I had never been on a cruise, river or otherwise, so I was thrilled to have booked a four-day trip on the M/V Aria – Aqua Expeditions' new, 147-foot-long river cruiser stationed in the Peruvian Amazon. After a few-hour delay on our LAN flight from LAX to Lima, I was wondering if the experience would continue to elude me. Several glasses of Cabernet in LAN’s lounge mellowed my concerns.
When we finally boarded, I was tucked lovingly away in LAN’s plush Business Class cabin with a crisp bubbly and the best blanket in the business and let visions of rivers race through my head. Once airborne, our flight was so seamless, we were landing in Lima before I could say, “Café!”
After a several hour layover in Lima, we boarded a flight to Iquitos, the launching point for most Peruvian Amazon cruises and expeditions. This is where the journey really began.
From Iquitos, an air-conditioned bus drove us on rustic, dark roads through tiny, simple villages, reminiscent of towns in the Caribbean or in parts of Southeast Asia. Whole families of four or more whizzed by, happily packed on the back of scooters. I could already feel the rhythm and rush slowing down and in around me. Our crew, who joined us four the next four days, briefed us on what was to come; then like well-behaved babies, we all fell fast asleep.
In a dream-like sequence, we finally boarded small skiffs in Nauta, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, our embarkation point on the Maronon River. It was the final and most idyllic part of our trip in. I was counting my lucky travel stars that we arrived after dark, as the lit ship, a dreamy jewel box on the Amazon was love at first sight, a crush that continued throughout the week.
The only thing chicer then the vessel itself was the proprietor Francesco Galli Zugaro, who was waiting stylishly in crisp breezy linen pants and a contemporary T. The local crew surrounded him and warmly greeted us as we zipped in. The low-key luxury of our 16-suite vessel immediately agreed with me. With eight equally sized Design Suites on each of the two floors, I was perfectly positioned up front on the second floor. Finally… we were off.
The design of M/V Aria, created by Peruvian architect and interior designer Jordi Puig, was that of a sleek boutique hotel. A floor-to-ceiling glass window stretched across the expanse of my chic, spacious room, and I left my shades forever open; I simply couldn’t get enough of the Amazonian views, the lush greenery, and the peaceful surroundings.
I celebrated my good fortune with a spicy Pisco Sour in the Indoor-Bar Lounge upstairs. The Welcome Dinner that followed in the Dining Room set the standard for the week. Executive chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, one of Peru’s most celebrated chefs thanks to his renowned restaurant Malabar in Lima, prepared fresh and inventive Peruvian dishes three times daily, with everything from produce to pork sourced locally.
The schedule on the boat is similar to a safari schedule with morning and afternoon excursions and a relaxing siesta in between. Jeeps are replaced by skiffs that carry two to eight guests. A local, English-speaking guide accompanies each skiff (four guides in total are on board the ARIA).
Most of the guides were Riverones, people who grew up near the river. They went to university in Iquitos where they earned hospitality degrees, but what they knew about flora, fauna, and animals was instinctive to them. The Amazon is their home.