Explore the Amazon With Delfin, the First Relais & Châteaux Cruise Line

BY T.J. OLWIG — Winter 2019

s the sun descends from ominous clouds, an apricot-strewn sky slowly emerges upstream. “Ricky” Ricardo Valdez, our guide and host-of-the-moment, raises his glass in the dense jungle air as raucous parakeets zip by. “Everything we see was given to us by the Amazon,” Valdez’s toast begins. “We would like to protect it for our children, and for our children’s children. Today, we are very, very happy that there’s one more pink dolphin in the Amazon. Long may it live!”

Together, my poncho-cladded cohorts and I join him in lively Peruvian cheers. Arriba! Abajo! Al centro! Pa’ dentro! Salud!

I’ve clanked glasses of this and that in many a language across the globe, but the paradox before me is a first. At the headwaters of the mighty Amazon, where the Marañón and the Ucayali rivers collide, I’m sipping a white-wine-based, mint-and-lemongrass punch in a water-level skiff wrapped by wilderness so primal it could host Survivor. To my left, rain pelts the murky surface in a slanted, yet tranquil cascade. To the right, pink river dolphins dash for a sundown meal, breaching and frolicking beneath a newborn rainbow.

Pink river dolphins. PHOTO BY BRANDON COLE.

Choreographed as it feels, this spectacle of nature is commonplace at the tiptop of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve — a 5 million-plus acre swath of verdant rain forest in the far reaches of northern Peru. From Iquitos, the largest metropolis in the Peruvian Amazon, a 90-minute drive to the riverside town of Nauta, the jumping-off point for every Delfin Amazon Cruise, will land you here. The display I’ve just witnessed is part of the opening night ceremony aboard the Delfin III, the newest luxury vessel in Delfin’s suites-only fleet, and my floating home for the next three nights.

Last May, Delfin became the first cruise line accepted into the prestigious Relais & Châteaux family of upscale hotels and restaurants. The Paris-based association’s seal of approval is akin to a christening in hospitality-speak, substantiation of each member’s commitment to peak service, authentic cuisine, and preservation of local heritage. It’s shortly after the announcement and I’m aboard Delfin III to experience, and taste firsthand, the allure of a Relais & Châteaux-certified cruise.

Of the umpteen superlatives to garnish a travel brochure, the words “luxurious” and “Amazon” seem to mesh as well as “budget-friendly” and “Monte Carlo.” Nevertheless, this odd-couple-like contrast defines the journey aboard the red-and-white-flagged Peruvian decks of the Delfin III, where style and adventure seamlessly intertwine.

The well-appointed Owner’s Suite

“Luxury [for us] is discovering the wonders of the most important river system in the world on a comfortable bed with pure white-cotton linens,” admits Lissy Urteaga, who, in 2006, co-founded Delfin Amazon Cruises with her husband, Aldo Macchiavello. Bridging her eye for design with his investment banking expertise, the couple launched the company due to their passion for cruising. More than a decade later, Urteaga still embarks “at least once a month on each vessel.”

The Delfin III joined the company’s fleet in 2017, giving Urteaga and Macchiavello a hat trick of river boats. Panoramic views from floor-to-ceiling windows underscore each of the 22 spacious suites, which feature local fabrics and organic bath amenities. The indoor-outdoor vibe is mirrored in the contemporary communal lounge, where guests can savor a complimentary pisco sour and — if you’re lucky, as I am one afternoon — watch squirrel monkeys swing from cecropia branches like Las Vegas trapeze artists. The ship’s understated elegance is all part of Urteaga’s design plan, because, as she quips, “the forest is our prima donna.”

ur first onshore excursion, a morning hike up and down a wild and narrow trail, proves her point. “Machete Man,” one of the many villagers Delfin hires to carve trails and find wildlife for guests, dips in and out of the dense brush. In less than an hour, he delivers an up-close display of the region’s diverse fauna, locating a shy boa constrictor, yanking a fishing bat from the fissure of a canopy, showing off an infant two-toed sloth, and plucking the world’s largest tarantula — a Goliath birdeater — from the abyss of a deep burrow. “Ricky” Ricardo, meanwhile, gives the flora play by play, pointing out the mysterious walking palm tree and pointing up to the towering strangler fig tree. Curious, I ask him the latter’s age. “Impossible to say,” he replies. “There are no rings because trees never stop growing in the Amazon.”

The rain forest might headline a Delfin cruise, but daily skiff rides down serpentine Amazon waterways complement the experience. White-as-snow egrets decorate muddy banks, and giant river otters nosedive from fallen limbs. On-water activities include kayaking, piranha fishing, and, if creeks with the visibility of blacktop appeal to you, swimming near a mystical pink dolphin. Never one to pass up an adventure, but with no dolphins in the vicinity, I shatter the still creek surface with a spirited cannonball entrance.

Rain-forest views from aboard a skiff. PHOTO BY RODRIGO RODRICH.

On board the Delfin III between excursions, we read books on the open-air sundeck, relax in the plunge pool, and get spa treatments — a maracuja oil massage relieves my stiff back from the plane. With no on-deck Wi-Fi, and little to no phone reception, Facebook-scrolling and Gmail-checking are hard to come by in the Amazon’s deep recesses. Personally, I’m relishing the freedom and refuge of four straight days with my iPhone securely set to airplane mode.

When it comes to in-house entertainment, we have added options — be it a tutorial on colorful Amazonian fruits or the chef-led classes for making ceviche, Peru’s national dish. For better or worse at the latter, I volunteer for sous chef duties, measuring and mixing fresh doncella catfish, also known as tiger catfish, in a bowl of ginger, lemon juice, and a slew of other forest fixings for a roomful of hungry passengers.

elais & Châteaux applicants must typify four values to earn their stripes: a local focus, humanity, a sharing of passion, and a commitment to sustainability and cuisine. None of this is more prevalent than on the Delfin III dining room’s white-cloth tabletops, festooned with fine china and the handicrafts of native women. Here, executive chef Isaac Saavedra — and an expert and all-local staff — delights with plates sure to impress the most stubborn meat-and-potatoes diner.

For lunch on Day Three, Saavedra serves juanes de yuca — a cassava-based tamale with caviar of boquichico, an indigenous fish — set neatly atop a maranta leaf. Come dinnertime, the exotic flavors of Peruvian gastronomy resume when a pork chop marinated in an herbal jungle tonic known as Seven Roots captivates my taste buds, alongside a fluffy bed of spinach mashed potatoes. But no Relais & Châteaux meal is complete without dessert. So, after our final dinner, we slurp a cider sorbet to cleanse and prepare our palates for the kitchen’s encore — a delicate chocolate choux with pisco raisins, grilled pineapples, and a scoop of camu camu ice cream.

“Delfin’s commitment to upholding the delicate balance at play in the Amazon through its cuisine, community projects, and sustainability efforts are essential to us,” says Philippe Gombert, Relais & Châteaux president, adding that Delfin’s membership inspired the organization to review its hotels-and-restaurants-only approach. “Our objective now is to be on major rivers worldwide.”

Passion fruit mousse with caramel on top. PHOTO BY MARIO GOMI.

With a satiated sweet tooth, I visit the top deck and dissolve into a blanket of darkness. On my final night, the Relais & Châteaux essence envelops me — immersion. This trip isn’t just a deluxe ride through a feral and far-flung place; it’s an invitation to connect with passionate people and a rich culture. If you someday accept that invite, Delfin has you covered.

Details: Delfin operates three ships year-round, offering three- and four-night Amazon journeys. Delfin I has four suites; Delfin II, 14; and Delfin III, 22. High-water season runs from December to May; low-water season, June to November. 844-433-5346; delfinamazoncruises.com

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