By Nicholas Gill
When it launched in 2008, the luxury riverboat MV Aqua was featured in nearly every major travel magazine. It continues to be one of the most attractive touring options for exploring the Peruvian Amazon.
The MV Aqua is like nothing that has ever plied Peru’s Amazonian waters. The ship, stunningly designed by famed Peruvian architect Jordi Puig, can give a wilderness experience in the remote Pacaya Samiria national park, where just a few rustic jungle lodges sit along one border area. But it provides the utmost luxury in a region of South America that seriously lacks it.
There are in fact three different riverboat companies in the Peruvian Amazon, as well as others in Brazil and Ecuador, including large cruise ships that enter from the Atlantic, though the MV Aqua and the forthcoming sister ship, the MV Aria (it will add extra suites and a small plunge pool), are the first of their kind.
On check in, everyone steps into the room and wonders if they have been upgraded to a suite. The cabins are quite large, 230 square feet each to be exact. It’s not a typical cruise room, but more like a full size hotel room with a better view. There are big comfortable beds with 280 count 100% Peruvian cotton sheets that would make a Westin jealous. Dark wood floors, natural fiber paneling, a leather bench, and framed sepia toned photography of Amazonian scenes from French photographer Jean Claude Constant decorate the cabin. Families can snag one of the connecting rooms.
Suites add a small sitting room, though the sizes of the standard rooms are quite similar. There’s self-controlled air conditioning. Bathrooms feature slate walls and have rain showerheads and stay toasty hot in order to rinse off the sweat that follows every trek into the rainforest. Your own water bottle is given out to avoid plastic bottles and purified water is available in the bar at all times, along with coffee and tea.
The food served on the MV Aqua is a significant element on this boat and deserves special attention. The Pacaya Samiria Reserve is home to the largest variety of fish and naturally occurring fruits on planet Earth and the kitchen crew makes sure you know this by the time you leave. As soon as you walk on the ship you will be treated to the Vitamin-C-rich camu camu juice, which is also available in a Pisco Sour. Each time you return from an excursion a waiter greets you with some sort of jungle juice such as cocona or passion fruit.
The kitchen looks more like a small high-end bistro with a half dozen tables than a tacky cruise ship restaurant. One of South America’s two greatest chefs that use Amazonian ingredients, Lima’s Pedro Miguel Schaiffino, has designed a menu for the Aqua that could rival a Michelin one-star restaurant. While breakfast and lunch mostly alter between international-style meals (with a few local fruits and ingredients thrown in) and Asian and Amazonian influenced ones, dinners range from five to seven Amazonian based courses and are executed brilliantly. Heart of palm is spun into fettuccini-like noodles. Brazil Nuts are transformed into a delicate cream soup. Catfish is crusted with cashews. The meals of the MV Aqua are a work of art. Vegetarian alternatives are offered with each course and are equally impressive. Even less adventurous eaters on my boat trip enjoyed the meals. Wine and beer are included with the price of the cruise, though cocktails are extra.
One key difference between an Amazon jungle lodge and this: the Aqua can go to the Pacaya Samiria Reserve, where there are no jungle lodges except on the border areas. A few towns surrounding the park also have simple accommodations for researchers and backpackers, but they involve lots of time in transit. The loud peke peke canoes that those guides use to explore the tributaries generally scare off many of the animals because the motors are so noisy. The Aqua doesn’t have this problem. Particularly on the four- and seven-day cruises, the ship can dock in remote parts of the reserve and the quiet motorboats the Aqua crew uses can penetrate even deeper.
The itineraries do a good job of exploring different areas of Pacaya Samiria National Park. The daily excursions, of which there are generally two or three, are similar to those done at Amazon jungle lodges in the region. However, unlike jungle lodges, if there is a shortage of wildlife sightings in one area, the MV Aqua can move on to another part of the reserve to launch the dinghies from and cover a much greater area. Excursions are typical: piranha fishing, nighttime caiman watching, village visits, a trip to the beginning of the Amazon River, rainforest hikes, and general trips to spot wildlife like monkeys and pink river dolphins (we saw a ton of these each day).
Itineraries vary between high and low water season and the number of days aboard. Click the link to page two for a look at my three-night, low-water cruise: