Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: International Expeditions – Amazon Voyage Aboard The Aquamarina

I am going to try and do a very through review here but for those that want the answer in a nutshell -- this trip was fantastic -- with International Expeditions providing a great experience. I have no hesitation recommending them and hope to be able to take another trip with them in the near future.

Note high water mark on tree in center of picture.

I spent a lot of time researching a provider and time of year for this trip. Deciding the time of year was easy -- end of the rainy season in May. Typically at the end of the rainy season the water is about 35 to 45 feet higher than in the dry season. This meant we would be 35 to 45 feet closer to the canopy and, therefore, to the birds. It also meant being able to get deeper into the tributaries on the skiffs. This year the water was even higher, at about 50 feet above dry season level. For us it was a benefit. No so for the people who lived close to the water and were flooded out.




The skiffs used for excursions were another reason I picked IE. Very broad beamed, with handrails at the bow and seats along each side, they were easy to embark and disembark, comfortable and very stable – allowing passengers to stand and turn without rocking the boat. Even though one skiff could hold all passengers, two skiffs were used, each with a naturalist guide.











Finally, another factor setting IE off from the competition is that IE travels the furthest up the Ucayali River, the only boat that visits Ranger Station # 2 in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. Our guides pointed out to us that the list of tourists in the guest book were all visitors from La Aquamarina.


Service started before we even left home. In our pre-trip package was a personalized trip itinerary. There were extra copies of the itinerary and contact information to pass along to a friend/relative. And there was a list of the names of all of the trip participants.

When we arrived at the Lima airport, we were met as promised by a representative from Lima Tour’s, IE’s local representative. A 45-minute taxi ride took us to our pre-cruise hotel.



PRE-CRUISE

Accommodations were at the Swissotel in Lima. We had booked an extra night pre-IE trip and there was a bit of confusion at the hotel about whether we were booked one night (our pre-night) or two nights (pre-night plus IE standard pre-cruise night). I don’t know where the confusion came from since we had booked the extra night through IE but it was quickly straightened out and we did have the same room for both nights with an upgrade to the executive floor. Plus we had a regular reminder that Lima is in an earthquake zone.


The hotel is located in the business area of Lima and there wasn’t much to see or do in the area – not that we planned on doing anything in the hotel area. We had made other arrangements (see post – In Lima, Birding).

Breakfast was included and was excellent with Peruvian dishes, eggs, omelets, meats, French toast, fresh fruit (my first taste of passion fruit), juices (papaya, guava, grapefruit, etc.), muesli, yogurt, etc. What we noticed was that the selection of pastry was very small. Guess Peruvians do not eat pastry for breakfast. We ate dinner Friday night at the hotel's Gourmet Deli. With the 20% off coupon we got at check-in, we had a nice late night dinner for all of 55 Soles (about $19).








The tour officially started Saturday morning when we all boarded a luxurious bus for a morning tour of Lima. Having already toured downtown Lima on our previous visit, I expected this to be same-old, same-old. The bus took us to the main plaza where we disembarked for a two hour walking tour.



Well we were surprised when one of the places we walked to was a private house, originally owned by one of Pizzaro’s commanders. We got to see the inside of this beautifully maintained home. What a treat!














The remainder of the tour around central Lima were places we had already been to -- the Cathedral and the Catacombs, to name just two.  We simply waited it out, enjoying the people watching. Shortly before noon our bus picked us up and we were taken to the airport Ramada for a very nice lunch to be followed by our flight to Iquitos.

THE SHIP 

La Aquamarina is a small ship, with 12 cabins. One cabin on our sailing was a triple so we had 25 passengers. Cabins are on the main deck and one level up is an open seating area and the dining room.

The cabins are small, each holding two twin beds. But we had plenty of room. Our suitcases fit under the beds. The open “closet” had a hanging area (plenty of hangers), a shelf area below, then two small drawers and two larger drawers below that. Along with a desk and chair, and how light we travel, we had plenty of room. We hung most of our clothes, needing only one drawer apiece. I used the shelf below the hanging clothes for my “dresser top” and Jerry used the desk. There were also drawers in the desk and a night table between the beds.

The room had a safe and there was a key for the door. While we know some passengers used both, we used neither and had no problems. Generally, items could be left around (cameras, binoculars, books, etc.) and you would find them again right where you left them. Many people left cameras in the open seating area instead of taking them back into their air conditioned cabin -- thus avoiding the problem of a cold lens hitting the hot, muggy air and fogging up.

The outside seating area had a bar at one end and there was a cooler next to the bar that held beer, soda and water. Water was free and plentifully available throughout the trip. The cooler was on an honor basis, with passengers writing down what they took on a clipboard located on top of the bar. Also on the bar, during the day, were snacks like chips and nuts. At night, there were hot hors d’ouevres.



The dining room was small but comfortable, with food served buffet style. It was also where we had two power point presentations and where the band played at night. Coffee and tea were always available but I have to admit that the coffee needed a good dose from the nearby canister of Nestle chocolate to be palatable.

Food was mostly Peruvian style. Always a choice for vegetarians plus chicken and/or beef. It was delicious and there was never a shortage.

At breakfast and lunch we had a choice of two juices such as papaya, guava and mango. At dinner it was water unless you got an alcoholic beverage at the bar. The first night we were treated to a Welcome Aboard pisco sour and the last night we were treated to a glass of wine.

DAILY ROUTINE

Of course each day had special highlights but in general, the first part of the trip was strictly nature. From Sunday through Wednesday we made a minimum of two skiff excursions per day. Some days we made three, with an early morning departure (6:30 a.m.) and one night departure (7:30 p.m.). We would return for a meal and after lunch there was time for a siesta.

One day we left early ate breakfast on the skiff. Another time we left ate lunch at Ranger Station # 2 in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve.



The second part of the trip included culture, where we visited a village and had a wonderful time with the children, and also visited a shaman, where we learned about what he does and each of us received a blessing. (Later, there will be more detailed posts on these visits.)

Before dinner most nights there was a “battle of the bands.” Of course it was the same crew members each night but it was fun with the band having a different name each night. Three crew members plus our two naturalist guides entertained us. What talent!!! The story we were told is that one of the naturalist guides “found” the three musicians who were playing in bars, the airport and places like that. He persuaded the boat company to hire them and, once on board, they received training as cabin stewards, etc. At night they played and boy, it was a treat. I will be posting a video and I hope you come back to my blog and take a moment to watch it.

POST-CRUISE

We had a brief tour of Iquitos and a visit to a school. Lunch was at the top hotel in Iquitos. Guests were given their own room for a few hours, to freshen up and relax before flying back to Lima. I wanted to do some last minute shopping and arrangements were made for a guide to go with me to a local craft market.

Upon arrival in Lima, several passengers, including us, were going separate ways. We said goodbye in the lobby of the airport Ramada (where some where staying before their extension to Machu Picchu) and we were given passes to the airport's VIP lounge while we waited for our flight. (I spoke with my TA and she said she has NEVER heard of a tour company providing VIP passes -- IE is definitely a class act.)

--------------------------------


FINAL NOTES

In all fairness, I do need to write that not everything was 100% perfect but it was all minor.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post there was some confusion about our two night stay at the Swissotel. When we returned from our day of birding our key cards didn't work and we had to get them re-keyed.

We did not receive our Welcome letter from IE with departure information for Saturday morning (the day we were flying to Iquitos) until late on Friday. I would have felt more comfortable if it had been waiting for us when we checked in, especially with the confusion about the length of our stay.

Information we received from IE was that there was free laundry on board La Aquamarina on Wednesday. Actually, there was free laundry available every day. (If we had known this I would have brought even less clothes.....).

We were told the bar bill needed to be settled with a VISA card and only a VISA card. That turned out to be incorrect as the bar bill could also be settled with MasterCard and cash (either soles and dollars).

Finally, our lunch at El Dorado Hotel in Iquitos the last day, while tasty, was cold. The rooms, though, were more than adequate and Jerry enjoyed relaxing there while I was out shopping.

(There will be additional posts about this trip. All will have the Label "May 2012" so just click that at the bottom of this post to read more.)

No comments: