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Travel & Holiday

Swimming with piranhas

Visiting the Amazon, home to one-third of the world's species, is a dream come true for wildlife buffs
The Straits Times - February 7, 2012
By: Fanny Lai
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Swimming with piranhas Cusco, which is 3,310m above sea level, is the ancient capital of the Incas, and is the gateway to Manu National Park, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

Think of the Amazon River and alarming B-grade horror movie images spring to mind, such as the giant, writhing snake in Anaconda (1997), not to mention towering tarantulas and people-eating piranhas.

But the mighty Amazon deserves more than being pigeonholed as the backdrop to a jaws-fest in the jungle.

It is after all, the world's largest river, home to more than one-third of all the species on earth. It is surrounded by rich tropical forest with more than 2 1/2 million species of insects, 2,200 freshwater fish and 2,000 birds and mammals. One in five species of fish and birds in the world can be found in its freshwater habitat.

With all that wondrous diversity, it has always been my dream to make a pilgrimage to this mysterious waterway in South America.

The 6,992km river originates in a glacial stream on the peak of Nevado Mismi in the Peruvian Andes, cuts through Peru, Ecuador and Colombia and then on to Brazil, entering the Atlantic Ocean in that country's eastern side.

My husband Bjorn and I decided that the best way to enjoy this freshwater habitat was to start from the source of the river in Peru and work our way up to neighbouring Ecuador.

Our three-week itinerary was from Singapore to Lima, the capital of Peru, and then to that country's must-see destination of Cusco, 3,310m above sea level. Cusco is the ancient capital of the Incas, a gateway to the Manu National Park, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.

Peru is in the central Andean region in South America, with biologically diverse and environmentally vulnerable landscapes. It has 90 per cent of the world's climate zones, from the deserts and dry forests of the coast to the grassland and snow-capped mountains of the Andes, and a mosaic of forests within the Amazon lowlands.

Manu National Park is the largest national park in Peru, covering 15,328 sq km, more than 20 times the size of Singapore. It offers one of the world's greatest wilderness experiences with its pristine tropical habitats, which are best accessed by small aircraft from Cusco.

Flight bookings from Cusco to Manu National Park are arranged by the lodges in the park (

A five-day/four-night trip, including flights, starts at US$1,220 (S$1,522) a person for a minimum of two people.

The wildlife reserve is home to about 1,000 bird species. In comparison, Borneo, which is 50 times larger than Manu National Park, has a total of just over 600 different birds.

We stayed at Manu Wildlife Centre outside the park, which is good for bird watching. But for the best chance of seeing endangered giant otters, jaguars and some of the 13 species of primates, I recommend staying in one of the many eco-lodges inside the Manu Biosphere Reserve.

One of the many highlights of Manu was seeing at close range hundreds of parrots and their larger relatives - macaws - congregate to eat mineral-rich clay, early in the morning. The noise alone is incredible and the sight of those brightly coloured birds at the clay-lick is one not to be forgotten.

In Manu, we trekked by foot and by boat, day and night, as part of the tour that we had booked with Manu Wildlife Centre.

While trekking in the reserves one day, we heard moaning and barking, and smelled a powerful skunk-like odour. Immediately, we saw about 100 White-lipped Peccary (wild boars) eating fruit and palm nuts off the forest floor. We stood still with sweaty palms as the males can be deadly aggressive with their piglets around.

Another afternoon, we encountered a family of five capybaras, the largest rodent in the world weighing almost as much as the average human male. Two adult capybaras descended onto the riverbank, followed by their piglets. When they returned, a young one was missing. They are the favourite food of the jaguar, puma, caiman (a type of alligator) and anaconda.

On quite a few occasions, we saw Black Caimans, measuring over 4m long. These are the largest predators in the Amazon basin and the ones we saw always had a nice, big, wide 'smile'.

Our last stop was Iquitos in the northern part of Peru, home to a multitude of forests within the Amazonian lowlands. We met a friend who is a Spanish scientist and conservationist who has discovered five new bird species in the world and more than 20 new species over a period of 20 years.

At Yarapa River, we visited the local school which has only 20 students ranging from four to 14 years old, who study in the same class.

At the village, we swam in the muddy river and fished for piranhas. Contrary to their fearsome reputation, piranhas are fearful creatures which gather in large shoals to protect themselves from predators such as dolphins and giant otters.

Most are omnivorous scavengers eating vegetables, plants, fish and insects. The tributary we swam in was frequented by villagers and relatively safe.

A piranha bite is considered an act of carelessness than of misfortune. Piranhas are a favourite fare of villagers. The ones we caught with a basic rod and line were delicious.

We continued to explore deeper into the Amazon's smaller and remote tributaries in a handcrafted wooden dugout, basically a tiny canoe hollowed from a tree. In the diffused light of the dense forest, we spotted a family of rare Pygmy Marmosets - the smallest monkey in the world with a body that is only 15cm long.

Supporting its weight on the tips of its long, sharp claw-like nails, it clung vertically on the 20m-tall tree and stared at us with its big, round eyes while making sharp whistle and clicking sounds.

Finally, it started to feed on the gum that exuded from a tree during the night. A cute baby emerged from a nearby tree- hole, well hidden by the epiphytes (air plants), followed by its mother. In the soft morning sun, she huddled, groomed, played and taught her little one how to catch a bug.

Downstream, we met the Noisy Night Monkey, Brown Woolly Monkey, the Peruvian Squirrel Monkey, the teeny Saddleback Tamarin and the laid-back brown-throated Three-toed Sloth, all oblivious to our presence. These sloths spend 15 to 18 hours every day sleeping in the high canopy of trees, descending only once every eight days or so to defecate on the ground. They are so inactive that algae and moths live in their fur.

Three weeks were gone in no time and we happily ticked off our checklist of species with a great sense of accomplishment.

The people in Peru were friendly, warm and welcoming. The communities living in the Amazon seemed genuinely happy and content with the simplicity of life, in spite of the limited resources available.

We are grateful to the Incas for showing us the power of living a simple and rich life, and being close to Mother Earth, despite having few material possessions.

The writer is a conservationist and former group chief executive of Wildlife Reserves Singapore. Bjorn Olesen is a wildlife photographer.

Five things to do

1 Before you leave for the Amazon, visit a travel clinic. Malaria is a high risk disease there and it is best to take precautions.

2 Eat at taverns (chicherias) and local restaurants (picanterias) where the typical fare is at its best. Prices are good value, ranging from US$5 (S$6.30) to US$20 a person.

3 Most restaurants include a 10 per cent service charge, but add another 10 per cent if it was a great meal. Taxi drivers do not expect tips but remember to negotiate fares beforehand. Tour guides should get about US$5 a day a person.

4 Useful websites include Go 2 Peru (, Yarapa River Lodge ( and Tripadvisor Peru (

5 Re-confirm your flights when flying internally in Peru two to three days in advance. This can be done at most hotels or at the local airline office.

Two don'ts

1 Don't buy food in the street until your stomach has acclimatised.

2 Don't wear jewellery and expensive-looking watches when you go out and be on your guard during festivals, at markets and in a crowd.


Singapore Airlines flies to Sao Paulo three times a week, with a stopover in Barcelona. Return fare starts from $2,563, based on two to go. From Sao Paulo, there are daily non-stop connections to Lima, the capital of Peru.

KLM also flies from Singapore to Lima, via Amsterdam.

Singapore citizens need a visa to visit Brazil. A certificate of yellow fever immunisation is required for return to Singapore.



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