A smartphone addict finds out what happens when she’s forced to disconnect deep in the Amazon rain forest.
As a travel writer, I often have the chance to visit amazing places. But it’s rare that I take an actual work-free vacation, unbound by the compulsion to answer emails, post photos to Instagram, or scroll through Facebook. That’s why, for the past few years, my August birthday has been an excuse to take a no-work trip with Beth, my best friend from college who has summers off. Last year, for my 30th birthday, we decided to truly get off the grid and go somewhere that would really give us a chance to reconnect: the Amazon.
Specifically, a cruise on the Amazon. A five-day voyage aboard Delfin Amazon Cruises was set to depart a few days before my birthday, so Beth and I booked our flights to Iquitos, Peru, and planned a two-day layover in Lima on the way back. According to the information packet we received in advance, there would be excursions into the protected Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a guided hike in the rain forest, a visit to the local community of San Francisco—and no Wi-Fi or cell service.
The lack of connectivity was going to be hard. I check social media and refresh my email pretty compulsively, usually at least once or twice an hour. Instagram is my favorite, but I've definitely gotten caught spiraling down a Facebook black hole. After setting up email auto-replies, I braced myself for Internet deprivation.
It took three flights and a 90-minute drive in Delfin’s van before we arrived at the embarkation center in Nauta, where a gaggle of kids ran up to greet us and watched through the glass door as we received a welcome drink and checked in. That’s when we saw the ship for the first time. It was anchored by the river’s muddy embankment, with three levels of pale wood decks and floor-to-ceiling windows for surveying the landscape.
We decided to explore the ship instead, venturing upstairs to peek inside the dining room and see the lounge with a bar on one end and cozy groupings of sofas and armchairs. We noticed local touches around the ship, such as carved gourds and textiles made by the villagers. This was no cruise where we’d forget the surrounding culture once we were onboard.
The ship was designed that way. Delfin Amazon Cruises was founded by former banker Aldo Macchiavello and his wife Lissy Urteaga, who had long dreamed of starting a boutique travel company in their native Peru. I asked Lissy—a cheerful presence onboard—why she and her husband decided not to put Wi-Fi on Delfin’s ships. She explained that, although some people are initially surprised, after the first day they don’t miss it much. “The conditions of the flooded forest do not allow large antennas, so signal is quite poor, and the vessels travel to distant places where there’s no development,” she said. “Also, in today’s world, where we are connected all the time, having just a few days without it makes you realize that in this vastness you are just one more soul that needs to connect to nature and escape the pressures of everyday life.”
“Having just a few days without [Wi-Fi] makes you realize that in this vastness you are just one more soul that needs to connect to nature and escape the pressures of everyday life.”
Sure enough, she was right. The first evening at sunset, the crew loaded the cruise passengers onto three small motorized skiffs and boated us over to the confluence of the three rivers: the Amazon, the Marañon, and the Samiria. When all three vessels puttered to the center of this vast aquatic place with nothing but smooth, glassy water below, rain forest on the shoreline, the sky turning a cotton-candy shade of pink, and birds flying overhead, they passed around pitchers of pisco sours, played guitars, and sang folk songs.
I looked around. Our fellow passengers were a mix of Americans and Peruvians, young and old, couples and families. The crew members were Peruvian, some from the Amazon, and some from larger cities. There we were, 40 souls on three small skiffs in the middle of the Earth’s largest reserve of biological resources, raising a toast. Beth and I locked eyes and smiled as we clinked our glasses, hardly believing we had managed to put our busy lives on hold and make it to this incredible place thousands of miles from home together.
After the first day, we got into a natural rhythm, waking up to the sunlight streaming in, heading up to the dining room for breakfast, and boarding the skiff for excursions with our guide, Reni, who regaled us with tales about jaguars preying on villagers’ pets and the time his father got lost for four days in the jungle and nearly died of dehydration. He led us on two or three excursions per day: one in the morning, another in the afternoon, and sometimes one in the evening. In between, we returned to the ship for meals and pisco sours, and found time to relax in the pool on the upper deck, where I chatted with the members of a three-generation family from Lima, a conversation I might have missed if my nose were in my phone.
On our penultimate day, we visited the community of San Francisco, where the villagers greeted us warmly. We stopped by the grocery store, which had a few shelves of soda in plastic bottles, cans of milk, and eggs. We had been asked to bring T-shirts and notebooks, which Reni gave the women in charge, and we bought baskets, beautifully carved gourds, and colorful birds made of woven reeds from the women in the craft market.
At the end of the trip, I hadn’t thought about Instagram in days. Beth and I felt refreshed and more at peace than we had in a long time. On past trips, we usually checked our emails or Facebook during breaks between meals and activities, but we had gotten used to the natural rhythm of being unplugged and present. Our minds blissfully free from their usual hyper-attentive state, we dozed off in the afternoon sun, cocooned in our little cabin, the mighty Amazon undulating just beyond our reach.
>>Next: Yes, It’s Possible to Explore the Amazon on a Stand-Up Paddle Board