the prolific wildlife of the Amazon is also highly skilled at staying out of sight: it takes an expert eye like Renzo’s to spot animals in the dense vegetation. He can enthusiastically point out birds such as snail kites, festive parrots, olive-spotted hummingbirds, Amazonian parrotlets, woodcreepers and endangered scarlet macaws. He shows guests how to scan the riverbanks for spectacled caiman, frogs, owls and capybara, the world’s largest rodent. At times, even sleek pink river dolphins can be seen slicing through the water.
While spotting animals is entertaining and rewarding, learning local culture from Renzo makes the experience come alive. For example, he shares that what protects these river dolphins are local superstitions that they are mythical beings that live for centuries and they even are thought by some natives to have kingdoms underwater. According to local lore, the dolphins turn into humans during celebrations. There are multiple myths built around pink river dolphins, or botos: one is never to look one in the eye or you will have bad dreams for the remainder of your days. Thankfully, for conservation’s sake, it’s also thought to be terrible luck to kill and eat one of these intriguing animals.
When asked on 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 makes it very different to breathe. It receives you as soon as you get out of the plane. It embraces you, like you are in a cloud.” He then goes on to passionately speak of “dynamic balance”. The amount of energy flow being exchanged is tangible, he says, if you pay attention. There is a whole world under the water surface, fish chasing each other, insects, snakes, light changing constantly. He paints a scene where everything is so fast and there is constant movement, yet it somehow all appears very quiet at first glance. He also uses the example of when there is no river current. This type of motionless environment hosts the 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, parrots and macaws serenade while overhead light refracts.
The richness of exploring with a talented, passionate guide such as Renzo goes beyond the trails. Even when you are 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 will captivate you with tales of the Amazon. Imagine hearing that in some parts of Peru, dragonflies are considered evil and are associated with sorcery, and that there are indigenous communities who believe that the act of being photographed steals their 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