Passion Points: Active/Adventure
Cruising through a black waterway on our ten-passenger skiff, the soft hum of the motor gets lost in the vast expanse of water and sky. The pure, untouched and unexplored nature overwhelms me. It 8:00am, the morning of our first excursion, everyone raring to view all of the strange and beautiful creatures that Peru’s Pacaya Samiria National Park – an area twice the size of Yellowstone and as large as Belgium – has to offer. Daniel, our naturalist guide, hears an inaudible rustle and enthusiastically points out a troupe of squirrel monkeys jumping through some nearby trees. We turn to look, but suddenly notice that a red-bellied piranha has jumped into our skiff. In fact, a number of fish seem to be flopping about the surface of the black water tributary, indicating, as Daniel teaches, that pink dolphins are near. We brace, cameras ready. One, two, three rubbery pink dorsal fins make their way to the surface. By the time I snap, they are back under again, a game of cat and mouse I would play over the next three days, eager to get my shot.
And so began our adventure down the mighty Amazon River aboard the M/V Aria, Aqua Expeditions’ newest luxury vessel. Launched in April 2011, the 147-foot and thirty-two passenger Aria, is now the second of Aqua’s ships to traverse the intricate waterways of the Peruvian Amazon. Owner/founder Francesco Galli Zugaro has brought back interior designer Jordi Puig and head chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino to oversee the new venture, which includes the same sleek, design-within-reach aesthetic as its predecessor (the M/V Aqua), but with added lavish amenities. The new ship boasts sixteen design suites, now with floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows and a host of additional public spaces including a boutique, outdoor Jacuzzi and exercise room.
Life on board is similar to an African safari experience. Wake up call is at 6:30am followed by breakfast, a morning excursion, lunch, siesta, an afternoon excursion and dinner. Guests arrive on Mondays or Fridays and choose from three- four- and seven- night itineraries. A three-night stint after a week of traveling throughout Peru was plenty of time for us. The Aria has one dining room and guests dine together at preset times throughout the day. Chef Schiaffino offers up a diverse and delicious buffet for breakfast and lunch, and a five-course tasting menu for dinner. The latter, showcasing Schiaffino’s new take on Peruvian cuisine, struck us as overly ambitious and out of place – a decision Aqua may want to reconsider given the number of young children on board. However, many of our fellow travelers requested special meals a la carte and the accommodating kitchen staff prepared pasta, hamburgers and French fries a la minute nearly every night. Overall the service was a particular highlight and the crew was committed to making our stay as comfortable as possible.
The most memorable aspect of our Amazon adventure, however, was the daily interaction with the Riberenos, or river people. This cultural discourse began on the ship when we learned the life stories of our naturalist guides, who themselves had grown up along the banks of the river. It continued off the ship, with trips to local communities. A fisherman showed us how he preserved the daily catch without electricity or refrigeration. A medicine man led us through the rainforest demonstrating which plants could cure sick villagers; we will never forget the tree bark he used as the antidote for a venomous snake bite! Our last day we donated school supplies to a small village and got the chance to sing and play with the local children. Our experience on the Aria became as much about the people we met and unique customs and traditions we discovered as it was about the beautiful landscapes and exotic animals we viewed. Our immersion in the ethos of the Amazon immeasurably enriched our journey and we have Aqua Expeditions to thank for an exceptional voyage.
Rooms to get: The Aria has sixteen “design suites” measuring 240 square feet, with oversized king beds or two twins (upon request), floor-to-ceiling windows and en suite sitting areas. All rooms are technically the same, but Rooms 207 & 208, on the second floor and closest to the front of the ship (i.e. furthest away from the motor) are preferable.
When to go: The Amazon has two seasons: High-water season, which runs from December to May (Summer and Fall in South America) and Low-water season, which runs from June to November (Winter and Spring in South America). High-water season is the cooler, rainier of the two (temperatures average 86F). The water level is twenty or more feet higher, making it easy to navigate through creeks, streams, rivers and allowing visitors closer access to the jungle canopy, good for seeing monkeys and other mammals and birds. Low-water season is hot and dry (temperatures average 98F) and lower water levels allow access to trails, jungle paths and more interaction with the Riberenos (whose villages get flooded during the high-water season). Fishing is nearly 100% guaranteed and there are generally fewer mosquitoes.
Who’s it right for: Families or groups, nature enthusiasts, early birds and culture-seekers.
Who’s it wrong for: Couples, city slickers and vacationers seeking rest and relaxation.
Getting there: LAN offers several direct flights from Lima to Iquitos daily. Guests are encouraged to arrive on LAN 2382 and depart on LAN 2383 and those that do will have access to Aqua’s complimentary shuttle bus.
Three-day sample itinerary:
Day 1: Arrival in Iquitos, city tour, transfer to dock & check in (Iquitos + Amazon River)
Day 2: Pirhana fishing in the morning, Dolphin/bird/monkey expedition in the afternoon (Amazon River, Yarapa River, Yanallpa River)
Day 3: Magdalena Village visit in the morning, Caiman wrestling excursion in the afternoon (Ucayali River)
Day 4: School visit in the morning, Manatee Rescue Center in Iquitos before domestic flight home.
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