“Welcome to your home for the next four days,” said my guide Julio, as our group caught first glance of The Aria.
This elegant ship was designed in 2011 by famed Peruvian architect Jordi Puig and is the newest in Aqua Expeditions’ two ship fleet to ply the Amazon River on a 4-Day Amazon River Luxury Cruise from Iquitos on the Aria.
Though it was already dark by the time we arrived at the pier in Nauta, The Aria looked beautiful lit up at night. As soon as we embarked, I ran straight for my cabin and resisted the urge to jump joyously on the bed. The interior design was simple and modern, and accentuated the large floor-to-ceiling picture window that revealed the Amazon floating lazily by. Though few, the details were impeccable – I swooned over the luxury bath products made in Peru using local ingredients like Camu Camu and Quinoa.
The common areas of The Aria were equally impressive. The lounge was peppered with coffee table books about both the Amazon River and other highlights of Peru, while the outdoor balcony featured a cold water jacuzzi, refreshing in the rainforest heat. Tiny workout and massage rooms made creative use of tucked away spaces and more wrap-around windows – I’d challenge someone to find a more scenic setting for a stationary run.
The final destination on my self-guided tour was the dining room, where my thirty one fellow passengers and I would gather three times a day for delicious meals. Breakfast and lunch were impressive buffets, while dinner was served as a tasting menu. The food lived up to its reputation with course after course of small, elegantly presented local fusion dishes paired with South American wines.
The next morning marked our first excursion, a jungle walk. Guests were formed into small groups so that the four naturalist guides could rotate between us, ensuring their expertise was evenly distributed. All of the guides were born along the river we were exploring and I enjoyed their anecdotes about growing up on the Amazon as much as their encyclopedic knowledge of the flora and fauna within it. My guide for the morning, Ricardo, showed us how the plants and insects of the jungle could yield natural insect repellent (crushed termites), punishment for naughty children (a tree of red ants that mouthy kids have to hold their hands to) and both glue and a treatment for stomach ailments (the sticky white sap of a tree who’s name I can’t recall).
Along the way we also had sightings of several shy jungle animals, like white-faced monkeys that peered at us from the branches above, and a lazy sloth that dangled from a tree in the distance. Back on the skiff, as the driver handed out herb-scented cool towels, we passed a pod of grey river dolphins that seemed to be dancing for us.
After lunch and siesta, and in my case, massage time, we were off on an afternoon boat ride. A rainbow framed sightings of several bird species, more monkeys and sloths, as well as additional shows by the playful grey river dolphins and their pink counterparts. Returning to The Aria, we were treated to the kind of stunning sunset that one might expect deep within the Amazon rainforest.
The next days’ 6am wakeup call was rewarded by a skiff excursion deep into the Pacaya Ramira Reserve. After a bit of wildlife spotting, including playful monkey, shy caimans, prehistoric birds and sleepy sloths, we tied all four dinghies together and had breakfast floating in the middle of an Amazon river tributary. We stopped to fish for mighty piranhas, and after examining their many rows of terrifying teeth, we fed our catches to a hawk that swooped down and grabbed the bait so quickly all I saw was a blur of feathers.
The final highlight of the morning came as the guide on one of the skiffs managed to wrestle an anaconda out of the riverbank. As all the skiffs were connects by walkie talkie, we quickly diverted and soon all four boats were swarming together to see the snake-on-steroids.
That afternoon, the rain which had been a drizzle in the morning had been upgraded to a full blown downpour, and I decided to skip the second excursion of the day in exchange for a much needed rest on the boat. Over dinner – another fantastic show of tastes and textures and infusion of local ingredients – my fellow passengers regaled me with stories of the caiman-wrangling I had missed.
For our final full day onboard The Aria, I was thrilled to wake up to bright blue skies. Our morning began with a short excursion out to The Black Lake, where a fleet of dugout canoes commandeered by local village woman were waiting for us. I enjoyed the opportunity to practice my Spanish with my local paddling partner, and after, to jump in the lake for a swim.
After, we headed out for a jungle walk. Specifically, we were on the hunt for giant water lilies, and we found them situated in an Eden-like clearing in the jungle, looking truly giant and lush. Along the way, we spotted a yellow tree boa snake, a tricky-to-find walking stick praying mantis, blue morpho butterflies and bushy black jungle squirrels. While I did enjoy the lazy wildlife spotting from the skiffs, I preferred the up-close encounters that resulted from walking further into the jungle.
Our afternoon excursion was, for me, the highlight of the entire itinerary. We disembarked to visit a local village, on of the forty or so that Aqua Expeditions rotates between. In small groups, we were invited into a community members’ home for a close-up look at life on the mighty Amazon. In thanks, we donated the school supplies that we had been invited to pack, pre-departure.
We waved adios and our skiffs sped into the middle of the Amazon just as the sun made her final descent. Though we still had one final morning on the boat followed by a stop at a manatee rescue center en route to the airport, this was our real goodbye to the river.
Mimosas in hand, we toasted to new friends, an old way of living, and the teeming jungle all around us. In the distance, I heard the distinct cry of a howler monkey and I knew that despite having all the luxury comforts of home, I was anywhere but.