Our Amazon experience with G Adventures is marketed as its “Comfort” level, noting there are higher levels of service and amenities than its standard, more “get out there” and camp, hostel and use public transportation type tours. So while our Amazon trip is not a luxury one, my expectations are that it should be fairly comfortable with appropriate amenities with a price of about $2,500 per person (exclusive of air) for this nine (9) day tour. (The Aqua, a truly more luxurious ship, sailed by one morning and it has fantastic bedding and some flashier facilities, but I am not sure how many people are going to come to this part of the Amazon for a luxury experience of that sort. At least it is available…at a much higher price. Other options also exist at various price points, but more on that later; noting that all of these ships have itineraries that are quite similar.)
We started out in the jungle; the “concrete jungle” of New York City. Because we only had limited time, and I really didn't have any desire to spend too much time in Lima (because I had been there before, there is not a lot to see, and there is so much crime), coordinating our flights required we fly out of JFK Airport on Copa Airlines…at 1:45 a.m.…with a connection in Panama City, Panama. For those of you not familiar with JFK Airport, and more particularly Terminal 4, let’s just say it isn't a wonderful experience.
We arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our supposedly on-time departure and did enjoy the Wingtips Lounge (which was surprisingly OK), but at about midnight we found out our flight was delayed to 2:15 a.m.. and then was going to board almost any minute…until 3:00 a.m., courtesy of US Customs performing a drug sweep of the plane upon its arrival from Panama.
Once, very tiredly onboard, the crew did not offer even a beverage service until about 2 hours outside of Panama. Upon arrival in Panama for our 3 hour layover (now down to 2.5 hours) I was able to get upgrades to first class on our flight to Lima, after chilling out in the Copa Lounge. Our 9:00 a.m. Copa flight was fine and I had a good sleep after lunch service…interesting on an early morning flight.
We were greeted by the G Adventures driver who took us (“us” being me and my son) to The Dazzler Hotel in the Miraflores section of Lima along with one other fellow passenger. As I mentioned, Lima is a very poor city with lots of crime. The number of police we observed in our 40 minute drive was remarkable. G Adventures’ selected hotel was quite nice with friendly staff, clean and modern rooms and in a nice location. Remarkably the hotel did not have any warnings about not drinking the water and did not offer any complimentary bottled water. Lima has some of the worst “drinking” water anywhere with it not only being full of bacteria, but also ultra-high levels of heavy metals due to the water supply being downstream from intensive mining operations.
After a nap we had a 6:30 p.m. get together for a briefing and to meet most of the other travelers. Our group of 26 was atypical for a G Adventures’ tour as it was it is a pretty much older (with at least 8 being well over 60 and two approaching 80...who did everything!), very Canadian and with a number of teachers/educators. Unfortunately, as I would find out all too quickly, while where there were some very nice folks, our group proved a testament to teachers on vacation are far more rude than their students. More on that later too.
My son and I then headed out to dinner at an internationally acclaimed restaurant, Malabar, for a unique dining experience. (It has consistently been rated one of the Top 10 restaurants in all of Latin America.) Malabar’s specialty is it use of ingredients from the Amazon and Andes combined into beautiful, creative and interesting tasting creations. The restaurant itself has an earthy, warm, palate of colors and textures, a quiet atmosphere and very attentive service. Honestly, it was hard to balance the crime concerns on the outside with the elegance inside the restaurant. There is a wealth disparity here as in other South American cities, but wealth seems to be more of a relative term in Lima.
(I do have to admit that after I decided on Malabar I decided to look on TripAdvisor…which I did with the same skepticism I have when I look on CruiseCritic. It was worth it for the ridiculousness of its rating and some of the comments. Rated as the 149th best restaurant in Lima, Peru, my favorite was a very recent post claiming dissatisfaction with the restaurant but noting, "The only reason for its top rating is its excellent food." Huh? Isn’t that the point??? By the way, TripAdvisor ranks Veggie Pizza is rated the No. 4 restaurant in Lima…which is an internationally acclaimed foodie city!)
Anyway, it was a fairly early night as we had to be up at 4:30 a.m. in order to be on our way to the airport for an 8:00 a.m. flight on Star Peru Airlines. Lima Airport is much improved from 1986 and our flight to Iquitos was fine. Because of the early flight and where the bus dropped us off, there were no porters so we had to carry our own bags. However, upon arrival in Iquitos, Peru G Adventures did not allow us to touch our bags, but had porters take our bags to be placed on our midsized bus (there are 26 in our group) and then into our cabins on the Queen Violeta.
We drove 15 minutes to the Manatee Rescue Center where there a modest, but unique, opportunity to see the rare Amazon manatee (the smallest of the manatee species) and to feed and touch them. After the animal are rehabilitated they are returned to the wild. Hopefully their return to the wild is far away from Iquitos. Turtles are also raised there in a very successful program.
I remember Iquitos as being a small rundown town back in 1986. Now it is a large very run down city without anything about it that makes it attractive. We stopped there so that folks in our group could pick up last minute items that they didn’t bring or didn’t think of (like ponchos) or for an ATM. I have traveled to quite a few remote areas and spending an hour in a rundown port city to shop for last minute items should have been a red flag; especially because it was later explained it kept us from our “orientation tour” of Iquitos. (Good or bad, understanding a place before or during your visit makes a lot more sense than doing it afterwards...a topic I will talk more about later on. Yes, I have lots of travel thoughts!)
I was amazed by the effort some in my group put in to getting the best exchange rate possible. Folks, you are spending thousands of dollars on your vacation and for the amount of money you are actually going to spend, do yourself a favor, make life easy and blow the potential $5 savings by using the ATM at the airport. As we waited for a fellow passenger in Lima I purchased 250 nuevo soles for about $94; no hassle, no pressure, no waste of time.
After an hour in Iquitos (one hour too many) we finally headed towards the ship, the Queen Violeta, which was located in a truly depressing dump of a marina. Fortunately as quickly as we could board the ship, the ship was underway and our Amazon adventure finally began.
As an aside, one thing about this G Adventure trip I did not like right from the start is the passing of envelopes to tip literally everyone. In less than 24 hours I had to tip the driver to the airport, the porter at the airport, and the driver from the airport. During this trip various “included” excursions required a gratuity be given as well. This sort of procedure does not make me feel like I am showing my appreciation for services rendered, but rather am a “tourist ATM” to which the locals go to withdraw funds. (G Adventures advises, in advance, about gratuities for the staff, but not this. It is an avoidable and inappropriate irritant; especially when it is a more inclusive product. Ironically, on many of the more rustic experiences G Adventures creates a tip fund at the outset and let's the CEO (Chief Exploration Officer a/k/a guide) deal with tips along the way. I have no idea why it wasn't done here.)
Outside there are two covered areas on the top deck (one with a few simple mismatched metal chairs and one with four hammocks…that are in high demand) and below them there is another area with comfortable informal lounges and chairs.
The rooms are basic, but the beds are quite comfortable. Our Superior Room (on the upper deck) is just forward of the Dining Room and extremely conveniently located. It consists of two beds, a dresser and a wardrobe with a very small desk and one table lamp. The bathroom is rustic, but functional with a full tub over a shower (though I don’t see anyone taking a bath in it) and a sink that has holes for a larger faucet (and hot and cold taps, not just cold) that are open to below as well as a toilet and an open rack for storage.
All of the guests are accompanied by the CEO throughout the trip and a naturalist in a single skiff when venturing off of the ship. Again, it is basic.
On this trip most of the activities are viewing wildlife from a skiff rather than hiking through the Amazon as I did previously. For that reason the reference in the materials to “skiffs” and being supplied with one skiff was not good; especially as some of the group was more interesting in being “vacationing tourists” rather than “travelers” and there was no way to segregate us into more appropriate subgroups. (Also, later in our journey the skiff sunk during a heavy rain and that left us without any skiff for an entire day while it was pumped out and the engines flushed.)
Immediately upon arrival we were directed to the Dining Room for a briefing and lunch while our bags were delivered to our cabins. The atmosphere is quite informal, but G Adventures’ staff makes sure you are comfortable and relaxed. Along those lines the activities for the evening or morning are posted on a white board in the dining room letting you know what to wear and what to bring. Not too much information; just the basics. (I wanted more than the basics...like background, like what animals we might see and their ecology, for example.) It was explained that we would do everything noted in our itinerary, but possibly in a different order due to conditions and weather.
Our lunch was simple, but good for what it was and where we were. Hearts of Palm salad, chicken, fried yucca and beans. I won’t be discussing the menu as I normally do. Just know that the food is of “good enough” quality and varied with usually two proteins offered such as catfish and beef, chicken or pork, along with vegetables, a starch, breads and a salad. Soup is sometimes offered as well. Desserts were generally pretty good..though jello seemed to be offered more as the trip was winding down. There were a few occasions where they did run out of food. Whether it was as a result of some of the more gluttonous group members or poor planning, that really is totally unacceptable.
I unpacked in about 3 minutes and it was time to chill out on deck and wait for our 5:30 p.m. skiff "excursion". It was quite relaxing to be away from the cities and on the water watching the beauty of the Amazon start to appear and the grunge of Iquitos to slip away.
Just as we were going to board the skiff a typical late afternoon storm hit, but 15 minutes (and a lot of water) later the sun was out. On board the skiff we had our safety briefing and pretty much went back onto the Queen Violeta for dinner as the sun was setting and an early night.
Tomorrow we are up at 5:00 a.m. for our first exploration!