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FEASTING ON THE JUNGLE'S BOUNTY
by Hans Tammemagi
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

"Go ahead, touch it," says Ericson, our guide, holding out a seven-foot-long rainbow boa constrictor that is squirming and wrapping itself around his arms. I inch forward and nervously slide my hand along the iridescent skin. Surprisingly, the snake feels smooth and, well, almost pleasant. Nevertheless, I quickly step back.

We are deep in the Amazon jungle of northeast Peru, far from civilization, and I feel completely out of my element. Earlier, Erickson led us along a muddy trail into a dense maze of vines, multi-shaped leaves, and towering trees. It's hot, humid, and loud with the buzz of mosquitos and insects. My shirt is dripping from perspiration. Then Ericson unexpectedly chopped his way with a machete into the thick jungle and grabbed the rainbow boa by the neck. Now he is proudly holding it out to us.

I'm on a cruise on the headwaters of the Amazon River. Each day we leave the mothership for excursions to hike through dense jungle or skiff along meandering tributaries. We fish for piranha, feed bananas to monkeys and visit an impoverished Native village. We see pink dolphins, caimans, poison-dart frogs, tarantulas, snakes, and much more. It is exotic, but I feel an underlying nervousness, for if anything goes wrong, we are a long way from civilization.

Our time aboard the Delfin II, in almost surreal contrast, is peaceful, safe, and, well, even hedonistic. There are only 24 passengers in 14 staterooms that are comfortably appointed with air-conditioning, hot water, and, best of all, an enormous window offering grand views onto the mighty Amazon.

Although there are many diversions —bar, spa, visiting the captain on the bridge —I most enjoy mealtimes in the dining room with its large windows, an open kitchen, and tables artistically set. Today I join three, well-travelled Australian business men. One says, with an Aussie twang, "I never imagined we'd dine so well in the middle of the jungle."

The waiter brings the first course. A curved tentacle of blackened octopus balances delicately on slices of passion fruit, which are set in a creamy reduction punctuated with the black passion fruit seeds. A thread of glass noodle coils above it like wild white hair. I hesitate to bite into this imaginative creation, but finally succumb. Mmm ... delicious! More great food follows, and wine flows as we enthuse over the day's adventures, and our sumptuous dinner.

That evening there is a presentation about indigenous nuts and fruits. Javier, a sous-chef, cuts open and offers us aguaje, macambo, tapereba, carambola, and more. The tastes are fresh, exotic and varied. Little wonder, for the Amazon is a smorgasbord of every kind of edible biology imaginable. Javier explains with the rolling Rs of Spanish, "For a creative chef, the jungle provides a wonderland of culinary material."

Next day we skiff through a winding tributary. Cawing and chirping surround us. We see macaws, egrets, storks, and a sloth hanging upside down from a branch. From a low hanging branch Ericson cuts several granadilla fruits, which resemble passionfruit. We travel in silence, each of us absorbed in the beauty and mystery of this bountiful crucible of life.

We return to the Delfin II where executive chef, Israel Ijuha leads a cooking class. At 6' 2", Chef Ijuha towers over his compatriots. So do his culinary skills. He explains his style is Peruvian fusion with a strong Amazonian influence. He stresses the importance of fresh fish, nuts and fruit, which he sources from the local indigenous people. That explains the long wooden boats I've seen pull alongside, with natives passing loaded burlap bags to the crew.

Ijuha proceeds to prepare ‘jaune' by placing slices of cooked chicken in rice he sprinkles with turmeric, oregano, cumin, and garlic. "Peruvians love spices," he says with a smile. He wraps serving-sized portions of rice and chicken in large bijao leaves and ties it with twine. The result looks like a gift package and, indeed, we learn that jaunes are exchanged between households during festivals.

Appetite whetted, I head for the dining room where I join a Peruvian couple on their honeymoon and a pleasant American duo. The dinner is elegantly presented and, surprise, features jaune, accompanied by chicken shish-kabob and a dessert of peach compote. I bite into the jaune, and it is delicious. "This is the best trip we've ever taken," says the American lady. My mouth abuzz with exotic flavours, I can only nod in agreement.

________________________________

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent newspaper syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

IF YOU GO:

General information from Peru tourism: www.visitperu.com

Delfin Cruise: www.delfinamazoncruises.com

Flights: Many flights go from Vancouver to Lima. Then fly to Iquitos where you will be met by Delfin staff.

Currency: The Sol is the Peruvian unit of currency. 1 Sol = $0.39 Canadian

Electricity: Be prepared, Peru uses 220 V electricity. Their plugs use two rounded (not flat) prongs.

Language: Unlike Europe, little English is spoken, so bring a Spanish phrasebook. Visa: Canadians only need a valid passport.

Photos

#1 - Ericson holds a rainbow cobra.jpg

#2 - The Delfin's dining room.jpg

#3 –Jungle fruits and nuts.jpg

#4 – Returning to the Delfin II at end of day.jpg

#5 - Sous-chef enthuses over a culinary creation.jpg

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com

 


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