kind, Julio warned us as he pointed out the spiky-trunked catahua, a tree whose sap is poisonous and used in darts (“Put a drop in your eye and you’ll go blind”)—but its bark is good for warding off negative spirits, he said.
At one point, Julio cracked the shell of a termite mound and asked for a volunteer. Instinctively—or foolishly?—i raised my arm. “Put your hand in,” he said. I did so and termites enveloped it. “Don’t worry, they don’t bite… much,” he quipped. After a minute, he told me to brush off the termites; they left behind sticky trails with a pleasing woody aroma. “This is a natural insect repellent the tribes use,” he explained.
Less appealing was the slender palo santo, which Julio knew as the “punishment tree.” He tapped the trunk and legions of biting red fire ants streamed out of a small hole. “When we were young and naughty, our parents made us hold the trunk for 10 minutes— and we learned to not be naughty again.” The two-hour jungle stroll was equal parts edifying, inspiring and alarming. Here ants or snakes could attack but, if you knew where to look, a cure was close at hand. We returned to the skiffs, where Julio handed us cold towels and chilled Cusqueña beer.
More delights awaited back on the Aria, whose sleek black hull houses 16 cabins that turn traditional stateroom design on its head. The cabins measure a generous 270 square feet, and feature a king-sized bed and a welcome shower roomy enough for two. Three floor-to-ceiling panes of glass act as the fourth wall and almost place you directly on the mighty river.
The ship has three passenger decks: two host the accommodation and dining room, while the top floor has a library and lounge, a shaded observation area, a teeny gym and massage rooms. Each day supplies a couple of enlightening excursions, but the pauses in between are restorative pockets of decompression where you leave the world behind—quite literally, since there is no internet or phone coverage on board.
Days settle into a comforting rhythm. A wake-up call comes well after sunrise, then a fortifying breakfast of fruit, cereal, yoghurt and eggs, followed by a morning excursion. Lunch is light, with cuisine that celebrates Peru’s wealth of endemic products, including such superfoods as quinoa and kiwicha. The evenings’ fine-dining tasting menus come with fantastic South American wines. Free time, carefully built into the itineraries, allows for post-prandial siestas, sipping of pisco sours on the deck and watching fishermen idle in their dugouts, or the opportunity to mingle with the affable guides, easily accessible given the Aria’s Lilliputian dimensions.
Excursions are planned so as not to be repetitive. “Today we look for dolphins, jaguars, caimans and anacondas,” our guide, another man named Julio, declared as we headed towards the Pacaya- Samiria National Reserve after an early rise. “And we’ll fish for piranhas,” he added—a statement met with gasps of apprehension. Patches of mist rose from the river as the climbing sun heated the air. The still water acted as a mirror, reflecting the tender clouds and flanking columns of green trees. Swathes of wild cane, used for fishing rods because it floats, rose from the shallows and swayed above the river banks.
One side of the river appeared eroded, the other built up, the result of the action of the currents. Clumps of water hyacinth floated by and the fragrance of orchids scented the air. A pod of river dolphins appeared, their fleshy pink backs rhythmically breaking the surface of the water. Everyone buzzed with excitement some minutes later when we spied a family of capybaras—rodents the size of shorn sheep—scurrying into a thatch of fallen