Fancy a cruise up the Peruvian Amazon in what’s basically a floating five-star boutique luxury hotel?
The first surprise on our stroll in the Amazonian rainforest in Peru is that the red-backed poison frog is only 1cm long. You’d expect it to be larger, wouldn’t you? George Dávila, a naturalist from the Aria Amazon river cruise ship, explains that the bright colour is an overt warning to predators that this amphibian is poisonous to eat.
The second surprise comes when George tries to point out a Western leaf lizard. No-one can see it. It has adapted to mimic the plant litter on the jungle floor so closely that it genuinely looks like just another leaf. Wildlife in the Amazon continues to astound us during the week spent on excursions from the Aria Amazon. The Brown-throated three-toed sloth lives up to its reputation of being ultra-slow as it picks its way towards the ground for the weekly voiding of its bowels.
Clad in camouflage gear, wearing Wellington boots provided by the Aria Amazon for this excursion, a trek through the jungle under twisted lianas is reminiscent of a Tarzan movie. Some of the twining vines are strong enough to hold an adult, and we’re invited to try them out amid much shrieking and laughter. For support in unstable, regularly flooded ground, some of the emergent trees have developed buttress roots that dwarf even the tallest man. A petite White-lined sac-winged bat asleep on such a root results in an instant photo opportunity.
Back at the ship, Robinson Bollet, the bartender, welcomes us with a warm smile and freshly pressed fruit juice. The air-conditioned cabin, with its strong hot shower, is a luxurious treat after treading the humid jungle paths. The spacious room has floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows to maximise the fabulous views of spectacular cloudscapes unfolding, with cumulus towers that unleash sheets of water to sustain this iconic river and the vast biome it supports.
The area is remote, so we journey steadily without seeing much traffic except for wooden fishing boats and the occasional flat barge. Periodically we pass a village comprising a few temporary timber houses on stilts, which will be abandoned when the river levels rise nine to 13 metres, fed by melted permafrost from the Peruvian Andes.
Meeting members of a local tribe in their hamlet offers a fascinating glimpse into how these hardy people survive in the flooded forests. The houses on stilts can only be accessed via a wooden ladder. One neat room, divided by curtains, serves as a bedroom for a family of four adults and two pampered chickens. A newborn baby sleeps in a hammock made of colourful cotton fabric; the kitchen is part of a covered but open outside deck, with a close-up view of the rainforest. In the village school the children sing for us – with shy glances, they seem as interested in us as we are in them. When we leave to board the skiffs, the crowd waves farewell, looking down on us from the high riverbank.
For keen bird watchers, a skiff departs from the Aria Amazon each morning at 6am. With our long lenses and binoculars ready, we are astounded by the scores of different kinds of birds that we find along the river’s edge, in the trees and flying overhead. George is an enthusiastic and experienced birder – he records the species that we identify on each excursion to submit for record-keeping.
Observing brightly coloured scarlet macaws and a rabble of festive parrots is a highlight, as is finding hoatzins, which permanently look as though they’re having a bad hair day. The Amazon kingfisher and ringed kingfisher become familiar, as does the black-collared hawk and roadside hawk (which should have been named the “waterside hawk”, George says with a cheeky smile). The call of a buff-breasted wren alerts us to its presence; as it flits out of the canopy, we happily tick off on our supplied wildlife check list.
Herons, egrets and wading birds abound. We have several sightings of horned screamer, yellow-headed caracara and yellow-billed tern. We glimpse so many new birds that I give up trying to tick, deciding to rely on George’s lists of our avian sightings. Birding is an exhilarating activity, and it generates an appetite for our breakfast back on board.
Meals in the ship’s dining room are elegantly presented, with breakfast and lunch as gourmet buffets, and an á la carte fine-dining dinner. Food is styled by Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, renowned chef at the award-winning Ámaz and Malabar restaurants in Lima, which are listed in the top 50 restaurants in South America. The cuisine is Amazon fusion, with ingredients – including delectable fresh fish options – sourced locally. Creative provision is made for vegetarians. Seating is not allocated, so guests can mingle easily or sit on their own.
Our cruise is hosted by the respected explorer and environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of the pioneering Jacques Cousteau), who gives daily talks in the ship’s lounge, and uses video snippets of his life and work to inspire and educate. Guests are welcome to join his table for meals – things are pretty informal on board – and enjoy his company on our skiff during excursions.
For serious downtime (or if passengers choose to stay on board rather than go out on an excursion), there is an al fresco Jacuzzi on the ship’s foredeck, a massage room, coffee-table books on Peruvian cuisine and the Amazon to browse through, as well as a gym with basic equipment.
Balancing comfort with adventure, the Aria Amazon is an ideal way to explore this astounding rainforest area and perhaps spot a green anaconda, a pink-toed tarantula, a spectacled caiman or even a bubble-gum-coloured pink river dolphin.
The pampering on board, the flora, the fauna and the river itself ensure that each day is filled with wonder.
WHEN TO GO
You can visit the Peruvian Amazon all year round. The low-water season from June to October is best for walks in the jungle as there is slightly less rain. During the high-water season from November to May, the rivers swell, creating an ideal environment for canoeing and exploring more remote areas by boat.
WHAT TO PACK
• Quick-drying, lightweight cotton clothing, including long-sleeved shirts and long pants, comfortable walking shoes and a wide-brimmed hat. You’ll also need casual evening wear for dining on board. The Aria Amazon provides rubber boots for wetland excursions and waterproof ponchos with hoods for when it rains.
• You’ll need good binoculars, a camera, chargers, extra batteries and spare memory cards, as well as insect repellent with DEET 7 (although spray is available on the Aria Amazon) and high-factor sunscreen. Use soft suitcases for easy storage in your cabin.
• Consider including some items to give to people you meet in the villages – they appreciate T-shirts, pens and paper.
WHERE TO STAY
Arriving in Lima: For a comfortable post-flight sleep, book a room at the trendy Casa República Boutique Hotel. Wake to a delicious buffet breakfast, where you can feast on Peruvian delicacies, then explore the bohemian Barranco area to get a further taste of Lima through its vibrant street life.
Departing Lima: Before your flight back home, overnight in Wyndham Costa del Sol at Lima Airport. You can stroll to your flight the next day after a hearty buffet breakfast, which is included in the tariff.
CRUISE SCHEDULES & COSTS
There are many different options and exclusive offers, with prices starting from $3 835 for a three-night Discovery Cruise. Visit aquaexpeditions.com for more info.
The Aria Amazon has high safety standards. During water excursions on the skiffs, passengers are provided with light, well-designed life jackets. Anti-malaria drugs are recommended for the Amazon area.
Fly SAA flies daily to São Paolo from Johannesburg. Catch a connecting flight to Lima, Peru, with code-share partner Latam Airlines Perú. From Lima, connect to Iquitos with a domestic Peruvian airline. A three-hour private bus trip will take you to the Aria Amazon. Visit flysaa.com
WORDS Gillian McLaren