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A Ride in the Wild

On an Amazon voyage, chill in a Jacuzzi open to the heavens and sip champagne in the jungle.


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"Vamos, cholo!" shouts our guide, Victor Coelho, to the skiff driver as we embark on an excursion down a remote stream in the Peruvian Amazon just after sunset. Soon, the skiff's spotlight reveals a pair of gleaming crimson eyes in the undergrowth. Victor asks me to hold his legs as he goes belly down on the skiff's bow, his arms reaching over the launch toward the riverbank.

With catlike reflexes, he pounces toward the shallows, where splashing and thrashing ensue. When Victor shouts and I pull back on his ankles, he leaps up, holding a yard-long creature above his head, its tail whipping furiously back and forth.

"Oh my God - it's a black caiman," he exclaims. "These are endangered - look at this!" Victor places one arm under the neck of the scaly creature, best described as a small alligator with teeth that could do some serious damage. "Want to hold it?" he asks. "Just put your hand under his neck and you'll be fine."

I recoil but then realize this could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance I shouldn't pass up. I take the menacing-looking carnivorous reptile - following Victor's handling instructions to a "T" - and pose for a snapshot, exultant that I didn't let fear stop me from experiencing this transcendent moment. Victor then releases the caiman unharmed back into the wild.

Count going eyeball to bloodshot eyeball with a feral beast as just one of many memorable moments I encounter during a three-day Amazon River cruise aboard the sparkling new M/V Aria, a 147-foot, 32-passenger ship just launched in May by Lima, Peru-based Aqua Expeditions. It's the company's second vessel; its M/V Aqua began plying the world's largest river and its tributaries in 2007. Both ships embark on weekly cruises from Iquitos, Peru, a jungle boomtown about 600 miles north of Lima. The company's concept, the brainchild of CEO Francesco Galli Zugaro, melds a cruise high on the luxury quotient with the ever-so-wild allure of the mighty Amazon, with a basin nearly as large as the continental United States.

My first vision of the three-story Aria causes my heart to leap. At dusk at a dock outside Iquitos, golden light pours out of the eye-catching ship's floor-to-ceiling windows. Renowned Peruvian architect Jordi Puig designed it with hallways down the center, ensuring that all 16 of the spacious, 240-square-foot suites deliver unobstructed views from those massive windows.

Even though we're afloat on the Amazon, we're not roughing it on the Aria. From my comfortable suite, which looks like something out of a fashionable wilderness lodge, I watch the riparian jungle roll by. The cabins come with all the desirable amenities, including air conditioning, hardwood floors, rain showers, and high-thread-count sheets on California king beds. On the boat's top deck, an air-conditioned, couch-filled lounge entices with a fully stocked bar and a library of thrillers and Amazon-focused coffee-table books. On clear nights, the Jacuzzi outside the lounge offers splendid views of the twinkling Milky Way high above.

And then there's the food, courtesy of Aria's executive chef, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the culinary genius behind one of Lima's best restaurants, Malabar. His tasting menus take full advantage of Amazonian bounty, showcased by dishes such as pork tenderloin with Amazon pumpkin and sapote, a peachlike stone fruit; and grilled beef with cocona, a fruit similar to a tomato. For dessert, how about creme brulee with muyaca berries? The innovative chef regularly incorporates jungle foods new to my palate into traditional dishes, with much success, though a few passengers complain the portions are too small. The service isn't quite perfect, either - the earnest, eager-to-please staff serves red wine chilled - but I dismiss that as a minor trade-off to savor gourmet dining in a setting this captivating.

Typically, visitors to this stretch of the Amazon stay in riverside lodges, but those who hop aboard the Aria or Aqua can penetrate the jungle deeper, as my traveling companions and I do daily. On skiffs, we travel up narrow, foliage-shrouded streams, some so choked with water lettuce, giant lily pads, or purple hyacinth blooms they look inaccessible. We chug along, never sure what thrill awaits, what creatures we'll eyeball, and how we'll be pampered next. We just know to keep our eyes peeled and expect surprises.

On one of these outings, our guide for the day, Ricardo Valdez (four English-speaking guides man the Aria, all knowledgeable and enthusiastic), pulls into an eddy, hands us thin bamboo poles, nylon line, and bits of beef for bait for a little fishing action. The woman next to me gets a bite and hauls her catch into the boat. "Watch your feet!" Ricardo yelps. "Piranha!" An 8-inch-long, orange-red fish flops about in the skiff. Ricardo leaps and grabs it and pulls back its lip to reveal lines of razor-sharp triangular teeth that could take off the tip of my finger. Ricardo unhooks the fish, slips it into the water, and watches as it swims vigorously away.

That afternoon, we drift past a three-toed sloth in a kapok tree with large red seedpods. Squirrel monkeys cackle through the forest canopy. As our skiff motors from the Amazon into the Yarapa River, the water appears black from the acidity of decaying vegetation. Just 60 feet away, two pink dolphins arc out of the water with grace - we can hear the snuffling of their blowholes. When the driver quiets the engine, our guide pops out a cooler, hands us clove-scented washcloths, then serves Amazonian nuts called "monkey brains" complemented with mimosas in champagne flutes.

We spend the trip's ultimate day in the vast and untamed 5-million-acre Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, where elusive jaguars, monk saki monkeys, manatees, toucans, and hundreds of other bird species dwell. A pair of chattering blue-and-yellow macaws, their plumage resplendent, glides overhead. Three nocturnal owl monkeys huddle together in the crook of a branch, shielding their oversized eyes from the sun. When we spot an iguana hugging a branch above the water, Victor says local people eat them. He calls the iguana "chicken of the tree." At twilight a pair of maguari storks, probably 3 feet tall, hunker down in their nest high above the river.

The birds make for quite a sight, but I'm glad to know we'll soon be heading back to our own floating nest - the much more luxurious Aria, with another hearty Amazonian feast waiting for us and a night of Pisco Sours under the glittering jungle sky.

Aqua Expeditions' two ships, the M/V Aqua and M/V Aria, offer three-, four-, and seven-day luxury cruises on the Amazon River in Peru, starting at $2,400 per person, double occupancy. The ships sail out of Iquitos. The journeys nicely complement trips to Cuzco, Lima, and Machu Picchu. For details, aquaexpeditions.com.  

Getting there: LAN Airlines (lan.com) flies nonstop to Lima from several major U.S. cities, with connecting flights to Iquitos (which
is not reachable by road). American, Continental, and United airlines service the capital city, as well.

Other River Cruisers Making News

Amazon not your thing? These new or refurbished river boats with tamer itineraries also caught our attention:

• In spring, AmaWaterways christened its AmaVerde, which set sail from Amsterdam to Budapest with a heated pool and free Wi-Fi from bow to stern; and the refurbished AmaKatarina returned to active duty, with a new name, to cruise the Volga-Baltic Waterway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The new AmaLotus starts floating on the Mekong between Vietnam and Cambodia in September, with 62 staterooms (90 percent with balconies). amawaterways.com

• Sixty-six of the 83 staterooms on Avalon Waterway's new Avalon Panorama, which sails the Rhine and Danube, are suites. The vast majority - the Panorama Suites - feature floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows. How's that for a view? avalonwaterways.com

• Tauck's new Treasures has better in-room amenities than most hotels - 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, plasma-screen TVs, L'Occitane products in bathrooms, and more. The boat's 2011 voyages also hit highlights along the Rhine and Danube. tauck.com

• Uniworld's S.S. Antoinette launched earlier this year with a two-story lobby punctuated by a 10-foot Baccarat crystal chandelier from New York City's Tavern on the Green, 82 staterooms and suites decorated with original artwork, and amenities like a covered pool and a movie theater that serves up gourmet nibbles - not to mention a bang-up Rhine itinerary. The new Douro Spirit's 64 staterooms, with their French balconies and L'Occitane bath products, are quite nice, too, but it's the ship's itinerary through Portugal's and Spain's Douro River Valley that has the inner-oenophile in us humming. The refurbished River Victoria sails between St. Petersburg and Moscow. uniworld.com

• From Viking River Cruises comes the Viking Prestige, which set sail in July. With its fuel-friendly, quieter hybrid-propulsion engine, the ship was designed to be a part of Viking's innovatively eco-forward green river-ship fleet. Later this year, the Viking Emerald debuts on China's Yangtze River, with some of the most spacious rooms ever built on a river liner, all with balconies. Two refurbs return to active duty later this year, too: The Viking Pakhomov cruises between Moscow and St. Petersburg; the Viking Schumann does the Elbe, from Berlin to Prague. vikingrivercruises.com




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