Ferran Adrià solemnly examines a kebab of grubs grilled over a barbecue fashioned from an old 44-gallon oil drum. And, true to his reputation for culinary experimentation, when the Catalan chef is offered a fat white grub to sample, he pops it into his mouth unflinchingly.
We are at Belén, a teeming food market in Iquitos, a city of more than 500,000 located deep in the Peruvian Amazon, accessible only by river or air. It is the jumping-off point for our four-night cruise aboard the M/V Aria, the newest of a handful of vessels transforming the sweat-soaked hazards of an Amazon expedition into a luxury experience.
Adrià happens to be booked on the same cruise as me – he is here to trawl for new ideas and to work with local chef Gastón Acurio on a documentary about the Peruvian food revolution that has turned the country into a gastronomic destination. Belén is a good place to start. Accompanied by Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the renowned Peruvian chef who created the Aria’s menus, we pass tables laden with turtle eggs, dismembered turtles and caiman tails (though the sale of both is illegal), piles of piranha and catfish, their scales shimmering pink, silver and orange in the early morning light.
Adrià is already familiar with some Peruvian flavours as immigrants have brought its emblematic red and yellow chillies and the strong herb huacatay to Barcelona’s markets. But Schiaffino introduces him to chonta, fettuccine-like strips of heart of palm he serves with watermelon or as a salad dressed in lime juice.
Even at 7am the humid air is heavy with sweat and smoke from fish grills and bubbling pots of soups that are being ladled out to the breakfast crowds seated at wooden trestle tables. We retreat to an air-conditioned bus to make the journey to the tiny port of Nauta, where the Aria awaits.
The work of Peruvian designer Jordi Puig, she is a handsome, 147ft vessel, all glass and wood with a matt black stern and bow and a jaunty white “hat” of shadecloth on the top deck.
There are 16 suites on two levels that gaze outwards through floor-to-ceiling windows, maximising views. The decor mixes wood with white linens; natural fibres and textiles and coffee table books lend a soothing vibe on the communal top deck, where an outdoor Jacuzzi offers the chance for a refreshing sunset dip with cocktail in hand.
Our cruise takes us along the Ucayali and Marañon rivers that join close to Nauta to form the Amazon. We are bound for the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, an area of 5m acres, much of which floods during the wet season. Numerous small rivers and water channels delve deep into the jungle.
On board life quickly takes on a dreamlike quality, punctuated by the broken riverbanks, chilled glasses of candy pink camu camu juice and the welcome relief of a frozen cinnamon-scented facecloth after forays into the real world in search of wildlife.
Skiffs leave every morning and late afternoon to seek out howler and spider monkeys, pink river dolphins, three-toed sloths, caiman, toucans, black-collared hawks, kingfishers and macaws. At the crack of our first dawn we set off in hobbit-like ponchos amid a steady soaking rain. Some have elected to stay under their white linen covers and the animals seem to have done the same thing, burrowing away in hidden pockets of the jungle.
Even Victor Coehlo, our normally irrepressible guide, looks downcast as we drift by silent giant fig trees and fallen logs, straining our ears for birdcall or the gentle “shush” of a pink dolphin rising for air.
But then the sky clears and a crimson-crested woodpecker flies across our bow. A grey falcon, a fishing hawk and a large pod of chattering squirrel monkeys signal our change of luck. Soon the humps of pink dolphins start surfacing closer to the boats, drawn by the noise of our motor. And then a fisherman glides past in his dugout canoe and asks if we’d like to see an anaconda. The snake is almost two metres long and had the misfortune of getting tangled in his fishing nets that morning.
Coehlo, who grew up in the remote Amazon village of Aucayacu, is full of folklore, local knowledge and the occasional tall tale. The biggest anaconda he has seen had a body with the circumference of a large dinner plate, he says. “I could feel my heart, my soul coming through my chest,” he says.
Paddling a dugout on a deep black lake later, he tells us that Peruvians won’t eat pink dolphins, believing them to be unlucky or enchanted. Some say they take human form to mate with Amazonian maidens, hiding their bald heads under white hats. This has caused a few awkward moments for bald foreigners in white hats, he adds, laughing.
We visit one of the bigger villages in the reserve to meet Juan Garcia, a shaman, and some children at the local school. Aqua Expeditions (the company that operates the Aria and its sister ship, the Aqua) provides medical supplies to the villages it visits, employs local guides and supports the local handicrafts industry. Guests are encouraged to bring pencils or notepads as gifts for the children.
Garcia has a face that looks as if it is carved out of wood and is so thin his ragged grey business-style trousers are hitched together with a piece of string around his hips. He talks us through some of the plants that form “the biggest drugstore in the world”. A big open-leaf plant that smells like garlic can be crushed and put into hot water to create a steam that eases asthma, he says. Passing another plant related to poison ivy over the skin alleviates rheumatism and arthritis.
One passenger volunteers for a cleansing ritual and Garcia circles her head, waving bunches of herbs and blowing tobacco smoke while chanting. The idea, Garcia says, is to build a protective shell against the evil eye.
Back on the river at dusk in our skiffs, the evil eye has cast its gaze elsewhere. The guides are serving mimosas as the sun sets and a storm races in from the east. The only sounds are the lapping of water against our hull, the puff of dolphins rising around us for breath, and thunder echoing across the water. It’s a moment that sums up the appeal of a water-based Amazon safari – every chance of adventure, with a maraschino cherry on top.
Bales Worldwide (www.balesworldwide.com) offers a nine-day Amazon Discovery itinerary from £3,975 including three nights’ accommodation at the Country Club Lima Hotel, a four-night cruise on the M/V Aria (www.aquaexpeditions.com), transfers, guides and flights from London (departures from other countries can also be arranged).