While Amazon River cruising in Brazil has long been an option for fans of big-ship trips, Peru, where the mighty largest-river-in-the-world originates, has only recently been attracting attention as a cruise center. The Peruvian Amazon is very different from its Brazilian brethren, much more intimate and less touristic, and International Expeditions' new La Estrella Amazonica is a superb way to experience the Amazon River basin.
The 31-passenger ship, IE's first custom-built vessel, debuted in 2013. (Before that, the company, which has been offering Peruvian Amazon cruises since 1994, chartered ships from other operators.) The stocky, four-deck ship features private balconies, unusual in this region. Its pretty cabins are decorated with furnishings sourced from Peru. An expansive sun deck and open-air bar, a classroom and even a small fitness facility are other enhancements onboard.
But what makes the International Expeditions experience so memorable goes beyond its comfortable ship. This is a cruise for those who wish to genuinely immerse themselves in Amazonian nature, culture and lifestyle. On our seven-night trip, the only place we visited that actually had a dock was Iquitos, the region's largest town, where the cruise began and ended. Otherwise, the ship simply tied up to trees on the banks of the river and featured stops at villages, natural reserves, ranger stations and the jungle.
La Estrella Amazonica offers shore expeditions via a pair of comfortable river skiffs, which can pull up anywhere. The ship's team of native naturalists were exceptionally knowledgeable, insightful and fun. Its expedition leader, also Peruvian, managed our overall experience seamlessly. The service was outstanding: Everyone was eager to please, with genuine smiles, whether pouring a pisco sour at the bar or offering a helping hand climbing mud stairs on our way to a village visit.
It's important to note, especially for more mainstream cruise travelers who are intrigued by the nature of an expedition voyage, there are some stark differences. Cabins are absolutely comfortable, with great, firm beds, high-quality linens and private balconies for all. What you won't find, however, are mini-fridges, televisions or 24-hour room service. Meals are buffet style, with daily vegetarian, meat and fish selections. Everyone sits down at the same time at any free table. Evening entertainment consists of a pre-dinner live music performance by crew (who are quite good). After the meal, well, there's no need for entertainment, as everyone goes to bed. You get an early start in the jungle.
There is no onboard Internet. Sometimes, on rare occasions, cell phones will get a signal; crew can tell you just when to expect it, and they'll be on their phones then, too. There's no access in "ports" of call, either, since most of them are tributaries explored by skiffs or Peruvian villages without means for electronics, save for the most basic battery-powered radios. Don't expect to stay in touch with the real world on this ship.
This is by no means a cruise where you'll while away time sitting by the pool. (There isn't one onboard, though one day's outing offered a chance to swim in the Amazon.) From optional early-morning excursions to search for birds to a nighttime jungle adventure, you'll spend as much time off the boat as you will on it. Of course that's your call, too. All activities are optional, and the occasional afternoon spent onboard just reading a good book and watching the river pass by is also a respected use of time, as long as you don't miss too many adventures.
The joke onboard is that dinner is the only meal of the day for which passengers actually have to wear shoes. So, yes, the dress code is just that casual. Mostly, passengers wear jungle-comfortable clothing: light-colored khakis and long-sleeved shirts sufficed for off- and on-ship activities, though many swap their walking and hiking shoes, once back onboard, for flip-flops and sandals. Before the trip, the company issues a detailed list of packing tips; we encourage you to follow it to the letter.