The river rules all

A stylish new ship has begun plying the Amazon's Peruvian stretch. Peter Hughes jumps on board.

FROM the air they look like broad strokes of Chinese calligraphy - indecipherable, bold characters daubed across a moss-green canvas. As you descend, the canvas becomes jungle, bobbled to the horizon with trees. The lines grow bigger until one divides the scene in a single shiny band. The brown water of the Amazon is so wide it looks more like a strait dividing two land masses than a river.

You need to add another yottabyte to the imagination's capacity to accommodate the Amazon. There is an argument about which is the longest river in the world, the Amazon or the Nile. Who cares? There is only a couple of hundred metres in it. But in sheer size, in the area it drains - about 6,915,000 square kilometres, approaching the area of Australia - and in the phenomenal volumes of water it channels, the Amazon is the mightiest by a cosmos. It contains one-fifth of all the water in all the rivers in the world and the amount it discharges into the Atlantic is greater than that of the next seven largest rivers combined.

The Amazon dominates. It dominates the view from an aircraft window; it dominates a gigantic swathe of the continent: the Amazon Basin covers about two-fifths of South America. It dominates my days aboard MV Aria, a new and luxurious river cruiser that came into service this year on the Amazon in Peru. Yet Aria's arrival brings the number of cruise boats on this part of the river to just four.

It was while flying into Iquitos from Lima that I have my first sight of the river and its tributaries and lagoons. Here, more than 3000 kilometres from the ocean, the Amazon is already more than 800 metres wide.

Iquitos is Peru's equivalent of the more famous and much bigger Manaus, more than 1400 kilometres downstream in Brazil. Both are river ports and both grew rich from rubber at the end of the 19th century. Guides from Aria, who had met the boat passengers at the airport, take us for a walk through town. It is evening when we arrive, dark but still 26 degrees.

Iquitos means "isolated by water" and can only be reached by air or river. There is one road. That goes to neighbouring Nauta, which is much the same as nowhere, so the town swarms with motorcycle rickshaws.

The rubber bubble lasted less than 40 years. But that was time enough for Iquitos to acquire the trappings of a boom town: a statue by Auguste Rodin in the main square, a cathedral in tropical gothic - all lancet windows, turrets and cream paint - and streets of fancy architecture. Grand art nouveau houses, buxom with balconies and extravagantly glazed in Portuguese azulejo tiles, glinted in the gleam of the street lamps.

River cruisers come at the expressionist end of marine architecture. As they are not required to have the sea-keeping qualities of ocean-going ships, it doesn't seem to matter what you build once the bit that floats is in place. Aria was designed by an architect, Peruvian Jordi Puig, and rises from a matte-black hull through three floors - "decks" sound too nautical - of huge picture windows trimmed with vertical panels of chestnut-coloured wood. On top, shading the open foredeck, is a sort of zany bonnet, a taut, cone-shaped, white awning. It could be Princess Beatrice's take on a matron's cap.

Inside, the boat continues its marine iconoclasm. The 16 identical cabins, or suites, and the lounge on the top deck have more in common with a smart metropolitan hotel when you look out at the Amazonian rainforest through those huge windows.

The suites, individually airconditioned, are big - about seven metres long, with king-size beds and rain showers.

The lounge, with the bar at one end and small library at the other, is also spacious, extending the width and almost the length of the vessel. It's all very townhouse, with cream sofas, timber floor and ceiling, coffee-table books, black-shaded lamps and a scattering of vaguely ethnic ornaments. Outside, an encircling promenade leads beneath that strange canopy to sun beds and a cold-water spa, which doesn't meet with the approval of a party of Mexican travel agents.

Aria, 45 metres long and launched in April, is making only its second cruise. The dining room and housekeeping staff are in need of a bit more training, not least to keep all that window glass clean. More fundamental is the rumble of the engine when the boat cruises at night. I keep saying, "Thank heavens my wife isn't here. She wouldn't sleep a wink."

Aria's stars are the chefs and the naturalist guides. Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the owner of the Malabar restaurant in Lima, spent a year researching ingredients from the rainforest to incorporate in the ambitious, multicourse tasting menus served every night. Armoured catfish caviar, fresh muyaca berries and grilled paiche, which is a huge Amazonian fish, are among some outre dishes that have so far eluded even Heston Blumenthal. Food is an emphatic argument for travelling on Aria.

The excursions are another. Our four guides, shared between about 30 guests, are knowledgable and inexhaustible. What makes them especially remarkable is that they are riberenos - river dwellers - brought up on the banks of the Amazon. The birds they spot deep in the bush, and can identify from fleeting silhouettes, are the birds they knew as children. The village we visit is like the ones in which they were born. "They will have electricity perhaps 10 days a year, when they can afford the fuel for the generator," a guide, Ricardo, says.

We see a river bus, a brawny boat like a floating charabanc with double decks, strapping timbers and hammocks swinging from its beams. Our guide this morning, Victor, recalls his time as navigator on one. "There's a lot of firewater drunk on those," he says. "They carry anything: 50 people, even cows. I once found myself standing next to a water buffalo."

A man comes to the bus's doorway and jubilantly brandishes an illegally killed caiman. "They sell them for their meat," Victor says.

Expeditions from Aria are made in aluminium skiffs powered by outboard motors. The days are structured. We start early and return late to use the hours of daylight: the spontaneity comes from the forest. It is a non-stop show. We are treated to birds in plumage of preposterous colour: blue and yellow macaws, an oriole blackbird with a 24-carat chest and masked crimson tanagers. We spot caracaras, toucans and hawks, red-capped cardinals and a lesser yellow-headed vulture.

We fish for piranhas with a Tom Sawyer tackle of hook, line and stick. We see three-toed sloths, pink dolphins and monkeys - monk sakis, saddleback tamarins with bushy moustaches, night monkeys and squirrel monkeys, which eat mosquitoes and cockroaches. The villagers keep them for pest control. We drink bucks fizz sundowners in the skiffs in midstream close to the confluence of the Ucayali and Maranon rivers, where the water is almost three kilometres wide. They call it the Birthplace of the Amazon; to a Peruvian it is the Maranon that has its source in the Andes. The Amazon starts here.

Much of the time we spend in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. It is almost as big as Belgium and in May, 90 per cent of it is under water. The Amazon has two seasons: high water and low water. Between seasons there is about a nine-metre variation in the river level.

At high water, from December to May, the skiffs can penetrate the forest, trickling silently, line astern, up leafy tributaries that in August will be dry. At low water it is possible to take jungle walks, though the temperature can climb to about 37 degrees. And it is then the villagers go to work, planting rice, corn, cassava and cucumbers in the rich sediments bequeathed by the receding waters. "This is happy time for flora and fauna," another guide, Julio, says. "The rainy season is making-baby season." Julio is himself one of a family of six.

Everywhere we are surrounded by the scenes and sounds of the rainforest - the cackles and croaks, squawks, whistles, warbles and whoops of monkeys and birds: nature's ringtones. Some are immediately distinctive: the bray of the horned screamer, the so-called "donkey" bird; the screech of parakeets; and the hiss of a hoatzin, whose spiky crest gives it the appearance of a punk pheasant.

And everywhere the rough-and-tumble rainforest comes bundling down to the water in a melee of vegetation and a million shades of green. Sometimes it stops in a cliff-face of trees; sometimes it approaches in waves, rolling off low hills to pull up, teasing at the river's edge. All while the Amazon, in an endless ingot of muddy water, slides to the sea.

Trip notes

Getting there

Lan Chile flies from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with connections to Iquitos.

Cruising there

Aria makes cruises year-round, of three, four or seven nights. A three-night cruise starts at $US2550 ($2340) a person, twin share, a four-night cruise at $US3400 and a seven-night cruise at $US5950.