Discover Amazon & Machu Picchu
Day 2: Cusco
Fly to Cusco this morning and transfer to the Hotel Libertador Palacio del Inka, a former colonial palace that's now one of the finest hotels in the city, located just two blocks from the main plaza. Enjoy lunch and an afternoon city tour with our Expedition Leader. Nestled in a high valley in the Andes, Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire until Spanish conquistadors destroyed the civilization during their 16th-century colonial quest. We stroll the narrow cobbled streets, steeped in history and intrigue, stopping to admire the remnants of the Inca Wall, the Plaza de Armas, and scores of ornately gilded colonial churches. At the ruins of Sacsayhuaman outside town, a mosaic of enormous granite stonework offers the most vivid example of Inca walls in the Cusco area. Due to the exceptionally advanced building techniques of the Incas, the walls have survived earthquakes that devastated the city of Cusco in the valley just below.
Day 3: The Sacred Valley of the Incas
Today we imagine what it was like to live as the Incas did. Walking among centuries-old ruins in the Sacred Valley, we marvel at the massive granite stones so perfectly joined together that even a pocketknife blade cannot fit between them. This full-day guided excursion takes us along the rushing Urubamba River past tawny hillsides dotted with traditional villages and backdropped by the knife-edged peaks of the Andes. We stop to see the magnificent Inca ruins at Pisac, where we may have time to visit the colorful Quechua Indian market in town. At Awana Kancha, a cultural exhibition center, we'll witness traditional textile weaving and meet llamas, alpacas and guanacos, the iconic animals of the Andes whose wool is used in a multitude of garments and blankets.
After lunch in Urubamba, we explore Ollantaytambo, a small town surrounded by steep terraced mountainsides. Ollantaytambo rests on traditional Inca foundations and is one of the best surviving examples of Inca city planning. We spend the night at Posada Yucay in Urubamba, a charming hacienda-style accommodation with Spanish archways, balconies, tile roofs and colorful stucco exteriors. The inn, which was originally a monastery dating back 350 years, has been painstakingly restored. Its historic ambience is reflected throughout the property's colonial-style courtyards, lush gardens, a private museum of Peruvian artifacts and small chapel.
Day 4: Maras, Moray & Chinchero
Today we visit the salt mines of Maras, 3,000 small pools mined by the Incas centuries ago and still worked by locals today. We also visit Moray, an Inca site more than 500 years old where giant natural sinkholes have been converted into terraced farming areas. Some archaeologists believe these served as an agricultural experiment where Inca cultivators took advantage of microclimates provided by different elevations. Our exploration of the region is complete with a stop at Chinchero, a small Andean Indian village located high on the windswept plains of Anta. From here there are beautiful views overlooking the Sacred Valley with the Cordillera Vilcabamba and the snowcapped peak of Salcantay dominating the western horizon. In Inca legend, Chinchero is the mythical birthplace of the rainbow.
Day 5: Machu Picchu
After an early breakfast, return to Ollantaytambo to embark on the famous train to Machu Picchu. The 1½-hour journey winds through verdant mountains, snaking through an ever-narrowing gorge to finally reach the village of Aguas Calientes, where a bus awaits to take us on the final stretch to the ancient “Lost City of the Incas.” The magnificent ruins are soon in view as Machu Picchu rises above the jungle-cloaked forest like a vision in the sky. Although Machu Picchu is undoubtedly the best-known archaeological site on the continent, it has managed to retain an air of mystery. Our Expedition Leader interprets it all as we explore the vast labyrinth of ruins, full of complex passageways, steep staircases and hidden niches. We begin to picture life here in the 15th century, when 1,200 people lived within this maze of granite walls and temples.
Tonight we stay at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, an Andean-style luxury retreat on the river with 300 species of orchids on the grounds. Beautifully nestled into a forested hillside in the town of Aguas Calientes, this stunning property was named one of Travel + Leisure’s top 100 hotels. Constructed from eucalyptus wood and stone, each of the 40 colonial-style private casitas is furnished with traditional handicrafts, tile floors and cedar furniture. Enjoy the many gardens and terraces, as well as the hotel’s main house, which offers a spacious lounge, cozy fireplace and books on the area and its history.
Day 6: Machu Picchu & Cusco
After breakfast, return to the ruins at Machu Picchu to explore further with our Expedition Leader. Or, you may prefer to spend time in Aguas Calientes, soaking in the hot springs for which the town is named, or enjoying a walk on one of the many well-maintained trails surrounding our hotel. This afternoon we catch the return train to Ollantaytambo and transfer by road the remainder of way to Cusco. Upon arrival, we check in once more to the Hotel Libertador before heading out for dinner in the San Blas art district of the city.
Day 7: Cusco to Lima / Iquitos
This morning we fly to Lima, where we'll have lunch before flying on to Iquitos. Crossing the spine of the Andes, we arrive at this remote urban outpost by early evening. Iquitos, once a booming rubber town, is isolated in a vast tract of jungle and can only be reached by air or water. On arrival we transfer to the wharf to board the Aqua Amazon, the Upper Amazon's first luxury cruise vessel. Once we've settled into our oversized suites, the ship is soon gliding into the broad expanse of one of the Amazon River’s largest tributaries, turbid with silt and the color of milk chocolate. During the days ahead we'll sail up the two largest tributaries of the Amazon, the Ucayali and Marañón rivers, as well as various smaller side rivers and creeks. After a briefing by our cruise director and local native guides, we sit down to an elegant dinner with the mighty river in view outside the picture windows. The ship’s chef is schooled in the creative preparation of Peruvian cuisine accented with a European touch, and each meal is a memorable new discovery.
Day 8: Amazon / Tahuayo River / Charo Lake / Yacapana Island
Wake early this morning for a skiff excursion on the river, listening to the symphony of birds as the sun rises over the green world of Amazonia. Then, after a lavish breakfast buffet back aboard the Aqua, we take to the skiffs to explore the Tahuayo River, a blackwater tributary of the great mother river itself. The river, while clear, is the color of dark tea, an effect of the tannins deposited by the rich vegetation along the banks. Life jackets, ponchos, rubber boots and plenty of cold potable water are provided.
As we float with the lazy current, our senses are immersed in the layers of life encompassing us. Fishermen glide by, paddling dugout canoes. Birds squawk and swoop overhead, and we may see terns, orioles and black-collared hawks. Monkeys rattle the trees as they swing through the branches. If we look closely, we may even see a sloth hanging there. At every turn, our guides reveal the secrets of the rain forest. At Charo Lake we have a chance to fish for piranha, its sharp teeth no impediment to the local people who value it highly for food.
After a siesta, a magical excursion awaits late this afternoon as we board the skiffs to cruise through the Yacapana Islands, watching for gray and pink river dolphins as we glide. Yacapana in the local language means 'iguana,' and these gentle reptiles are everywhere, lazing on the ground and resting in the treetops. In the descending dusk we may spot squirrel monkeys, tiger herons, snowy egrets and horned screamers; then, as night falls, our environs are transformed. An orchestra of sounds evolves as nocturnal creatures awaken, with crickets and night birds providing a percussive song. In the darkness, our guides use spotlights to search for wildlife: frogs, opposums, nighthawks and caimans are frequently spotted along the narrow river's banks. The biodiversity, masked by the cloak of the night sky, is amazing. Back aboard ship we return to a more refined world, in time to enjoy a cocktail beneath the stars on the upper deck before dinner is served.
Day 9: Maranon River / Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
Two choices are offered for today’s activities:
Option 1 is a full-day excursion deep into the jungle by skiff and on foot. We travel up Yanayacu Creek to remote Chingana, a smaller creek where giant river otters nest. Once abundant, these animals were nearly wiped out for their pelts and are now threatened with extinction. Along the way we keep an eye out for howler and capuchin monkeys, tamarins, pink and gray river dolphins, and a vast display of birds. We’ll learn about the important medical value of jungle plants and crane our necks as we peer up the convoluted trunks of the massive kapok trees, the tallest in the Amazon Basin. Our outing includes a picnic lunch at the park ranger station.
Option 2 is a morning jungle walk and afternoon expedition in search of river dolphins and monkeys. On our guided excursion, a park ranger tells us about sustainable resource management projects in Amazonia, and we visit one such project where villagers are planting palms for oil. Lunch is served back aboard the Aqua, with time afterward to relax. In the late afternoon we set out in search of freshwater dolphins, including the distinctive pink ones frequently seen in this region. Alligators are often visible along the banks, too. Then, we aim our gaze high into the treetops, looking for the 13 species of monkeys that reside in the park. We might glimpse tamarins, dusky titis, pygmy marmosets and howler monkeys, whose eerie wail resounds through the forest like a gale wind. A frenzy of tropical birds also camps among the canopy—more than 200 species in all—so we keep our binoculars close at hand.
After dinner, an optional night skiff excursion provides a chance to look for caiman, fishing bats, tree boas and tarantulas. As we sleep, the Aqua continues upstream toward the birthplace of the Amazon—the dramatic point at which the Ucayali and Marañón unite to form the great mother river herself.
Day 10: Birthplace of the Amazon / Puerto Prado / Lima / Home
As day breaks, the Aqua Amazon arrives at the edge of the vast Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a flooded forest covering nearly 8,000 square miles at the headwaters of the Amazon. We wake early to view a moving natural spectacle: the sun rising over the genesis of the Amazon River. Here at the confluence of two major tributaries, the Ucayali and the Marañón, the world’s greatest water artery is born. Our dawn outing is accompanied by abundant bird song, as we glide in small boats past large-billed terns, laughing falcons, gray tanagers, sandpipers, short-tailed parrots, five kinds of parakeets and a host of other birds. After breakfast we set out for a native village where we have the opportunity to meet the local people, learn about their culture and customs, and purchase traditional handicrafts.
On the way back to the Aqua we navigate a small connector canal between the Ucayali and Marañon rivers where we'll have a chance to see giant water lilies, also called “Victoria Regias,” the world's largest aquatic plant. The night-blooming white flowers, a foot in diameter, grace the six-foot-wide spiny green platters on which they rest.
After lunch aboard, we disembark the ship. En route to the airport we visit the Manatee Rescue Center, where biologists and volunteers care for endangered Amazon manatees that conservation authorities have seized from and fishermen and locals who have captured them illegally. Biologists will discuss efforts to help these vulnerable mammals, including how they are prepared for re-introduction into their natural habitat.
Late this afternoon, our Amazon adventure comes to a close as we check in for our return flight to Lima. On arrival, we enjoy a farewell dinner together before being escorted to the airport for late-night flights home.
Please note: This is a sample itinerary. Activities in the Amazon may vary at different times of the year according to water level and conditions.