Credit: Shutterstock

Best for wildlife and culture: adventure cruise on the Amazon

Author: Nicole Carmichael

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Top of the list for wildlife enthusiasts and cultural explorers, the Amazon is the gateway to a world of wonders, best explored on a river cruise. Nicole Carmichael reports.

Spanning 40 per cent of South America across nine countries, the Amazon, or Rio Amazonas, originates in five different tributaries but is officially believed to start in the foothills of the Andes mountains in Peru.

From there it flows east on a 4,000-mile (6,400 km) course towards the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s home to more than a third of all recorded animal species in the world, including 427 mammals, 1,300 birds, 378 reptiles, more than 400 amphibians and around 3,000 freshwater fish.

It accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater discharged into the ocean and, due to its myriad of tributaries, it’s ranked as the world’s largest river.

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Several cruise companies offer itineraries that touch on the most accessible parts of the Amazon, but to truly get to the heart of the Amazon rainforest and experience its countless varieties of flora and fauna, only a river ship will do.

“There’s just no comparison, such as seeing an elephant in a zoo, or seeing it in its wild natural habitat,” says Rainforest Cruises founder and director Jeremy Clubb.

“Visiting the Amazon is almost artificial on an ocean vessel because of its sheer size. The groups they carry are so huge that companies don’t have the ability to mobilise that many people and get to the authentic Amazon.

If you want to have the best experience and the best opportunity to see the Amazon in its fullest expression, small ships are the only way to do it.”

Machu Picchu is a mystical-looking Inca citadel, and its purpose remains a fascinating historical mystery. Credit: Shutterstock

The three main launching points for an Amazonian adventure are typically Ecuador, Peru and Brazil (although some set sail from Bolivia) and within these three areas, there’s a diverse range of cruise options.

Many companies include Amazon cruises as part of packages to destinations such as Machu Picchu in Peru, the Galápagos in Ecuador and Christ the Redeemer and other areas of Brazil, whereas others concentrate on one area of the Amazon, such as the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, known for its extraordinary biodiversity.

Most Amazon river cruises are between three to five days, so a European traveller wanting to visit the Amazon is most likely to book an Amazonian rainforest cruise as part of a package.

The Pacaya Samiria National Reserve is most easily accessed from Peru. Credit: Shutterstock

Charming travels

Guests can visit the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon if they are heading to the Galápagos as the country is so small that they can pivot between destinations with relative ease.

Ecuador has a strong indigenous heritage and Quito, its UNESCO capital, sits high on the Andean foothills, so the Andes can be another add-on. It’s also possible to visit the Cotopaxi volcano, cloud forests and several other national parks in the area.

Peru is the most popular starting point for most people to cruise the Amazon, with Machu Picchu being the biggest draw of the region. The Pacaya Samiria National Reserve is most easily accessed from Peru and there’s more availability of different vessels that head there.

Think luxury wooden boats with sleek interiors that generally carry between 24-36 passengers – although it is possible to charter smaller exclusive ships for multi- generational and select group travel.

The charm of travelling to the Amazon from Peru could be due to the fact that trips commence in Iquitos, the only major city in the world that is only accessible by plane or boat, which really adds to the adventure.

Jaú is the largest forest reserve in South America. Credit: Shutterstock

Brazilian cruises to the Amazon are a different proposition. Cruises generally start in Manaus, a huge industrial metropolis with an international airport and lots of tourist must-sees including the Italian Renaissance-style Opera House and the Rio Negro Palace.

One major draw of cruising from Manaus is the opportunity to see the dramatic Meeting of Waters, where the Rio Negro and the Solimões meet and run side by side for around 6km without mixing. The contrast between the two is so distinct that it can be seen from space.

As 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest lies within Brazil’s borders, it’s possible to bookend Amazon cruises in a variety of expedition itineraries such as visiting Buenos Aires, Rio and the Iguaza Falls.

Amazon cruises from Manaus offer excursions to areas in a mosaic of national parks, including Jaú, the largest forest reserve in South America.

The upper reaches of the Amazon and its tributaries are something that gives major bragging rights. Credit: Shutterstock

Wet and dry

The wet and dry seasons in the Amazon vary depending on the country, but as a rule, the high water/rainy season takes place from December to May when the temperature is a little cooler and the dry season takes over for the rest of the year.

That said, rain is pretty much a given whenever guests visit – after all, the clue’s in the name rainforest. It’s this moisture combined with the intense sunlight which makes the Amazon such a fertile place, brimming with wildlife.

Deciding when to visit comes down to two factors – which section of the Amazon is being explored and what someone hopes to see.

The wet season brings flooded forests that are easy to navigate on water and offer access to plants in full bloom and wildlife areas that might otherwise be missed during the dry season, such as birds nesting in the jungle canopy and fish literally swimming through the tree branches.

However, higher water areas mean that walking and hiking areas are limited and there will be more mosquitos. The dry season reveals the Amazon river’s beaches and more accessible jungle paths and it’s easier to spot snakes, lizards, tropical fish and pink river dolphins.

Once the starting points for an Amazonian adventure have been negotiated, the cruise accommodation is relatively plain sailing.

Guests can watch wildlife from the stunning outdoor lounge. Credit: Shutterstock

As always, it’s down to budget and personal preference. The big players in Amazon travel are Aqua Expeditions, G Adventures, Rainforest Cruises, Lindblad and Uniworld, among others.

There’s a cross‐over with some of the cruise companies that can be booked directly, such as Delfin Amazon Cruises, and flexible packages are often available.

Protecting nature

Meanwhile, G Adventures national sales manager Stu Darnley says: “Travellers have great access to the naturalist diodes and can enjoy multiple excursions to the shore and along the river, which isn’t always possible on larger vessels.

“In line with G Adventures’ commitment to supporting local communities, travellers will have the chance to meet an indigenous Amazon community to understand about their way of life.

Those who are focused on having a positive impact with their travel will also be pleased to know that 100 per cent of what G Adventures spends in Peru on our trip goes into the hands of locally owned businesses.”

Aqua Expeditions’ flagship, Aria Amazon, offers 16 luxury guest suites with panoramic views and ensuite sitting areas. It’s served by a crew of 24, including a cruise director, paramedic and four English‐speaking naturalist local guides. Executive chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, one of Peru’s star chefs, showcases delicious Peruvian fare.

Family-owned Delfin offers some of the most stylish accommodations on the Amazon. Credit: Shutterstock

Elsewhere, family-owned Delfin offers some of the most stylish accommodations on the Amazon. “The Delfin I is the perfect vessel,” says the company’s sales and reservations manager Carla Acosta.

With only four oversized suites, the Delfin I can be a private floating villa to explore the Peruvian Amazon. The Delfin II & Delfin III, while offering a social environment, are on a very small scale with only 14 and 22 suites respectively.”

Sustainable tourism is the buzzword for river cruising on the Amazon. Whereas ocean cruise ships may have to address potential environmental damage, river cruising is considered the most beneficial way to help the local economies, striking a balance between preserving the natural environment and making it financially beneficial.

“Many crew come from remote villages in the Amazon,” says Clubb. “Children see tourists coming to their villages for once‐in‐a‐lifetime experiences.”

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