Aria Amazon: a voyage into the Peruvian rainforest
Tame the wild waters of the Amazon on a luxury jungle cruise
Imagine two drops of rain landing high in the Andes. One takes the short, steep path to the Pacific, a mere 70 miles to the west. The other sets off on a 4,000-mile journey to the Atlantic, meandering its way eastwards along the world’s most voluminous river. With a catchment area the size of Australia, the Amazon will discharge more water this week than the Thames does in half a century.
I glimpsed it first from the plane, a lazy brown snake of a river winding through dense jungle. Up close it looked very different: less languid and more alive. Currents twisted through it, whipping up foam and toying with the trunks of trees it had clawed from the edge of the forest.
A few hours later, I was watching the restless waters from the incongruous comfort of a king-sized bed, facing the glass wall of my cabin aboard the Aria Amazon, a luxurious river cruiser that plies a hundred-mile stretch of the waterway in northeastern Peru. Less a boat than a floating five-star hotel, it opens up the Amazon to travellers seeking opulence as well as adventure.
Beautifully designed, the Aria consists of 16 air-conditioned cabins with floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall windows, as well as a bar, lounge, restaurant and open-air sundeck. An exercise room offers a chance to make amends for overindulgence - an irresistible temptation given the quality of the food.
Peruvian classics, including catfish stews, smoky roasted duck and crisply seasoned salads of avocado, tomato and potatoes, are complemented by international favourites served both a la carte and at a boutique buffet. Even breakfast comes with an Amazonian twist: a locally inspired eggs benedict, for example, has ham layered on slices of fried plantain.
Not content with merely serving up such delights, the chef also taught us how to make them. Under his expert instruction I whipped up a devilishly fiery ceviche, marinating raw paiche (an enormous white-fleshed fish native to the Amazon) in lime juice, chillies, garlic, salt and celery. Even now, the memory of it has my mouth watering in expectation - and alarm. Fortunately, the ship’s barman was at hand to instruct us in the art of the pisco sour, Peru’s refreshing national cocktail of grape spirit, lemon juice, egg white and syrup.
The sharp-sweet combination works well in the dense heat of the Amazon, and it became my go-to sundowner. Dusk falls quickly near the equator, and a drink with a kick on the open-air deck helped to prolong those precious moments of tranquility.
They were certainly well-earned: activities started early on the Aria, as in groups of six we clambered aboard high-powered skiffs and jetted off into remote parts of the river network. On the first morning, we cruised along a narrow creek, scouring the branches above for birds and monkeys, then donned our wellies and squelched through the undergrowth of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve.
What had looked from the boat like a solid ribbon of green soon resolved into thickets and clearings, tall spindly trunks and densely tangled roots. Soil is shallow and waterlogged in the forest, so young trees climbing towards the sunlight must find a way to stabilise themselves. Some, known as walking palms, perch upon a pyramid-like fan of roots, which rot away and regrow one by one. The kapok tree takes a more assertive , sends out huge buttresses, like the fins of a rocket.
Our guide dispensed vivid descriptions of everything we encountered, stooping to pick up an armoured caterpillar or cutting into tree bark to release a milky sap used by indigenous Amazonians as an insect repellant. A few minutes later, we were wondering if it might also ward off bigger beasts. The acrid smell in our nostrils, he said, was a scent mark left by a jaguar - an animal whose name derives from a native American word meaning “he who kills with one leap”.
Three-toed sloths, by contrast, never do anything in one leap. Apart from a weekly descent to relieve themselves on the forest floor, they spend their time in the forest canopy, munching on leaves. We saw several, curled up in the crook of a branch, most barely bothering to twist their heads in our direction. The primates were more active: nimble squirrel monkeys chased one another from tree to tree, while a laid-back brown woolly monkey hung upside down by its tail, showing off for the camera.
The Amazon’s most infamous resident proved harder to find. After an hour or so fishing in the lazy waters of a creek, we’d had nothing but false alarms and an occasional bite from a catfish. Then my line twitched and I brought aboard a red-bellied piranha - all four inches of it. Size notwithstanding, it could still take the skin off my finger, the guide warned, showing me how to hold it safely for a celebratory photograph. I emerged from the experience intact, as did the piranha, which dived back into the water the moment I released my grip.
Later, after the sun had set and the stars had come out, we scoured the riverbank with torches, looking for anacondas but instead finding several large caimans, close relatives of the alligator. Then the guide signalled the driver to steer for the branches and pitched himself halfway into the river. He emerged, triumphant, holding a baby caiman, about a foot long - which he handed over with another warning about fingers. I expected the little reptile to feel cold and slimy, but he was soft and warm, and surprisingly content to be passed around the boat.
I thought again of the caiman and the piranha - and their teeth - when we had the chance to swim on the last day of the cruise. It was a hot, still afternoon and the allure of the river, dark and glossy like treacle, overcame my doubts about what lurked beneath its surface. I leapt overboard, arms outstretched, and then lay back and floated with my eyes closed, warmed by the sun and cooled by the silky water.
I lingered as long as I could, savouring the lick of the currents that slipped between my fingers and tickled my skin. Soon I would have to swim back to the skiff and haul myself out of the water, but not before submerging myself once more, letting the water close over my head. I had followed only a fraction of the Amazon’s epic course, but for a few more moments I would be part of it, taking my place in an unbroken stream from the Andes to the Atlantic.
Aqua Expeditions runs a variety of three, four and seven-night cruises aboard the Aria Amazon throughout the year, starting from about £3,150 per person, depending on exchange rates. For more information and special offers, see the Aqua Expeditions website
Specialist tour operator Journey Latin America (020 3553 9647, journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers a 13-day private tour through Peru, including a cruise aboard the Aria for £7,177 per person, as well as tailor-made itineraries to meet your requirements.