There are many seasoned travelers who seem to take pride in declaring themselves “sooo not cruise people.” I am not one of those travelers. My first cruise, a Silversea voyage from Athens to Istanbul, showed me all that is sunny about sailing the high seas. I loved the camaraderie onboard, the convenience of surveying a large area without having to repack my suitcase, and the sensation of waking up on the water. When it worked out that I’d have a chance to cruise down the Amazon with Aqua Expeditions on assignment with some of my various freelancing outlets, I was thrilled to return to a stateroom.
You can sail the busy waterways of the Amazon aboard everything from a basic local BYOH (Bring Your Own Hammock, of course) barge to floating boutique hotels, and The Aria sits proudly at the far luxury end of that scale. The 147-foot-long ship is the second in Aqua Expeditions’ fleet, custom-built by Peruvian architect Jordi Puig in 2011.
This is a small river cruise, and you’ll notice few similarities between The Aria and her distant Caribbean megaship cousins. The remote nature of the destination lends itself to a more all-inclusive experience — excursions, meals and fine wines are included in the five star price tag. And the size is intimate — The Aria Amazon can accommodate a maximum of 32 cruise ship guests plus crew. Aqua Expeditions offers three, four, and seven night itineraries. On the first evening of my own four night Aria excursion, I was overwhelmed to finally explore the ship whose deck plans I had excitedly poured over months before.
As soon as we boarded, I went straight to my cabin and squealed. The modern and minimalist look aligned perfectly with my own style, and allowed the floor-to-ceiling picture windows to take center stage. I realize more and more in my travels how much good design lifts me up, and onboard The Aria, I felt that I was simply floating.
One of my favorite details of the cabins were the bath products – travel sizes of luxury products made in Peru using local ingredients like Camu Camu and Quinoa. I had only been on the road for about a week, so I wasn’t necessarily in desperate need of pampering — but wow, did it feel good to smell good again.
Another fun, traditional-cruising touch? The towel animals the cabin stewards would leave on my bed each afternoon, during one of the three daily cleanings. There were no towel elephants here, though — all terry cloth creatures were based on their jungle counterparts, like the three-toed sloth found hanging from my curtain rod.
It’s nice to see a luxury company that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The Aria has just three decks. The first is dedicated to eight staterooms and a loading area for the skiffs. The second is home to eight more staterooms, a dining room, and a small boutique. In the dining room, breakfast and lunch are served buffet style while dinner is a decadent, ever-changing tasting menu featuring local delicacies paired with South American wines. And dessert. Oh, the desserts.
All I can say is this — good thing there was a treadmill onboard.
The third deck was my favorite — a light-filled lounge, an outdoor patio with a bubbling jacuzzi, a small massage room, and a tiny gym with the best views you’ll ever see from a treadmill. It was impossible to turn your head without resting your eyes on a well-though detail.
I briefly considered skipping all excursions for the next four days, and refusing to ever step foot off the ship.
On the first full day of our itinerary, we set off early for a morning jungle walk excursion. Guests were instructed to break into four groups, which left me feeling like I was back in middle school gym class hoping I’d be picked for dodge ball. I had known there would be curiosity about a single woman, especially of my age, on a luxury ship and I briefly considered telling everyone this was meant to be my honeymoon but I was left at the altar. Then I realized that would require more fake tears than I could reliably produce.
It turned out I needn’t have worried. I was immediately “adopted” by two older couples, the female halves of which declared themselves my surrogate mothers onboard. I would spend the next few days listening in awe to their tales of raising families and traveling the world, and hoping that I too will still be so adventurous and lively five decades down the line. Our morning guide christened our group “The Chunky Monkeys.”
We were off on a jungle walk. I worried it might be repetitive with the jungle walks I did at Heliconia, but of course you could walk the same rainforest a million times and see something different each day. The guide, Julio, was excellent and gave us tons of information about the various plants and insects. He showed us a termites nest and explained how they could be a natural mosquito repellent. He tapped a tree with the machete and ants poured out of it – the “punishment tree,” where naughty children are forced to hold their hands onto the bark and face the wrath of angry red ants. Much more dangerous are bullet ants, who’s bite can paralyze your arm for twenty-four hours (Julio had first hand experience with this.) We also touched the sap of various trees, from the rubber variety that has faced so much exploitation to one with white sap that locals use for both for glue and to treat stomach parasites.
We also spotted some elusive jungle mammals – white faced monkeys danced in the trees overhead, we spotted a sloth in the distance, and as we rode the skiffs back to the boat we encountered a pod of small grey dolphins in the middle of a mating ritual. Yet what stood out to me most were the sounds – never had I heard the sounds of the jungle so loudly.
I also started to understand the thought Aqua Expeditions puts into every detail. As we reboarded the skiff after our walk, we were handed cool scented hand towels and offered drinks.
Back onboard The Aria, I knew I should work on journaling and photo editing until lunch, but the pool was calling to me. Sitting in the cold jacuzzi (refreshing in the jungle heat!), reading a travel magazine and watching the Amazon go by equalled a moment of transcendent travel happiness. The bliss continued when I indulged in a massage.
Despite my budget concerns, once I knew there was a masseuse on board, how could I resist? And really, $55 is pretty reasonable for an hour massage on a luxury cruise ship.
Before the afternoon excursion there was a short lecture in the lounge on the fish of the Amazon. Throughout the voyage I would continue to be impressed by the emphasis placed on environmental and social responsibility. Aqua Expeditions funds several projects around the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and surrounding area in order to support the people, animals and environment that they so proudly introduce to their guests. Still, the graphic designer in me couldn’t help but think that their PowerPoints could use a little updating.
On our subsequent boat ride, blue skies came out and we were treated to sightings of sloths, monkeys, pink and blue dolphins, a variety of birds, and a stunning rainbow. I once again joined the Chunky Monkey group though this time we were accompanied by a different naturalist guide — the four onboard rotated between groups to make sure all their collective expertise were passed around.
After a few hours of leisurely wildlife spotting and lovely conversation, we returned to the boat just as the sky turned to fierce swirls of blue and pink, one of the more memorable sunsets of my life. I snapped away in awe, feeling completely privileged to be at that exact place at that exact moment in time.
Stay tuned for Part II!
I was a guest of Aqua Expeditions in order to promote the cruise line via various freelancing outlets. They did not request that I write a positive review, in fact they did not request that I cover the experience via Alex in Wanderland at all.