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For instant adventure, just add water (Nick Thorpe)

Nick Thorpe, inspired by a re-creation of Kon-Tiki, explores coastal islands, crosses Lake Titicaca and cruises the Amazon:

In the improbable setting of the naval dockyard on Lima's least desirable fringes, a Boy's Own fantasy is taking shape. For three months, shielded by warehouse walls, hunched cranes and the hulls of freighters, a small group of bare-chested men has been building that most elemental of vessels: a log raft.

Constructed from balsa trunks felled in Ecuador and lashed with wrist-thick rope, the Tangaroa is the sort of thing you expect to see ship-wrecked sailors clinging to.

The late Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl started it all. In 1947 he drifted all the way to Polynesia aboard the Kon-Tiki in 101 days to win an argument on the suitability of so-called primitive vessels for blue-water voyaging. Nearly 60 years later, his 28-year-old grandson, Olav, is among those taking the helm of a raft built to the same basic design, but hoping to steer it using an ancient system of retractable wooden daggerboards.

The voyage is also a chance to monitor environmental changes in the sea's surface - not to mention, one suspects, a great excuse to eat fish, grow beards and get intimate with the deep ocean in a way not possible on your average cruise liner.

Tempted to jettison the day job and join them? Alas, too late. If all has gone according to plan, the Tangaroa will be completing her first full day of westward sailing by the time you read this, disappearing over the horizon with four Norwegians, a Swede, a Peruvian and the fluttering logos of some rather nervous sponsors.

But even without a Pre-Inca raft trip, Peru offers the tourist a unique range of nautical options. In which other country can you explore coastal islands, cross the world's highest navigable lake and cruise the Amazon? My mission is to try all three.

Ballestas Islands

Raft voyagers are merely the most recent riders of the Humboldt Current, as evidenced by the array of fish and bird life teeming in the nutrient-rich waters around the Ballestas Islands. Four hours' drive south of Lima, and a 40-minute speedboat ride offshore, the Ballestas have been dubbed the poor man's Galapagos, a cluster of crags and vast sea-sculpted arches upon which Humboldt penguins stand like sentries.

The surface water shivers with anchovies, and suddenly the air is full of wings - boobies, cormorants and pelicans, plunging into the surf with all the grace of collapsing umbrellas. We steer into the wheeling vortex of noise and bird-droppings.

"It pays to keep your hats on," says our guide Carlos with a grin, as the guano rains down into the water around us. "You are looking at - and smelling - the best fertiliser in the world. We harvest every seven years."

Rickety-looking drawbridges hang precipitously from the cliffs; old guano sacks sit stacked ready for the next time harvesters are allowed ashore with their shovels in 2011. Peru fought the 1879 War of the Pacific over lucrative mineral resources such as this, and lost her southernmost towns to Chile in the process (Bolivia lost what little coastline she had).

Nowadays, only the native wildlife gets routine access to land in this nature reserve. That wildlife includes massed ranks of slick sealions barking themselves hoarse on a rocky cliff beach. We motor closer to a sluglike male slumped on the shingle, his energy (if not his fat reserves) apparently diminished by the demands of servicing a 12-strong harem. The females are more perky, giving swimming lessons to dozens of month-old babies in the foaming shallows.

"A great percentage of these babies will die," says Carlos. "Sharks come in close to these islands, and in June and December there are orcas too." You forget, in the midst of such biodiversity and abundance, that the sea is as much battleground as birthing place. Even more so in El Niño years, when the Humboldt Current is reversed (for reasons still not fully understood), the nutrient-rich upwelling ceases and the whole food chain convulses - from plankton to seabirds to thousands of fishermen.

"El Niño was the reason that many of our ancient civilisations collapsed," claims Carlos. "No food, no rain: revolution. Nobody really knows when the next one is coming."

Los Uros, Lake Titicaca

It may have been the privations of an El Niño year which spurred the creation of one of Peru's most unusual nautical communities: the floating islands of the world's highest navigable lake.
A reed raft on Lake Titicaca
The Uros people build everything from floating islands to furniture from the native reeds

A thousand years ago, hunger drew the Uros people to Lake Titicaca in search of new territory. Finding the shores already occupied by Aymara and Quechua peoples, they improvised floating beds from the buoyant totora reeds and later found an ingenious way to cast off altogether.

"We use totora for everything," says Raúl Jallahui today, ushering us onto the gently undulating surface of his 100ft-wide "island" - one of more than 30 remarkable reed rafts built by the Uros just 40 minutes out of Puno Harbour. "We build islands, boats, mattresses, souvenirs, furniture... and if you peel a reed at the bottom you can even eat it, like a banana."

Raúl, 32, is the head of his island, known as Tribuna Corias, which houses nine families in thatched reed huts. He has already assigned jobs for the day - two men are fishing, others are hunting birds, the women are selling souvenirs, while he welcomes the steady stream of curious tourists.

"It takes a year to build a floating island," he says, showing the breezeblock-sized chunks of tangled totora roots that form the base layer. "We peg them together, crisscross them with dried reeds, adding another layer every three weeks." The end product is up to 10ft thick and moored in nine places on the lakebed. But it will eventually sink, unless new reeds are added each month.

"We had more than 600 people dancing on the island for a wedding feast last year, and by the next day the island was definitely much lower," he says. Other hazards include accidentally setting fire to the island during the dry season. But totora does have advantages.

"If you have a problem with the community, you can cut the island in half and move to the other side..." We step aboard a plump-bottomed reed boat adorned with a woven feline figurehead - a reference to a revered puma-shaped rock over on the Bolivian side of this 3,300 sq mile inland sea, where the mythical Andean creator Viracocha is believed to have risen from the deep waters.

Titi-Caca means literally "rock of the cat" - though our guide prefers a more scatological, patriotic interpretation. "In Peru we have the Titi, in Bolivia they have only the Caca."

The Uros islands can be one of Peru's more uncomfortable tourist experiences for a captive audience greeted by hard-selling souvenir vendors, but in Raúl's village visitors are at least asked not to give money or sweets to children. He prefers to see it as a symbiotic relationship.

"If it wasn't for tourism, there would be no health centres, no school," he says, as we step off the reed raft to meet our launch at a neighbouring island. "Before the tourists came, it was just survival - fishing, hunting." Nowadays the government has a vested interest in the survival of the Uros - a few years ago it installed solar panels which allowed, among other things, the islands' first reed telephone booth.

"It's much better than on the land," says Raúl, who was born here. "Our children learn to swim before they can walk. There's none of the car noise or pollution, we don't pay for water... we will be here for generations."

Our pilot is not so sure. There's a distinct absence of adolescents on the island, and the last full-blooded Uro died in 1959, taking the native language with her. "Today they have TV, solar panels, radio, so they see what life is like elsewhere," he says, as we motor away. "The Uros population is shrinking on the islands and growing on the mainland. Who knows, in 10 to 20 years time, maybe we'll only have a floating museum?"

There is already one floating museum on Titicaca. The MV Yavari is a beautifully restored steamer whose genesis is more incredible than any creation myth. Commissioned by the Peruvian president Ramon Castilla in 1861, she was built in Britain and then carefully disassembled into 2,766 pieces, each of which had to be carried across the Andes by mule. The journey alone took six years.

Perhaps understandably, when the ship was finally launched in 1870, the captain decided that her fuel at least would be locally sourced. She was powered for most of her early years on dried llama dung.

The Amazon

You can have a little too much authenticity, of course. Flying north towards the Amazon in the hope of finding a suitable riverboat, I am alarmed at the advice from one guidebook: "Avoid slinging your hammock in the ship's stairwell, as this is where the cook slaughters the animals each morning."
A boat on the Amazon
The magic of the river is being part of something dynamic and fundamentally larger than yourself

I am looking for something a little less Heart of Darkness, though nothing too luxurious - I want to experience the dense, damp jungle, not stare at it from behind smoked glass. The MV Rio Amazonas seems a good compromise: a grand, patched-up dame of a steamer, built on the Clyde in 1896 and still making a weekly return trip 250 miles downriver to Colombia.

"The history of the MV Rio Amazonas is the history of the Amazon from the rubber boom onwards," says her expansive owner, an amiable Californian colossus called Paul Wright, who bought her for refit after nearly a century of logging and cargo. "She's not the Cunard line, but she'll be good for a couple of generations yet."

We're in the isolated jungle city of Iquitos where the vestiges of the rubber barons still stand - not least an incongruous kit-built iron house designed by Gustave Eiffel. Four hours' speedboat ride downriver, I catch up with the boxy white ship at the former leper colony of San Pablo.

The vessel turns out to specialise in the heart-warmingly eccentric. Our air-conditioned cabins, for example, have wide windows on the passing scenery, but the en suite bathroom is plumbed for showering in silty brown river water.

Captain Pablo Pezo's wheelhouse hasn't changed much since the ship was launched. There are mechanical levers to summon the engine room, a ship's wheel as tall as he is, even a simple plumbline for gauging river depth - successive echo sounders have been torn off the hull by passing logs. "The river will rise for another few months," says Capt Pablo. "Then the water will go down, and in summer the logs will disappear."

We trace our way along the snaking map, short-cutting down backwaters to avoid the stronger currents, passing little palm-hut settlements with names such as Beirut, Tambo Piraña, Progreso. The passengers, a mixture of Germans, Americans, Peruvians and French Canadians, relax on the shady lounge deck, watching the foliage scrolling past, training binoculars on the occasional heron or parrot.

Later, as the sun goes down, we climb into little wooden boats to seek out the night-time residents of the river, accompanied by a raucous symphony of croaks, belches, chirps, caws and - somewhere on the wind - the distant roar of howler monkeys.

Floating with the current, we find ourselves surrounded by pink river dolphins, which snort playfully and evade all attempts at photography. Fireflies doodle on the night sky, and from the waterline the red, unblinking eyes of watching caimans reflect back our torchbeams.

Over a supper of catfish and rice, I am struck anew by the wonder of being waterborne - be it among coastal islands; or in a world of slowly-sinking reeds; on a cranky old riverboat; or even, God forbid, adrift in the Pacific on a log raft. What's the magic? Being part of something dynamic and fundamentally larger than yourself, perhaps?

Still pondering, I fall asleep to the jungle's whispers as we rumble onwards. It's an ancient formula, but it still works: for instant adventure, just add water.

Nick Thorpe is the author of 'Adrift in Caledonia: Boathitching for the Unenlightened' (Little, Brown, £12.99);

Peru basics

Getting there
Nick Thorpe travelled to Peru with Last Frontiers (01296 653000,, which offers a 15-day trip to Peru combining the Inca highlights of Cusco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca with a flight over the Nasca Lines, a visit to the marine life of the Ballestas Islands and a four-day cruise on the MV Rio Amazonas riverboat along the Amazon, from £2,951 per person, based on two sharing, including international flights with Iberia (subject to season and availability), internal flights and transfers, and most meals.

Footprint Peru (£13.99) gives excellent information (

Further information
To follow the progress of the Tangaroa voyage, see; for information on the MV Yavari project on Lake Titicaca, see

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