The phone rings. It's our 6 o'clock wake-up call. Through the picture window I watch as a rosy dawn begins to highlight the green canopy of the jungle outside. Looks like we're in for another sunny day in paradise - here in the Amazon's rainy season.
Wait a minute. Six AM? This is supposed to be a vacation. Who gets up at dawn on vacation? Well, actually, we do. And we're happy to do so, too. After all, we haven't traveled all the way here -
to Peru's Amazon jungle - to sleep through even one chance to get out and explore that vast green mystery.
An Amazon River adventure has been on my husband, Burt's and my bucket list for years. The only thing that had been holding us back was the discomfort factor. Let's face it, a jungle is a hot and humid and sticky place and, yes, it's full of bugs and creepy-crawlies and things that can sting and maim. For some people that's all part of the charm. Part of the challenge.
But for me, not so much! The prospect of camping out there somewhere amidst all that untamed nature, maybe even having to sleep in some hammock covered in mosquito netting - was a deal breaker. And so we never even considered taking an Amazon trip.
But that was "BAE" - Before Aqua Expeditions.
Thanks to the chic little boutique ships of Aqua Expeditions, travelers can now forget all about the hardship element. Aboard Aria (or her sister vessel "Aqua") you can cruise the Amazon in a five-star hotel. Think: Outward Bound meets Four Seasons. Outside the ship, there's that whole exotic jungle setting, stretching out just beyond your window. But on board the ship, things couldn't be more luxe: award-winning cuisine, luxurious accommodations, and a doting staff of 24, all vying to exceed your expectations.
The concept of these small ships was the brainchild of Francesco Galli Zugaro, who recognized that this area of the Peruvian Amazon is "the last great unexplored region of the world" and he vowed to make it not only accessible to visitors, but also as a luxurious experience. And thus came the boutique ships Aqua and Aria.
Aria has only 16 suites, each designed to balance style with creature comforts. A huge expanse of window dominates the bedroom, (it is basically a whole wall of glass) and overlooks the scenery we came here to see. Each suite includes a California king bed, sheeted in 400-thread-count linens. In the en-suite bathroom, the shower (with its very apt "rainforest" shower head) delivers torrents of hot water every time you turn the tap. There are always plenty of clean towels and, oh yes, your room is tidied-up three times every day. And, blissfully, you have full control over the amount of air conditioning you need to recover from the humid world outdoors.
With such a small number of suites, the total number of passengers won't exceed 32, which makes it really easy to get to know every one of your fellow adventurers. And these new friendships become a wonderful part of the whole experience, because these people really are special: They're fellow-adventurers; not just average cruiseship passengers. In our one week aboard Aria we made new friends from South Africa, Australia, Indonesia, Mexico, and Denmark. These were all people who are drawn to exciting travel, people who have visited lots of other exotic destinations. And these people make lively and stimulating traveling companions.
Aria's bar serves as a very convivial setting for getting together. The perfect place to
order a frosty Pisco Sour or two, and sit down to discuss the day's events, maybe browse through the many reference and illustrated coffee-table books on Peru and the Amazon and other relevant topics, and check out everyone's laptop screens as they view their photos of the day's sightings. And, of course, watch the passing scenery.
Frequently, the staff will present lectures here in the bar, as well as demonstrations and other activities designed to amuse and enlighten us.
Probably the most popular of these is when the chef, sporting his white toque, appears to demonstrate some of his specialties. Many of the ingredients are local, but chef suggests substitutes so we can makes these dishes at home. My personal goals to try in my New York City apartment are: the
Tiger Catfish Cebiche,
bass tiradito, and of course, the authentic Pisco Sour.
THE CRUISING EPICUREAN
Those whose job is to write about culinary trends are hailing Peru as "The Next Foodie Frontier." This international recognition stems from Peru's incredible diversity of ingredients, as well as the fusion elements contributed by some 500 years of influences from Spanish, African, Chinese and Japanese immigration. Only a couple of Peruvian chefs are the acknowledged stars of this culinary revolution, among them
Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, who is not only the owner/chef of Lima's award-winning restaurant, Malabar, but also the Executive Chef of Aqua Expeditions' ships.
And indeed, his cuisine plays a major role in the five-star experience aboard Aqua or Aria - three meals a day, every day. Breakfasts and lunches are served buffet-style, always with plenty of choices, many of which feature local ingredients and dishes. Dinners are always a bit more formal, waiter-served and carefully designed as extensive Tasting Menus. This allows passengers to experienced a large variety of dishes and ingredients without having to make menu choices from unfamiliar names.
For example, on my own, I might never have ordered a salad that contained "fresh hearts of palm tofu with armored catfish caviar." But I would have missed out on a truly delicious combo of local ingredients. The same goes for "Paiche fish in sachaculantro and cecina broth." Or "Sabalo fish with aji dulce sauce and Chiclayo green beans." The point is, the tasting menu style of dinners is a brilliant way of educating visitors to new taste sensations without putting us on the spot by forcing us to make menu selections on our own.
AND NEVER A DULL MOMENT...
Because our cruise took place during the flood season, our excursions were mostly on boats, rather than on foot. Each day, several time a day, we'd step off the landing deck of Aria and onto a small metal skiff, eight of us per skiff (plus the pilot and English-speaking guide) that would then speed us along tributaries and deep into the jungle.
The Amazon and its rainforest comprise one-third of Peru. The portion we explored during our week aboard the Aria lies within the Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samaira, Peru's largest nature reserve. Sprawling over some 20,800 square kilometers, it is roughly the size of Belgium. At first glance this setting appeared to me to be basically a wide muddy river that's edged on both banks by endless greenery - and almost no signs of humans other than the occasional thatched-roof house on stilts.
But once I became acclimated and became accustomed to actually seeing our surroundings, I was able to discern the infinite network of small channels, vegetation-choked tributaries, lakes, lagoons, swamps and seemingly endless expanses of wetlands. These visuals are underscored by a constant and often-raucous symphony of bird calls, trills, chirps, clicks, buzzes, caws, squawks, honks and then - sudden silences - as if perhaps some predator is on the move.
Our four naturalist guides aboard Aira were all Peruvians, most from local villages hidden deep within the rainforest. Thus, they were able to speak with authority and with great passion - about everything we saw, or hoped to see, during our daily excursions off the main ship.
Although we usually saw almost no signs of "civilization" we frequently passed local people paddling along in rough dugout canoes. Once in a while, one would pull up alongside our skiff, and the youngest children in the canoe would shyly proffer handmade crafts - necklaces with jawbones of piranha, beaded bracelets, and woodcarvings - for sale. One day, we motored up to a group of three houses on stilts. Several very young - and very excited - kids jumped into canoes and paddled eagerly over to meet us. Our guide handed them bags of breads and other foods that hadn't been consumed at breakfast that morning. Huge smiles and genuine shouts of "gracias" all around.
IN SEARCH OF JUNGLE WILDLIFE
It's important to realize that this jungle exploration experience will be far different from, say, a game safari in Africa. The wildlife here, while abundant, is far less easy to spot. And, when you do see something, it will be small and far less dramatic than, say, a lion kill or a wildebeest migration. Here, you'll see troops of small monkeys scampering (usually away from you) high in the treetops. You'll see iguanas sunning themselves on tree branches, mottled sloths lolling motionless in the crotch of a tree, a snapping little caiman pulled from his water hideout by your guide and perhaps, if you're very lucky, an anaconda slithering through the water's vegetation. Or one of the mythical pink dolphins that live in this apart of the Amazon. But always birds. Lots and lots of species of exotic birds.
"Take a picture! Take a picture!" Ricardo, one of the guides, would shout excitedly. "Look! Look - right there - up in the fork of that bare tree - the one behind the one with the pink flowers." (Me: "Huh?" "Where?")
"Right there - see it? It's a ..." and then he would reel off the name of that specific bird or critter and describe its colorations. Once we all had fixed our binoculars on this hard-to-spot bird/critter, he would then pull out the field guide and show us the picture and description.
Equally helpful - or at least for me, as I seem to be lacking the "hawkeye" ability that's so essential to this game of Jungle "I Spy" - were the viewing screens on the digital cameras. One of our fellow travelers (let's just call him "R") was a top-rate photographer who had brought along some very professional equipment. He also was gifted with extreme "hawkeye." So, by the time a guide would have pointed out a creature in the canopy, "R" would already have spotted it and photographed it - in glorious detail - and could then show the rest of us this elusive bird/critter in its actual setting, making it really easy for us to then find it for ourselves.
Daily itineraries aboard the Aria have been orchestrated to maximize passengers' total jungle experiences without becoming overly repetitive. So, a day that's filled with three excursions on the skiffs (the 6AM one before breakfast, the one immediately following breakfast, and the late-afternoon one around 4PM) might be followed by an excursion of fishing for the region's fearsome piranhas. Or one in which passengers hike into a bit of "dry" jungle to visit a small village, to interact with the people living there, distribute some small gifts (school notebooks, and pens or fishing supplies) to the children, and learn something of the local culture. One such visit on our trip ended with the visitors being urged by the kids to sing a song they might sing with their kids at home. The selection? Row, Row, Row your Boat.
The actual jungle surroundings play a huge role in shaping the drama of this experience. And also the knowledge and lore your guides share with you. Like the facts behind the ubiquitous "Christmas Trees" - which are almost always a bare tree that is set apart from other trees, and festooned with dozens of teardrop-shaped nests. These are the hanging nests of the Russet-backed Oropendola, a weaverbird. Not only does this colorful little guy create an intricate and decorative nest, he also possesses a call that sounds exactly like a dripping faucet.
There's also a mid-sized monkey that's known locally as the "Michael Jackson Monkey" because his white hands look like gloves. Sadly, these monkeys are almost extinct because they are hunted for their thick and fluffy tail that's prized as a feather duster.
Because the guides have grown up in this rainforest they can share knowledge they have learned since childhood. As one guide, Julio, explained it:
"We are living in a giant pharmacy. There are more than 1400 known medicinal trees in the rainforest." He went on to say that one of his brothers is a shaman in their rainforest village. To illustrate the healing powers of just one of these 1400 trees, he edged our skiff right up to the huge exposed roots of the Capinuri tree. Wielding his ever-ready machete he hacked open a slit in the bark and caught the oozing sap on the blade. "This sap is used to cure all kinds of hernias as well as prolapsed uterus," he told us. Another time, another guide showed us Cana Brava, a reed-like plant that, when soaked in rum for several days, he claims, produces the same results as Viagra.
So whatever you call it - pharmacy, or jungle, or Peruvian rainforest or just plain old bucket-list adventure, this experience is a major one, one that's bound to change your global point of view. It will put you in touch with people and sights you've never dreamed of before. And, if you're anything like me, you'll come to welcome that 6 AM wake-up call that gets you out there to experience another awesome day.
For more than 30 years, Brenda Fine has written travel articles on romance, honeymooning, adventure and pure love of travel for national and international magazines including Travel + Leisure, Islands, Caribbean Travel and Life, The Peak, Travel Holiday, Bridal Guide, Brides, Modern Bride, Endless Vacation , Diversion and others. Same for newspapers, which include The New York Times, The New York Law Journal, the Daily News and The Post.
Peru covers 1,285,216 km2 (496,225 sq mi) of western South America. It borders Ecuador and Colombia to the north, Brazil to the east, Bolivia to the southeast, Chile to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The Andes Mountains run parallel to the Pacific Ocean; they define the three regions traditionally used to describe the country geographically. The costa (coast), to the west, is a narrow plain, largely arid except for valleys created by seasonal rivers. The sierra (highlands) is the region of the Andes; it includes the Altiplano plateau as well as the highest peak of the country, the 6,768 m (22,205 ft) Huascarán. The third region is the selva (jungle), a wide expanse of flat terrain covered by the Amazon rainforest that extends east. Almost 60 percent of the country's area is located within this region. -- Wikipedia
Most visitors fly into
Lima (and perhaps spend a few days enjoying this fascinating city) and then make the
short flight to Iquitos, the port city for this Amazon cruise.