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Swimming in the Amazon
(Photo: Caroline Morse)

Swimming Among the Piranhas: Facing My Fears in the Amazon

“It’s not actively bleeding,” the paramedic mused as he examined a small cut on my heel. “It probably won’t attract the piranhas.”

Feeling less than reassured, I eyed the pitch-black waters of the Amazon River that I was about to plunge into for a refreshing afternoon swim. My itinerary for the week flashed through my head: still to come was searching for caiman (a crocodile-like creature with teeth that were just as strong and sharp) and fishing for piranhas, all in the same river I was about to dive into.

Caiman. Piranhas. Swimming. It seemed to me that one of these activities did not quite fit with the other. On the other hand, when else would I get a chance to swim in the Amazon River? Besides, the Peruvian sun overhead was beating down, and the mosquitoes were relentlessly feasting on my sweaty limbs. The water would offer relief (but hopefully not the eternal relief kind). I took a leap of faith.

The water was cool and dark—we were swimming in a section of blackwater.  Here, the river was opaque and black, stained by tannins leached from the decaying vegetation below, which meant (for better or for worse), I couldn’t see what other creatures were sharing the water with me.

Behind me, I suddenly heard a sharp exhale of water, followed by a gasp from my fellow swimmers—grey river dolphins splashed in the river just a few yards away, alerting us to their presence with bursts of air from their blowholes. Rather than fearing the boat and group of tourists in their water, they seemed amused by us, possibly because we were using brightly colored pool noodles to stay afloat in the river.

The Amazonian river dolphins are revered and protected by locals—thanks in large part to local legends that promise harm and misfortune to anyone who kills or eats the creatures. The dolphins circled around us for a few magical minutes before disappearing back underwater and heading on their way.  I felt reassured—it’s said that dolphins won’t swim near caimans, so I hoped my chances of becoming bait were lower than I had feared.

As we bobbed gently in the water, the sounds of the jungle surrounded us. The boat engine was off and the air filled with the calls of parrots, the chatter of monkeys, and the constant buzz of insects. I was well and truly immersed in the Amazon—feeling its cool water around me, hearing its jungle song, and seeing the green trees towering around me.

Eventually, I climbed back into the boat, exhausted and exhilarated. Our guide pulled celebratory beers out of the cooler, and we sipped ice-cold cervezas as our skiff raced back to our home for the week, the Delfin II, a river cruise ship that was tied up a few miles away. The wind and still-powerful setting sun dried us off quickly as we sped over the water. As the brilliant green forest rushed by, I gazed down at the water and felt a huge sense of pride, happiness, and relaxation.

A trip down the Amazon forces travelers to meld with the ways of the river—there’s simply no way to make the river to adapt to your small, human needs. No matter how luxurious your tour, you have to confront all of the wonderful and sometimes scary aspects of the jungle and the water. You can’t explore the lush green forests without getting a few bug bites and spotting a few snakes. There’s certainly no Wi-Fi (even on a luxury river cruise) and so you’re forced to disconnect from your usual life—your only focus is the environment around you. Forgot something or want a snack? The nearest corner store is hundreds of miles away.

The Amazon forces you to be truly, authentically present within it, and that’s what sets this destination apart. You’ll come here and face your fears: of piranhas, of being disconnected, and of being vulnerable. But you’ll be rewarded with a true sense of discovery and accomplishment. And, of course, bragging rights for having braved swimming in the Amazon.


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Caroline Morse was hosted by Delfin Amazon Cruises on her trip to the Amazon. Follow her on Instagram TravelWithCaroline and on Twitter @CarolineMorse1 for photos from her adventure. For more information about Delfin Amazon Cruises, visit

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