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What It’s Like to Take an Amazon Cruise in Peru

Imagine the Amazon, and you probably picture dense jungles, colorful birds, chattering monkeys and remote villages. Sound enticing? There are two main ways to explore this region of the world: staying in an ecolodge or taking a river cruise.

I recently opted for a four-night Amazon cruise aboard the 32-passenger Aria Amazon, part of the Aqua Expeditions fleet. This small luxury ship explores the waters of the Pacaya Samiria Reserve near Iquitos, Peru. Itineraries range from three to seven nights, with many travelers opting for one of the shorter options in order to combine their Amazon excursion with a few days in Cuzco and Machu Picchu.

Below are several things I loved about my Peru Amazon experience, as well as a few aspects of the trip that weren’t as satisfying.

What We Loved

Wildlife: An Amazon cruise is all about birds and animals, and I saw plenty of them during my four days on the river. Memorable moments included fishing for (and catching!) piranha, seeing monkeys dart from branch to branch and watching hundreds of egrets and cormorants take flight at once during an excursion at dawn. Tip: For the best wildlife viewing, consider traveling in the rainy season (December through May), when the higher level of the river brings you closer to the treetops where many animals spend their time.

Cabins: Aria Amazon’s spacious, air-conditioned suites were always a pleasure to return to after excursions in the humid jungle. Creature comforts included king-size beds, rainfall showers and carafes of water refilled by the housekeeping staff, but my favorite part of the cabin was the floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows, offering a mesmerizing 24/7 view of the rainforest slipping by.

Service and Staff: The Aria Amazon staff were uniformly friendly and eager to please, from the knowledgeable naturalist guides (with their uncanny ability to spot sloths and monkeys high in the trees) to the servers in the dining room, who quickly learned passengers’ names and dietary restrictions.

Food: A top Lima chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, developed Aria Amazon’s creative menus, which draw on locally sourced ingredients from the Amazon region such as passionfruit, yucca, hearts of palm and paiche, a freshwater fish that can grow up to seven or eight feet long.

Iquitos: I arrived a day early to explore Iquitos, a city that can only be reached by plane or boat. There aren’t any blockbuster sights to see, but the city is refreshingly low on tourists, and the Belen district — with its colorful market and houses that are submerged during the rainy season — is a fascinating place to explore.

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What We Didn’t Like

Not Much Hiking: Because it was the rainy season, the river had submerged most of the jungle trails, leaving us few real opportunities to get off the skiffs. During four days we only set foot onshore twice — once for a village visit and once for a short jungle hike. Those hoping to stay active by hiking should cruise during the low-water season (June through November) instead.

Bugs: You can douse yourself in DEET and treat your clothes with permethrin, but during late afternoon and evening excursions you’ll almost certainly get bitten by a mosquito or three. And these are hardly the only insects you’ll encounter in the Amazon. On one evening outing several passengers had black bees burrow into their hair. An Amazon cruise isn’t for the squeamish, even on a luxury line like Aqua Expeditions.

Enrichment: On most expedition cruises it’s common to have daily talks on the local culture, flora and fauna. On Aqua Expeditions the guides offer plenty of information during excursions, but onboard there’s less of a focus on education and more of a focus on relaxing. (We only had a single lecture during our four days onboard.) This suited some passengers very well, but if you’re seeking an in-depth learning experience, you might want to try a different line.

Staying in Touch: Given the remoteness of the region, you shouldn’t expect to keep up with your email or to text family and friends during your cruise. There’s no onboard Wi-Fi, and cell phone reception is only available when the ship passes near a local community.

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Editor’s Note: I traveled as a guest of Aqua Expeditions, with the understanding that I would cover the trip in a way that honestly reflected my experience — good, bad or indifferent.

By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of IndependentTraveler.com. Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

Email Sarah at sschlichter@smartertravel.com.

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