When considering an Amazon river cruise, most travellers' first thought is heading into the Amazon basin from Brazil, where the mighty river pours into the Atlantic Ocean. The Peruvian Amazon is a much lesser-known cruise destination but the experience and wildlife is just as special, and cruises can be particularly luxurious at the high-end.

The Peruvian Amazon is home to some extraordinary wildlife, with pink dolphins, caimans, giant otters and many more all on show. Make sure to book a cruise taking in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, home to three basins that are only accessible by water.

River cruises starting in Peru also offer more luxurious boats than either Brazil or Ecuador, with ships more akin to floating boutique hotels than river barges. Here's how to find and choose the best river cruises in the Peruvian Amazon.

What to expect on an Amazon river cruise

River cruises in the Peruvian Amazon begin in the city of Iquitos, which has daily direct flights from Lima. You’ll board your boat either in the port in Iquitos or in the town of Nauta. Nauta is about two hours from Iquitos by car or by speedboat, which will be arranged by your cruise agency.

From Iquitos, there are two main cruise routes. The first heads upriver to Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. The second heads downriver to Santa Rosa, located at a point where the borders of Peru, Colombia and Brazil all meet. Most cruises then return to Iquitos or Nauta, but if you head downriver to Santa Rosa, you might have the option of ending your cruise there and flying onwards.

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Red parrot on an Amazon cruise

Trips to Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve are the most popular. The vast reserve covers some 8,000 square miles of seasonally flooded rainforest and is home to a huge amount of wildlife. Your cruise boat will enter the reserve as far as its size and the season allows, after which you can explore further by canoe or kayak, or trek through the jungle. Either way, you’re guaranteed to see plenty of wildlife, including river dolphins, monkeys, sloths, turtles, hundreds of colourful birds and maybe some giant river otters.

As well as wildlife spotting, treks and kayak trips, your cruise will offer a range of other excursions from the boat (sometimes at an additional cost, so check in advance to see what’s included). You might have the option of camping for a night, either at a rustic but scenic rainforest campsite or at one of the jungle lodges scattered throughout the region. You might also have the chance to visit an indigenous tribal community, to get a feel for the traditional culture along the river. Fishing is also a popular activity, especially line fishing for piranhas. Some cruises might provide more advanced fishing gear, such as fly rods. Always check in advance to see what excursions and equipment a cruise offers. For example, the Delfin I cruise boat has paddleboards, while most other boats do not.

As for life on board, you can expect a level of comfort not often found in the Amazon, especially on a boat. While shore excursions will likely include plenty of mosquitoes and, at times, oppressive heat, you can rest assured that you’ll end the day in a cosy, dry and mercifully mosquito-free cabin.

The level of service on board depends on the boat you choose and its respective level of luxury. While you’ll never be slumming it on a river cruise, the higher-end options tend to have fewer passengers, and therefore more personalised service and more space. Whichever cruise you choose, the food onboard should be good, as Peruvians are very proud of their cuisine and the jungle has a wealth of ingredients. On the more luxurious boats, you can expect true gourmet dining.

Most popular Amazon river cruise boats

There are a wealth of options when it comes to choosing a boat for an Amazon river cruise in Peru. Here are five of the best to suit all budgets.

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Small boat excursion from Amazon river cruise boat

Perla

The Perla is arguably the best low-cost option for Amazon cruises, offering four- and seven-day itineraries to Pacaya-Samiria starting at $1,769. Capable of carrying 28 passengers, it doesn’t offer the heights of luxury found on some other boats, but it’s still a comfortable ride. It also has a shallow draught, giving it access to locations inaccessible to other cruise boats.

Amazon Star

The Amazon Star is a midrange option. It runs an eight-day itinerary starting at around $3,649. It’s not as luxurious as some other cruises, but it comes with a strong seal of approval: the trip was voted among National Geographic’s “25 Greatest Adventures in the World.” Includes Pacaya-Samiria.

Delfin I, II and III

The Delfin series of boats are some of the best on the river, and all three are excellent options. Delfin III is the largest with 22 cabins, and therefore the most affordable. Delfin II has 14 suites and all kinds of luxury facilities including a massage room, exercise room and an open bar. Delfin I, meanwhile, bills itself as a boutique riverboat and has the level of detail and craftsmanship you’d expect from a luxury boutique hotel. With just four suites, the personalised attention is hard to beat. Prices for the Delfin boats range from $2,779 to $4,369 for four days.

Zafiro

Launched in October 2015, the Zafiro is a state-of-the-art vessel that offers all kinds of modern services and facilities, including an outdoor jacuzzi. All of its 19 spacious suites have air conditioning, and one suite is designed for passengers with mobility issues. It may lack the traditional charm of some of the other boats, but it certainly has plenty of style. Four-day cruises, which include Pacaya-Samiria, start at $2,779.

Aria Amazon

Designed by the renowned Peruvian architect Jordi Puig, the Aria Amazon is widely considered the most luxurious riverboat on the Peruvian Amazon. All of its sixteen suites have panoramic views of the river and guests can enjoy an outdoor jacuzzi, a bar stocked with Chilean and Argentinean wines, and exercise and massage rooms. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find better food on any other cruise: the gourmet menu was designed by Peruvian celebrity chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino. The 32 passenger capacity is higher than some of the other boats, but for sheer luxury, the Aria Amazon is hard to beat. Four-day itineraries start at $3,645.

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Delfin cruise boat on the Amazon

Amazon river cruise FAQs

How long do river cruises in the Amazon take?

Most Amazon river cruises last from four to eight days, but you’ll also find luxury trips that can last 10 days or more. The lengthier cruises (10+ days) are often billed as expeditions and have fewer departures. As such, they typically require more advanced reservations, sometimes of six months or more.

How much does an Amazon river boat cruise cost?

Amazon cruises tend to be expensive, but the cost depends greatly on the boat and the level of luxury offered. In general, you can expect to pay anywhere from $400 to $1000 per day. A four-day cruise aboard the Perla, for example, starts at around $1,769, while four days on the Delfin I will set you back around $4,369. These prices are above the budgets of most backpackers, but there are alternatives to cruises. In Iquitos and Yurimaguas, you can arrange boat trips into Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve for around $100 a day, but don’t expect anywhere near the luxury found on a proper cruise. You’ll probably be on a small boat with an outboard motor, and your lodging will consist of stilted wooden shacks on the riverbank. Alternatively, you can rough it on one of the cargo boats that run between Yurimaguas and Iquitos and Pucallpa and Iquitos.

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A floating house in Iquitos, Peru

When is the best time of year to go on an Amazon river cruise?

The Peruvian Amazon experiences two different seasons: high water season from November through May, and low water season from June to October. Always be prepared for rain, however, as the region experiences around 200 days of rain each year.

The high water and low water seasons both have pros and cons. During the high water season, the river levels rise by more than 20 feet. This means boats can push further into the jungle along the Amazon’s many tributaries. It also means you’ll be closer to the jungle canopy, creating more opportunities to see birds, sloths, monkeys and other tree-dwellers. Temperatures are also cooler compared to the low water season, hovering around 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius). On the downside, more water means more mosquitoes. Trekking opportunities are also greatly reduced, as most trails are flooded or boggy.

The low water season is warmer, with average daytime temperatures around 98 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius), but with fewer mosquitoes. You won’t be able to venture so far into the jungle by boat, but you will be able to trek along the dry trails, making this the best season if you want to hike in the rainforest during your cruise. You’ll also see more wildlife down by the shallow bodies of water, including plenty of caimans, storks and maybe giant river otters. This is also the best season for fishing, whether its sport fishing for peacock bass or throwing a line out for piranhas.

What should you pack for an Amazon cruise?

Bring comfortable clothing to wear while relaxing aboard your riverboat. It’s unlikely you’ll need anything formal, as things tend to be casual even on the most luxurious cruises. You’ll need lightweight trousers and long-sleeved shirts for use while trekking or during other shore excursions, which will help prevent mosquito bites and sunburn.

Comfortable walking shoes are a must, as well as a lightweight waterproof jacket, sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, mosquito repellent and sunscreen. Take your camera and don’t forget your charger, extra batteries and storage for your photos. You might find that binoculars, waterproof ponchos and rubber boots are provided onboard your cruise, but check in advance. You’ll probably visit local communities along the river, in which case you might want to bring some small gifts. T-shirts, pens, pencils and notebooks are always appreciated.

Are Amazon river cruises safe?

All Amazon cruise boats should be fully kitted out with first aid supplies, life vests, lifeboats, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, emergency flares and a satellite phone for emergencies. At least one crew member will also be a trained first-aid professional.

In terms of potential dangers from wildlife, especially during excursions, your trained guides will most likely be highly experienced locals who know the jungle as well as anyone. They will be with you at all times, and passengers are not allowed to leave the boat alone for safety reasons. And don’t worry about piranhas: they may have a fearsome reputation, but they pose no significant threat to humans (but if you go fishing for piranhas, keep your fingers away from the snapping end of these feisty little fish -- they certainly don’t appreciate being on the end of a line).

Since 2016, many cruise boats also have one or more armed guards on board. This became more common following the assault on the Amazon Discovery cruise boat in 2016, which was boarded by bandits who robbed the passengers and crew of goods worth about $20,000. While this is obviously worrying, it is highly unlikely that such an assault would happen during your cruise. If you have any concerns about this or would like further details about armed security onboard, contact your cruise operator for more information.

Best river cruises in the Peruvian Amazon

Tony Dunnell

Tony has been living in Peru since 2009. He has also written on a range of subjects for publications such as Atlas Obscura, Vice, Mental Floss, and many more. You can see more of his writing at tonydunnell.com.

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