This Amazon River Cruise Will Make You Yearn to be on the Water

Sunset on the Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-0830

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 Amazon River Cruise in Peru with International Expeditions’ —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 Amazon River Cruise

It was my first Amazon River cruise and first cruise in general. I was glad to be on a small ship 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 the panorama of the Amazon glide by with its lush flora, jungle canopy, 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 next.

During our ten-days, nine-nights adventure, we navigated over 600 miles, our course focusing on the Peruvian 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.

Here’s a look at my adventure in pictures..

The Zafiro - Amazon_International Expeditions

The Zafiro

The Zafiro, a sleek three-story vessel was the perfect size for me and the 19 other travelers 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 on the main deck , #5 | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions Amazon River Crusie
My suite on the main deck, #5

My suite (as were all the main guest areas) was blessedly air-conditioned (as one might expect it’s rather muggy on an Amazon River cruise, and stylishly set with a desk and a large California King facing floor-to-ceiling windows. There was something wonderfully decadent about waking up to find a new world waiting outside every morning.

The Zafiro observation deck - Amazon_International Expeditions  Amazon River Crusie

The large canopied observation deck was a perfect getaway for a good book, a snooze or a relaxing soak in the communal jacuzzi.

The dining Room on the Zafiro | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-16

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 Amazon’s lively culture—and lined with windows, guaranteeing not a second of the regions was missed.

The dining Room on the Zafiro | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-16

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. The 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.

Daniel Vasquez and Juan Tejada, Peruvian naturalists | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-2
Daniel Vasquez and Juan Tejada, our two Peruvian naturalists

Amazon River Cruise 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 active, focusing on the narrower rivers where spotting wildlife was easier to see.

Guests and crew check out a bird in the canopy | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-05

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.

Wooly Monkey in a tree | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-07

A woolly monkey. It dangled over our heads as if asked to do so.

A black-tailed trogon in a tree | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-24

A beautiful black-tailed trogon.

Fer-de-lance under a tree | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-36

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.

Spider monkey in a tree | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-42

A sprite squirrel monkey flitting through the trees in search of the perfect leaf.

Black-and-white marsh tyrant | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-04

A black-and-white marsh tyrant

A Three-toed sloth in a tree | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-06

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.

Polkadot tree frog in a person's hand | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-19

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.

Hoatzim sitting in a tree | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-43

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.

An adorable Owl Monkey | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-08

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 in a tree | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-04

Black-capped donacobeous looking mighty dapper against the green and yellow rainforest.

Black-collared Hawk | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-0280

A black-collared hawk. We saw a lot of these raptors during our cruise.

Snowy Egret | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-02

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. 

Green tree iguana in a tree | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-4

A green tree iguana all puffed up trying to make himself look bigger and more formidable because we were near.

Cormoran | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-10

A cormorant and an unlucky fish.

Swallow-tailed moth on a leaf | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-5

Swallow-tailed day moth. Fun fact: moths always keep their wings open when they land while butterflies close them.

Blue and yellow Macaws flying | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-22

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

River Kayaking | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01

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.

Piranha Fishing

Piranha fishing | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-3

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 mimicking an animal struggling on the surface. Within seconds, the red-bellied piranha began to bite. The trick was to pull the fish up quickly to hook the little devil. However, my skills were pitifully lacking. I came up empty every time.

Piranha fishing | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-4

One of the many red-bellied piranha caught during our fishing trip. (Just not by me.)

Swimming in a Blackwater River

People swimming in a black water river | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-2

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 stilted house in the Amazon | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-3

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.

Harvesting a yucca plant |Amazon_International Expeditions -75

Amelia, another guest, helps to harvest a yucca plant. Yucca is used in a variety of dishes in on Amazon River 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 wonderful 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

San José Paranapurna | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-8

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.

Giant lily pads | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-9

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.

Shaman in Peru | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-7

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.

Little girl from an Amazon village | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-2

A little girl in the village I couldn’t help but photograph.

Souvenir shopping in the Amazon | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-01-11


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.

Dennis Osorio Expedition Leader | Amazon River Cruise Peru -International Expeditions-20
Expedition Leader Dennis Osorio refers to a birding book to show a guest an image of a bird they’d seen from a long distance

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.

If you have a moment, check out this video!

How you can go on your own Amazon River Cruise

International Expeditions offers Amazon River cruises 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: I found the service and attention to detail on International Expeditions, very 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.

Don’t Forget

  • 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 Medication

I didn’t take anti-malarial medication, other guests did. There have been reports of mosquitos carrying the Zika virus. Ask your doctor what’s best for you.

Amazon Wildlife

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 average, most of the animals I saw were pretty far away. Many of the shots above are cropped. If you want to take photography Amazon rainforest animals, 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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This Amazon River Cruise in Peru will Make You Want to Hop on a Plane. An exciting journey up the Amazon and it's many tributaries. #travel #AmazonRiver #wildlife

59 thoughts on “This Amazon River Cruise Will Make You Yearn to be on the Water

  1. Roman Picard says:

    How cool and amazing the Amazon has ever sounded. I have never felt an excitement to want to go visit. This article definitely gave it a look that shows a side that makes someone like me interested. Loved the photos and how informative it all was.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Roman, I love that my work has revealed a part of the world you hadn’t considered before and that you like it. That’s my goal, to inspire folks to travel and try new things. Thank you so much for your kind words.

  2. Kirstin Street says:

    WOW WOW WOW!!! I have been on river safaris in Africa, and in Borneo but I still get goosebumps at the thought of getting to the Amazon next year!! Your photos are absolutely gorgeous, and although I’m not a big bird person like you either, I could watch the monkeys and small mammals all day! I’m also convinced I will need a much better lens for this one. Doing it as a cruise looks absolutely incredible, and your room so luxurious! We will be on a tight budget, so hoping I can find a similar experience on a budget!

  3. Samantha Taki says:

    What an amazing adventure and such beautiful pictures. I really enjoyed the different monkey pictures. The room looked amazing and I can imagine how cool it would be to wake up each morning to a new view and adventure. Thank you for sharing and the great pictures.

  4. Lisa says:

    Love your travels I read a old post where you used zaditor and systan for your eyes while traveling and at home does this still work for you? We are getting ready to travel and I’d love to know.

  5. Jim Shepherd says:

    Amazing review Susan! Katherine and I loved being with you on this adventure, which we are fond of characterizing as a floating safari. Calling this a cruise just doesn’t seem to do the experience justice.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you, and back at ya Jim! I had a great time with you two. I think you’re right.. floating safari is perfect for what we did. Love it. 🙂

  6. SUECAROLINE says:

    That looks like an amazing journey you went on. I lived in South America for a while when I was young and remember seeing so many beautiful birds and animals. Thank you for including me in sending this beautiful reminder of a place I hold dear in my heart. I lived in Sao Paulo and was there before they opened up the Amazon as it is today. I was there in the early 1970’s. It has changed a great deal. It is wonderful to see your adventures.

  7. catsonholidays says:

    Ahhhh! How have I never heard of this? An Amazon River cruise! The Amazons have always been on my bucket list and this has just made me dream of it even more. Thank you for your insights and wonderful photos, as always!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      My pleasure! I’m so glad I could bring the possibility to your attention. And thank you for the kind words about the post.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you so much Bianca! You’re so right it was an amazing trip. It’s a shame we can’t be back in the jungle right now, enjoying the sounds of the wild and a giant Pisco Sour!

  8. Heide says:

    I have never before considered a cruise, for exactly the three questions you asked yourself at the outset. But you’ve changed my mind, Susan! You’ve also captured the Amazon in all its splendor. I visited Iquitos as a kid and your gorgeous images have brought the memories flooding back. (If it’s of any consolation, I never managed to hook a piranha either.)

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Ha! They are slippery little devils.

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m thinking you should consider a little trip back to Peru! 😉

      • Heide says:

        I did indeed make note of their name when I read your post, Susan. It seems they’re really found the balance between offering some creature comforts while still being respectful of the environment and providing an authentic experience as well. Thank you so much! Now if only you can help me convince my husband … 😉

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      You know, I really didn’t think I was in to cruising either. And I guess what I really meant was a particular type of cruising. You’ll never find me on a 4,000 passenger ship. It’s too big with too many people in my face. A river cruise, however, I really liked because it was far more intimate then I thought and a lovely balance between having my own space, but getting to know other travelers as well.

  9. ambatopia says:

    You are an amazing traveler. I know I cannot go to some of these exotic places in person but your pictures take me there E.V.E.R.Y.T.I.M.E thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  10. Pingback: This Amazon River Cruise Will Make You Want to Hop on a Plane — The Insatiable Traveler – jetsetterweb

  11. Mike says:

    Wow…. Such amazing photos you captured of the wildlife…. Seems. Like they put on quite a show for you! Oh and that ship looks divine! See you at salsa class!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you! The wildlife is amazing there. The whole trip was like out of Nat Geo doc. Very different than what I’ve done before.

  12. TravelKiwis says:

    What an amazing cruise. The wildlife photos are stunning and to have seen so much variety too. And getting up close with the locals is always so interesting to learn a little of their daily life.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      It really was. It was very well balanced in terms of giving us a taste of everything the Amazon has to offer. Wildlife, culture, food .. It was very very special.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you very much, Ron. It was definitely a great adventure and I appreciate the kind words about the photographs. Thank you!

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Thank you about the wildlife photos. I was thrilled to see such a nice mix of animals.
      The trip was exceptional. I’d never been on a cruise before and I really loved it.

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