Peru’s least-developed region occupies some two-thirds of the country, an area the size of California. The selva (jungle) of the Amazon Basin is drained by the world’s second-longest river and its countless tributaries. What eastern Peru lacks in human population it makes up for in sheer plant and animal numbers. There are lodges, cruise boats, and guides for the growing number of people who arrive to see a bit of the region’s spectacular wildlife.
The northern Amazon is anchored by the port city of Iquitos—the Amazon Basin’s second-biggest city after Manaus, Brazil, and the gateway to the rain forest. From Iquitos you can head out on an Amazon cruise or take a smaller boat to any of a dozen jungle lodges to experience the region’s diverse flora and fauna.
Most of the indigenous tribes—many small tribes are found in the region, the Boras, Yaguas, and Orejones being the most numerous—have given up their traditional hunter-gatherer existence and now live in small communities along the backwaters of the great river. You will not see the remote tribes unless you travel far from Iquitos and deep into the jungle, a harrowing and dangerous undertaking. What you will see are people who have adopted western dress and other amenities, but who still live in relative harmony with nature and preserve traditions that date back thousands of years. A common sight might be a fisherman paddling calmly on an Amazon tributary in his dugout canoe, angling to reel in one of its many edible fish.
The lesser-known southern Amazon region is traversed by one of the big river’s tributaries—the Río Madre de Dios. Few travelers spend much time in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios department, using the city instead as a jumping-off point to the Tambopata National Reserve. The Manu Biosphere Reserve is less accessible but more pristine, located on the Upper Madre de Dios River between Cusco and Puerto Malonado. Nonetheless, Tambopata will not disappoint, and much of the jungle outside those protected areas still holds remarkable flora and fauna.
Both Madre de Dios and the Peruvian Amazon are impressive, and while they share much of the same flora and fauna, each region has its own attractions. The Amazon River is notable for its sheer size, and has species that you won’t find in Madre de Dios, such as two types of freshwater dolphin and the giant water lily. This region also offers more comfortable access to the jungle, primarily on cruises. Because it has fewer inhabitants, Madre de Dios has more wildlife, including rare creatures like the giant river otter, and large flocks of macaws that gather at its collpas (clay licks).
Whichever region you visit, it will be a true adventure. Be prepared to spend some extra soles to get here. Roads, where they exist, are rough-and-tumble, so the preferred mode of transport is by boat. A dry-season visit is recommended— but, of course, “dry” is a euphemism in the rain forest. You’ll most likely jet into Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado, respectively the northern and southern gateways to the Amazon, and climb into a boat to reach one of the region’s famed nature lodges.
POINTS OF INTEREST
MADRE DE DIOS
Madre De Dios is home to more than 20,000 species of plants, butterflies, birds, mammals, and reptiles. The southern sector of Peru’s Amazon Basin, most readily approached via Cusco, is famous among birders, whose eyes glaze over in amazement at the dawn spectacle of macaws and parrots gathered at one of the region’s famed collpas (clay licks). Ornithologists speculate that the birds ingest clay periodically to neutralize toxins in the seeds and fruit they eat. Madre de Dios also offers a rare chance to see large mammals, such as capybaras (dog-sized rodents) and anteaters. If the zoological gods smile upon you, you may even encounter a tapir or a jaguar. Animal and plant life abounds, but this is the least populated of Peru’s districts.
The inland port city of Puerto Maldonado lies at the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata rivers. The capital of the department of Madre de Dios, it is a rough-and-tumble town with 60,000 people and nary a four-wheeled vehicle in sight, but with hundreds of motorized two-and three-wheeled motorbikes jockeying for position on its few paved streets.
TAMBOPATA NATIONAL RESERVE AND BAHUAJA-SONENE NATIONAL PARK
From Puerto Maldonado, the Madre de Dios River flows east to the Bolivian border. The river defines the northern boundary of the Tambopata National Reserve and passes some nearby, easy-to-reach jungle lodges. The Tambopata River flows out of the reserve and into the Madre de Dios at Puerto Maldonado, and a boat trip up that waterway can take you deep into that protected area: a 3.8-million-acre rain-forest reserve about the size of Connecticut. Officially separate from the reserve, but usually grouped for convenience under the “Tambopata” heading, is the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, created in 1996 and taking its moniker from the names in the local indigenous Ese’eja language for the Tambopata and Heath rivers, respectively. (The Río Heath forms Peru’s southeastern boundary with neighboring Bolivia.) The former Pampas de Río Heath Reserve along the border itself is now incorporated into Bahuaja-Sonene, and encompasses a looks-out-of-place secondary forest more resembling the African savanna than the lush tropical Amazon.
LAGO TRES CHIMBADAS
This oxbow lake, a short hike from the Tambopata River, is a great place to see wildlife, including the endangered giant river otter. It is also home to side-necked turtles, hoatzins, sun grebes, and dozens of other bird species. Its dark waters hold black caimans (reptiles that resemble small alligators) and a plethora of piranhas, so try to resist any urge you have to go for a swim. Most people visit Tres Chimbadas on an early morning excursion from the nearby Posada Amazonas.
Two hours northeast of Puerto Maldonado, across the Madre de Dios River from the Tambopata Reserve, is the oxbow lake of Lago Valencia. It is bigger than Lago Sandoval, but because it has a large community that can be reached by road, it has less wildlife. Some lodges offer day trips to the lake, which is good for piranha fishing and bird watching.
MANU BIOSPHERE RESERVE
Straddling the boundary of the Madre de Dios and Cusco provinces, this reserve is Peru’s second-largest protected area. Manu encompasses more than 4½ million acres of pristine primary tropical-forest wilderness, ranging in altitude from 12,000 feet down through cloud forests and into seemingly endless lowland tropical rain forests at less than 1,000 feet. This geographical variety shelters a stunning range of wildlife—and a near-total absence of humans and hunting means that the animals here are less skittish and more open to observation.
White caimans sun themselves lazily on sandy riverbanks, whereas the larger black ones lurk in the oxbow lakes. With luck, you’ll see tapirs at the world’s largest tapir collpa. Giant river otters and elusive big cats (jaguars and ocelots among them) sometimes make fleeting appearances. But it’s the avian life that has made Manu world famous. The area counts more than 1,000 bird species, fully one-ninth of those known. Some 500 species have been spotted at the Pantiacolla Lodge alone. Birds include macaws, toucans, roseate spoonbills, and 5-foot-tall wood storks.
Manu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is divided into three distinct zones. The smallest is the so-called “cultural zone” (Zone C), with several indigenous groups and the majority of the jungle lodges. Access is permitted to all—even independent travelers, in theory—though vast distances make this unrealistic for all but the most intrepid. About three times the size of the cultural zone, Manu’s “reserve zone” (Zone B) is uninhabited but contains the Manu Lodge. Access is by permit only, and you must be accompanied by a guide from one of the 10 agencies authorized to take people into the area. The western 80% of Manu is designated a national park (Zone A). Authorized researchers and indigenous peoples who reside there are permitted in this zone; visitors may not enter.
A sultry port town on the Río Amazonas, Iquitos is quite probably the world’s largest city that cannot be reached by road. The city has nearly 500,000 inhabitants and is the capital of the vast Loreto department. The area around Iquitos was first inhabited by small, independent Amazonian tribes. In the 1500s Jesuit missionaries began adventuring in the area, trying to Christianize the local population, but the city wasn’t officially founded until 1757.
Iquitos saw unprecedented growth and opulence during the rubber boom but became an Amazonian backwater overnight when the boom went bust. The economy slouched along, barely sustaining itself with logging, exotic-animal exports, and Brazil-nut harvesting. Then in the early 1970s petroleum was discovered. The black gold, along with ecotourism and logging, has since become the backbone of the region’s economy, though drug-running also provides significant income.
The city’s historic center stretches along a lagoon formed by the Río Itaya, near the confluence of the Río Nanay and the Río Amazonas. Most of its historic buildings, hotels, restaurants, and banks are within blocks of the Plaza de Armas, the main square, and the nearby Malecón Maldonado riverwalk.
CENTRO DE RESCATE AMAZÓNICO
At this animal rescue center, a short trip south of town, you can get a close look at one of the region’s rarest, and most threatened species: the manatee. Despite being protected by Peruvian law, manatees continue to be hunted for their meat. The Centro, a collaboration of the Dallas World Aquarium and Zoo and two Peruvian institutions, raises orphaned manatees and nurses injured ones back to health for eventual release in the wild. It also serves as an environmental education center to raise awareness of the gentle creature’s plight.
DISTRITO DE BELÉN (BELÉN DISTRICT)
Iquitos’s most fascinating neighborhood lies along the Itaya River. This market sells goods from the area’s jungle villages, and you’ll find sundry items from love potions to freshsuri (palm-tree worms). Although it’s not the cleanest or sweetest-smelling spot, it is worth a visit. Near the center of the market is a port where you can head out in a dugout through the floating Belén District.
This museum is dedicated to the region’s rich indigenous culture, with a few faded paintings and “bronzed” fiberglass statues of local tribespeople made by plastering real people. One room is dedicated to work by local artists. The building itself, a former town hall constructed in 1863, is more attractive than the exhibits thanks to its ornately carved hardwoods and courtyard gardens.
THE PERUVIAN AMAZON
The Amazon Basin is the world’s most diverse ecosystem. The numbers of cataloged plant and animal species are astronomical, and scientists are discovering new ones all the time. More than 25,000 classified species of plants are in the Peruvian Amazon (and 80,000 in the entire Amazon Basin), including the 6-foot-wide Victoria Regia water lilies. Scientists have cataloged more than 4,000 species of butterfly and more than 2,000 species of fish—a more diverse aquatic life than that of the Atlantic Ocean. Scientists estimate that the world’s tropical forests while comprising only 6% of the Earth’s landmass, may hold up to 75% of the planet’s plant and animal species. This land is also the largest natural pharmacy in the world: one-fourth of all modern medicines have botanical origins in tropical forests.
ISLA DE LOS MONOS
An easy reserve to visit—and a popular spot for explorers of all ages—Isla de los Monos is Peru’s “Monkey Island.” The 618-acre island is a private reserve where monkeys that were once held in captivity or were confiscated from animal traffickers, now live in a natural environment. It’s home to eight monkey species, as well as sloths, parrots, macaws and other wildlife. Since most of the animals are former pets, you can get very close to them; maybe closer than you want.
RESERVA COMUNAL TAMSHIYACU-TAHUAYO
Covering approximately 1,600 square miles, the Reserva Comunal Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo is larger than the state of Rhode Island. It comprises an array of ecosystems that includes seasonally flooded forests, terra firma forests, aguaje palm swamps, and oxbow lakes. Taken together, these are home to almost 600 bird species: cocoi herons, wire-tailed manakins, and blue and gold macaws among them. It also has rare primate species, such as saki and uakari monkeys. The government manages the reserve in coordination with local people (they still hunt and fish here, but have reduced their impact on its wildlife). Local eco-lodges provide employment and support education and healthcare in those communities, which has strengthened their interest in protecting the environment.
RESERVA NACIONAL ALLPAHUAYO MISHANA
Around Iquitos there are large tracts of virgin rain forest and several reserves worth visiting. Allpahuayo Mishana is the easiest protected area to get to, just 25 km (15 miles) southwest of Iquitos by road. One of the country’s smallest and newest reserves, it is not a great place to see large animals, but it is an excellent destination for bird-watchers. Scientists have identified 475 bird species in the reserve, including such avian rarities as the pompadour cotinga and Zimmer’s antbird. It is also home to several endangered monkey species.
RESERVA NACIONAL PACAYA SAMIRIA
This hard-to-reach park sits at the confluence of the Marañón and Ucayali rivers. The reserve is Peru’s largest, encompassing more than 7,722 square miles—which makes it about the size of El Salvador. The landscape is diverse (picture seasonally flooded forests, oxbow lakes, and vast expanses of lowland rain forest). So are the animals who inhabit it, including pink river dolphins, black caimans, various kinds of monkeys, and more than 500 bird species. As with many South American reserves, there are people living in Pacaya Samiria, around 40,000 according to recent estimates. Park rangers try to balance the needs of these local communities with efforts to protect the environment and request a minimal S/120 entrance fee to help pay for that work. The park can only be reached by boat but lies relatively close to the port of Nauta, 60 miles south of Iquitos by road.
SUCUSURI BIOLOGICAL RESERVE (CONAPAC)
This smaller private rain-forest reserve is northeast of Iquitos, near the confluence of the Napo and Amazon rivers. CONAPAC (the Peruvian Amazon Conservation Organization) manages the 386-square-miles multiuse property, known as the Sucusuri Biological Reserve.