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Machu Picchu, PeruWhen you work in travel, everywhere is somewhere you want to go at some point, and for that reason, Peru has been on my own must-visit list for a while. But it wasn’t until the photos, stories and travel plans of various friends began to pour in across social media recently that I realized I hadn’t given this destination its due: Peru is most certainly having a moment.

Machu Picchu was voted the top landmark in the world this year in TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice awards, and Conde Nast Traveler highlighted Peru among up-and-coming foodie hot spots in a round-up of 2014 travel trends. Chef-guided culinary market tours, Pisco distilleries, vineyards and the chocolate museum in Cuzco attract travelers looking to both see and taste the South American nation often called its gastronomic capital.

Slideshow: 10 Best Peru Experiences

Peru was on Jamey Bergman’s bucket list, the U.K. Production and River Section Editor of our sister site, Cruise Critic. He has since checked it off, and shared with us what it was like to experience one of his bucket list destinations:

“I had high expectations for my visit to Machu Picchu, and my experience there was totally unforgettable. We arranged local transport (train to Aguas Calientes from Cuzco and bus to the site), and arrived just before dawn. We had the place to ourselves for a couple of hours before all the tour groups arrived, and it was magical. We hiked up to the Sun Gate for sunrise, and spent the rest of the day exploring the ruins. It’s profound to visit a place that meant so much to an ancient culture that’s completely disappeared. “

Is Peru on your list? Do you have a story of a bucket list destination that you’ve been able to cross off? Share with us in the comments.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.

amazon river la estrella amazonicaI’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.

HITS

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.

amazon river la estrella amazonicaThe 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.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

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.

MISSES

amazon river piranhaGetting 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.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

packingAs I prepare for my latest voyage, the packing checklist looks a lot like the usual, at least on the surface. New shoes? Absolutely. A few new items of clothing? Why not. A camera, raincoat and Kindle are also among the staples I lug around from one trip to the next.

But this is no “normal” voyage. On this trip — my first-ever soft adventure cruise — I’m traveling on International Expeditions’ 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica down the Peruvian Amazon, one of the most remote and exotic sections of this mighty river. And while pictures make the line’s new Amazonica ship look quite comfortable (nice touch: balconies with every cabin!), the places we’ll be visiting in the jungle might not be so forgiving.

My past cruise experience has focused on mainstream, luxury and European river lines, so for this otherworldly adventure I turned to International Expeditions’ recommended packing list.

Among the items: “strong” insect repellent, insect-bite relief products, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, tissue packs (for off-the-ship toilets), sunburn relief, and medication for diarrhea, altitude sickness and motion sickness. I also visited a doctor for a prescription for malaria pills, just in case, and to make sure my hepatitis A shot was up to date.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

As far as clothes go, a wide-brimmed straw hat came “highly recommended” (it’s actually kind of cute). I splurged on Skechers walking shoes and some not-so-flattering khaki cargo pants from L.L.Bean that I’m told will be a godsend (because they dry quickly). To avoid attracting insects, clothing in dark shades is highly discouraged — a challenge right there since my urban travel wardrobe revolves around black … everything. A forage to the back of my closet yielded treasures like white, linen, long-sleeved blouses (turns out I had three that were virtually identical!).

The niftiest tip on the list? On this cruise, a seven-night roundtrip from Peru‘s Iquitos, we will visit a local school, and passengers are encouraged to pick up supplies to donate. Tucked into my pile are Crayola markers, a box of pens, folders and notebooks.

The packing part of this adventure isn’t over yet. Even as I head to the airport for my flight to Lima, where I’ll meet up with fellow passengers before heading to the boat, I’m keenly aware of the one item I’ve failed to procure. Turns out piranhas, purring monkeys and bizarre puss caterpillars are not to be feared; the real predator on the Peruvian Amazon is the mighty skeeter, due to dengue fever (which doesn’t have a vaccine). Super-strong insect repellent is nowhere to be found in central New Jersey right now, where freezing temperatures mean there’s not a mosquito in sight and shops aren’t currently stocking the stuff.

I also failed to buy the recommended tube socks, which protect ankles from chiggers — but I’m not too worried. To this inveterate travel shopper, it’s just one more excuse to prowl around Lima’s shops before our group heads to the boat.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot, of a llama taking in the view at Machu Picchu in Peru, is sure to make you smile.

llama machu picchu peru


Read Trip Reviews About Peru

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Walking Tours and Trips

– written by Dori Saltzman

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Cuzco, Peru! Also spelled Cusco, this former Incan capital in the Andes Mountains is the most common starting point for travelers hiking the Inca Trail — or taking the train — to Machu Picchu. The city is worth visiting in its own right for its elegant colonial buildings and historic churches. It’s also a good idea to spend a few days here acclimating yourself to the high altitude before embarking on a strenuous mountain trek. Learn more by reading Three Weeks in Peru, a trip report by member Mike6725.

Check back this Friday for another photo guessing game!

– written by Sarah Schlichter