By Jim Ferri and Marjorie Kean
River cruising has become exceptionally popular in the last several years, especially in Europe. We’ve taken several of them and have become big fans.
When we decided to go on a river cruise recently, though, we decided not to go to Europe, and instead headed south to set sail on the Amazon River.
An Amazon river cruise can be an incredible experience if you’re looking to marry luxury cruising on a small vessel with a deep dive into some very exotic nature.
The Amazon River is more than 4000 miles long – about the distance from New York to Berlin –and covers a lot of territory in different countries. But unlike cruising in Europe where you sail through a clutch of different countries, on the Amazon you select only one country to explore their section of the magnificent river.
For An Amazon River Cruise, Select a Country First
Although there are Amazon River cruises in different countries, Brazil and Peru are the most popular. After carefully considering both, we chose Peru.
The primary reason was Peru let us make better use of our time. Flying into Lima meant we wouldn’t have to cover the vast distances we would in Brazil to reach a more intimate part of the river. For example, the flight from Lima to Iquitos, our ship’s port, was less than two hours; the flight from Rio de Janeiro to Manaus, the home port for the type of cruise we sought, would be more than seven hours.
Another reason was that this cruise allowed us to easily visit Lima, a great city for food and sightseeing. And we’d also be able to spend time in Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. This ensured an exciting and varied touring experience in one trip.
And finally, the Peruvian Amazon has a great variety of small luxury ships, perfect for an intimate journey on the upper Amazon. In the narrower river, the cruise is more intimate, making it easier to focus on nature and the jungle’s fantastic wildlife.
Choosing Your Amazon River Cruise Ship
The Amazonian jungle covers two-thirds of Peru, and just about all of it is inaccessible by road. In fact, Iquitos, the city from which several Peruvian Amazon cruises depart, is accessible only by boat and air.
When you’re way out in the middle of nowhere, it’s nice to be pampered a bit. If you’re of that ilk, you’ll find several luxury ships and crews to do the pampering.
While there is a half-dozen or so companies to choose from, if you want to sail on the Amazon during part of your cruise, be aware that some sail only in the Amazon region, never on the Amazon River itself, so choose carefully. And also ensure that the company provides transfers from the airport to the ship.
Perfect for an Amazon Cruise: the Amazon Aria
We chose the Amazon Aria, a small luxury ship with only 16 suites. It offers three-, four- and seven-night cruises and has a 1:1 crew to passenger ratio. It turned out to be a very comfortable ship, perfect for our seven-night cruise.
Our 250 square-foot (23.2 sq m) cabin was spacious, with a comfortable California King bed and small couch on the side. Most enjoyable, however, was that in all cabins, the riverside wall is floor to ceiling glass, so you are always aware of your surroundings on the river. There are privacy curtains, of course, but no balconies. It also has a comfortable lounge, an on-deck Jacuzzi, massages, and an open bar.
Delicious Food, an Exceptional Crew
Our little group of passengers was quite diverse. They were from Australia and the U.S. (California, Florida, and New York), China, Germany, and Switzerland. Many were seasoned travelers who travel once or twice a year on major trips.
The food aboard the Aria was excellent, as was the selection of wines. (During one morning excursion the crew tied four of the boats together and served us a splendid breakfast out in the jungle).
Aria’s cuisine was international…some Peruvian, some Chinese…fresh fish and local vegetables…if you’d like something different, you only needed to ask the chef and he’d quickly make a substitution.
Breakfast was always buffet style, but each day there was a “special,” such as waffles, frittatas, or eggs benedict. Lunch was also served as a buffet but with great variety and a different theme every day.
Dinner was always a pleasant sit-down with communal dishes. It brought everyone together, and soon, little by little, we ended up pulling all the tables together. Halfway through the cruise, we were all eating at one long table, keeping the staff busy until bedtime, 10 pm or later.
The crew was exceptional. They were personable and tried in every way to please us all, no matter the circumstances. Each had memorized all of our names when we initially boarded and always greeted us by name whenever we met. They also managed to remember all of our personal preferences.
Choose Low Water or High Water on an Amazon River Cruise
There are only two seasons along the Amazon: Low Water and High Water. We chose Low-Water (June – November) for our Amazon cruise, since, during that period, you can travel up many little tributaries of the river and walk deeper into the jungle to see more wildlife. You can also walk about local villages.
During High Water, the river rises 20-30 feet, flooding a large part of the area, although places are still accessible via skiff.
On An Amazon Cruise, An Incredible Experience With Nature
There are no ports on these Peruvian cruises. Whenever you’re off the ship, you’re in a small-group-skiff excursion to a different daily adventure, either in the morning or afternoon. Occasionally there was a third excursion at night.
Although you can join as many or as few excursions as you like, most passengers took advantage of every opportunity presented.
Most popular, as you might expect, were the wildlife excursions, and there was at least one every day. On different daily skiff expeditions, we saw both gray and pink freshwater dolphins, caimans, walking catfish, three-toed sloths, and monkeys.
On jungle walks, we found a giant tarantula spider, tiny poisonous frogs, and Anacondas, a type of Python that grows to a length of 25-30 feet. The ones we discovered were about 10 feet.
Sailing up little tributaries and creeks, we also found a fantastic variety of wildly colored and exotic birdlife, including blue and scarlet Macaws, herons, kingfishers, hawks, Jacana, and hundreds of others. As you can imagine, on these forays, we were often serenaded by birdsong and, occasionally, screaming monkeys.
One afternoon while skiff-ing back to the Aria, one of our fellow guests spied an anteater swimming across the river. He told the crew, who realized the animal was in danger on the broad river – they surmised it had jumped into the water to escape a predator – and then turned our skiff around and went back and rescued it. We then carried it on the skiff to the far side of the river and put it on dry land.
Jacques Cousteau would have been proud.
Plenty to Do on This Amazon River Cruise
When not rescuing anteaters, on the Aria there were also opportunities to go kayaking, travel with village boys in their canoes, go piranha fishing, and more.
Despite the piranhas, you could even take a swim in the Amazon here. In the Peruvian Amazon, the piranhas are not carnivorous because there’s an abundance of seeds from tropical fruits and other vegetation on which they feed in the water. In parts of the Brazilian Amazon, where fewer seeds and plants are available, they are carnivorous, sometimes feeding on one another.
We also visited several villages along the rivers, which we found interesting. While one village, Magdalena, had only ten families, others had dozens. We visited one-room schools in some, houses on stilts in others. The villagers were welcoming and warm.
At one school, we brought notebooks and other school supplies, which the children were lacking. When we gave them the gifts, they acted as if Christmas had arrived early.
We were also asked to tell the children where we were from and something special about our countries. After a fellow passenger from Australia said where he was from, he hopped around the room like a kangaroo, something quite comical for a man over 6-foot tall and nearing 300 pounds.
Since it was Low-Water season, we usually had to walk 20-30 feet up steps to these colorful villages. But regardless of size, wherever we went, we were always greeted by children.
We also saw more young children with their parents when we visited the market in Nauta, a medium-sized river city about an hour from Iquitos. It was a large local market, which we surmised was the central market for the region. A hive of activity, it was brimming with vendors offering produce, fish, meats, and all kinds of local foodstuffs.
All good things, it’s said, come to an end. The morning our cruise came to an end, our bags were loaded onto the minibus for our transfer to the airport for the flight to Lima.
It was a jolt back to reality no one enjoyed.
If you go:
Aqua Expeditions https://www.aquaexpeditions.com