(2:14 p.m. EDT) -- As the sunset built to its finale, the sky filled with birds. Thousands of them flew overhead to an island at the Union de los Rios, the place where the Marañon and Ucayali Rivers form the Amazon in the Peruvian jungles. Parakeets, macaws and flycatchers flashed bits of color as they headed to their roost for the night, and they filled the air with their calls as they passed. When the moment came, we raised Pisco Sours to toast the start of our cruise, and then guitars rang out, voices raised and our crew welcomed us in song.
If this sounds like your type of vacation, read on. We just got back from sailing aboard the Delfin III, the newest ship in the Delfin luxury river expedition fleet, and we've got the skinny on why your next cruise should be on the Peruvian Amazon.
The Amazon is one of those storied places that many visitors only dream of seeing; sailing with Delfin III, you find yourself in the heart of it. Visit the place where the Amazon begins, then step foot into the jungle to dive into the river for a swim.. From your cabin, watch the river and rainforest slide by. On the top deck, tilt your head and take in an astounding night sky.
One of the remarkable places we visited was the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. This 5 million acre national reserve is the site of many shore visits and explorations by river skiff. It's also home to two types of dolphin: the gray river dolphin and the pink river dolphin. If you're lucky—and most excursions are—you'll see plenty of both hunting along the edge of the river and curiously checking out the boat when you stop to watch them. If you're really lucky, you'll spot a few of them in the river when you jump in for a swim.
Aboard Delfin III, everyone had one thing in mind: making sure passengers fell in love with the Amazon. The chef and his staff prepared excellent meals using regional ingredients including fish, fruit, yucca, potatoes and herbs, and the wait staff explained every dish; and both kitchen and wait staff were happy to accommodate any dietary restrictions. The naturalist guides were experts in identifying birds and bugs, naming trees and flowers, baiting hooks and removing the catch when we were piranha fishing, snatching baby caiman out of the river, and spotting sloths and monkeys hanging in the trees overhead. And - for US-based travelers this is especially important -- nearly everyone onboard spoke English very well.
On shore the people in the villages you visit are friendly and welcoming, extending every courtesy to give you a look at life in the jungle. The pride they take in their art—carvings, weavings, jewelry—conveys a real connection to the place.
The Amazon has two things in abundance: animals and trees. Our naturalist guide pointed out sloths hanging above (and with a good zoom lens you can get a frame-worthy shot from the skiff), and identified every bird we saw or heard. On our jungle walk he picked up a millipede and put it in our hands, pointed out anacondas on the forest floor, and told us about the poison dart frogs and tarantulas a local fellow found and brought to us. We sat in the skiff, motor off, watching and listening to a thousand cormorants flying down the river. One evening we went fishing for piranha, then searched for caiman (a reptile like an alligator), and watched as fishing bats caught their dinner from the river in front of us. What you'll see and how close you can get varies by season, but whether you're there in the rainy or dry season, you'll see more birds and creatures than you can remember.
Our trip was during the dry season, so the rivers were anywhere from nine to 16 feet below their high, rainy-season levels. As a result, our jungle walk was dry, though there were places where log footbridges indicated small streams and boggy places, the reason our guides insist we wore good-soled rubber boots when we went ashore.
Dry season excursions mean some of the tributary rivers and creeks have lower water levels than normal, making for slower travel (as the boat pilot looks for snags, sandbars and logs in the water).
An FYI: No matter if your excursion is on land or in the exploration skiffs, you'll want sunblock and bug spray, a wide-brimmed hat, and your long sleeves and long pants. In this part of the Amazon, you're only 3 degrees south of the equator, so the sun is quite strong, which necessitates high-quality, sweat proof sunblock and your water bottle (supplied by Delfin in your room at the beginning of the trip).
Mosquitos are unavoidable, no matter if you douse yourself with DEET or treat your clothes with permethrin, they'll find the one square centimeter you missed and give you a bite. But if you're careful, if you diligently apply your bug spray and wear long sleeves—especially in the evening—you can avoid most or even all mosquito bites. Don't think that because you're on the ship that you're mosquito proof, we spotted a few mosquitos in the lounge and many in the breezeway between the stairs and cabins. Mosquitos aren't the only concern as there are bees, ants, and other creatures you'll see during your jungle excursions and skiff cruises, it is the Amazon after all.
The Packing List
Packing for a cruise on the Amazon is a little different than your typical cruise. You need strong bug spray (we used Jungle Juice, 98.11% DEET) and sweat proof, high-SPF sunblock, a good pair of sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat. Peru uses the same electrical standards as the United States, so you won't need power adapters, instead, use that space in your bag for a larger water bottle (Delfin supplies a 0.5-liter water bottle, but you may want to bring your own in addition) or a good battery charger for your phone or camera. A lightweight backpack is a good idea and a dry-bag like the ones kayakers use will come in handy if you encounter a thunderstorm. The Delfin dining room isn't overly dressy, so you won't need a blazer or slacks or a more sophisticated dress, instead, focus on performance fabrics that will look good but keep you cool no matter when you wear them.
--By Jason Frye, Cruise Critic Contributor