Day 1: Lima, Peru
Our adventure begins in Peru's cosmopolitan capital of Lima, where you are met on arrival at the airport and transferred to our hotel. Enjoy dinner on your own this evening.
Day 2: Cusco / Pisac
Fly this morning to Cusco, heart of the once-grand Inca Empire. From the indigenous Quechua word qosq’o, Cusco means the “navel of the earth.” Set in a high Andean valley, Cusco was founded in the 12th century and thrived until Spanish conquistadors destroyed the Inca civilization in their 16th-century colonial quest. We learn more about this fabled city as we explore the main plaza before departing for the Sacred Valley. Explore the 16th-century village of Pisac, famous for its colorful market where vendors in traditional Andean dress sell their handcrafted wares. This community on the Vilcanota River and its Inca ruins are surrounded by ancient agricultural terraces that remain in use to this day. Ultimately, we reach our luxurious hacienda-style hotel near Huayllabamba to spend two nights in the heart of the Sacred Valley.
Day 3: Exploring the Sacred Valley of the Incas
The treasures of the Sacred Valley unfold today as we follow the Urubamba River past tawny hillsides dotted with traditional villages, small farms and Incan architectural ruins. The original vast empire of the Incas was connected by a network of 10,000 miles of stone roads woven through the imposing terrain of the Andes. This was no small feat, given the steep slopes and high-altitude terrain. Suspension bridges spanned rivers and aqueducts carried water from mountain streams to irrigate terraced fields of crops, vestiges of which we see on our journey today, backdropped by knife-edged peaks.
At Moray, an Inca site more than 500 years old, we see where giant natural sinkholes were converted into circular terraced farming areas. Some archaeologists believe these served as an agricultural experiment where Inca cultivators took advantage of microclimates provided by different elevations. After a picnic lunch, explore the salt mines of Maras, 3,000 small pools mined by the Incas centuries ago and still worked by locals to this day. We also visit Chinchero, a small Indigenous village with terraced ruins high on the windswept Anta plains. From here, survey dramatic views over the Cordillera Vilcabamba and snowy summit of Salcantay dominating the western horizon. In Inca legend, Chinchero is the mythical birthplace of the rainbow. With a focus on less-frequented sites in the Sacred Valley, we may also stop to explore the sleepy village of Yucay, once an important center in the Inca Empire, if time permits. Back at our hotel, relax on your private patio before dinner, drinking in views of the valley and imposing green peaks.
Day 4: Ollantaytambo / Vistadome Train to Aguas Calientes / Machu Picchu
Continue to Ollantaytambo, where we stop to explore the impressive ruins before boarding our train. This small town rests on traditional Inca foundations and is one of the best surviving examples of Inca city planning. The spectacular Inca fortress at the top of the hill stands as a rare location where Spanish conquistadors were defeated. Then it’s time to board our Vistadome car for a 1-1/2-hour rail journey along the Urubamba River, which narrows into turbulent whitewater as we travel deeper into the mountains. The views of the near-vertical Andes slopes get more spectacular with every curve in the track. At the village of Aguas Calientes, we disembark and board a bus for the short final stretch to Machu Picchu, the ancient "Lost City of the Incas."
The storied ruins soon come into view, rising above the jungle-cloaked mountaintop like a vision in the sky, piercing the clouds. Although Machu Picchu is undoubtedly the best-known archaeological site on the continent, it retains an air of mystery. We are joined by a local Machu Picchu tour guide who helps to interpret all we see as we explore the labyrinth of granite houses, temples and cisterns, complex passageways and steep staircases. Llamas wander among terraced steps that once grew maize and potatoes for some 1,200 inhabitants who lived here in the 15th century. Archaeologists believe Machu Picchu may have been a royal estate and religious retreat, based on its sacred geography and astronomical orientation. Important ceremonies were conducted here, including a winter solstice rite at which a priest would “tie the sun” to a hitching post stone to prevent it from disappearing altogether.
Stay tonight at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, tucked into a forested hillside near the town of Aguas Calientes. Our private casitas are surrounded by the thick greenery of the cloud forest where more than 300 varieties of orchids grace the grounds of this secluded luxury retreat on the river.
Day 5: Machu Picchu / Cusco
This morning we return to Machu Picchu for further exploration, with unscripted time for personal discovery. Among the ruins, take the opportunity to ponder, in Hiram Bingham’s words, the “bewildering romance” of a place that “appears to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed.” Or, for those who are inclined and in shape, hike to the top of Wayna Picchu, the imposing mountain that provides the famous backdrop for the ruins in classic photos. The Incas constructed the original trail to the top, where they built temples and farming terraces. Local myth holds that the summit of Wayna Picchu was the residence for the high priest of the ancient city. This challenging hike takes 2-3 hours and climbs approximately 1,200 feet from the base at Machu Picchu, ascending a steep face using stairs and cables for support. The hike is not recommended for guests with physical limitations or those with a fear of heights. Should entrance tickets for Wayna Picchu be sold out, an equally challenging hike to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain may be available. This afternoon, we catch the return train to Ollantaytambo and drive back to Cusco.
Day 6: Cusco—City Tour / Sacsayhuaman
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. Today we take a guided tour, delving into Cusco's layered history as we stroll the narrow cobblestone streets, steeped in intrigue, stopping to admire the remnants of the Inca Wall, the Plaza de Armas and ornately gilded colonial churches. Continuing to Sacsayhuaman outside town, witness the enormous granite stonework that offers the most vivid example of Inca walls in the Cusco area. Walk among the centuries-old ruins and marvel at the massive granite stones so perfectly joined together that even a pocketknife blade cannot fit between them. 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 7: Cusco / Lima / Iquitos / Nauta—Embark Ship
Fly to Lima this morning, then on to Iquitos. Crossing the spine of the Andes, we arrive at this remote urban outpost that was once a booming rubber town. Today, Iquitos is isolated in a vast tract of jungle and can only be reached by air or water. Continue to Nauta, about 60 miles away, in a comfortable private vehicle over paved roads. Passing scenes of daily life in the rain forest, we reach this small riverside town on the banks of the Marañon River that is literally the "end of the road"—and our embarkation point for our journey aboard the Delfin II. The ship is soon gliding into the broad expanse of the river, one of the Amazon's two largest tributaries, turbid with silt the color of milk chocolate. On the observation deck, our guides conduct a brief preview of our river journey, covering the places we will visit, the wildlife we'll hope to see, and a brief history and geography of the Amazon Basin. As dusk falls, enjoy a gourmet dinner with the river in view outside panoramic windows. The chef is skilled in the creative preparation of Peruvian cuisine accented with an international touch, and each meal is a memorable new discovery.
Day 8: Amazon Natural Park—Canopy Walk / Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
This morning, we stop at Amazon Natural Park for a canopy walk. Suspended 85 feet above the ground, the walkways extend a third of a mile through the upper tier of the rain forest—one of the longest canopy walks in the world. The treetops provide an excellent vantage point for observing the terra firma forest, including walking palms and trees festooned with epiphytes. Later today, we board kayaks or skiffs to travel farther up the Marañon to a virtually unvisited section of the vast Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, where the Yanayacu and Pucate rivers meet. Established in 1982 to preserve the exceptional biodiversity of the northern Amazon wilderness, this 5-million-acre sanctuary comprising the Amazon's headwaters is Peru's largest protected area. Much of the nearly 10,000 square miles covered by the reserve is flooded forest. Giant kapok and strangler fig trees along the riverbanks shelter a multitude of wildlife, and our Expedition Leaders explain the various micro-ecosystems found here in one of the most pristine parts of the reserve.
Later, as darkness descends, our environment is transformed. Back on board the Delfin II, head up to the top deck to listen to the symphony of night sounds in the forest, featuring a lively orchestra of nocturnal creatures like crickets and night birds that provide a percussive song. Under the cloak of night, spotlights reveal hidden wildlife: frogs, opossums, nighthawks and caimans are frequently spotted along the narrow river's banks.
Day 9: Ucayali & Marañon Confluence / Yarapa River / San Jose de Paranapura
Awaken in the confluence of the Ucayali and Marañon rivers where they join to form the main stem of the mighty Amazon River. We explore the confluence on an early-morning skiff ride. After breakfast, we cruise into the Ucayali River to reach the mouth of a remote tributary of the Upper Amazon, the Yarapa River, where we board skiffs to watch for colorful birds such as the plum-throated cotinga, and look for pink and gray river dolphins that sometimes slice gracefully through the water alongside us. These freshwater cetaceans are highly social, friendly and intelligent. According to local lore, the dolphins turn into humans during celebrations to steal handsome men or pretty women from their villages. As we explore the Yarapa's remote reaches, look up, too, to spy troops of curious squirrel monkeys.At every turn, our guides reveal the secrets and surprises of the jungle.
Later, we disembark for a short skiff ride to San Jose de Paranapura, a riverside village where we meet Indigenous residents whose culture has been present here for centuries. At the arts and crafts market, we can purchase items that support the community and empower women artisans. Sales indirectly help preserve local fauna, since income generated decreases the pull of illegal hunting. We also visit with the prestigious local shaman, known throughout the region as a healer and spiritual guide for residents living throughout the area’s remote reaches. Learn the uses for various medicinal plants sourced from the largest pharmacy in the world—the Amazon rain forest—then return to the Delfin II for dinner.
Day 10: Nauta—Disembark / Iquitos / Lima / Depart
Disembark in Nauta this morning, then visit the Rescue & Rehabilitation Center for River Mammals en route to Iquitos. Here, biologists and volunteers care primarily for endangered Amazon manatees that conservation authorities have seized from fishermen and locals who have captured them illegally. Scientists discuss efforts to help these vulnerable mammals, including how they are prepared for reintroduction to their natural habitat. We'll get to see baby manatees and interact with charming, docile adults—maybe even helping to feed them. The center also cares for other animals that are often rescued after being captured as pets. Leaving the rain forest behind, we fly together to Lima. For your convenience, we have booked overnight hotel rooms at a comfortable airport hotel. Relax in your own private space until your overnight flight home, or take advantage of the opportunity for a full night's stay and depart the following morning.
Please Note: This itinerary is meant as a guideline and can change due to weather conditions, internal flight schedules and river water levels. On some occasions, these conditions may require us to deviate from our intended itinerary, in which case we will provide the best available alternative. And we'll make a great adventure of it!