by Joanna Booth, The Telegraph, April 1, 2019
From source to delta, the Amazon River is more than 4,000 miles long – that’s pretty much the distance from New York to Rome. So, unless you want to follow in the wake of marathon swimmer Martin Strel – who swam its length over 66 days – you’ll need to pick a section to visit.
Do you dream of getting close to nature, swimming with pink river dolphins, fishing for piranhas, and spotting slow-moving sloths in the tree canopy? Is is key that you have the jungle to yourself, swapping fellow passengers’ chat for chirruping cicadas and hooting howler monkeys? Or are you a little hesitant about roughing it, and would prefer to keep your distance from the creepy crawlies?
Two thirds of Peru is covered by Amazon jungle. A cruise is the best – and frequently only – way to access many areas, where there are no roads. Most voyages start from Iquitos, a city of half a million that is the largest in the world accessible only by air and water.
There are no ports on these cruises – you simply disembark to explore smaller channels and quiet backwaters by motorised skiffs, kayak, or on foot. A highlight is the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, nicknamed the ‘Jungle of Mirrors’ down to the pin-sharp reflections in its tranquil waters. The focus is predominantly on wildlife and nature, spotting iconic pink dolphins, giant otters, three-toed sloths, monkeys and birds, although there are opportunities to interact with indigenous communities too. Learn traditional plant medicine from a shaman, fish for piranha, take a night safari to search for caiman and tarantulas, and visit a manatee rescue centre – cruises are full of hands-on activities in Peru.
The Peruvian Amazon is also a great option if you’d prefer not to rough it, with a wide choice of luxurious ships. The architect-designed Aria Amazon has picture windows, an on-deck Jacuzzi, its own sommelier and a crew-to-passenger ratio of 1:1. Relais & Chateaux member Delfin operates three ships, with the 14-cabin Delfin II and 22-suite Delfin III featuring small gyms and spa facilities, and the tiny, four-cabin Delfin I offering a particularly intimate experience.
Combine your Peruvian Amazon cruise with a visit to the iconic Inca site of Machu Picchu, and a visit to the capital Lima, the centre of the nation’s gastronomic creativity.
Book it: A three-night cruise on the Delfin II starts from £2,489pp as part of a wider itinerary booked with Latin Routes (latinroutes.co.uk) .
A huge 60 per cent of the Amazon rainforest is found in Brazil, and the river navigated here is so wide in places it can be hard to see the opposite bank. The delta contains an island the size of Switzerland.
Manaus is the bustling city of two million where river ship cruises usually originate. Highlights include an ornate Renaissance-style opera house, and the nearby Meeting of the Waters, where the Rio Negro’s dark current and the muddy brown Rio Solimões flow alongside one another for nearly four miles without mixing.
Voyages on river vessels carrying 20 or so passengers depart from Manaus, sailing itineraries upriver from three days up to two weeks. There are regular opportunities for kayaking, swimming, jungle walks and indigenous community visits, and the choice of ship ranges from basic to premium.
Brazil is vast and other highlights you can visit alongside the Amazon are many, including busy Rio de Janeiro, thundering Iguazu Falls, plus the Pantanal wetlands, considered by some a superior wildlife-spotting experience even than the Amazon itself.
At the other end of the scale from the boutique river cruises are the ocean-going ships, which can reach as far as Manaus cruising from Belem, where the Amazon meets the Pacific. Lines including Seabourn, Oceania, Holland America Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Crystal Cruises and Viking cruises bring anything from a couple of hundred to just over a thousand passengers at a time on itineraries of two weeks plus, frequently beginning, ending, or sailing round trip from the Caribbean or Florida.
Only a handful of days are spent in the Amazon, and while most do give the opportunity to take small boat trips and jungle hikes to spot wildlife, the chance to spend time close to nature are more limited. There tends to be a greater focus on people and culture, with stops in cities including Santarem and Parintins, known for its colourful Boi Bumba festival.
Book it: A three-night river cruise on the MV Clipper starts from £800pp as part of a wider itinerary booked with Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk).
A 21-night Rio de Janeiro to Miami cruise on Seven Seas Marina starts from £9,199pp, departing December 15, 2020 (rssc.com).
If you really don’t want to share your corner of the Amazon, head for Ecuador. You’ll cruise on the Amazon tributary the Napo, heading for the pristine Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on earth. You’ll reach deep into the jungle and get away from other tourists – there are only two ships that regularly sail these waters.
Four, five and eight-day itineraries on the 30-passenger Manatee and 40-passenger Anakonda, both luxurious vessels with floor-to-ceiling glazing and al fresco Jacuzzis, begin in Coca, a 30-minute flight from Quito, and include canoe trips, kayaking, nature walks, swimming and night safaris, as well as cooking classes and expert lectures.
Cruising in Ecuador allows you to visit a clay lick where hundreds of parrots and parakeets gather, interact with local Quechua communities, and climb an observation tower giving close-up views of the tree canopy. If you want to be really immersed in the jungle, there’s the option to spend a night glamping in the forest, albeit with champagne and hot showers. Combine your Ecuadorian Amazon cruise with a visit to the capital Quito, the cloud-capped peaks of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and another iconic voyage – a Galapagos cruise.
Book it: A three-night cruise on the Manatee starts from £1,495pp as part of a wider itinerary booked with Cox & Kings (coxandkings.co.uk).