At the last moment, we wavered, reluctant to leave the boat – worried about peckish piranhas nibbling our feet. But the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime swim with pink dolphins was too much of a draw.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I said as I plunged into the Amazon with the rest of my group, a perfect prelude to our night safari along the great river’s hidden creeks.
Here, in the protected rainforest of northern Peru, the rare, salmon-pink dolphin reigns supreme. It is classed as an endangered species, and Indian folklore has helped to retain the local population.
The Peruvian Indians say it’s bad luck to mess with them, due to their magic powers that seduce young virgins.
It was amazing to swim with these friendly, freshwater animals that weaved in and out of us – no doubt amused at seeing other creatures as pink as themselves.
We returned to our agile, flat-bottomed craft to continue our tour as hundreds of croaking frogs led a jungle symphony.
We slid under vines and swished past candlestick ginger and birds-of-paradise flowers to pools thick with huge water lilies. Above us, we could see rainforest giants, including the 200ft Kapok tree, festooned with orchids and weaver bird nests.
We oohed and aahed, especially at the calm beauty of white-bellied caimans – a smaller, fairly harmless branch of the crocodile family.
More pleasure – of the five-star luxury kind – awaited us back at the Delfin, our pretty cruiser with seven air-conditioned en suite cabins.
First stop after our excursions, though, was the top-deck bar, shaded by a palm-thatched roof, where a mean pisco sour, Peru’s national tipple, was waiting. The grape-based spirit drink, laced with lemon juice, has quite a kick. Next up was a gourmet three-course meal, Amazonian style.
A palm-heart tagliatelle was followed by baked fish with a coconut and chilli salsa, then a confection featuring the sweet pomarosa fruit.
We had joined the Delfin at Nauta, a port 60 miles from Iquitos, the Peruvian gateway to the Amazon. Lying just south of the Equator, friendly, bohemian Iquitos is a city so jammed in by jungle, it is only accessible by air and boat.
For the next days, we chugged along a network including the Maranon, Ucayali, El Dorado and Puinahua rivers, deep in the five-million-acre Pacaya Samiria national nature reserve, a pristine lost world.
This was high water season, when most of the jungle is flooded, turning it into a so-called “mirror forest”.
The high water also means a huge concentration of wildlife, but their natural camouflage makes spotting surprisingly hard at first.
It took a morning to get my jungle eyes. From then on, it was a non-stop spectacle. The forest’s supermodel, a shimmering azure morpho butterfly, was a true highlight, as were the dusky blue Amazonian kingfishers. But we were also wowed by the monkeys – capuchins and the fluffy, white-faced saki ones – and sloths, high in the forest canopy, cradling babies while hanging by their toes.
With the aid of our guide, boat owner Lissy Macchiavello, we grew adept at recognising toucans, egrets and the massive horned screamer, a bird that bounds like a dog, and the hoatzin, or “stinky bird”, a reputation based on its turbulent digestion.
It was a novelty to be on dry land again, as we took a riverbank walk one afternoon. Perhaps that was the cause of the abandon that came over us. We seized on an achiote fruit and painted our faces crimson, then held an impromptu “Bushtucker Trial”, sampling from one of the many termites’ nests (they tasted peppery). Big mistake – the dye took hours to wash off.
Peru’s rich history and culture make it a growing favourite with British visitors, with Macchu Pichu a massive draw. But its rainforest is not really on most tourist itineraries. Our trip bucked that trend, and one of its many rewards was not glimpsing another foreign visitor.
The journey was framed by two whistle-stop tours of the capital Lima. The city centre has well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture, as well as a fantastic selection of food and craft markets.
And now its Peruvian Oriental fusion cuisine is carving it a reputation as the gastronomic capital of South America, led by Michelin-starred chef Gaston Acurio.
But for memories, the rainforest wins. Sailing back to Nauta, castle-sized, lavender-coloured storm clouds cleared to reveal a scarlet sunset. Suddenly two great flocks of macaws, 400 or more, rose in the air with a stupendous sound. The Amazon – nothing less than amazing.
GETTING THERE:Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000/ www.coxandkings.co.uk) offers a nine-night, tailor-made Amazon Cruise itinerary from £2,930pp (two sharing), including seven nights’ full board on the Delfin, two nights’ B&B at the Orient-Express Miraflores Park Hotel in Lima, all excursions including city tours of Lima and Iquitos, private transfers and return flights from Heathrow.The Renaissance London Hotel at Heathrow (0800 221222/ www.marriott.com) offers accommodation and fly-drive packages. Doubles start from £82 per room per night (two sharing), B&B.For more information please call 0800 221222 or visit the Marriott website.For more information on Peru visit PromPeru: www.peru.info.