RIVER CRUISES TYPICALLY bring to mind leisurely journeys past Budapest or Vienna, with silver-haired clientele and a bedtime before the sun sets. While those European river cruises have been getting a bit of an upgrade in the last few years, they’re still nothing compared to what’s available on the other side of the world in the Amazon jungle, where river cruises are still an actual adventure.
Now, that’s not to say you’ll be embarking on a Heart of Darkness quest into the sweltering unknown, at least if you’re boarding the luxurious Delfin III in Peru. There’s air conditioning, for one, and comfortable beds with floor-to-ceiling views of the river, gourmet food, free-flowing beer, and even a gym. Plus, little looks into life on the Amazon and an expert education in its flora and fauna.
Roughing it this is not, but the five day trip on the Delfin III is a stress-free, memorable way to see the world’s most infamous jungle — with endless pisco sours and the right balance of luxury and adventure.
Though classic trips to this region of the world are fantastic if you’re looking to immerse yourself in nature and culture, they’re not so great if you’re looking to immerse yourself in fine wine and 1,000-thread-count sheets. Most of what lines the river are remote villages, and even the major cities like Iquitos and Manaus have more rustic offerings.
But after driving 100 minutes from the Iquitos airport, dodging tuk-tuks and mule-drawn wagons, arriving at the Delfin reception area in Nauta feels like an instant relief from its stress. Delfin is part of the Relais and Châteaux collection, one of only a handful of boats in the esteemed luxury brand and the only one operating on the Amazon.
It’s the kind of place that greets you with mint-scented towels and cold fruity cocktails, where everyone on the ship knows your name by the first day, and your waiters know your drink order before you sit down. Delfin’s ships have no more than 22 suites (Delfin III is the largest), so the groups are always small and the itineraries flexible. Not to say visiting the Amazon in other fashions isn’t worthwhile, too, but if you’re not into filtering your own water and sleeping under mosquito netting, this cruise may be for you.
You can hike through the Amazon, in many places, with many tour companies. But the region is based around a river that fluctuates up to 30 feet a year, meaning most of the wildlife around the river is either in trees or in the water.
That means the skiff rides — which are the bulk of your itinerary aboard any of Delfin’s ships – are the closest you’ll get to most of the wildlife you came to see. That includes the aforementioned early-morning bird-watching rides. But also rides at sunset where you can fish for wild piranha or late-night rides scoping for the bright eyes of caiman crocodiles floating in the water.
You’ll also spot monkeys and sloths in the treetops both from the skiffs, the sunny pool deck, and often through the windows of your room. You’ll also find yourself spotting so many dolphins — both grey and pink — by the third day that you don’t even stop to look. Though they’re harder to spot in the brown water, the animals are still plentiful. Just don’t get excited and try to swim in after them.
The team of experts aboard the ship is an endless fountain of knowledge, and they’ll happily explain everything from the cacophony of animal noises to the cargo aboard the ships floating down the river. They’ll take you down some of the hundreds of tributaries, stopping for picnic lunches in aquatic fields of giant lily pads and directing you to fishing holes where catfish and piranha bite hardest. Even when you don’t see animals, you’ll learn about what you might see, just in case a panther happens along. And they always come with a full cooler of water, beer, and Champagne.
It’s no big secret that cruise ship food has gotten a serious makeover since the heyday of the midnight buffet. But the food onboard the Delfin ships ranked at the top of most restaurants I’ve tried, at sea or otherwise. Each day Peruvian chefs create three-course feasts for lunch and dinner, with fresh ceviches, pepper-crusted sirloin with sweet potato mash, grilled paiche with coconut salsa, and plenty of saltado, all plated with immaculate detail. It is almost like having the best of Lima’s culinary scene floating along with you.
Dinners are complemented with Peruvian white and red wines, as well as fresh-baked bread and desserts. Breakfasts are washed down with fresh-squeezed maracuya and camu camu juice. Those are also used in the onboard ice creams. There is a small gym on board if you want to keep up with your home routine, but feel free to just cut yourself some slack and dig into the delicious Peruvian food with abandon.
No part of a Delfin Amazon cruise is going to test your tolerance of the elements; this is a trip for the kind of people who don’t necessarily want their limits tested on vacation and are willing to pay for it. But the Amazon is still the Amazon, and your Champagne-filled evening kayak trip can turn to a blinding paddle through a thunderstorm without warning. It’s still one of the wildest places in the world, and having a soothing place to return makes a monstrous difference.
Although living on a boat was magical and romantic, some of the highlights of the trip were when we were able to take a small skiff boat down some of the narrow tributaries to see the river teeming with wildlife and birds or getting to go hiking through the rainforest to some of the nearby villages. Everyone we encountered was kind and welcoming and eager to tell us all about their lives and explain the mysteries of the jungle. My inner Indiana Jones self loved spending the days hiking, taking photos, and getting dirty exploring the jungle, but then my alter ego self on vacation was able to return to the luxury of a hot shower and 5 star meal.
So at the end of one of your many adventures, when you turn a corner and see the bright lights and big windows of the Delfin III sitting in a hidden corner of the river, it’s like seeing your parents house after a long, wet walk home from school. Everything about it is inviting, from the muted colors of the interior to the memory foam beds and the plush bar where your beers and pisco sours are all on the house. The evenings would literally sail by with the bartender serving cocktails under the stars while we traded survival stories with the other guests. Every day’s stories would outdo the day before and it was the perfect blend of adventure, exploration, and comfort. Though the trip won’t make you tough, the days can still be trying. And the welcoming faces and soft touches of the ship make it feel like home, if only for a few short days.
Though luxurious, Delfin’s cruises aren’t floating all-inclusives that aim to insulate you from the land you’re traversing. Part of the experience is visiting one of the remote villages along the river to connect with the the local people and learn what life is like this far from cell service. (The ship doesn’t have WiFi and service is almost non-existent, so be prepared to totally unplug.) The ship visits five to seven different villages per season, where passengers can tour open-air homes on stilts and buy crafts made by the villagers.
What is so cool about living aboard the Delphin I is that you are constantly moving from one location to another, reaching remote destinations in the Amazon that you otherwise couldn’t get to. One evening we would sail to have the best sunset, or find the best spot to fish for piranhas and by morning we would be further downstream at a reserve where we could canoe in to a hidden spot for breakfast where a table of local fruits, pastries, and coffee would already be laid out for us. While moving, you are not disturbed by mosquitos and you have this constant breeze as you pass by quaint villages or just snooze and relax.
Our group stopped in a small village near Sequenta, where we delivered school supplies and notebooks to some of the local children. They sang a well-rehearsed rendition of “Como esta mis amigos,” before telling us — via one of our guides — a little about their lives. A full-on cultural immersion it was not, but between interacting with the kids, touring their open-air homes, and buying souvenirs in the craft market, it made the trip feel less exploitative than many luxury cruises around the world can so often be — especially in a region whose resources are constantly under threat.
After the cruise, our group spent the night at the Lakshmi Lodge, a land lodge on a hill overlooking the Amazon with spacious cabins topped with palm-frond roofs. Though the places had fantastic food, sweeping views, and comfortable accommodations, it simply had no escape from the onslaught of insects that call the Amazon home. But it’s the jungle — complaining about bugs here is kinda like complaining about bad drivers in Florida.
That said, when you’re on a moving ship in flowing water, your exposure to insects is minimized. Especially when you have a spacious suite from which to enjoy the scenery with no exposure to the outside. So if this part of the world has been on your list for a while, but the threat of bugs intimidates you, Delfin makes the whole experience a lot more comfortable — and may be worth the $3,200-4,500 price tag.
The best way to witness wildlife during your Amazon trip is by waking up early to the sound of hundreds of birds and monkeys. You will see many species of tanagers, toucans, parrots, parakeets, antbirds, antwrens, woodpeckers, and monkeys that come to feed on the fruit and insects found in the trees. In only one early morning, you will observe at least 50 species of birds, 20 of which are uncommon. The variety of wildlife in this type of igapo forest is outstanding. The more appreciation we can gain of these species and the more research we can perform to find new species, the more likely they are to be preserved for future generations.
Embark on an adventurous boat ride through the tributaries of the Amazon River. You will see abundant wildlife and nature in all of its glory while we search for the Amazon River’s specialties such as Blue and Yellow Macaws, Wattled Jacanas, Trogons, Black Collared Hawk, Oropendolas, Yellow-Headed Cara Cara, and Tanagers, among others. Your guide will also help you spot sloths and monkeys in the trees above you as you cruise around the Yarapa and Cumaceba rivers.
One of our most popular excursions, this will be one of the great adventures you have while in the Amazon. Travel by boat to one of the many great piranha fishing spots in the area. Armed with a wooden pole, string, hook, and meat, you will lower the bait into the water. When the piranhas strike (and they will!), simply life up the pole. Don’t worry, we will retrieve the fish for you. We have yet to have a guest that hasn’t succeeded. Once you’re done you can choose to catch-and-release, or, if you prefer, the chefs onboard Delfin Cruises will prepare the piranha as a side dish to your nightly meal.
Participate on a fascinating jungle walk to this isolated lagoon that was once part of the river many years ago. The Oxbow Lagoon hosts many species of aquatic plants such as the giant water lilies that can grow to 6 ft. in diameter with flowers the size of cabbage. You will also observe the strangely interesting hoatzin, a bird feeds exclusively on poisonous plants that it can keep in its crop for several hours. Another species of bird you will find on this amazon jungle walk is the horned screamer that is related to the geese family and feeds on water lettuce and water hyacinth. Lastly, though perhaps most fascinating, you will be able to spot the wattled jacana, nick-named Jesus Christ because it can walk on water. These are just a few of the many animals that live into this varzea forest.
The rainforest is like a green pharmacy where you can find many plants used to treat different diseases. You can find forest medicines for headaches, stomachaches, broken bones, hernias, and rheumatism – even for diabetes. On this Amazon Jungle excursion, you will explore through this greenery in search for some medicines found in each plant or tree, learning the secrets of the jungle and the relationship between plant and man; all the while bringing you closer to Mother Nature, protector of all the living organisms on our planet earth. The Amazonian people are the preservers of knowledge passed from one generation to another. Before cutting a plant in preparation for extracting medicine, many medicine men ask permission of the protector of the forest. Locals believe if they don't ask permission the medicine doesn’t work. This ancient belief is responsible for keeping the superpower natural forces in harmony.
This is the perfect way to start your day in the Peruvian Amazon. About an hour before sunset you will boat along the Yarapa and Ucayali rivers until you reach the Amazon River. Here you will enjoy “breakfast in boat” while observing the world famous Pink River Dolphins of the Amazon during their morning feeding. Enjoy sunrise over the skyline of the Amazon rain forest. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can jump in and swim with the dolphins!
Visit the Manatee Rescue Center
The Amazonian Manatee (Trichechus inunguis) is a freshwater species of manatee which inhabits the Amazon basin. Its habitat includes Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana and Venezuela. A must-see before or after taking any Amazon River cruise into the Pacaya-Samiria National Park, or surrounding area, is the Amazonian Manatee Rescue Center. The center’s main focus is in caring for and releasing young manatees back into their natural habitat, often in Pacaya-Samiria, where they stand the best chance of survival, thanks to the park’s remoteness and protected status.
Al Frío y Al Fuego is a floating foodie paradise located in heart of the jungle in Iquitos, Peru. Al Frío y Al Fuego is the first and only floating up-scale restaurant in the Amazon that serves both regional and international cuisine. The restaurant specializes in seafood, barbecue, cocktails and desserts, using all local and fresh ingredients from the Amazon jungle and river. With a well-curated menu, there is something for every food preference. From a delectable Doncella river fish ceviche, to a hearty grilled dish, or an Amazonian superfood freshly-pressed juice, Al Frío y Al Fuego offers flavors you can only taste in this part of the world, making it an unmissable restaurant during your visit to Iquitos.
Take a boat ride out to experience dining in the mouth of the Rio Itaya, the entrance to the mighty Amazon. Enjoy the best view of Iquitos from the restaurant’s inviting pool and lounge area while indulging in a cocktail in hand. On Sunday's Al Frío y Al Fuego turns into almost a Vegas-style pool party with a DJ spinning and it is the perfect way to relax in luxury with cocktails in the sun, before boarding your flight back home from Iquitos airport!