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High Style On The Amazon

Nicholas Gill discovers a luxuriant new way to travel down the Amazon

The first time I took a long boat journey through the amazon rainforest, i slept in a hammock, packed into a single deck with hundreds of others, one directly underneath me. When the boat stopped to pick up pigs and cows, which was frequently, sand flies attacked my skin from every angle. the rice, fish and bananas—cooked in dirty river water three times a day—were inedible. it was a five-day trip that felt like 30. That was then …

The last time I journeyed down the Amazon by boat was aboard the M/V aqua. The trip proved to be vastly different. Amazonian lodges and cruises often claim luxury, which (for them) generally means solar-heated showers and flush toilets. However, the M/V Aqua and new sister ship, the M/V aria, based in Iquitos, Peru, is more like a floating W Hotel.

My Aqua cabin doesn’t house a hammock open to the elements, but rather a comfortable bed with 280-thread-count sheets made from 100 percent Peruvian cotton, dark wood floors and sepia-toned canvas photos of the Amazon shot by French photographer Jean Claude Constant. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out over the vast waters and wild green earth.

The air-conditioned rooms (12 in the Aqua, 16 in the Aria) start at 230 square feet each. The ship’s upper deck is home to a glass-enclosed bar and an always- on-duty bartender happily passing out cocona juice or passion fruit sours. There is also a library fully stocked with glossy photography books, and the Aria even has a Jacuzzi. The two ships were designed by famed Peruvian hospitality architect Jordi Puig (who also designed the DCO Suites in Máncora and the restaurant Picas in Barranco) and are unlike anything yet to ply amazonian waters— and not just in design.

Of particular interest is the food served on board. few guests realize just how sophisticated it actually is. Pedro Miguel Schiaffino—of Lima’s Malabar, widely considered Peru’s best restaurant— designed the five-course, Amazonian- influenced dinner menus, which pair local ingredients with South American wines from Luigi Bosca and Escorihuela Gascón. The dishes—cold palm heart soup with puréed avocado or palate-cleansing granitas flavored with fruits like carambola or aguaje—are as revealing of the environment as seeing a pink river dolphin, of which you’ll likely see many.

The ships’ itineraries also help set them apart from other river tours. In Peru’s northern Amazon, the Pacaya- Samiria Reserve is the most appropriate destination for nature lovers, having the greatest number of naturally occurring fruits and freshwater fish on earth. However, it’s quite remote. A few towns surrounding the park offer rustic backpacker accommodations, but they involve a considerable amount of effort to reach.

Most jungle lodges in the region cannot afford the gasoline for more than a three- or four-hour boat ride, so the majority sit close to Iquitos and within the realm of the growing number of mestizo communities, which are cutting down primary forest like it’s going out of style. However, with a river cruise, you can be deep within the reserve by the time you wake up, and that’s just where I find myself.

A leisurely breakfast is followed by orientation to the mother ship’s smaller motorized vessels, which are used to explore the more shallow tributaries that the Aqua and Aria cannot. The sun is low. Egrets and herons are silhouetted against the soft Amazonian backdrop. Within 10 minutes, gray dolphins appear. The two boats cut the engines, and we watch the dolphins swim so far into the distance that we lose interest, particularly when a few of the pink variety make an appearance. They pop in and out of the water, toying with us for so long that the guides tell us we need to stop taking photos and go find some other wildlife. We’ll see plenty more dolphins they assure us. And we do two days later. A sunset performance, their bodies exposed above the water’s surface at the confluence  of the Ucayali and Marañón, where the official Amazon River begins.

Pacaya-Samiria National Park, one small yet brilliant piece of the Amazon Rainforest, opens up. Sloths hang lazily from tree branches, and monkeys noisily scatter as we pass. We fish for red-bellied piranhas and hold them in our hands. At night, we enter pitch-black tributaries to search for glowing eyes and listen to the wild sounds of Amazonian nightlife. We see schools of fish, caimans and owls.

Because this is the Amazon, you still sweat, your hands still get dirty and the mosquitoes still bite. Many of the most enchanting moments that occur while on a trip with Aqua Expeditions could happen on a sand fly–infested local boat or in a rustic jungle lodge; however, there is a difference. Aboard the Aqua or Aria, the sweat, dirt and bites don’t become lingering problems. At night, I go to sleep neither aching nor worried about being bitten, but with a belly full of delicious food and wine and the chance to dream peacefully.

Photo courtesy of Aqua Expeditions