Day 1: Lima, Peru
Our adventure begins in Peru's capital of Lima, where you are met on arrival at the airport and transferred to our accommodations. Dinner this evening is on your own—ask our Expedition Leader about the best places to experience Lima's up-and-coming Peruvian fusion dining scene.
Day 2: Cusco
Fly to Cusco this morning with lunch on arrival followed by 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 ornately gilded colonial churches. At Sacsayhuaman outside town, enormous granite stonework 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 3: Cusco / Sacred Valley of the Incas—Chinchero
Before departing Cusco, we visit sprawling San Pedro Market, where the aroma of handmade tortillas and fragrant spices fills the air and women in traditional Andean dress sell their wares along the streets. Inside, the groceries on display range from dried alpaca to shaman herbs, to coca leaf candy. The Sacred Valley beckons, and we leave the city behind, following the Urubamba River as it courses through centuries-old agricultural lands still farmed today. With a focus on the Sacred Valley’s less-frequented sites, we explore the town of Maras and visit traditional textile weavers at Chinchero, a small indigenous village high on the windswept Anta plains. Lunch is served in Urubamba, and if time permits, we might explore Chinchero town, which enjoys beautiful views of the Sacred Valley and Cordillera Vilcabamba, with the snowcapped profile of Salcantay dominating the western horizon. In Inca legend, Chinchero is the mythical birthplace of the rainbow. We may also walk around the sleepy village of Yucay, with its impressive colonial downtown and legacy as an early capital of the Inca Empire.
Day 4: Ollantaytambo / Maras & Moray
The Incas’ vast empire was connected by 10,000 miles of stone roads linking far-flung reaches 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 we visit the ruins of Ollantaytambo, a small town surrounded by terraced mountainsides. Ollantaytambo 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. We also visit Moray, an Inca site that's over 500 years old, where giant natural sinkholes have been 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, we explore the salt mines of Maras, 3,000 small pools mined by the Incas centuries ago and still worked by locals to this day.
Day 5: Machu Picchu
After an early breakfast, return to Ollantaytambo to embark on the famous train to Machu Picchu. The 1.5-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 the final stretch to the ancient "Lost City of the Incas." The storied ruins soon come into view as Machu Picchu rises above the jungle-cloaked mountaintop like a vision in the sky. Although Machu Picchu is undoubtedly the best-known archaeological site on the continent, it manages 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 retreat to the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, an Andean-style luxury retreat on the Urubamba River with 300 species of orchids on the grounds. Tucked 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, the colonial-style private casitas are furnished with traditional handicrafts, tile floors and cedar furniture. Enjoy the many gardens and terraces, as well as the hotel's main house with its 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 for further discovery 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 taking a walk on one of the many well-maintained trails surrounding our hotel. 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 of Machu Picchu. The Incas established 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. This hike is not recommended for guests with physical limitations. Should entrances for Wayna Picchu be sold out, an equally challenging hike to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain will be available. This afternoon, we catch the return train to Ollantaytambo and drive back to Cusco. Once we check in to our hotel, we'll head out for dinner in the city, possibly in the San Blas art district.
Day 7: Cusco / Lima / Iquitos / Nauta—Embark
Fly to Lima this morning and 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. We 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 river journey aboard the Delfin II.
Aboard, the ship soon glides into the broad expanse of the Ucayali, one of the Amazon's two largest tributaries, which runs turbid with silt the color of milk chocolate. On the observation deck, our guides conduct a brief orientation using videos and maps. They'll preview our river journey, including the places we will visit, the wildlife we're seeking and a brief history and geography of the Amazon Basin. As dusk falls, enjoy a gourmet dinner with the river in view outside picture 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: Pacaya Samiria National Reserve—Belluda Caño Creek / Dorado River
As day breaks, we awaken in the heart of the vast Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a flooded forest covering 5 million acres—nearly 10,000 square miles—at the headwaters of the Amazon. As the sun rises over the canopy near the origin of the world's greatest water artery, we head out in skiffs for Belluda Caño Creek. This small tributary is a prime spot to seek out pink and gray river dolphins. These freshwater-adapted dolphins are highly social cetaceans—and especially intelligent with a brain capacity 40% larger than humans. As we travel, look upward, too, for active birdlife in the skies.
This afternoon, explore the Dorado River by skiff. Cruising at a lazy pace, search for the Amazon's transitional forest species, such as snail kites, brilliant parrots, endangered scarlet macaws, olive-spotted hummingbirds, Amazonian parrotlets and wood creepers, among others. Later, as night falls, our environment is transformed. An orchestra 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, opossums, nighthawks and caimans are frequently spotted along the narrow river's banks. Masked by the cloak of the night, the biodiversity is amazing. Back aboard the ship, enjoy a cocktail under the stars on the upper deck before dinner is served.
Day 9: Clavero Lagoon / Yarapa River / Puerto Miguel
On a morning excursion to Clavero Lagoon, look for several species of egrets, herons, hawks and long-legged neo-tropical cormorants fishing for breakfast. Traveling by skiff, we explore other linked blackwater lagoons that are part of this huge water system. Wattled jacanas compete for food with spiders, and grasshoppers and butterflies thrive along the grassy edges of freshwater swamps and marshes. In the lush rain forest, watch for large blue and yellow macaws flying overhead and two-toed sloths sleeping in the trees. At every turn, our guides reveal the secrets and surprises of the jungle.
This afternoon, the Delfin II continues upstream to reach the Yarapa River, a pristine tributary of the Amazon, where we have the option to paddle kayaks. Turning into the Yarapa's remote reaches, watch for troops of curious squirrel monkey and colorful birds such as the plum-throated cotinga. We'll also look for gray and pink dolphins swimming alongside. Local lore teaches that dolphins turn into humans during celebrations to steal handsome men or pretty women from their villages.
Later in the day, travel a short distance by skiff to Puerto Miguel, a riverside village where we meet residents whose indigenous culture has been a part of this region for centuries. We may visit the school where children are always very happy to greet visitors, then stop by the local women's arts and crafts market to admire and purchase handicrafts. These sales help support the community and empower women artisans, indirectly helping to preserve local wildlife, since income generated decreases the propensity for illegal hunting. This evening, under the dark cloak of an Amazonian night sky, the ship's multitalented staff enlivens the final night of our Amazon voyage with live music.
Day 10: Nauta—Disembark / Iquitos / Lima / Depart
As we return to the port of Nauta, it's time to disembark, and our ground crew awaits to drive us back to Iquitos. En route to the airport, we visit the Rescue & Rehabilitation Center for River Mammals. 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 into their natural habitat. We'll have the chance to see baby manatees and interact with charming, docile adults, maybe even helping to feed them. Other animals are also cared for at the center, often rescued from capture with the intention of being held as pets.
Our grand adventure comes to a close as we check in for our return flight to Lima, where we connect with late-night flights home. Day rooms are provided at the Wyndham Costa del Sol at the Lima airport.