Top River Cruise Developments on the Amazon

The 253-square-foot Estuary Suite on Amazon Discovery offers a king-size bed and floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
The 253-square-foot Estuary Suite on Amazon Discovery offers a king-size bed and floor-to-ceiling glass windows.

For eco-enthusiasts, the 4,000-mile-long Amazon, the second longest river in the world, is a treasure trove of natural discovery — meandering through the heart of South America en route to the Atlantic Ocean. The river or its tributaries flow through Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and several other countries. Both ocean vessels, including many luxury and premium lines and small river and expedition vessels navigate along the Amazon and its tributaries.

What’s to see? Cruisers often view dolphins, bull sharks, eels, piranhas, caimans and manatees, while hundreds of species of birds — many brilliantly colored, including scarlet macaws — inhabit the rainforest along the river. More than a third of the world’s animal species live in this rainforest; cruisers might spot tamarin monkeys, otters and three-toed sloths. The Yacapana Isles are famed for their population of iguanas, while the Yarapa River is where to seek out pink and gray freshwater dolphins.

Southwest of Iquitos, Peru, the starting point for Peruvian Amazon cruises, is the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. Consisting of lush tropical rainforest, it spans three river basins and also encompasses canals and lakes. Eco-walks, small-boat exploration, tiny villages and wildlife spotting are the draws. Cultural immersion is also important to cruisers picking an Amazon voyage. Vessels carry onboard guides and naturalists who will point out wildlife and birds along the river and accompany cruisers to small, remote villages deep in the rainforest to learn about the villagers’ lifestyle.

On Ecuadorian Amazon voyages, cruisers visit the Pañacocha Biological Corridor and Panayacu River delta, among other eco-spots. One spectacular occurrence is the “parrot licks,” pools of mud that are rich in minerals and draw hundreds of parrots, parakeets and other birds. On Brazilian Amazon voyages, cruisers see small villages and big cities alike as the ships visit Santarém, Parintins, Boca da Valeria, the Anavilhanas Islands and Manaus.

The largest city in the Amazon basin, Manaus boasts an exquisite, colonial-era Teatro Amazonas opera house, museums and a market. Nearby the confluence of the Solimões River and the Negro River is a top draw as visitors watch differently colored waters run side by side, intertwine and then merge. Boca da Valeria (translated “Mouth of the Valeria River”) is home to 100 or so locals who reside in wooden houses on stilts facing the river, while the Anavilhanas Islands, a chain of 400 islands in Rio Negro, are about 43 miles from Manaus.

When to sail? June through November is normally the low water or dry season, but it still has some rainfall. However, during this period, guides often lead cruisers on trail walks through the rainforest to get closer to the Amazon’s birds and wildlife. It’s also a time to fish for piranhas in the river.

During high water or flooding season from December to May, the Amazon is about 22-24 feet higher and almost every waterway is navigable. Skiffs, canoes or other small vessels will take cruisers deeper into the jungle. It’s easier to spot wildlife and an added bonus is the so-called Mirrored Forest — a stunningly beautiful eco-scene in which the high water reflects the forest image on its surface.

Holland America Line’s Prinsendam sails the “Grand South America & Antarctica” voyage.
Holland America Line’s Prinsendam sails the “Grand South America & Antarctica” voyage.

Where to Sail?

Voyages on the Peruvian Amazon offer a quieter, more reflective experience than what is typically found on the wider Brazilian Amazon. Avalon Waterways offers a new 11-day Peruvian Amazon program roundtrip from Lima in 2016. Cruisers tour the capital city, visit the Larco Herrera Museum and have dinner in an ornate family-owned mansion. Then they’re whisked to Cusco by air for tours of Cusco, Kenko and Sacsayhuaman, before visiting Machu Picchu. Another air trip takes them to Iquitos to board Amazon Discovery. Activities include naturalist-guided panga rides through the river tributaries, swimming with pink dolphins and visiting native communities.

G Adventures offers a roundtrip cruise from Lima with six nights on the Amatista Amazon.
G Adventures offers a roundtrip cruise from Lima with six nights on the Amatista Amazon.

Small ship/expedition line Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic operates 10-day Peruvian Amazon expedition-style journeys with a portion of the itinerary on Delfin II. Many tour operators use that and other vessels for Amazon itineraries. Here’s a small sampling of those many offerings: G Adventures offers a weeklong itinerary roundtrip from Lima with six nights on the Amatista Amazon; Adventure Smith has four- to five-day cruises from Nauta, Peru, using Delfin II. Many operators offer guests a chance to add on Machu Picchu or a Peruvian lodge stay.

Aqua Expeditions offers three-, four- and seven-day voyages on Aqua Amazon and Aria Amazon.

Abercrombie & Kent offers a nine-day “Amazon Adventure Rainforest & River Cruise” on the 22-suite Amazon Discovery but the luxury operator limits its group size to just 18 guests. This itinerary from Iquitos includes a six-night cruise. Haimark also operates weeklong Amazon voyages roundtrip from Iquitos on Amazon Discovery. One highlight? At Monkey Island, guests will see eight species of endangered primates including capuchins, howler monkeys and petite tamarins.

Within Ecuador, Anakonda Amazon Cruises plies an Amazon tributary with the luxurious 18-suite Anakonda Amazon with accommodations of 215 to 258 square feet, a dining room, observation deck, outdoor whirlpool, al fresco lounge, canoes for guest transport, 10 kayaks and hammocks. This voyage begins with a short flight from Quito to Coca (or Francisco de Orellana), and then departure from the Río Napo port and about an hour’s boat ride to board.

On the Brazilian Amazon, Iberostar operates the upscale Grand Amazon from Manaus. The vessel’s 73 cabins and two Royal Suites feature private balconies, full bathrooms, double beds or two individual beds, television, hair dryer, air conditioning, music equipment, an in-room safe and room service. Many premium and luxury cruise lines also ply the Amazon from the Atlantic Ocean to Manaus.

New for 2016, Pandaw will expand its partner river cruise program with its first South American departures — five 14-night sailings from Santarem on the Brazilian Amazon — in conjunction with the Amazon Dream.

A sampling of those? Seabourn Cruise Line’s 41-day “Antarctica & Amazon Exploration” sails from Valparaiso to Manaus on the 450-passenger Seabourn Quest, departing February 3, while in 2017, Crystal CruisesCrystal Serenity operates a 22-day “Amazon Expedition” departing March 14. Oceania CruisesRegatta sails a 34-night “Lively Latin Rhythms” voyage on February 28 from Buenos Aires to Miami with an Amazon transit to Manaus, while sister line Regent sails some voyages that enter the mouth of the Amazon for scenic cruising.

For a robust circumnavigation of South America plus the Amazon, Holland America Line’s Prinsendam sails the 67-night “Grand South America & Antarctica” voyage which includes an Amazon sailing; it departs roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale on January 4, 2016. Celebrity Cruises is offering a pre-cruise Amazon River sailing (four nights on Aria Amazon) and South America package with its 14-night “Argentina & Antarctica” cruise departing February 14, 2016.

What to Pack

Here are some items that will come in handy for client planning a cruise on the Amazon River. For starters, bug spray is a “must” as are binoculars (some ships provide these, others not), a light-hooded rain jacket, small fold-up umbrella, sunscreen, a hat that provides good “face shading” and light cotton clothing. While it’s very tempting in the high heat to head out in shorts and short-sleeved tops, “covering up” with long-sleeved cotton clothing, pants and socks is recommended for mosquito protection.

It’s also a good idea for clients to consult a tropical medicine specialist to secure any needed medication (such as malaria preventive pills, if desired) prior to departure. Going ashore, bottled water is also a must.