Cruising the Peruvian Amazon
World traveller and Cruising enthusiast Fred Hamber experiences a memorable adventure exploring the Amazon River, Peru on board M/V Aqua.
Our journey upon Amazonian waters is not an itinerary of river villages to be checked off as we float downstream from port A to port Z. It is a few precious days exploring the fauna and flora of the Ucayali tributaries and the Pacaya Samiria Reserve, in camaraderie with a small group of fellow travellers. The young enthusiastic staff of Aqua Expeditions are our guides for this waterborne safari. Ricky, Danny and Roland were raised in the Peruvian Amazon, spending their childhoods watching the river rise and fall with the seasons.
The M/V Aqua boasts a mere twelve cabins, all with glorious large glass windows for a small and privileged group of passengers.
After an early breakfast we depart from the ship in small motorized skiffs to see what the day will hold. Cruise director Ana waves a cheery goodbye (“See you later alligators!”) from the deck.
Since we are visiting during high water season, the ship is eight meters above ground level, closer to the treetops. It is the end of a busy night for the howler monkey and his baby whom we see peeking out from a tree, his enormous round brown eyes the same color as his soft fur. Further on, a pauraque bird sits at the end of a branch, lazily surveying the morning, looking like she is not quite ready for her second cup of coffee.
During our journey we are made aware of time, aspects of time both precious and limitless: the number of days a Heliconia butterfly spends as a caterpillar, the number of years a cashew tree takes to bloom, the months of high water and the months of low water, the extended years of maturity a parrot spends with its parents before seeking its mate.
We begin to consider the Amazon River basin as a stage upon which characters have appeared over the ages to play their roles: the prehistoric Hoatzin birds with their distinctive crests, the Mongolian people arriving 30,000 years ago on foot by way of Alaska and Arizona, missionaries and scientists and rubber barons and environmentalists. Even the bananas and mosquitoes weren’t native; the latter arriving in South America by slave boat, the former in the 16th Century via the Caribbean.
We spot an iguana on a high branch. Telephoto lenses are extended. Then our peace is disturbed by an excited incoming communication via walkie-talkie from one of the other motorboats, a distance away. Danny shouts to our boat driver and we make haste to the scene where our fellow shipmates are already gazing upon an anaconda hanging from a tree branch.
The small motorboats allow us to venture up little streams and tributaries, ducking our heads for the branches ahead. Vines hang down into the water. Fish-eating hawks search for prey. A fallen tree blocks our route, prompting our guide to stand at the bow, hacking through the shrubbery with a machete to clear our way forward. A machete is to a rivereño what a pocket knife is to a Boy Scout.
The afternoon ends with a surprise cocktail hour of “Amazon mimosas” and snacks served by the guides, as we sit in our boats near a bed of huge round lily pads, one of which is blooming–I mean actively blooming, its big white flower opening up as we sit and breathe and reflect.
Dinners aboard the m/v Aqua consist of four-course tasting menus featuring the best flavors of Peru, from appetizers of bananas in wild honey with micro shrimp, to hen stewed in pancha chili pepper and yogurt. We cleanse our palates with a granite of local passion fruit. The kitchen staff are also happy to accommodate dietary requests.
On board are three Germans, three Americans, four Brits, four Mexicans, and a family of six from Spain. We gather in the sleekly decorated lounge where Roland is giving a nature talk. We learn about the role that animals play as seed dispersers, and about the logging of fruit trees, the very names of which (huasai, lupuna, capinuri) remind us how far from home we are.
Guests aboard the Aqua are provided a checklist of 44 animal species plus 292 bird species, from the Agami heron to the yellow-tufted woodpecker, as well as maps of our journey. From the town of Nauta to the Yanalpa tributary, Hatum Posa Lake and the Pacaya River, the captain repositions the ship in the afternoons or overnight as we sleep.
We pass fishermen in dugout canoes and ferry boats whose passengers sleep in hammocks, taking their chickens and fish to Iquitos. We spot disky titi monkeys and saddleback tamarins, the only primates in the area who deliver twins. A day spent exploring the Pacaya Samiria Reserve is a highlight of our journey. Floating islands of water hyacinths block our way until the boat driver guns his engine to move them aside. A flock of white egrets take to flight, and then sunset is at hand, pink sky above a darkening horizon.
Ricky takes out his searchlight to navigate our motorboat back to the Aqua while we continue to hunt for wildlife. In the dark, a couple of hundred yards away, he sees the red eyes of a caiman reptile. We approach and he reaches to grab it with both hands. Ricky is delighted, the caiman less so, wriggling around to escape. Before releasing it back into the water, we pass the creature amongst ourselves, holding the neck as instructed to keep it from turning its long jaw to bite us. I can feel its nervous musculature beneath its rough wet skin.
Our journey is ending and we have returned to Iquitos. We embark the skiffs one last time for a boat tour of Belen, the “floating city.” When rivereños migrate from villages to Iquitos, Belen is the destination where they can build a temporary house on the water and create a life that is half-river, half city. We meet a family roasting tapioca outside their house, the children and the chickens playing in front of the smoky log roastery while the father stirs it with his long wooden paddle.
Our final night we gather for a last drink in the lounge and a little performance by the crew. Aldo is on guitar, while Roland and Danny play maracas and Ricky plays the box—a hollowed hardwood box he strikes with his palms and fingers for percussion. All the staff sing “Auld Lang Syne” in Spanish, and “La Cucaracha” and “Oh Suzanna”. From the back of the room Ana enters the sliding glass doors and now she is not a cruise director but a Latin dancer, her chin held high, her steps confident and purposeful.
The Ship: MV Aqua: Built 2007; 3 Decks; Length 30 metres; Beam 7.3 metres; 24 Guests; 16 Crew; 12 Staterooms (8 Suites, 4 Master Suites) All suites face outside; large panoramic windows.
Itinerary: Varies according to length and water conditions. Highlights include Ucayali River exploration, a jungle walk and visit to the Hatum Posa Village, a night trip to see caiman reptiles, a daylong exploration of the Pacaya River with breakfast served on skiffs, piranha fishing, tour of Iquitos city and the Manatee Rescue Center.
Duration: Three, four or seven night itineraries. Optional post-cruise tour packages available to Cusco and Machu Picchu.
Guest Profile: Mostly American and European. Families welcome with children age seven and older.
Facilities: Restaurant, bar, air conditioned lounge, small boutique.
When to Go: December through May is high water season, with slightly cooler temperatures and closer viewing of birds and mammals perched on treetop branches. June through November is low water season, with warmer temperatures and good opportunities for fishing and hiking, and viewing migratory birds in flight.
What to Pack: Casual attire including comfortable walking shoes, long-sleeved tops for excursions, long-leg pants, hats for sun protection, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, binoculars and camera. Also small items to give to locals during village visits such as paper, pens and T-shirts.
What to Buy: Shopping opportunities are limited. The villagers sell some crafts including carved wooden utensils.
Unique Selling Point: The MV Aqua was the first luxury expedition vessel on the Amazon River and its tributaries. Gourmet Peruvian cuisine and high thread count Peruvian cotton bedding. Aqua’s second ship, the MV Aria, has sixteen cabins and a top-deck Jacuzzi. The guides and onboard staff were raised in the area and provide expertise in the wildlife and natural history of the region.
Cruise Line: Aqua Expeditions, tel. 1-866-603 3687, website: www.aquaexpeditions.com
Planning your Journey: Anti-malarial medication and yellow fever shots are advised for travel to the Amazon. Cruise prices include transfers to and from the Iquitos Airport; check with Aqua Expeditions regarding recommended flight times from Lima.