Our Amazon River Cruise is starting in Iquitos, Peru, a large city for the country with almost 500,000 residents (even more if you consider the squatters and the metro area) and a gateway city to the Amazon. It is the 9th largest city in Peru and the largest city in the world that can not be reached by car. It is only accessible by water or air. We were originally supposed to fly to Iquitos and then take a bus to Nauta, but the road is under construction so our ship, the Amazon Aria, is coming to Iquitos to pick us up here. The boat will then sail all night toward Nauta.
Our tour is booked through Uniworld with a package that includes a stay in Lima, the Amazon River Cruise, transfers within Peru and travel to historic Inca sites, including Manchu Picchu. If you just wanted the River adventure, you could still book the experience on the Amazon Aria through Aqua Adventures.
When we arrived in Iquitos, the naturalist staff for the Aria was all there to meet us. They pulled our bags, tagged them for our rooms on the ship and welcomed us with food and drinks for our bus ride into town for lunch at the Iron House Restaurant, the façade and balcony of which were designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Paris’s Eiffel Tower fame). The iron structure was dismantled, shipped to Peru, and rebuilt on Iquitos’ main square, Plaza de Armas.
On the ride in, one of our trip leaders Roland, nicknamed the professor, gave us some background on the city. Iquitos was the first city in Peru to have a train line to reach it. It was also the first city in the country to get electricity. During the late 19th century, Iquitos was the center of the rubber industry in Peru. The country was stripped of its rubber trees with the native people performing the heavy labor under slave-like conditions in the rainforests. There were never rubber plantations in Peru, but 60,000 seeds were smuggled out with the plants eventually being sent to Southeast Asia where rubber tree plantations were established given the similar climate. After decimating the rubber tree population in Peru, the rubber industry in the country collapsed.
From the Iron House balcony we had a view of Plaze de Armas, the square where a stage and booths were set up for a festival. It was Friday evening and people would soon be off work for the weekend. I enjoyed a very late lunch of ceviche and a stir-fried beef prepared with Peruvian spices. The table was decorated with small colorful animals handmade from native products.
Next, we reboarded our bus for the trip to the harbor. Life jackets were distributed to us at the pier. We will use these lightweight jackets throughout the week whenever we board the skiffs. We took the tour skiffs out to meet our boat. Our luggage had already been transferred and was waiting in our room. It was almost completely dark when we reached the Amazon Aria.
There are three levels to the boat. The embarkation level has a hallway open on both ends with cushioned benches. This is where you board the skiffs and apply your bug repellent. There are also 8 guest suites for 16 guests on this level. On level two, there are 8 additional rooms, the gift shop, camera storage, and the ship’s restaurant with glass on 3 sides. On level three, there is a large shaded hot tub outside and a large interior lounge with the bar. The lounge is also used for group lectures and meetings. Additionally, there is small workout room and single massage room on the third level.
There was a brief safety briefing on level one to show us how to use the (other) emergency life jackets and then we had free time to unpack. Tonight dinner was not until 8 pm since we had such a late lunch. Dining is open seating with tables seating 4 each. Breakfast is s buffet with made to order eggs and another special offering served at your table. Lunch and Dinner are served family style with multiple courses; wine is served at both lunch and dinner. Almost all the drinks are included in the tour price. The daily menu is printed and available at each table. While there are multiple courses, you do not make selections; all guests receive the same meal. The chef does make adjustments for dietary concerns. I do not eat chocolate and I always received an alternate item whenever chocolate was served.
During dinner we had a preview of the activities for the next day. We learned that the naturalists rotate leadership among themselves regarding heading up the daily program. We were also encouraged to tour with all of the naturalists. Boats are assigned randomly upon arrival at the embarkation area. Each day, the schedule is written on a chalkboard near the gift shop on the second floor.
Tomorrow there is an optional tour in the morning at 6 am for bird watching. That is not necessarily my thing, but I don’t want to miss out. We will get a wake-up call at 5:30 am. The daily highs in the Amazon reach almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit year-round (32 degrees Celsius). The Amazon has a hot and humid climate. We have been encouraged to wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants made of a breathable fabric. In addition to heat waves, the area also contends with the possibility of flooding and earthquakes.
The guest rooms feature a wall that is floor to ceiling glass so you always have a view of the Amazon River. The room is big for a cruise ship and has a king-sized bed, two nightstands, a built-in bench and closet and a small side table. The vanity area opens into the room with a separate enclosed space with the shower and toilet. The shower is large for a cruise ship and features a rain head shower head and grab bar.
In an odd twist, Boris decided to sleep in the next morning and I got up for the early tour. He is the early riser and I usually don’t hit my stride until about 11 am. There were only 4 on my boat, but we were the first (and only ones in the early morning) to see a sloth. We also saw a wonderful red detailed woodpecker and many other birds. I love the kingfishers that are plentiful and skim just about the surface of the water. We returned to the ship after about an hour and had time to enjoy breakfast before the regular morning tour.
We are skirting the natural preserve along the Peruvian Amazon. Although many countries claim the birthplace of the Amazon, its origin is actually high in the Andes Mountains of Peru where the snow melts and flows down. At the convergence of the Maranon and Ucayali Rivers in Peru, the Amazon is born. We are visiting the convergence point today and continued to spot unique animals (especially birds), trees and plants along the way. As we reached the convergence spot, we have our first sighting of the Amazon River Dolphins, also known as pink dolphins. They look nothing like our bottleneck dolphins. These creatures have a long snout. Although there is some gray, they are almost entirely pink in color. This type of dolphin is not particularly playful with humans. They were more stressed by our appearance than anything else.
We saw lots of wonderful things on this morning excursion including some remarkable birds, tree frogs, more sloths, and the ever playful squirrel monkeys that travel in large groups. We would just sit in an area for a while and enjoy the show in the trees.
There are lots of small boats on the Amazon from the common small narrow wooden boat or canoe to slightly larger boat with cover which serve help natives to move from community to community along the Amazon where there is no or limited connection by land. We are traveling in skiffs, shallow-bottomed metal boats with fixed (and comfortable) seats. The skiffs are powered by motor.
Timing is everything in the Amazon. The Peruvian winter is just starting. The country has three distinct ecosystems. In the Amazon, there are only two seasons-high and low-dictated by the level of the water. The low season is only in its second week, but we can already see that the water level has dropped significantly by the water marks on the trees. Carlos told us that during the high-water season it is mostly bird watching. In the low season you see more mammals.
After our morning excursion in the skiffs, it is back to the ship for a bit of a break before lunch at 12:30 pm. At noon there is an optional cooking demonstration. Our cabin stewards also got into it with a towel demonstration and our bartender Carlos showed us how to make the national drink, a Pisco Sour.
After lunch, we had another break and then headed out for a late afternoon/twilight Cruise. Today we were introduced to the water lettuce that covers many of the tributaries of the Amazon. It is simply floating vegetation. Unfortunately, it can completely cover the water and deprive the creatures below of sunlight and oxygen. The manatees previously controlled its growth, but they are hunted for food and are now endangered. The water lettuce does have a pretty look and you don’t always realize you are traveling through a large body of water until the skiff makes a path through it. We crossed many lakes completely covered in green water lettuce. If it clogs the engine, the driver simply reserves the engine, dispelling it or pulls it out.
We had a wonderful time. We enjoyed finding more sloths, watching the squirrel monkeys at play, spotting both the Cayman Lizard (red head) and the green iguana, and more hawks and vultures. We saw our first ranger station in the Pacaya Samiria Reserve; the stations are usually positioned just as you enter one of the river’s tributaries. One of the best things about this time of day was that the ride was cool and it was nice to just be quiet and take in the beauty of the river and listen to the sounds of the jungle. With so few boats around, the water was like glass and it sometimes looked as if you were peering into a mirror as the tree line, sky, and vegetation was all reflected on the water. One comment about terminology. While scientists usually refer to the river banks and the surrounding growth as the rainforest, the locals just call it all the jungle. I’ll use both terms, but know in this case they refer to the same thing.
Throughout this post, we will see photos credited to Ricardo, one of the naturalists on our cruise. In addition to his spotting and guide duties, Ricardo took photographs throughout our visit and shared them. All the pictures he took were from the days we were aboard and are just better versions of what I photographed or saw on the specific days they are credited to.
I wasn’t able to capture much with my Iphone, although the pictures I took did help me remember what I saw each day. I did have some luck catching a squirrel money in flight as he leapt from tree to tree. These monkeys are tree dwellers. Due to the water bottom of their home, they spend very little time on the ground.
As we lost the light, we found lots of spiders and tarantulas. The day out ended with the viewing of a swirling school of catfish and piranhas, a sight the naturalists rarely see. They were captivated. Just when we thought we couldn’t see more, a red tree boa was spotted and observed by all. And that was just the first full day!!! My challenge to the naturalists…go ahead and try to top this. They did. Next up…Natasha and the Anaconda.