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Life on the Water or Life in the Trees? The Best Two Ways to Explore the Amazon River

09/18/2015 04:28pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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The Amazon to me has always been sort of a mythical, exotic place I had heard about first as a young child. I had always been told stories about the rare species of plants and animals that can only be found there and have magical healing properties. Most of the cures to our Earth's diseases have been discovered here and some have even speculated that the cure to cancer is still growing out there, yet to be discovered. Which is not that far-fetched of a statement, considering that this same majestic river system supports 80% of life on Earth and most of the oxygen we breathe on our planet is produced there.
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With all of its beauty, power, and wonder, the Amazon also has its dark side. No one has escaped the tales of what lives within its dark waters like piranhas, electric eels, anacondas, giant river otters and so many more creatures you would never think to swim with. Not to mention the hidden tribes of people who have used poisonous dart frogs and shamans for centuries while living in the jungle. All of this sounds surreal and has given the Amazon its fairy tale reputation that makes it seem like an impossible destination not only to reach, but be able to survive in.
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The Amazon River, the largest river system in the world, spans over 4,000 miles and crosses the entire continent of South America. Its source starts high up in the Andes Mountains of Peru, passing by the lost Incan City of Machu Picchu and continuing to flow across the Peruvian rainforest, crossing through Columbia and Brazil until it finally reaches the Atlantic Ocean. Being the adventurer that I am, I knew I had to fly to the source of this mysterious river to uncover the truth about our world's largest rainforest, and to witness for myself what all this land has to offer.
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Although, in August it is winter in Peru, the Amazon only ever has two seasons, dry and wet. The water levels change drastically between these two seasons and the river can swell up to 35 feet higher than it is during the dry season flooding the forests, villages, and even forever altering the landscape once the waters recede. Here, you have no choice but to adapt to the rules of the Amazon. In fact, adaptation is the recurrent theme that I saw when I landed in the jungle, not only with the plants and animals that live there, but the people too. Since there are no roads to get to most of their villages, the only way to get around is by boat or on foot. When the rivers rise, people have learned to migrate to the second story of their stilted wooden homes just like how the animals retreat higher into the canopy of the trees. Life goes on and is dictated by the changing tides of the river. This is when I realized that the only way to truly experience the Amazon is to do what the locals do; either live on the water, or escape high into the trees.
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Life on the Water

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The most typical way to view and experience the Peruvian Amazon is by boat, specifically with Rainforest Cruises. The Delphin I riverboat (the same boat National Geographic uses to charter trips in the Amazon) is a floating luxury hotel that gives you the opportunity to see the eco-systems of the rainforest up close, but also enjoy many five-star amenities such as fine dining prepared by some of the top Peruvian chefs, massages, private rooms and bathrooms, hot showers and air conditioning (something you don't realize is a luxury until you're down there), and numerous activities the crew offers.
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From the second Shannon and I stepped aboard what would be our floating home for the next 4 days, we were treated like royalty. They took off our shoes and cleaned them while greeting us with welcome cocktails and showing us to our suites. Our suite was aptly named, The Anaconda Suite, since I was determined to find one during our adventures down there. As we settled into our cabin which had a private wrap around balcony and windows, I laid on the bed to relax and read and had front row seats to watching the famous Pink Dolphins jumping and frolicking in the Amazon river around us! It was such a magical sight.
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What is so cool about living aboard the Delphin I is that you are constantly moving from one location to another, reaching remote destinations in the Amazon that you otherwise couldn't get to. One evening we would sail to have the best sunset, or find the best spot to fish for piranhas and by morning we would be further downstream at a reserve where we could canoe in to a hidden spot for breakfast where a table of local fruits, pastries, and coffee would already be laid out for us. While moving, you are not disturbed by mosquitos and you have this constant breeze as you pass by quaint villages or just snooze and relax.
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Although living on a boat was magical and romantic, some of the highlights of the trip were when we were able to take a small skiff boat down some of the narrow tributaries to see the river teeming with wildlife and birds or getting to go hiking through the rainforest to some of the nearby villages.
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I loved practicing my Spanish and speaking with the locals, learning about their lives, and even playing soccer in the evenings with the men and crew of the ship. Everyone we encountered was kind and welcoming and eager to tell us all about their lives and explain the mysteries of the jungle.
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My inner Indiana Jones self loved spending the days hiking, taking photos, and getting dirty exploring the jungle, but then my alter ego self on vacation was able to return to the luxury of a hot shower and 5 star meal. The evenings would literally sail by with the bartender serving cocktails under the stars while we traded survival stories with the other guests who by day two felt like family. Every day's stories would outdo the day before and it was the perfect blend of adventure, exploration, and comfort.
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Life in the Trees

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Life in the canopy of the forest while escaping the rising waters of the Amazon River, is the only other way to truly experience the wonders of this vast rain forest. 90% of all life in the rain forest is found in the treetops, so literally you are living in the richest plant and animal habitat on Earth when you stay in a private bungalow in the Treehouse Lodge. Every morning you wake up to the symphony of exotic birds and monkeys while in the comfort of your canopy bed in your gravity-defying treehouse home. Each of their 8 bungalows are connected by suspension bridges sometimes as high as 70 feet up in the trees and are each equipped with bathrooms, showers, comfortable beds, and electricity.
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When we first arrived I felt like a kid again living out my dream of staying in a Swiss Family Robinson-style home. Each tree house has a giant tree growing through the middle of it and you have to climb a tower, walk across a suspension bridge, and climb a ladder through a trap door to get into your hotel suite. For anyone who loves glamping, this is the next best thing! Our suites did not have telephones, but we each had walkie talkie radios where we could communicate with the main lodge if we needed anything, which for me added to the fun and feeling of being a kid again. For us "city folk" our cellphones were rendered useless here deep in the heart of the jungle, but they made for great flashlights while exploring the jungle for wildlife during our night hikes☺
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The Treehouse Lodge offered a completely different side to the Amazon than living on the water did. It was more rustic and you fell asleep to the sound of insects and woke up to the sounds of birds when they traded shifts. You found yourself living more with the rhythm of the sunrise and sunset and because we were so deep in the jungle, you could explore deeper into the narrow, shallow tributaries by kayak than any boat ever could. I found that I became a better piranha fisherwoman while living on land and we were not afraid to swim in that same water with the pink dolphins. We had more time to really enjoy the activities from our lodge. They even cooked up our fish we caught for dinner and served it with beautiful presentation at night before we would go out cayman spotlight hunting and looking for nocturnal animals.
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I learned my new favorite Spanish word while hiking through a local village one day on our way to find a local shaman. "Oso Perezoso" which is their word for sloth and actually translates into English as "Lazy Bear". Someone brought out their pet sloth which was rescued as a baby and it clung to me like I was a tree trunk and just hugged me with its furry face and perma-smile. I just wanted to take him home with me! Pablito, the sloth, became my new friend and salsa dancing partner. 2015-09-17-1442481223-3527491-0060.jpg
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We finally found Victor, the nearest medicine man the next village over, and he promised to come over that night at dinner to prepare us some local herbal remedies and give us a blessing. It was so magical to have tea and dinner and then be blessed by a shaman. We learned a lot about their local plants and how no one needs a pharmacy when you live in the abundant jungle. It was fascinating, but so was life in the trees. We realized that when we had less distractions around us, we paid attention more to our surroundings and saw life where it didn't appear before. It was like someone turned on a switch and the jungle came to life.
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What I learned from my week in the Amazon is how quickly we all adapt to our surroundings. I found myself starting sentences with ridiculous statements like, "Yesterday when I was piranha fishing..." and that feeling like a perfectly normal statement. I started recognizing sounds and animals and being in tune to nature. Instead of having a fear of animals, I found myself barefoot out searching for them. I was not addicted to my phone, or internet and I learned to live without it. Life goes on and is dictated by mother nature and there was a level of simplicity and beauty in that. I wish I could remember that feeling, bottle it, and take it home with me.
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