I’ve cruised the Amazon River before — but this time was different.
My first two voyages stuck to the Brazilian part of the waterway and were on mainstream ships. The regions we traveled through were a backdrop to life onboard — a variety of restaurants, formal nights and lavish entertainment. Shore excursions on these trips barely scratched the surface of local life and nature, and there was little Amazon influence in our food, beverages or entertainment.
In contrast, this trip — a seven-day International Expeditions itinerary departing from Iquitos, Peru — was the most immersive cruise I’ve ever taken, with Peruvian music, food and wine onboard, and a wide range of in-depth experiences, both natural and cultural.
As a first-timer to the world of expedition cruising, I wondered if I’d miss the little luxuries of big-ship cruise travel. I need not have worried. The 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica was delightful, and as you can see from my wrap-up, the trip contained very, very few missteps.
Amazonian Education: All International Expeditions’ trips emphasize wildlife, and our ship’s pair of naturalist guides, who both hailed from the region, were passionate and knowledgeable. They could identify what seemed to be thousands of species of birds, guide a kayaking trip down a creek while offering sightings of monkeys swinging between trees, and expertly bait a hook to catch a fleet of piranhas.
For me, though, it was the interaction with locals that really captured the spirit of the trip. Both guides chatted up people we came across — in villages, even fishermen in their dug-out canoes.
The Boat: Cruising the Amazon for nearly 20 years via chartered boats, International Expeditions cemented its commitment to the river this year by designing and building its first-ever custom ship. The result, La Estrella Amazonica, is lovely. All cabins have private balconies — a first for any Amazon river operator.
The best spot onboard is the fabulous open-air sundeck and bar, with super-comfy wicker couches, barstools and round tables that make it feel like an airy, spacious Peruvian living room.
Peruvian Food: The ship’s Peruvian-born chef didn’t pander to American palates, and menus strongly reflected comfort-style Amazonian cuisine. Occasionally there was a theme night — such as Chinese, which is hugely popular in this region, and even Italian — but the real stars were the seafood, rice, beans, fresh fruit juices and salads.
The Music: We loved the nightly jam sessions held onboard during the pre-dinner cocktail hour. Almost every member of the crew — from housekeepers to boat drivers — participated, playing an eccentric mix of songs, from Peruvian folk tunes to the Beatles.
Waterlogged: Being part of a 31-passenger ship gives you the up-close-and-personal access you’d never find on a big ship. There was lots to see along the river — villages, bus-boats that transport locals (and their cows, coal and crops) between Iquitos and Nauta, and other similar-sized cruise ships operated by Lindblad and Aqua Expeditions.
But the real discoveries, particularly wildlife, were better found on smaller tributaries via flat-bottomed skiffs. In a week, we logged some 185 miles on the skiffs (La Estrella Amazonica itself trawled nearly 500 miles during the cruise), where we embarked on jungle walks, swimming and kayaking.
Getting There: Iquitos, the largest city in Peru’s Amazon basin, is the starting point for cruises operated by all the major players in the region, but getting there is an adventure in its own right. First, you fly to Lima, then catch a connecting 1.5-hour flight to Iquitos. For some cruises, it’s then another 1.5-hour drive along a winding jungle road to a village called Nauta (thankfully, we were spared that extra long drive).
Most international flights from the U.S. arrive in the wee hours of the morning and depart in the middle of the night. Our advice: Plan to get to Lima with a couple of days to spare — and explore that city before heading out on your Amazon adventure. Iquitos is also an interesting outpost.
Moving Around: Aside from a kayaking adventure and a couple of jungle hikes, it was surprising how sedentary the activities were. Much time was spent eyeing wildlife from the skiffs, and unlike in Europe where towpaths for cyclists and joggers line the rivers, there’s no easy access to exercise on the Amazon.
On the plus side: La Estrella Amazonica has a small fitness facility, with two treadmills and two spinning cycles.
Shops, Restaurants and Nightlife: There aren’t any! Aside from a pair of village visits, where local women presented their handicrafts for sale, this is a nature-oriented experience. The best shopping and dining we had was in Lima.
– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown