Imagine exploring the Amazon, and you might picture traveling by canoe to a rugged jungle lodge where there's no running water and you sleep huddled under a mosquito net. But thanks to Aqua Expeditions, one of the first lines to bring luxury cruising to the Peruvian Amazon, there's a much more comfortable option for intrepid travelers looking to see monkeys, sloths and pink river dolphins in the wild.
The 32-passenger Aria Amazon, which explores Peru's Pacaya Samiria Reserve on three-, four- and seven-night itineraries, has the feel of a floating boutique hotel. Its 16 spacious, air-conditioned suites are a haven that you can retreat to between excursions, but you don't have to leave the Amazon behind; cabins have floor-to-ceiling windows offering constant views of the rainforest as it passes by outside.
Food and drink are other areas of indulgence, with unique Amazonian menus developed by a prominent Lima-based chef. But where Aria Amazon truly shines is its service. There are nearly as many crew members -- 24 -- as there are passengers, and they all seem eager to learn your name and make your cruise memorable. During excursions, four naturalist guides identify wildlife and make sure everyone on the skiff can see each animal. At dinner, waiters memorize food allergies on day one and let you know which dishes on the buffet to avoid. On our sailing, a passenger started coughing one night in the lounge, and a crew member brought her a glass of water without being asked.
Visiting the Amazon will always be a somewhat rugged experience -- the heat and humidity can be draining, and mosquito bites are almost inevitable no matter how much bug spray you use. But the Aria crew provides plenty of creature comforts to make up for it, like a cold towel to refresh yourself at the end of an excursion or a glass of fresh fruit juice when you step off the skiff. The excursions are also well timed, with explorations scheduled for mornings and late afternoons to avoid the midday heat.
A typical day aboard Aria Amazon starts with a 7 a.m. wake-up call from one of the guides. After a buffet breakfast, you'll hop into a skiff for your morning excursion, which might involve motoring along the tree line looking for wildlife or taking a hike through the jungle to learn about tropical plants. Back onboard you can get a massage, sit on the sun deck with a good book, chat with fellow passengers in the lounge or simply take a siesta. By 4 p.m. you'll be on the skiffs again, visiting a local village or fishing for piranha. The day ends with a leisurely dinner full of unfamiliar but delicious flavors -- like doncella and paiche fish, plantains, purple corn and star fruit.
The onboard ambience is friendly and laid-back, and because the ship is so small, it's easy to get to know other passengers. Most tables in the dining room sit four, not two, and there are so few other public spaces (just a lounge and a sun deck) that you're sure to run into someone interesting to talk to. That said, the ship never feels crowded, and the cabins are comfortable enough that you can always relax there if you need some time alone.
Aria Amazon won't be right for everyone; its focus on luxury and relaxation comes at the expense of enrichment. While many other expedition ships feature daily lectures about the animals, plants and landscapes passengers see each day, there are few such educational talks aboard Aria Amazon. Guides provide information during excursions and are happy to answer questions, but if you want in-depth educational experiences, this may not be the ship for you.
Aria Amazon is also light on entertainment options. Fine food, good conversation and Amazon scenery are the main diversions onboard; if you want casinos, theater performances or dance clubs, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Finally, the ship has no elevator and is not accessible for passengers in wheelchairs. That said, as long as you can climb a few flights of stairs between decks and walk on level surfaces, you should be able to enjoy the Aria Amazon experience.
Most Aria Amazon passengers are 50+ (including many retirees). Though the majority come as couples, there are usually at least one or two single travelers on any particular sailing. Solo cruisers pay a single supplement and get their own cabins, as Aqua Expeditions does not provide a roommate-matching service. You'll also sail with the occasional family, particularly during spring break.
Passengers tend to be well traveled and adventurous, and they hail from all over the world, with the majority coming from Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. All onboard announcements, menus and other communications are offered only in English.
During the day, dress is very casual. For excursions, the expedition staff recommends lightweight, light-colored clothing -- preferably long pants and long-sleeved shirts for protection against both mosquitoes and the tropical sun. (You may wish to buy clothing treated with permethrin, an insect repellent.) Sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats are also a must. Because the skiffs sometimes travel at high speeds during excursions, we suggest a hat with a strap to keep it from blowing off.
The ship supplies rain ponchos and rubber boots when necessary, as well as cans of Off bug spray that you can apply before boarding the skiffs for each excursion. You can rent binoculars ($25 USD for the duration of your cruise). You'll also find a couple of palm fans in your room that you can bring on excursions for cooling off or swatting mosquitoes.
In the evenings, many passengers dress up a bit for dinner (think khakis or casual dresses), though others wear jeans or even shorts.
Your cruise fare includes all excursions, nonalcoholic drinks, beer and house wine, and transfers at the beginning and end of your cruise. (Staff will pick you up at the airport if you arrive the day of your cruise, or at your hotel if you come in a day early.) Cocktails and other alcoholic drinks are additional.
You do not need to tip at the bar or in the spa. At the end of your cruise, you'll get the chance to put gratuities into a pool for the entire crew. Aqua Expeditions recommends $20 to $30 per passenger, per day for the crew and $7 to $10 per passenger, per day for the guides, but the amount is at your discretion, and you're free to designate an additional amount for a crew member who went above and beyond. You can settle your account with cash or a credit card.
The currency onboard is the U.S. dollar.