I am semisubmerged in a cool, bubbling Jacuzzi that’s inset into a timber deck at the bow of Aria, a new, 147-foot luxury river cruiser from Aqua Expeditions. The captain has just shut down the engines and we are stopped in the middle of the river. Other guests are stretched out on plush teak lounge chairs neatly aligned beneath a taut white awning. They hold books and Kindles and iPads, but no one is reading. We are mesmerized by what lies before us. Two massive rivers, the Ucayali and Marañon, are merging, forming a turbid seam that zips toward the horizon. This is where it all begins, explains our guide, the birthplace of the Amazon River.
The widest river on earth, and the second longest (after the Nile), the Amazon winds for 4,080 miles on its journey to the Atlantic Ocean, but we are exploring just a portion—a 5-million-acre area called the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. It’s one of Peru’s most preserved and remote havens for Amazon wildlife and plants, and the only way to reach it is by boat, or in the case of Aqua Expeditions, sleek skiffs outfitted with wooden seats and manned by experienced naturalists, most of who were raised in the riverside villages within the reserve.
"I know we are in one of the wildest places on earth, yet it all seems like a dream from the bow of Aria."
– Kim Fredericks
I know we are in one of the wildest places in the world, a place with jaguars, anacondas, alligators, piranha, toxic frogs, and more than 3,600 species of spiders, including tarantulas. Yet it all seems like a dream from the bow of Aria. Artfully designed by Peruvian architect Jordi Puig, Aria is more like a floating boutique hotel than riverboat. The sixteen suites (about 240 square feet each) hold king-size beds outfitted with crisp white Peruvian linens, dark wood floors, rain showerheads in the bathroom, and swivel chairs positioned perfectly in front of eight-foot-long floor-to-ceiling windows, a view that allows guests to sit back and watch the Amazon’s rhythmic flow.
Getting to Aria requires some effort. The journey begins in Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian rain forest and the capital of Loreto, Peru’s northernmost region. Iquitos has no roads that connect to other cities, making it the largest, most isolated city on any continent. Bustling with more than 350,000 residents and a cacophony of auto rickshaws, the city serves as a jumping-off point for many Amazon tours. After meeting our guides, we board a van and head for the boat, traveling through the lush countryside. Two hours later the road ends in the fishing village of Nauta and we check in at Aqua Expedition’s open-air riverside lounge. The makeshift lobby is a sharp contrast to the muddy river town outside the gates. A chandelier hangs from a brown tented awning. An arrangement of hand-carved chairs and white linen sofas beckon us to sit, but the sun is setting and we are anxious. We load into skiffs and within minutes we are onboard Aria, sipping glasses of chilled camu camu juice.
Our first night includes an orientation where we learn about the biodiversity of the rain forest: the tomato-like cocona used to treat wounds and lower cholesterol, the ivory palm fruit that’s harvested for buttons, and the vitamin C–rich pink camu camu berries that are used as a mixer in the pisco sours expertly made by our bartender, Aldo. I’m at home in Aria's fashionable lounge, which runs nearly the full length of a ship. It’s decked out with dark honey-colored Peruvian cedar ceilings and floors, taupe linen sofas, and coffee tables stacked with glossy books about the rain forest and Peru. There’s a bar at one end and tiny twin rooms outfitted with cardio equipment at the other.
One flight down in the contemporary-style dining room, guests are treated to multicourse dinners prepared by Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, who operates Malabar restaurant in Lima. Evening meals are infused with Amazon ingredients—chilled hearts of palm soup, grilled river catfish with sweet chilies, pineapple chips with coconut foam and passion fruit sauce—and paired with South American wines.
Trips aboard Aria, the second ship from Aqua Expeditions, include three-, four-, and seven-night excursions. Itineraries during the high-water season (December to May) allow boats to navigate through the jungle and get closer to wildlife, while low-water season allows for jungle hikes. Either way, the trips run effortlessly. Morning excursions begin at eight a.m. and have us back in time for lunch and lounging. Our second excursion leaves at four p.m. and returns around seven p.m. While the high-water season promises slightly cooler temperatures (averaging 86 degrees Fahrenheit), the Peruvian Amazon’s high humidity and close proximity to the equator mean that one can expect tropical conditions with thick, windless air, a pummeling sun, and drenching downpours.
Our first adventure takes us into the flooded “gallery forest.” Manned with binoculars and cameras, we spot a green caiman lizard perched in a tangle of brush. Minutes later we watch a family of fluffy monk saki monkeys moving through the treetops. The barrage of wildlife continues with brightly colored scarlet macaws, a flock of screeching parakeets, blue butterflies, nimble squirrel monkeys, and a tiny yellow and red tree frog that escapes from the hands of our guide, Victor, and jumps onto the beard of one of the guests.
Each day we look for new wildlife to check off our list. We spend one morning searching a flooded meadow for anaconda, but fail to find one. Minutes later our disappointment turns to delight when we spot a tree full of toucans. An afternoon excursion takes us to the village of Choroyacu, where we are greeted by a group of children. Aria’s medic leaves our skiff to tend to villagers, and Javier, a local who assists Aria’s guides with spotting wildlife, climbs aboard armed with a big smile, no shirt, and a machete. Our skiff navigator throws him an Aqua Expeditions T-shirt and we head down a blackwater tributary. We spot Amazon kingfishers, a tree of sleeping long-nosed bats, and pink dolphins slipping in and out of the mirrorlike surface. When the sun begins to set, our guides pass around cold towels scented with nutmeg while Aldo prepares a round of mimosas to toast our first day in the Amazon.
Other excursions include fishing for piranha, checking in at ranger stations, patiently watching the pace of a three-toed sloth as he reaches for fruit, and interacting with villagers. The trip ends where we started, back in Iquitos, where we embark on a tour of Belen, a floating shantytown that leaves us keenly aware of the poverty that exists in this part of world. Our last stop before heading for the airport is a manatee rescue center. We learn that manatees are hunted for their meat and often found injured on the river. We take turns bottle-feeding two eager babies, bending down to touch their wet noses with our own. I’m leaving Peru with a new appreciation for this world and its fragile ecosystem, and a debt of gratitude to the beautiful Aria.
Kim Fredericks is a well-published freelance writer and former Robb Report editor. She has contributed to Fitness, DailyCandy.com, Spa, Robb Report, Forbes Traveler, and Cowboys and Indians. She also serves as a correspondent for Jetsetter.com and Domain-LA.com.