Amazon River Cruising: Hits & Misses

December 4, 2013 | By | No Comments

If you’re a river cruising veteran and are searching for something similar in South America, let me tell you this: A trip down the Amazon – the world’s longest river —  is nothing like trawling the Danube, Rhine, Rhone, Seine, or any other European tributary. Pretty much the only thing it shares in common is that, indeed, you do see both sides of the shore from the water.
This wasn’t my first cruise on the Amazon. However, the other two voyages stuck to the Brazilian part of the waterway and were on mainstream ships. In that case, the region we traveled through was a backdrop to life onboard – a variety of restaurants, formal nights, and lavish entertainment. Shore excursions on these trips barely scratched the surface of local life and nature, and there was little Amazon influence in our food, beverages or entertainment.
This trip, a 7-day itinerary departing from Iquitos, Peru with International Expeditions, was completely different. For one, it was the most immersive cruise I’ve ever taken, with Peruvian music, food and wine onboard, and a wide range of in-depth experiences, both natural and cultural.
As a first-timer to the world of expedition, or soft adventure, cruising, I worried that I’d miss the little luxuries of big ship cruise travel. I need not have been bothered. The 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica was delightful and as you can see from my wrap-up, the trip contained very, very few misses.
HITS
The Boat. Cruising the Amazon for nearly 20 years via chartered boats, International Expeditions cemented its commitment to the river this year by designing and building its first-ever custom ship. The result,  La Estrella Amazonica, is lovely. All cabins have private balconies – a first for any Amazon river operator. Standard staterooms measure 220 square ft., which is quite generous in the river sector.
The best spot onboard, though, has to be the fabulous open-air sundeck and bar, with super-comfy wicker couches, barstools, and round tables that make it feel like an airy, spacious Peruvian living room. The use of Peruvian woods and furnishings throughout, and the chef’s preparation of (mostly) Peruvian comfort foods, means the destination immersion is just as intense onboard as it is in the jungle.
Amazonian Education. All International Expeditions’ trips emphasize wildlife, and our ship’s pair of naturalist guides were not only passionate and knowledgeable (there wasn’t a question that could stump Johnny and Segundo on our trip), but they hail from the region. They could identify what seemed to be thousands of species of birds, guide a kayaking trip down a creek offering sightings of monkeys swinging between trees, and expertly bait a hook to catch a fleet of piranhas.
For me, though, it was the interaction with locals that really captured the spirit of the trip. Both guides chatted up people we came across – in villages, even fisherman in their dug-out canoes.
There was one fantastic moment when Segundo, casually chatting with a wizened man who was fishing for catfish, suddenly realized they’d lived in the same village a long time ago. His joy, and that of the fisherman in return, was so moving. And in another great moment during a school visit in the village of Nueva York, Johnny proved to be a kid-whisperer; students literally agitated to get close to him (they were slightly less impressed with the group of Americans).
Peruvian Food. The ship’s Peruvian-born chef didn’t pander to American palates, and menus strongly reflected comfort-style Amazonian cuisine.  The fish was fresh; while the catfish was a big hit, he also fried up the piranhas we caught on an excursion). Occasionally there was a theme night – such as Chinese, which is hugely popular in this region and even Italian — but the real star was the seafood, rice, beans, fresh fruit juices, and salads.
The Music. If the real focus of this cruise was educating and enriching passengers about life on the Amazon during (mostly) daylight hours, we came to love the nightly jam sessions held onboard, during the pre-dinner cocktail hour. Literally almost every member of the crew – from housekeepers to boat drivers – participated, playing an eccentric mix of songs, from Peruvian folk tunes to the Beatles.
Waterlogged. You’d think that being part of a 31-passenger ship, already considered quite a small vessel would give you the up-close-and-personal access you’d never find on a big ship. You’d be right. There was lots to see along the river – villages, bus-boats that transport locals (and their cows, coal, crops) between Iquitos and Nauta. We also spotted other similar-sized cruise ships operated by Lindblad and Aqua Expeditions.
But the real discoveries, particularly wildlife, were better found on smaller tributaries via the flat-bottomed skiffs. In a week, we logged some 185 miles alone on the skiffs (La Estrella Amazonica itself trawled nearly 500 miles during the cruise), where we embarked on jungle walks, swimming, and kayaking.
MISSES
Getting There. Iquitos, the largest city in Peru’s Amazon basin, is the starting point for cruises operated by all the major players in the region but getting there is an adventure in its own right. First, you fly to Lima (itself a fascinating city), then catch a connecting 1.5 hour flight to Iquitos.  For some cruises, it’s then another 1.5 hour drive along a winding jungle road to a village called Nauta (thankfully, we were spared that extra long drive).
Beyond that, most international flights from the U.S., whether West Coast or East, arrive in the wee hours of the morning, and oddly enough, depart in the, yes, middle of the night. Our advice: Plan to get to Lima with a couple of days to spare – and explore there before heading out on your Amazon adventure. Iquitos, also, is an interesting outpost.
Moving Around. Aside from a couple of jungle hikes, where mosquitoes were omnipresent, and a kayaking adventure, it was surprising how sedentary the activities were. Much time was spent eyeing wildlife from the skiff itself, and unlike Europe where towpaths for cyclists and joggers line the rivers, there’s no easy access to exercise  And since the ship often ties itself up to a tree on the riverbank, you can’t really access shore without use of the skiff.
On the plus side: La Estrella Amazonica has a small fitness facility, with two treadmills and two spinning cycles.
Shops, Restaurants and Nightlife. There aren’t any! Aside from a pair of village visits, where local women presented their handicrafts (some very nice pieces, too) for sale, this is a nature-oriented experience. The best shopping and dining we had was at Lima’s airport (and in Lima, naturally).

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