He looked at us with a mischievous grin and then said it, the phrase we’d learn to finish for him. The phrase that Juan—one of two local naturalists on our International Expeditions’ Amazon River Cruise in Peru—would say every time we began a new adventure.
“My friends, you’re not going to like this … (his smile growing slyer as he let the words hang in the air) …You’re going to LOVE it.”
He was right.
My First Cruise
It was my first cruise and I was glad to be on a small boat, not a floating city with water slides and casinos and the Zafiro seemed to be the ticket. If I was going to venture into a new type of travel I didn’t want to share it with a cast of thousands. I wanted something intimate.
But I had my concerns: Would I get bored? Would I feel trapped? Would I get along with the other guests? The answers came quickly: No. No. And yes.
I quickly fell in love with watching the panorama of the Amazon glide by: the lush flora of the jungle canopy, the remote fishing villages, and tropical birds aplenty. It was as if a National Geographic documentary was unfolding in front of my eyes. Every day we saw something new, and I couldn’t wait to see what we would find.
During our ten-days, nine-nights adventure, we navigated over 600 miles, our course focusing on the Amazon and one of its largest tributaries, the Ucayali River within the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. Yet, delightfully, my undies stayed in one place. No need to pack and unpack.
It was divine.
(Update: Since writing this piece I went on a Land and Sea Adventure in Alaska on a large boat with nearly 2100 passengers and a historic wooden schooner around Penobscot Bay for six days. Each cruise was very different from the others and each had qualities that made them special. It just depends on what you’re in the mood for.)
Here’s a look at my adventure in pictures..
The Zafiro, a sleek three-story vessel was the perfect size for me and the 19 other travelers who were on the trip. Large enough to provide ample space but small enough so I didn’t feel as if I’d boarded a town. (The Zafiro can accommodate up to 40 guests).
My suite (as were all the main guest areas) was blessedly air-conditioned (as one might expect it’s rather muggy in the Amazon), and stylishly set with a desk and a large California King facing floor-to-ceiling windows. There was something so wonderfully decadent about waking up in the morning to find a new world waiting outside.
The large canopied observation deck was perfect for a good book, a snooze or a relaxing soak in the communal jacuzzi.
A large, comfy living room, the lounge was our headquarters for lectures and evening cocktails as well as serenades and salsa lessons from the crew band. The room was decorated with locally sourced objets d’art—handmade baskets, masks, oars and other items reflecting the region’s lively culture—and lined with windows, guaranteeing not a second of the Amazon would be missed.
The dining room was casual yet elegant and served regional and contemporary dishes infused with rainforest ingredients. Breakfast and lunch were buffet style, while in the evening we sat down to yummy 5-course meals. Dress was casual which I appreciated. While it can be fun to dress up for dinner after a long, hot day, I liked being able to wear something comfortable and relax.
Amazon River Wildlife
Wildlife excursions aboard the Zafiro’s 12-guest aluminum skiffs were the foundation of our Amazon River cruise and led by our naturalists, Daniel Vasquez and Juan Tejada. We went on one to two boat rides a day, in the early morning and the late afternoon, when it was cooler and the animals were more active, focusing on the narrower rivers where spotting wildlife was easier.
When it comes to wildlife, sightings are always a gamble, and that’s why a naturalist with years of experience is the best bet for success.
Juan and Daniel were exceptional.
The Amazon isn’t easy. It’s overgrown, often overcast ( it rains 250 days out of the year), and much of it is in shadow. I rarely saw anything without them showing it to me first. They had a sixth sense for finding birds and sloths and everything in between as if they’d planted them in the jungle beforehand.
Here are just a few of the wonders they spotted.
A woolly monkey. It dangled over our heads as if asked to do so.
A beautiful black-tailed trogon.
A nocturnal species, it was unusual to find this fer-de-lance pit viper relatively out in the open coiled under the shade of a large tree. They’re considered volatile and will defend themselves. Bites often lead to necropsy, gangrene, amputation, and death.
A sprite squirrel monkey, flitting through the trees in search of the perfect leaf.
A black-and-white marsh tyrant
A brown-throated three-toed sloth, the slowest moving animal on the planet and so named for its three long claws on each paw. I love how their facial markings make them look like furry bandits.
A polka dot tree frog, one of a thousand species of frogs known to inhabit the Amazon basin, found at the edge of a river attached to some reeds.
I am not a birder, per se, but I love animals, and seeing beauties like this hoatzin made my day as much as those who were hardcore enthusiasts. I asked a few birders how they felt it was going and without fail a huge grin crept over their faces like kids eating ice cream. The Amazon is a birder’s paradise with over 1500 bird species calling it home. By the end of our cruise we saw 136.
A night monkey (or owl monkey) peeks out of a tree cavity. I wanted to hug this little guy until he popped!
Black-capped donacobeous looking mighty dapper against the green and yellow rainforest.
A snowy egret hitches a ride on a log floating down the Ucayali River. The waterways were littered with debris that had collected on the river banks during the low season. During the high season which runs from December thru March, the water can rise by as much as 40 feet or more.
A green tree iguana all puffed up trying to make himself look bigger and more formidable because we were near.
A cormorant and an unlucky fish.
Swallow-tailed day moth. Fun fact: moths always keep their wings open when they land, while butterflies keep them closed.
Gorgeous blue and yellow Macaws
Surfacing for what seemed like a half a second, we also saw a few of the famous bubblegum pink river dolphins, but those crafty little devils were so quick I never managed a decent photo.
But that’s not all…
While exploring the rivers was a big part of our journey, we also enjoyed lectures on wildlife, Amazonian culture and folklore, culinary demonstrations, a jungle walk, and a variety of excursions such as…
Early Morning Kayaking
We had the option to go early morning kayaking twice during the cruise. A spectacular way to drink in the sights and sounds of the river without the disruption of a motor.
One of the more interesting fishing experiences I’ve ever had. Tying the skiff to a tree at the mouth of a river, we were armed with simple wooden rods, a hook and some meat. Plopping our bait in the water, we vigorously shook the tip of the pole on the surface as if an animal had just fallen in and was struggling. Within seconds, the red-bellied piranha began to bite. The trick was to pull the fish up quickly. However, my skills were pitifully lacking. I came up empty every time.
One of the many red-bellied piranha caught during our fishing trip. (Just not by me.)
Swimming in a Blackwater River
The dark sediment-filled waters of the Amazon and its many tributaries are home to dozens of parasites. Yet surprisingly, there are unique river systems called blackwater where the PH is so high and nutrients low, parasites cannot survive. It’s in these tea-colored waterways that we enjoyed a bit of a swim.
Village Visits within the Pacaya – Samiria National Reserve
11 de Agosto
A cultural visit to 11 de Agosto (the 11th of August), so named for the day the 15-family village was founded. Here, one of its stilted, thatched-roof houses.
Amelia, another guest, helps to harvest a yucca plant. Yucca is used in a variety of dishes in the Amazon as well as for medicinal purposes. If you strip off a thin layer of the root skin, its underside is cool and little slimy, but it feels delish on your skin if you have a sunburn.
Another use for yucca is a homemade beer called Masato, typically made for special occasions. The recipe is simple: gather some yucca root, chew pieces until its mush, spit it into a large urn, add some water and cover it with banana leaves for 5 days to ferment. Ta da! You have Masato.
We also spent an hour with kids from a school supported, in part, by International Expeditions. The children were both shy and curious and excited to get a look at the new visitors. Each of us took turns introducing ourselves in Spanish, then the children repeated our names in unison. Whenever there was a name they found hard to pronounce, they would giggle and we’d all end up laughing. Afterward, with the help of Juan as the MC, the kids sang us a few songs.
Bobby, a fellow traveler, played his harmonica for the children, simulating the roar of a moving locomotive. The kids had never seen or heard of a harmonica before (or a train for that matter), and were utterly transfixed.
Some of the other passengers passed out books and school supplies they’d brought for the students. The kids, all smiles, and laughter, were thrilled and began looking through the pages as soon as they got them in their hot little hands.
San José de Paranapura
It’s difficult to imagine, but last year at the peak of the high season, long boats were the only way to reach these homes.
At the rear of the San José Paranapurna, a pond filled with giant water lilies. Their leaves can grow as large as nine feet in diameter and support the weight of a baby.
Roman, a local shaman, responsible for the villagers’ spiritual guidance and a healer, conducted a brief ceremony to wish us a good trip. Chanting in Cocama, his native language, he shook a chakapa over each of our heads. Made of dry leaves, the chakapa sounds like the flapping of a bird’s wing. The sound and his actions call to the spirits of the plants and the forest for good energy. Afterward, he blew tobacco smoke into our cupped hands. In turn, we pushed the smoke toward our faces, and over our heads, as a symbol of purification.
A little girl in the village I couldn’t help but photograph.
Both visits ended with the villagers selling beautiful handmade baskets, toys, jewelry and other crafts made from materials found in the rainforest. Markets like this one are a wonderful opportunity to buy unique souvenirs and serve as a crucial source of income for the families. My retail therapy consisted of a necklace, a bracelet, two masks, and a marvelous wooden bowl.
A fond farewell: On our last night, we all piled into the skiffs for a “surprise”— a lovely sunset cruise made even more special with a champagne toast. The perfect way to top off a terrific trip.
How you can go on your own Amazon River Cruise
International Expeditions offers cruises to the Amazon year round. You can check rates & dates here. (International flights not included)
How to get there
Make your own way to Lima where you’ll meet up with your expedition leader, and the other guests. Together, you’ll fly north to Iquitos, an isolated metropolis on the banks of the Amazon, reachable only by air or water, where you’ll meet your local naturalists. After a day of sightseeing, you’ll board the Zafiro.
Service: The service and attention to detail was impressive. From the moment you land at the airport in Lima until you’re escorted to your departing gate, everything is taken care of. No worries. No hassles.
- Sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, a rain poncho (it’ll keep you and your things dryer than a jacket) and bug spray. Intense sun, plenty of rain, and mosquitos come with the territory.
- Binoculars – To see most of the wildlife you’re going to need binoculars. The Zafiro has rentals, but supply is limited. Your best bet is to bring your own.
- Some kind of water-resistant bag or backpack to put your things in while you’re on the skiff. One you can get things in and out of easily.
- Mosquito repellent. If you’re looking for a great brand, my go-to is Bug X 30 towelettes. They’re easier to pack than a can, and you have much more control over the application. It’s also safe on clothing.
Anti-malarial: I didn’t take an anti-malarial medication, other guests did. There have been reports of mosquitos carrying the Zika virus. Ask your doctor what’s best for you.
Wildlife Photography: Note: Don’t expect to see a lot of large mammals on this trip. We were lucky to see the number of monkeys and sloths that we did. If you love birds, this is definitely the trip for you.
On the average, most of the animals I saw were pretty far away. Many of the shots above are cropped. If you want to take decent photos, you’re going to need a long lens, or if you have a point-and-shoot, a great digital zoom. I took a Canon 100-400mm lens and added a 1.4mm extender. I could have used a longer lens, but it would have been too hard to hand-hold on a skiff, which was constantly moving.
Amazon River Facts
- The Amazon is by far the largest river system in the world.
- Over two-thirds of all the unfrozen fresh water on earth is found within the Amazon basin.
- It includes over 1,100 tributaries, seventeen of which are over 1,000 miles long.
- Almost 14,000 miles of Amazon waterways are navigable and several million miles through swamps and forests are penetrable by canoe.
- The flow into the Atlantic in one day would sustain New York City’s fresh water needs for nine years.
- The extensive waterways and favorable climatic conditions of the Amazon Basin have fostered the greatest development of rainforest to be found anywhere in the world. Over twenty percent of the Earth’s oxygen is produced in this area.
(Source: The Amazon Voyage handbook by International Expeditions)
I was a guest of International Expeditions, however, they never reviewed or approved this story.
Thanks to Canon Professional Services for their help with this post.
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