Francesco Galli Zugaro, CEO and founder of Aqua Expeditions, dreamt of taking visitors to the Amazon rainforest, one of the world’s last great unexplored frontiers.
In the mid-2000s, Zugaro worked as the vice-president of marketing and sales for Ocean Adventures, a boutique cruise company in the Galapagos. It was there that he recognised that he had an opportunity to fulfil his Amazonian dream.
He says: “I realised that I might be able to offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the Amazon. It was clear that I could give people the same level of comfort I’d been promoting in the Galapagos.”
Investing in the construction of two luxury expedition vessels, Zugaro began to parlay his enthusiasm into reality. Built to the company’s own specifications, he took delivery of the MV Aqua in 2008, followed by its sister ship, MV Aria in 2011. Both vessels were designed with the intention of providing luxury excursions in Peru’s Pacaya Samiria National Park, the second largest reserve in the Amazon region and one of its most protected areas.
MV Aqua takes in 24 passengers
As Millie Alva-Smith, Aqua Expeditions’ director of sales and marketing, explains, both the all-suite Aqua and Aria were designed to bring the sights and sounds of the Amazon as close as possible to their passengers. The floor-to-ceiling windows found in the cabins, bar-lounge and restaurant frame nature at its most exotic and ethereal. Meanwhile, from the open-air observation deck, passing landscapes can be appreciated with even more intensity.
The vessels’ small capacity – 24 guests on Aqua and 32 guests on Aria – ensure the on-board experience is an intimate one. The crew, guides and guests regularly interact with each other, establishing life-long friendships. Alva-Smith says: “All of the staff are from the Amazon, and can answer any questions that clients may ask along the way.”
In such an atmosphere, the cruises lend themselves perfectly to incentive buy-outs or for companies intending to combine brainstorming sessions with unique activities. One such group, the Mainland China-based Conservation Foundation, seized the opportunity and hired the MV Aria for its members.
Despite the long journey from Asia to Lima, with another 90-minute flight to Iquitos City where the boats are docked, Asian travellers will usually find the long journey worth the time and money. Alva-Smith says: “It’s the wildlife that never fails to amaze.”
Roughly the size of Taiwan, Pacaya Samiria National Park is described as an endless treasure trove of natural surprises. On a black-water lake deep in the reserve, sharp-toothed piranhas thrive; a pod of bubble-gum pink dolphins gracefully jump towards visitors as if inviting them to play; glorious iridescent rainbows follow daily showers, and at twilight, the beautiful two-metre-wide Victoria Regia water lilies burst into bloom.
Spotting enormous water lillies
The highlight of each journey is the daily launch boat excursion to even more remote areas off the main waterway. Besides exploring the upper reaches of the Amazon River, there are jungle walks and village visits that allow interaction with communities whose lifestyle has remained unchanged for centuries. For those who want to give something to the local children but don’t know what is appropriate, both ships stock a “Kit for Kids”. Filled mostly with school supplies, these gifts are always gratefully received by the children.
Observing species such as the iguana, three-toed sloth and black spider monkey in their natural habitat can be a life-changing experience. As a reminder of ongoing efforts to preserve the environment, the last stop on the itinerary is usually the Manatee Rescue Center in Iquitos. Here travellers can take the opportunity to hand-feed these gentle beasts from milk bottles.
The onboard cuisine is designed to showcase the Amazon’s richness. Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, whose Malabar Restaurant in Lima was among the World’s Best 100 Restaurants in the 2011 Pellegrino Awards, is at the helm of both boats’ galleys. As his dishes are so heavily influenced by Amazonian produce, Aqua Expeditions CEO Zugaro was drawn to seek his help when it came to designing the menus.
Schiaffino’s creativity was nurtured during his formative years working on his family’s farm. Working in the Amazon, he has the opportunity to use ultra-fresh ingredients including fish caught locally each morning, and presents a table like no other. Imagine a meal that starts with sachaculantro (a common star-like weed pounded into a condiment) and sweet chilli bread, followed by Amazon bass tiradito (fish marinated in lemon) with cocona sauce (made from a citrus-like fruit), topped by a dessert of pineapple chips with coconut foam and passion fruit sauce. Everything is served on board the ship, accompanied by Peru’s undisputed national drink, the Pisco sour – after all, who says Michelin-style dining needs to be on terra firma?
Aqua Expeditions has recently launched its own cookbook, From the Kitchens of Aqua Expeditions. The volume features interviews with Schiaffino along with other famous chefs and restaurateurs who have sailed on the MV Aqua. One guest was celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who said: “I am very impressed by Pedro Miguel Schiaffino… I’m double his age, and I can tell that he will change how Peruvian cuisine is being perceived throughout the world.”
The cookbook, with its lovely images and colourful back stories, doubles up as another incentive, making an excellent keepsake for anyone lucky enough to enjoy this Amazon experience.