untapped
Amazon

South America’s largest and most legendary stream holds out enormous potential for river cruising that mixes luxury with adventure. Yet the challenges are substantial.
photos and report by jeri clausing

Jungle Experiences’ Zafiro is one of just seven river cruise ships from three companies that ply the waters of the Peruvian Amazon.

Jungle Experiences’ Zafiro is one of just seven river cruise ships from three companies that ply the waters of the Peruvian Amazon.

IQUITOS, Peru — Ask any river cruise operator about the future, and a top wish would likely be finding a new river.

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Yet one of the world’s largest and most exotic remains largely untapped — and it’s one that offers thousands of miles that promise the combination of upscale and off-the-grid, once-in-a-lifetime adventures that so many travelers increasingly are seeking.

Besides a few private yacht charters, there are just three companies — Aqua Expeditions, Delfin and Jungle Experiences — operating just seven boats in the Peruvian Amazon. And while those companies, each one based in this port city, are growing slowly, there is seemingly little interest by larger international operators to flock here as they have to the Mekong and Ganges rivers.

Claudia Rodriguez, CEO of the locally based Jungle Experiences, which also owns the city’s only internationally flagged hotel, cites a number of issues behind the seemingly slow uptake, including politics, lack of infrastructure and questions about safety.

Still, she also sees opportunity.

“We definitely believe that this is an exciting destination,” said Rodriguez, who noted that companies are starting to eye the region, a move she expects will bring more visitors and improved infrastructure.

“That’s why we believe there is so much in the potential” she said. “I think there is great opportunity for everybody to grow in this destination.”

Francesco Galli Zugaro, founder and CEO of Aqua Expeditions, calls the region a “diamond in the rough” that he hopes won’t change much. He doesn’t expect it will.

‘The less the better. The river, the location doesn’t attract the big boys.’
–Francesco Galli Zugaro, Aqua Expeditions

“The less the better,” Zugaro said. “The thing is that, naturally, the river, the location doesn’t have the capability to cater to the larger vessels, so it doesn’t attract the big boys. … If they can only have 20 or 40 guests, it’s not worth their time.”

But that doesn’t mean they have ruled it out.

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Unlike on Europe’s rivers, on which cruise ships are so numerous that they often dock two and three abreast, the only river traffic encountered on a recent sailing on the Amazon and its tributaries were the pirogues of locals traveling between villages.

Unlike on Europe’s rivers, on which cruise ships are so numerous that they often dock two and three abreast, the only river traffic encountered on a recent sailing on the Amazon and its tributaries were the pirogues of locals traveling between villages.

Unlike on Europe’s rivers, on which cruise ships are so numerous that they often dock two and three abreast, the only river traffic encountered on a recent sailing on the Amazon and its tributaries were the pirogues of locals traveling between villages.

Luxurious undertourism

Indeed, in an age when travel, particularly in the upscale and luxury sector, is increasingly about experience over venue, I was surprised on a recent four-day sailing aboard the most luxurious of Jungle Experiences’ three ships, the Zafiro, that we didn’t run into other foreign travelers.

After all, our boat, like those run by Jungle Experiences’ two competitors, hit all the marks for what experts say today’s adventure and upscale travelers demand.

The only boats we passed while sailing were those belonging to locals who were fishing or otherwise going about their lives. Most of the time, it felt like we truly had these enchanting waterways — with their exotic wildlife, surrounding rainforest and sweeping views of the stars, clouds and sunsets — all to ourselves.

The cabins were spacious, with simple, contemporary, European-style decor, oversize king beds that faced floor-to-ceiling windows or private balconies and all the amenities of a five-star hotel.

One couple on a six-week luxury trip around Peru and the Galapagos said the gourmet, Peruvian-influenced food served on the Zafiro was the best they had yet experienced. And our two onboard naturalists were highly knowledgeable, having not only grown up along the Amazon but also having traveled with — and guided — world-famous scientists doing research in the rainforest.

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Loungers on the top deck of the Zafiro, the most luxurious of the three ships that Jungle Experiences sails on the Amazon and its tributaries.

Loungers on the top deck of the Zafiro, the most luxurious of the three ships that Jungle Experiences sails on the Amazon and its tributaries.

Passengers enjoy an afternoon hot tub as the Zafiro glides past jungles teeming with wildlife.

Passengers enjoy an afternoon hot tub as the Zafiro glides past jungles teeming with wildlife.

The bar and lounge onboard the ship, which offered all the amenities of a five-star hotel during a recent four-day sailing in the Peruvian Amazon.

The bar and lounge onboard the ship, which offered all the amenities of a five-star hotel during a recent four-day sailing in the Peruvian Amazon.

Loungers on the top deck of the Zafiro, the most luxurious of the three ships that Jungle Experiences sails on the Amazon and its tributaries.

Loungers on the top deck of the Zafiro, the most luxurious of the three ships that Jungle Experiences sails on the Amazon and its tributaries.

Passengers enjoy an afternoon hot tub as the Zafiro glides past jungles teeming with wildlife.

Passengers enjoy an afternoon hot tub as the Zafiro glides past jungles teeming with wildlife.

The bar and lounge onboard the ship, which offered all the amenities of a five-star hotel during a recent four-day sailing in the Peruvian Amazon.

The bar and lounge onboard the ship, which offered all the amenities of a five-star hotel during a recent four-day sailing in the Peruvian Amazon.

We launched from Nauta, which is about two hours from the airport in Iquitos on the Maranon River, then sailed through protected reserves to the confluence with the Ucayali where the rivers meet the Amazon, which we then sailed back to Iquitos.

On our first excursion, as our skiff was just pulling away, we were greeted by a pod of the Amazon’s famous pink dolphins. About an hour down the Maranon, after watching spider monkeys, sloths and hosts of birds, we spotted a harpy eagle, a rare sighting that naturalist Juan Tejeda said many people who spend their whole lives in the jungle never see.

All we needed from there to round out the Amazon’s equivalent of Africa’s Big Five was an anaconda. The group eventually did see one, as well as a huge tarantula, although I have to admit I slept through that early morning excursion.

Passengers from the Zafiro take a boat ride on a jungle lake. Right, one of the beautiful but deadly poison frog species that can be found in the Amazon. The two naturalists onboard the Zafiro were eminently qualified, helping passengers spot sloths, monkeys, tarantulas and even a rare harpy eagle, the rainforest’s largest raptor.

Still, I couldn’t have cared less about seeing a snake. For me, the best part of the trip was being completely off the grid for any length of time for the first time in at least a decade, which left me no choice but to tune out and become immersed in a remote and truly exotic world.

We trekked through the jungle, skimmed along on the tributaries, learned about traditional medicine from a shaman, planted trees to help sustain the rainforest, cooked with a local family and kayaked — and even swam — in the dark waters.

Passengers from the Zafiro take a boat ride on a jungle lake. Right, one of the beautiful but deadly poison frog species that can be found in the Amazon. The two naturalists onboard the Zafiro were eminently qualified, helping passengers spot sloths, monkeys, tarantulas and even a rare harpy eagle, the rainforest’s largest raptor.

Passengers from the Zafiro take a boat ride on a jungle lake. Right, one of the beautiful but deadly poison frog species that can be found in the Amazon. The two naturalists onboard the Zafiro were eminently qualified, helping passengers spot sloths, monkeys, tarantulas and even a rare harpy eagle, the rainforest’s largest raptor.

Passengers from the Zafiro take a boat ride on a jungle lake. Right, one of the beautiful but deadly poison frog species that can be found in the Amazon. The two naturalists onboard the Zafiro were eminently qualified, helping passengers spot sloths, monkeys, tarantulas and even a rare harpy eagle, the rainforest’s largest raptor.

Guests on the Zafiro take a boat ride on a jungle lake during a four-day cruise on the Peruvian Amazon.

Guests on the Zafiro take a boat ride on a jungle lake during a four-day cruise on the Peruvian Amazon.

Guests on the Zafiro take a boat ride on a jungle lake during a four-day cruise on the Peruvian Amazon.

Weighing liability and opportunity

Still, despite the growing demand from travelers for the exotic, the mixture of adventure and luxury that the Amazon offers might still be a bit too heavy on adventure for some international operators.

After all, the river is known for its poisonous frogs, tarantulas, anacondas and, of course, its schools of piranhas, those sharp-toothed fish wrongly portrayed in movies as being able to easily consume a human.

A juvenile piranha caught during the excursion. With its razor-sharp teeth, the piranha fits the bill of slasher-movie villain, but its reputation as a man-eater is exaggerated. Passengers were even able to swim in the Amazon.

A juvenile piranha caught during the excursion. With its razor-sharp teeth, the piranha fits the bill of slasher-movie villain, but its reputation as a man-eater is exaggerated. Passengers were even able to swim in the Amazon.

A juvenile piranha caught during the excursion. With its razor-sharp teeth, the piranha fits the bill of slasher-movie villain, but its reputation as a man-eater is exaggerated. Passengers were even able to swim in the Amazon.

Although Avalon Waterways, G Adventures and Lindblad Expeditions are among the few international companies offering Amazon cruises through partnerships and charters with the existing operators, others are hesitant.

AmaWaterways co-owner and president Rudi Schreiner, who spent two months in the Amazon while in college in the ’70s, has in the past said that his experience inspired his love of river cruising. But he said that after returning a few years ago with his business partner and wife, Kristin Karst, they ruled out any immediate plans for expanding there.

“One thing is safety and security and the liability issues,” Schreiner said, pointing to a fire that gutted an Aqua Expeditions vessel with no passengers aboard and armed robberies several years ago by pirates.

‘Once you are a bigger entity, you have to look at liability much more seriously.’
— Rudi Schreiner, AmaWaterways

“Once you are a bigger entity, you have to look at this kind of liability much more seriously. Also, you have to combine it with other things — something like Machu Picchu and Cusco or the Galapagos, and I don’t want to go into ocean cruising.”

As for safety, Galli Zugaro and Rodriguez said they now have close working relationships with the authorities who monitor their sailings.

“We also have GPS, echo sound, satellite phones, 24/7 contact with the base in Iquitos,” Rodriguez said. “We also have onboard security, with armed guards and all personnel having been trained for dealing with incidents. So nowadays it is very safe.”

And while Schreiner said he has ruled out the Amazon, other operators say they continue to monitor opportunities there.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection CEO Ellen Bettridge said the river cruise line “has reviewed the Amazon several times over the years, since it is an incredible destination. We know we would need to have the right partners, right ship and team to ensure it meets the Uniworld standard of being the very best. We will continue to explore the opportunity.”

‘We have reviewed the Amazon several times over the years, since it is an incredible destination.’
— Ellen Bettridge, Uniworld

Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon, said the company began working with Delfin in 2014 and for the past three years has seen steady growth for the product, which they package with other Peru tours offered by sister companies within the Globus family of brands.

Hoffee said that while the current partnership with Delfin works well, Avalon would consider adding its own ships if growth continues.

“Travelers continue to look for off-the-beaten-path, authentic travel experiences,” she said. “The Mekong River, the Amazon River and the Ganges offer exactly that: an exotic, immersive and interesting look at life along the river. Like our travelers, we continue to look for new experiences — the Ganges is new for Avalon Waterways — and small, intimate river cruise ships are a great way to see and experience remote destinations. The key is to ensure that these special places stay authentic.”

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A village along the Amazon River in Peru.

A village along the Amazon River in Peru.

Passengers from the Zafiro take a dip in the Amazon River.

Passengers from the Zafiro take a dip in the Amazon River.

Jungle Experiences naturalist Juan Tejeda shows off some of the Amazon’s bounty sold at the market.

Jungle Experiences naturalist Juan Tejeda shows off some of the Amazon’s bounty sold at the market.

Crossing a rope bridge during a hike through the jungle.

Crossing a rope bridge during a hike through the jungle.

A village along the Amazon River in Peru.

A village along the Amazon River in Peru.

Passengers from the Zafiro take a dip in the Amazon River.

Passengers from the Zafiro take a dip in the Amazon River.

Jungle Experiences naturalist Juan Tejeda shows off some of the Amazon’s bounty sold at the market.

Jungle Experiences naturalist Juan Tejeda shows off some of the Amazon’s bounty sold at the market.

Crossing a rope bridge during a hike through the jungle.

Crossing a rope bridge during a hike through the jungle.

Serious challenges to expansion

Much of the tourism along the Amazon now is in jungle lodges, Rodriguez said, but she expects more of that to shift to riverboats.

Galli Zugaro pointed out that riverboats are the only vessels allowed to take daytrips on the rivers in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, so they offer the maximum possible wildlife viewing.

Rodriguez said Jungle Experiences plans to add a fourth ship in 2021. Likewise, Aqua Expeditions has a second vessel due for arrival in 2020.
But the cost of entrance and expansion is high.

With a population of nearly half a million, Iquitos is the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by car, making it difficult, and pricey, to bring in supplies.

Homes on the Amazon River in Iquitos, the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road — it is accessible only by river and air.

Homes on the Amazon River in Iquitos, the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road — it is accessible only by river and air.

Homes on the Amazon River in Iquitos, the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road — it is accessible only by river and air.

“It’s very, very expensive when you need to transport all these things,” Rodriguez said. “It is much easier for a new entrant to buy a company or existing boat than construct new ships.”

Indeed, most of the boats sailing today are refurbished vessels from a company that went belly up after 9/11. Rodriguez said her fourth ship is also a renovation.

Aqua’s Aria, however, is a newbuild from a Peruvian shipyard. And Galli Zugaro is having his new vessel, the Aqua Nera, built in Vietnam.

The cost after having the boat shipped to the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil isn’t cheaper than building domestically, but he said he liked the quality and detail of a boat the shipyard had built for the Mekong. The yard is also closer to his home in Singapore, making it easier to monitor the project.

Iquitos’ remote nature also presents challenges for companies looking to expand other types of tourism in the region. While there are ample flights from Lima, few tourists heading to river cruises or jungle lodges spend much time in the once rich rubber port whose grand, tiled, 19th-century buildings have largely fallen into decay and now look out over floating shantytowns.

Schreiner noted that in addition to a lack of tourism infrastructure, Iquitos has a reputation as a center for drug trafficking. Indeed, walking along the malecon, or seawall, that overlooks the Amazon, we passed the skeletons of several large ships grounded in the trees, vessels that our guide said had been abandoned years ago when their operators were caught trafficking cocaine.

Rodriguez, however, said that things are changing, which is why she and her family, who are from — and whose businesses are based in — Iquitos, last year renovated a hotel overlooking the main town square and reopened it as a Doubletree by Hilton.

Colorful produce for sale at the city’s Belen market, where visitors will find everything from fresh piranha to handicrafts and local herbs and medicines.

Colorful produce for sale at the city’s Belen market, where visitors will find everything from fresh piranha to handicrafts and local herbs and medicines.

Colorful produce for sale at the city’s Belen market, where visitors will find everything from fresh piranha to handicrafts and local herbs and medicines.

“What we saw is an opportunity, because we want, as a company, to take a step ahead of everybody who is looking at Iquitos to have an international brand,” she said. “So reflagging this hotel as a Doubletree, we saw it as a milestone.”

Like the Zafiro, the hotel is luxury by Peruvian standards and a solid four-star property by U.S. standards. Again, like the Zafiro, the decor is understated European contemporary with all the necessary upscale touches, including comfortable beds and quality linens and pillows.

With the hotel, Jungle Experiences offers land packages that include trips to two small wildlife rescue centers, including the Manatee Rescue Center, which gets much of its support for saving the threatened freshwater manatees from the Dallas Aquarium.

A second refuge, the Mariposario Pilpintuwasi butterfly farm, is a short ride down the Amazon from Iquitos, and like the manatee center, it also houses other animals, including a jaguar, ocelots and monkeys that were rescued from homes or illegal traffickers.

The main sight in Iquitos is its sprawling Belen market, where you can buy everything from fresh piranha to handicrafts and local herbs and medicines, including dried coca leaves and the jungle version of Viagra, whose Spanish name translates to “underwear buster.”

No trip to Iquitos would be complete without a ride in one of the many motorcycle-powered tuk-tuks, which are the main form of transportation around the city.

Taking a tuk-tuk ride through the Peruvian port city of Iquitos.

Taking a tuk-tuk ride through the Peruvian port city of Iquitos.

Taking a tuk-tuk ride through the Peruvian port city of Iquitos.

But like the river itself, Iquitos still suffers from its own safety perceptions. And its remote nature and the cost of importing supplies means it still lacks things like modern supermarkets.

Which is why Galli Zugaro remains skeptical about much changing on the river cruise or tourism landscape, at least in the near future.

“In the 11 years I’ve been going, I haven’t seen a huge amount of progress in Iquitos,” he said. “Which, to be honest, I like.”

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