I can usually smell a rat from a mile away. When you travel as often as I do, it becomes innate. There is always someone hustling for your tourist dollars, some less honest than others. I must confess, however, that here in the Peruvian Amazon, when the rat comes braised in soy sauce, garlic, onions, white vinegar, and a local dried pepper called aji panca, it doesn’t smell half bad at all. And it tastes even better.
I came to Peru for an Amazon river cruise, thinking I would spend my days anticipatorily awaiting the next macaw flyby, the next jaguar spotting along the riverbank, the next piercing blow dart to the back of the neck. You know, the usual. But since we departed from Iquitos in Northern Peru, one of the largest cities in the world completely inaccessible by car (it was carved out of nowhere in the jungle by Jesuits in the 1700s), we have traversed over 100 miles along the Rios Amazonas and Marañón (one of two rivers that converge to create the mouth of the mighty Rio Amazonas). There has only been an occasional shutter-quick spotting of grey and pink river dolphins and a few chestnut-fronted macaw flybys so far off in the distance, they were indistinguishable from any other bird. The wildlife thus far just hasn’t been all that wild or lively.
The food has been a different story. Let me preface with this: Here on the Dawn on the Amazon III, a gracious and comfortable boat fired from lovely Purple Heart wood and stocked with a charming staff of four Iquiteñas, the gourmet Amazonian cuisine has been a pleasant surprise. Having toured through the jungle market in Belem the day of departure, I saw the one and only grocery store in town and all its wares. It was no doubt a sensory assault, and not always a pleasant one. So, I know what these girls are working with. It’s down home, it’s hearty, it’s wild, and it’s the friggin’ highlight of the trip.
But no meal arrives at the dinner table without an accompanying surprise to test the limits of my American-bred, world-developed palette. Thus far, it’s been a bit like Fear Factor but without the $50,000 hanging over every bite (incidentally, the boat runs $289/night, including all meals and transfers, so people actually pay to eat this stuff). Last night before a wonderful dinner of chicken and linguiça kebabs, we started with a native delicacy known as Aguaja Palm grubs. Now, we watched these little critters crawl around the straw-filled bucket they were kept in for two days before Judith, the highly-competent chef, stuffed them with cheese and bacon and sautéed them up in garlic and white wine. I swore I wouldn’t dare eat them, no matter how many times the cute waitresses assured me they were delicioso, but peer pressure is powerful.
Before I knew it, I forked one and took it down like an hombre, albeit a very squeamish and vaguely feminine one. It wasn’t bad at all, and was by far the most adventurous thing I have ever eaten. Still, where are the toucans, the tapirs, the giant river otters, and the capybaras? We have been eating more wildlife then we are viewing, though that has started to change now that we are entering Pacaya Samiria National Reserve.
Suddenly, the dark, muddy waters of the Amazonas and the Marañón rivers give way to the narrower, coffee black waters of the Samiria River. On both sides, lush, jungly vegetation is clouded over by suffocating morning mists, from which fleets of bird species are taking off at an O’Hare pace. This is more like my picture of the Amazon, but I can’t help but wonder: What’s the next culinary surprise?
It turns out to be congompe, a massive snail we saw slurping on the hands of one of the Iquiteñas the day before. I must confess, it looked more appetizing then the grubs, but even twice-boiling in garlic, red wine, sweet pepper, and ginger couldn’t save it. Escargot it surely wasn’t. Luckily, with each adventurous gastronomic bombshell there always comes something I don’t need to look up in a field guide to know what the hell I’m eating. In this case, linguine with pesto. Viva Italia!
But the most interesting and appetizing oddity wasn’t the plethora of exotic juices or fantastic grains or even the additive plantain chips with spices we have been consistently munching on for six days. This delicacy in question came earlier in the trip and smelled wonderful, like an Amazonian pot roast only an elder in the kitchen could pull off. Our host refused to tell us what it was before we tasted it, obviously arousing our curiosity and suspicion. The table dug in and the verdict was unanimous: This mystery meat was a tasty treat. When he did reveal it as majas, also known as paca, nobody had a clue. I grabbed the field guide. It was a big ‘ol rat and I never smelled it coming.
Kevin Raub is a freelance travel and entertainment writer who contributes regularly to Travel+Leisure, Town & Country, American Way, and Organic Spa, among others. He often finds himself in precarious parts of the world, doing things his mother wholly advises against.