A river cruise in the Peruvian Amazon is all about nature. Unlike Brazil's Amazon region frequented by steel-hulled mega cruisers, Peru's upper Amazon requires smaller, more nimble, intimate vessels -- ideal for navigating the labyrinth of less-explored side streams leading into primeval jungles.
Daily skiff safaris visit habitats where monkeys, caimans, river otters and more appear at every turn. You want birds, this is the place. Hundreds of species flourish, a veritable Day-Glo collection of toucans, parakeets, parrots, macaws, herons, egrets, hummingbirds and species you've never heard of. Top that with jungle walks, visits to isolated villages where daily life occurs as it has for centuries and a Peruvian Amazon River cruise amounts to a life-list check-off you won't want to miss.
Narrow dug-out canoes and larger motorboats may be standards for locals and river merchants, but yours will likely be one of the new breed of luxury vessels that have redefined cruise ship travel here during the past decade. Aqua Expeditions operates a well-appointed ship on the river, with three-, four- and seven-day cruises. International Expeditions, Delfin Amazon Cruises and a handful of other operators, including G Adventures, Anakonda and Iberostar all offer similar itineraries embarking from Iquitos.
If you adore adventure, the Amazon will deliver in spades. Even if you're just an armchair admirer who's satisfied with Animal Planet reruns, a comfortable luxury cruise on the Peruvian Amazon stands to recalibrate your notion of what nature can be.
--By Ted Alan Stedman, Cruise Critic contributor
Embarkation in Iquitos
Just getting to Iquitos feels like an adventure. The Amazon outpost is the world's largest city (population 371,000) unreachable by road, linked only by boat or plane. On the two-hour flight from Lima, you'll climb over the snowcapped Andes, then descend above a ceaseless jungle that's changed little since Spanish explorer Vicente Yanez Pinzon became the first European to set sail on the Amazon in 1500.
Highlight: The city has an edgy frontier feel traced to its early Spanish "El Dorado" gold fever days. That legend was a bust for most settlers, though Iquitos was a bonanza for 20th-century rubber barons who hacked out fortunes from the jungle. That old money is still evident in the elaborate tiled mansions sprouting among humble shacks along the shore.
Within a half hour of arrival, I boarded the 147-foot riverboat Aria Amazon, where naturalists who lead shore excursions into the lively, chattering rainforest, briefed our contingent of 32 guests. Embarking during a gorgeous crimson sunset, we toasted heartily with Pisco sours.
Yarapa River Expedition
After cruising upriver through the night, we awoke to an immense inland sea flanked by impenetrable jungle. Our guide prepped us on the day's activities as we set out in four skiffs to explore small inlets and a maze of winding river systems. "You'll see exotic birds of every form, three-toed sloths, capybara (large rodents), anacondas, monkeys, piranhas, caimans and -- if we we're lucky -- endangered Amazon pink river dolphin," we were told.
Highlight: We first explored by skiff the Yacapana Isles, the "Isle of the Iguana" that's home to so many of the scaly reptiles. Besides iguanas, we saw exotic birds of every color looking like ornaments on Christmas trees. During our late afternoon excursion on the Yarapa River, we hit the jackpot: a pink dolphin. Even our guide was amazed when it skirted our skiff. If I didn't know better, I'd swear it posed for picture-taking.
Forests of Yanallpa
Hats off to the Aria guides. The Peruvian naturalists are government-certified and their breadth of knowledge about things that slink, swim, slither, glide and slide in the Amazon is impressive. Of course the river itself is the ever-present attraction. Each season from December through May, the river rises 30-plus feet and completely inundates the Amazon Basin, including our day's shore excursion, Yanallpa Forest.
Highlight: Our skiff excursion had us navigating the seasonally flooded forests of Yanallpa. It's home to the kapok tree, one of the Amazon's tallest (150 feet) and known for its smooth skin and huge fin-like roots. And talk about birds: we saw ospreys, Amazon kingfishers, scarlet macaws, great egrets, Harpy eagles and laughing falcons -- and that's the short list. The most intriguing sights probably were the squirrel and spider monkeys that seemed to be more curious about us than we were of them.
Birthplace of the Amazon
The vast Pacaya Samiria National Reserve might be described as the crown jewel of the Peruvian Amazon. The flooded forest covers five million acres at the headwaters of the Amazon Basin and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site holding upward of 1,000 species of birds, mammals, fish and reptiles alone; plants and insects are still being tallied. Our day included early morning skiff rides to the birthplace of the Amazon River, at the confluence of the Ucayall and Maranon rivers. A later afternoon excursion to Nauta Cano, "Mirrored Forest," gave us prime views of the glistening lagoon while we observed rambunctious toucans, parrots, macaws and parakeets.
Highlight: In the wee hours, it was rise-and-shine as we boarded the skiffs to watch the sun rise over the birthplace of the Amazon. In the still-cool pre-dawn hours, we glided silently and watched the first light of day morph the dark waters of the Amazon into a molten golden aquascape that seemed like some surreal painting.
Jungle Walk, Village Visit
Our morning routine had us boarding skiffs for a jaunt into a gallery forest on the Maranon River tributary. Floating through shady tunnels of foliage, we were face-to-face with yet more parrots, macaws and monkeys. Though the encounters began to feel familiar, none of us ever lapsed into complacency about seeing nature in such a magnificent setting. In the afternoon, though, I have to admit we were especially eager to meet up with our own species during a guided jungle walk to a secluded village.
Highlight: Within the eco-paradise of Pacaya Samiria, 30,000 people live along the Amazon
River -- indigenous peoples whose ancestors are thought to have arrived here 11,000 years ago. We trekked into the rustic palm-thatched village of San Pedro de Tipishca, where we watched daily life unfold. With few exceptions (gym shoes, eyewear and logo'ed T-shirts), life here hasn't changed much, and we watched villagers doing subsistence farming and other tasks while guides explained how the Amazon serves as a gigantic supermarket, providing villagers nearly everything they need.
Pacaya Samiria Reserve
The day's plan took straight aim at going deep into Pacaya Samiria -- surprising, because I thought we already were deep in the reserve, but in fact had barely penetrated its amorphous boundaries. We entered its namesake Samiria River and witnessed howler monkeys, tamarin monkeys, more macaws, a tree-top sloth and a pair of comical-looking hoatzin birds. Another biodiversity slam dunk!
Highlight: About those hoatzin birds -- they're notable for having chicks that possess claws on two of their wing digits. Scientists still rack their brains about this quizzical species, not sure if they're more prehistoric dinosaur than bird. With their bizarre shape, striking colors, unwariness and poor flight, the hoatzin seems a dead ringer for certain 20-million-year-old fossils thought to link birds to dinosaurs. Our guides pieced it all together during a slide show detailing the Amazon's unsurpassed biodiversity. Of course Pisco sours and mojitos made it feel like a night at the movies, with exotic sounds emanating from the jungle providing the perfect soundtrack.
Yanayaquillo Exploration and Charo Lake Time
Another early wake-up call, another gourmet breakfast followed by another backwater exploration by skiff -- this time in the utterly primeval Yanayaquillo forest. Knowing that we'd begin the journey home later in the day, we all savored one last morning river safari that netted fabulous photo opps of birds, monkeys and sloths. After lunch, we headed out on Charo Lake, a placid beauty where some of our gang tried their hand at fishing. Come evening, the ship's bow pointed downriver for the journey back to Iquitos, a bittersweet transit that had the effect of quelling our normally chatty group.
Highlight: Charo Lake at sunset is simply stunning. The crimson-magenta skylight spilled onto the inky lake and provided a stellar light show that we voted among the most beautiful we'd ever seen. That's saying something, considering my well-traveled shipmates hailed from around the globe.
Return to Iquitos
Our last river day retraced waters we'd plied just days earlier. By now you'd think the Amazon might merit a collective "Meh." Not a chance. Like most cruises, our group dynamic tightened further, with non-stop banter and plenty of pictures. Moving with rather than against the hefty current meant we made good time -- enough so that we lingered at a couple riverside encampments to check out life along the mighty Amazon.
Highlight: We saw fishermen wrestling their netted catches aboard tipsy dugout canoes, immense white sand beaches dwarfing makeshift fishing camps and the occasional family on crowded longboats heading to parts unknown. While life on the Amazon isn't easy, thankfully it still exists, serving as a reminder that wild places are a privilege worth seeing and protecting.