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Cruising the Amazon: Journey of a Lifetime

Sell the farm, mortgage the kids, postpone the Botox treatments. Do whatever you have to do to get to the Amazon River in Peru–and five’ll get you ten, the adventure of your dreams awaits in that part of the world. Ignore the goofball weathermen and conspiracy theorists, the gourmands of grief — a holiday has never been better.

The passenger vessel La Amatista on the Amazon River, Peru
The passenger vessel La Amatista on the Amazon River – Photo by Hernando Vallenas

The journey of a lifetime is a magic cruise on the Peruvian Amazon River – the world’s longest – that delights, startles and uplifts the soul aboard a river boat built in the 19th-century-style, but with air conditioned cabins, tiled bathrooms and hot showers, as well as top notch service. The ship, La Amatista, with accommodations for only 30 passengers, is the perfect size for this broad river. It has three decks, including a wraparound dining room with floor to ceiling windows and a bar on the upper deck, where you can speak non sequiturs to a non-judgmental bartender who won’t trouble you with cliches like ‘howzitgoin?” or whatchuhavin?’

La Amatista moves silently along the Amazon River. The water’s color is a mix of Coca- Cola-brown and a faded blue denim; it is regarded as a must see destination for naturalists. For sheer biological diversity, for immense scale and for unparalleled wilderness, this river ranks as one of the top travel destinations in the world.

To reach this point on the Amazon, make a trio of flights beginning with a quick jump to Miami, a longer flight to Lima, Peru, and the last leg, a two hour flight to Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian rain forest (population almost 400,000). It is considered to be the most populous city in the world that cannot be reached by land. It can only be accessed from the sea or by air. Within the city, most travel is by bus, motorcycle or auto rickshaw (moto taxi, motocarro, motokar). As the LAN Airlines flight arrives in Iquitos, guides from La Amatista meet and greet passengers at the airport and take them to two compact air-conditioned vehicles to reach the boat’s dock. Our guide, Victor, gives us a tour of Iquitos showing us the Iron House designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Located at the confluence of Ucayali and Maranon rivers, two main headwaters of the Amazon River, Iquitos has long been a major port in the Amazon Basin. Established as a Jesuit mission in the 1750s, Iquitos grew to be a city during the rubber boom in the 20th century and today is an important center for lumber shipments from this region of Peru.

Reaching La Amatista after a 2 hour drive, the air is hot with about 85% humidity. The vessel is equipped with long skiffs decked out with silent twin 70-horsepower outboard motors to enable a visitor to experience the wilderness, the diversity of birds and other wildlife as quietly as possible.

La Amatista’s flat-bottomed skiffs help gain access to the natural environment, to channels of the Amazon River, remote creeks, river islands and land trails; the professional native guides provide information about the natural conditions of the Amazon River, different species of monkeys, birds, dolphins, frogs and snakes. The mighty Amazon moves very fast and the sheer abundance of water plus frequent rain fall make the whole area lush with vegetation and an incredibly rich wildlife.

The great complexity of the rain forest’s avifauna is better illustrated here than anywhere else in the world. And in a week’s search for some of the pieces of this all-natural jigsaw puzzle, guests aboard the vessel’s morning and afternoon excursions learn to appreciate how it all fits together.

Exploring the channels and creeks of the Maranon and Ucayali Rivers, Yanallya Blackwater Stream, Tapiche River among others, passengers are constantly treated to pink dolphins jumping out of the water; grey dolphins coming up for air; caimans floating in the foliage of the water lilies; three-toed sloths sleeping in the trees; whole families of Brown Capuchin Monkeys; Red Howler Monkeys in the tree tops; White-bellied Spider Monkeys quickly moving through the trees; Owl Monkeys sleeping on top of each other in a tree hole; Pygmy Marmosets and Saddleback Tamarins.

The sharp-eyed and capable guides constantly point out life in the river, trees and the sky, and we are astonished by the bright colors of the Scarlet Macaws, Red-bellied Macaws, Chestnut-fronted Macaws and a wide variety of other parrots, parrotlets and parakeets. Herons, egrets, bitterns, Wattled Jacanas, Yellow-billed and Large-billed Terns, five varieties of kingfishers, three varieties of toucans, a dizzying a variety of hawks, eagles and kites (including a very rare Crested Eagle), woodpeckers, woodcreepers, antbirds, flycatchers, swallows, tanagers and oropendolas bear witness to Peru’s claim of having more than 1,800 species of birds.

Several night excursions in skiffs with spotlights also bring to life night birds such as Ladder-tailed Nightjars, Common Potoos and snakes. A walk in the terre firme or high ground forest reveals the natural habitat of the more secretive birds such as manakins, thrushes, antshrikes and antwrens ,as well as many varieties of frogs, iguanas and gorgeous butterflies.

Following dinner aboard La Amatista, the nature and bird-watching guides help the passengers compile the Amazon River Cruise Field Checklist. The ship’s guides also give several presentations on the boat’s navigation, with a map of the Amazon and its main tributaries and all the towns La Amatista is passing by.

During one rainy morning, they screen the 1982 movie “Fitzcarraldo”, about the life of rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, filmed in Iquitos and the Amazon.

General information presentations on the Amazon and Peru provide very useful information to understand the environment. While the majority of passengers are longtime bird watchers, the voyage is a marvelous retreat for anyone with a desire to sit back and escape the hectic life of the big city. For the traveler who harbors misgivings about cruising the Amazon with a fear of excessive heat and humidity, torrential rains, attacks by an armada of mosquitoes and their winged allies, guests are pleasantly surprised to see how comfortable traveling can be in the heart of Amazonia. The ship’s air-conditioned cabins mitigate the effect of the area, even on hot days, and tourists discover that insects and other bugs are little or no problem at all. (Tip: do not bring or wear perfume, cologne or after shave on this journey; they attract insects.)

For La Amatista’s birding enthusiasts, the daily explorations of the Amazon begin with a short visit to river islands. Most of them are flooded, making access to island habitats by small boats relatively easy and confirming that the Amazonian region has the highest diversity of birds and plants in the world. Broad sinuous rivers, tree-lined banks, strange animals, bright butterflies, poison frogs, glorious sunsets and surprise rainbows after a downpour, are a part of this week-long excursion to the Amazon. It is an ideal trip for the visitor who wants the feeling of the full Amazonian rain forest, as well as river experience without sacrificing comfort. It is enough to give you goose bumps under a hot shower.

For more information, access www.internationalexpeditions.com.


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