Families on Board

A launch takes Flotel passengers to visit one of the small indigenous villages along the banks of the Río Mamoré.

My eyes widened as I heard the faint ripple across the Río Mamoré. I slowly turned my head and saw the pink backs of two river dolphins bobbing along, curving in and out of the brown water. The creatures were so dissimilar to their ocean counterparts, they didn't seem related. They were certainly less athletic: Their long, pale pink snouts rarely rose more than a few inches above the river's surface.

Until that moment, I had taken the quiet for granted as I lounged in a hammock on the top deck of La Reina de Enín, a "Flotel" (floating hotel) cruising this tributary of the Amazon River in northeastern Bolivia. Most of the other Flotel passengers had gone out on a smaller boat excursion to see wildlife while I stayed behind to spend the afternoon reading.

We saw river dolphins on each of the four days we journeyed on the Río Mamoré with Flotel. Like most of the other internationally diverse passengers, my husband, Larry, my daughter, Trinity, and I had come to experience the bio-diversity of the Amazon Basin, seeking an unobtrusive, environmentally friendly way to see its people, flora and fauna.

The Amazon boasts the richest density of species in the world, and on our cruise I was hoping for encounters with turtles, harpy eagles, anacondas, tapirs, manatees, sloths, blue morpho butterflies, squirrel monkeys, yellow macaws, jaguars and other birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Larry and I went to Bolivia last July with Trinity, who had been a college exchange student in La Paz, the capital. Trinity's friends had recommended a Flotel cruise, and it seemed perfect for our needs. We didn't want to take a large, insulated cruise ship on the Amazon, preferring a smaller craft that would take us off the usual tourist route. The decision paid off: La Reina, a colorfully painted catamaran, gave us a close look at the remote Amazon Basin rain forest from a comfortable base.

To start our cruise we flew from La Paz to Trinidad, where we were picked up and shuttled by van and ferry to a small port on the Río Mamoré, the longest and largest river in Bolivia. Capt. Tomás Carderón met us and three other passengers at the port and helped us load our luggage into his small motorboat. The seven of us fit snugly, and off we went, the wind pummeling our faces as we sped downriver.

As we approached La Reina, the passengers already on board greeted us as if we were old friends. After leaving luggage in our cabin, we joined the other travelers -- a Spanish family with two young children, a French couple, a Peruvian woman, two Germans and a Bolivian couple -- and the crew for a lunch of fish, chicken, rice, fresh fruits and flan. Then Carderón explained how Flotel works.

La Reina can accommodate 36 passengers in its 10 triple cabins and four doubles, each with an ingeniously designed private bathroom. The cabins were comfortable, with river views and a generator to provide air-conditioning. I found it easier to sleep on the quiet, steady La Reina than I have on gigantic cruise ships, where wave action and the constant loud engine disturb my dreams.

On our cruise few passengers spent much time in their cabins. There were too many things to do -- hikes, horseback rides, swims and shore excursions on one of La Reina's six motorboats.

The first time our small craft pulled away from the catamaran, I wasn't sure what to expect on our jungle hike. We cruised downstream, then pulled up to a riverbank that loomed 10 feet above us. It was dry season, and the Mamoré's water level had dropped. To reach the bank, we had to balance on a long plank from the boat, then grasp a thick tree root to pull ourselves up the slippery, muddy slope. Then we followed Carderón, who doubled as guide and naturalist, into the rain forest.

Carderón has worked with Flotel for 10 years, seven as La Reina's captain. He is well versed in Amazonian flora and fauna, and he has a contagious enthusiasm for the natural world.

As part of Flotel's Ethno-Eco-Tourism program, he took us to visit a Mojeño Indian family, introducing us to the parents and their nine children.

"It is important to see how the people here live," Carderón had told us on board the ship. "They are very poor and must fight the elements, mosquitoes and disease. When we meet them we appreciate their way of life and see how much they are an integral part of the Amazon."

The family was as curious about us as we were about them, and through them we learned how they build their open-sided homes of bamboo with palm-leaf roofs and live by subsistence agriculture, much as their ancestors did.

Mojeño and Yuracaré villagers share a part of their lives with Flotel guests and provide horseback rides, canoeing and guided hikes. In return, Flotel contributes to a village fund used for medicine, food, school supplies, clothing and other necessities.

Our field trips were many and varied. On the second day's expedition, we took the launch to some stairs carved into a cliff, at the top of which a resident from the village of Yuracaré de San Renato waited with saddled horses. He helped us mount Blanco, Chocolate Viejo and La Baya, three mild-mannered horses that carried us through the dense forest past birds of paradise and palm trees. During the two-hour ride, Carderón told us more about the rain forest plants and animals.

We emerged into sunlight and made our way through the savanna toward Estancia El Carmen, a cattle ranch, where we spoke with some of the village children and took turns holding a large parrot as a sow and her piglets paraded past.

Mounting up again, we left the huts behind and crossed a large, mucky field. The slurp of mud against hoofs made me grateful for our horses.

On a nighttime search for caimans (alligators), Carderón shone his flashlight along the riverbank looking for red eyes in the darkness.