We’d set out from the port at Iquitos, Peru at sunset the night before, meeting our naturalist guides, getting a quick safety briefing, and enjoying a refreshing Pisco Sour in our welcome toast.
This morning we were up by 6AM, too excited about our Amazon River piranha fishing adventure scheduled for later in the day to sleep-in.
All of us early birds were treated to exciting to see animals in the amazon river including egrets and pink dolphins before we’d even had our first cup of coffee.
The avid birdwatchers on board were blessed with another spectacular sighting before the sun had fully risen.
Into the Amazon Rainforest in Peru
The colorful fella pictured below is a Capped Heron, which is found in many parts of Central America and South America.
The species is striking thanks the brilliant blue and pink on its beak, bright yellow feathers, and those long skinny plumes that made it look like a more refined distant cousin to Africa’s famed Secretary Bird.
In what became a daily routine, after breakfast we loaded up our gear into smaller skiffs and bid farewell to the mother ship, which would be our home away from home for the next week.
The steel-hulled ship was precisely what I’d imagined in my fantasies about what an Amazon River cruise might be like.
It offered 12 spacious passenger rooms, a great open bar/lounge area, an air-conditioned dining room, and a sweet little sun deck on top that was perfect for soaking in the surrounding view.
But it was the skiffs by which we would do most of our exploring, venturing 600 miles up and down the Peruvian Amazon and its various tributaries.
Our First Peru Rainforest Excursion
It didn’t take long for us to get a gander at some of the amazing Peruvian Amazon jungle animals.
In the case of this pretty pink-toed tarantula, the Amazon wildlife came right to us!
As our skiff was motoring along, the little fella suddenly emerged from his hidey-hole near the front of the boat, to the delight of pretty much everyone.
One of the things that struck us most about our time in the Amazon was the challenges the Ribereños (“river people”) faced in their daily lives.
Living on a biodiversity-rich floodplain that regularly undergoes drastic environmental change (see: flood waters that annually rise over 40 feet) requires great tenacity and resourcefulness, not to mention learning to live in harmony with the often harsh elements.
We were amazed by people who traveled miles every day to fish, hunt and trade, with their only mode of transport a dugout canoe fashioned from massive logs and a single paddle.
As we headed towards the convergence where the Marañón River and the Ucayalli River, our Amazon wildlife sightings got better and more frequent.
The place was truly a bird-lover’s dream, from grey-headed kites and longneck terns to various egrets and the beautiful black collared hawk.
In all, we spotted over 200 different bird species during our week in Peru.
After a much-needed afternoon siesta, we loaded back onto the skiffs for our first trek into one of the Amazon’s many tributaries, the Yarapa River.
At this point, we began to realize how far from “civilization” we’d gone.
There were no other commercial boats to be found; only the occasional fisherman in a dugout canoe. And the river‘s water was as still and reflective as mirrored glass.
Amazon River Piranha Fishing
Later that night our naturalist guide, Usiel, tied the skiff to an amazingly colorful pink-and-green tree for our evening adventure in Amazon River piranha fishing.
What do piranhas eat? We were shocked to learn that the most effective Piranha bait is… chicken!
The process of piranha fishing is very simple. You skewer a piece of raw chicken onto a hooked line attached to a thin pole (no reel involved), then wait for the toothy suckers to bite.
Our new friend Cindy quickly proved a piranha fishing pro, pulling in five red belly piranha in fairly rapid succession.
Mary and I only caught two to three each but were thrilled by the experience.
It included lots of near misses and a few piranha flopping around the boat after they managed to wiggle off the hooks.
Here, Usiel gives us a closeup look at the sharp piranha teeth that have earned the small fish such a fearsome reputation.
How Big do Piranhas Get?
Found throughout the Peruvian Amazon basin and other parts of South America, these omnivores average 5.5 to 10.25 inches in length, though specimens up to 17 inches have been reported.
Their mythological reputation as ferocious predators who hunt in schools is somewhat unfounded.
Research has proven them to be timid opportunists who school, not in order to hunt, but for protection from predators such as caimans and dolphins.
But, as we saw from the ones we caught, they will resort to cannibalism if the opportunity arises.
In the end, our group caught dozens of piranhas in an hour.
Their reddish-orange bellies made them as beautiful as they are dangerous: Many a local fisherman (who catch them for subsistence) bears the scars of piranha teen when handling the local fish.
Fortunately, we escaped unscathed.
What Does Piranha Taste Like?
That night we were treated to an unexpected surprise that became our favorite nightly ritual.
Every evening at 6:30, our naturalist guides Usiel (drums) and Johnny Balarezo Malatesta (maracas) would join members of the ship’s crew to form a band.
In a running joke, the name of the band changed every night to reflect something that had happened that day.
The music they played veered from traditional Peruvian folk music to American rock ‘n’ roll played on Peruvian instruments such as pan flute and charango.
Immediately afterward, they rang the bell calling us to dinner. Everyone got excited as bar/kitchen manager Charlie (a.k.a. Carlito) brought out a platter stacked with our fried piranha that we caught earlier that day.
So what does piranha taste like? Honestly, piranha meat tastes very similar to any other light, flaky, white fish, albeit slightly bony overall.
But the tender bits of meat were moist and succulent, and perhaps took on an added bit of tastiness because we knew we’d worked for our supper.
It was tough to go back to our room at the end of the night after a day filled with fun and excitement.
But after the sun went down and the Amazon’s notoriously nasty bugs came out (more on that later), we welcomed the cooling blast of air conditioning and the comfort of our cozy beds.
We had been up for over 14 hours at that point, and we knew we’d have to be up bright and early for day 2 of our incredible adventure in the Amazon in Peru.