The Andes mountain range runs north to south through Peru, a giant spine splitting the country into distinct geographic regions. To the west of the Andes lies the coastal strip, a rain shadow area of deserts and large coastal cities. Head east of the Andean highlands and you’ll drop down into the vast and sparsely populated Peruvian Amazon, first to the cloud forested foothills, known as the selva alta, or high jungle, before plunging down into the lowland jungles further east.

Peru_Iquitos

Exploring the Peruvian Amazon from Iquitos

The Peruvian Amazon is home to some of the most pristine rainforest in the world. The immense biodiversity provides endless opportunities for wildlife spotting, with jungle lodges, rainforest treks and riverboat cruises catering to adventurous travellers who come to this fascinating part of Peru.

It’s not only the geography that sets the Peruvian Amazon apart from the rest of the country. Culturally, too, the Amazon is distinct. The scattered jungle cities are often a heady mix of fun, frivolity and river port activity, where Peruvians have a laid back but friendly attitude, always ready to drink and dance. Then there’s the jungle cuisine with its seemingly boundless range of unfamiliar fruits, fish, and strange liquors with aphrodisiac qualities. And beyond the urban areas lie indigenous communities, many of whom steadfastly hold on to their traditions, including the sacred knowledge of the shamans and their jungle medicine.

Iquitos and the Northern Jungle

River cruises and rainforest lodges

Iquitos has the intriguing distinction of being the largest city in the world unreachable by road. To get to this frontier-like jungle city you either have to fly or take a riverboat. Once there, you’ll be deep inside the northern Peruvian Amazon, with Iquitos serving as a gateway to the surrounding rainforest. The city is situated on the banks of the mighty Amazon River itself, and the entire region is a watery world of interconnected rivers, tributaries and networks of smaller channels. For much of the year there's more water than dry land, which makes this part of the Amazon ideal for river cruising and stays in stilted lodges.

The region was first settled by outsiders in the 17th century, when Jesuit missionaries arrived and began to force the native Amerindians to settle in reducciones, or reductions, and work on farms. Iquitos only began to grow significantly in the late 1800s, when the rubber boom saw thousands of immigrants arriving in Iquitos from all over the world. The rubber boom came to an end around 1912, but its influence can still be seen in Iquitos. Some of the mansions built by wealthy Europeans still stand, albeit in various states of repair. One of the most famous buildings from this period is the Casa de Fierro, an iron structure on the main square said to have been built by Gustave Eiffel, despite a total lack of evidence to support this claim. Docked along the riverbank, meanwhile, is the riverboat Ayapua, used during the rubber boom and now serving as a small museum.

Floating houses in Iquitos Peru

Floating houses in Iquitos, Peru

Before you go to Iquitos, try to watch the 1982 movie Fitzcarraldo, based loosely on a true story. Directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski, it’s a crazy epic set in Iquitos and the surrounding jungle during the rubber boom days. Not only will it give you a good feel for the rubber-boom days in the region, but it’s also connected with some interesting places in the city.

The real-life Fitzcarraldo is buried in Iquitos General Cemetery, a fascinating cemetery with colourful tombs, an interesting Jewish section, and rows upon rows of burial niches. Then there’s Casa Fitzcarraldo, a tranquil guesthouse owned by Walter Saxer, who was the production manager for Fitzcarraldo. The main stars of the movie, including Kinski, Claudia Cardinale and Mick Jagger (who didn’t make it to the end of the troubled production), all stayed at Casa Fitzcarraldo. Today it’s a great place to stay and has a wonderful treehouse near the swimming pool.

Most people who visit Iquitos are there for the surrounding jungle and the chance to spot wildlife in its natural environment. But before you head out on a river cruise or to a jungle lodge, it’s worth visiting two attractions just outside the city.

A short but scenic boat ride will take you to Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm and Animal Orphanage, where a mind-boggling array of stunning butterflies live alongside a handful of animals, many of which were rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. Then there’s the Amazon Rescue Center, located just west of town. Arguably one of the most heartwarming places you’ll come across in Peru, this aquatic centre is home to orphaned baby manatees. Feeding leaves to these chubby little things is a wonderful experience, especially knowing that your very presence is helping to keep the centre going. Once they are ready, the orphans are released into specific locations in the surrounding area.

When you’ve had your fill of the city and want to go explore the Peruvian Amazon, you can head out on a river cruise or stay at one of the many jungle lodges in the region. Some lodges are within a 30-minute boat ride, while others are further out (a few hours) and are reached by speedboat. Lodges tend to be quite expensive compared to normal accommodation, but they typically offer a range of activities including boat expeditions, treks, trips to indigenous communities and night walks for spotting nocturnal wildlife. As an example, the Treehouse Lodge, billed as the only all-inclusive treehouse lodge in the Amazon, has rooms for US$150 per night, including all meals and daily excursions.

If that’s above your budget, you can shop around and do some research and find somewhere more affordable. Just make sure you don’t accidentally book a room in one of the many ayahuasca-oriented retreats -- unless you want to try ayahuasca, of course. Also be aware that some lodges, especially those further away from Iquitos, have a minimum stay.

Peru amazon delfin cruise

Delfin cruise boat, Peru

Cruises from Iquitos

Amazon River cruises have traditionally been an activity for wealthy tourists, and that still generally applies in Iquitos today. A four-day cruise with one of the more luxurious riverboats can cost between US$2,000 and $4,000. That’s a lot of money, but the price normally includes good food cooked by experienced chefs, bilingual naturalist guides, daily kayak or small boat excursions for wildlife spotting, and visits to indigenous communities.

If you’re on a tight budget, you don’t have to go on a cruise to explore the Amazon. You can arrange much cheaper excursions with agencies in Iquitos, and often through your hotel or hostel. A three- or four-day excursion by riverboat and/or canoe can cost around $100 a day, all included. One excellent option is to take a trip into the spectacular Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in Peru. Covering an area of more than 8,000 square miles between Iquitos and Tarapoto to the southwest, Pacaya-Samiria is a haven for flora and fauna, including manatees, tapirs, jaguars, river dolphins, giant otters, monkeys and much, much more. Ideally, you’ll enter the reserve in a dugout canoe, rowing almost silently through the river system, which greatly increases the chance of seeing all kinds of animals and birds. It’s a magical experience: I spent four days inside Pacaya-Samiria and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

How to get to Iquitos

Iquitos is only reachable by air and river. The easy way to get there is by a direct flight from Lima. There are also flights from Tarapoto. Alternatively, you can get to Iquitos by riverboat from the port town of Yurimaguas (a couple of hours by bus from Tarapoto) or from Pucallpa. If you take one of the large cargo and passenger boats, prepare yourself for a voyage of three to four days. Or you can take a smaller, faster boat, known as a lancha rápida, which takes anywhere between 12 to 16 hours.

Iquitos has a tropical rainforest climate, and it can rain at pretty much any time. It’s also hot and humid throughout the year. There is a rainy season, which roughly begins in November and ends in May, with March and April typically having the most rainfall. That said, you can visit Iquitos and the surrounding jungle throughout the year – just bring lightweight waterproof clothing.

Chanchamayo and the Selva Central

Jungle lodges and Germanic towns

The Selva Central, or Central Jungle, lies slap-bang in the middle of Peru, primarily within the tropical Chanchamayo Province. It isn’t as famous internationally as the jungles around Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado and sees far fewer foreign tourists. But many limeños, as residents of Lima are known, head there at weekends and during holidays to escape the grey skies of the capital. It also has a distinct cost advantage over the jungles of northern and southern Peru. Excursions, lodges and services are generally more affordable in the Selva Central, reflecting its current role as a domestic, rather than international, tourist destination.

The drive from Lima to the Selva Central is an experience in itself. The eight hour trip by car or bus covers all three geographic regions of Peru, from the coastal desert, up through the highlands and then further east, dropping down spectacularly into the forest-covered foothills of the Andes. Here the environment is classic selva alta, or high jungle, with hills and mountains covered in cloud forest rather than the lowland rainforest found further into the Peruvian Amazon.

Oxapampa Central Selva Peru

Quebrada la Esperanza, Oxapampa, Peru

Most tourists stay in La Merced or San Ramón, the two main towns in the lush Chanchamayo River valley. The valley is a verdant and wonderfully picturesque place to explore and relax, dotted with waterfalls that tumble down through the surrounding hills, and numerous natural and manmade swimming spots. Outdoor enthusiasts have plenty of trekking trails to choose from, and birdwatchers will find themselves in an avian paradise filled with numerous species, including hummingbirds, squirrel cuckoos and the Andean cock-of-the-rock (Peru’s national bird). The Chanchamayo Province is also known for its fruit and coffee production, with some plantations offering tours around their farms.

Oxapampa

Just 50 miles north of La Merced in the Pasco Region lies Oxapampa, one of the most unique towns in Peru. Founded by Austrian-German settlers in 1891, Oxapampa is a ranching and coffee centre with a distinct German influence. And 40 miles north of Oxapampa is an even older Austrian-German settlement called Pozuzo, which was settled in 1859. Buildings in both towns have a Tyrolean look, and some locals still have the blonde hair and blue eyes of their ancestors. Austrian-German food and culture thrive in the region, including traditional customs and a healthy appreciation for locally made beer.

Oxapampa and the wider Oxapampa Province have experienced something of a boom in the last decade or so, with many new businesses opening to cater for tourists. Luxury accommodation is now more common, as are lodges and boutique guesthouses. The lodges are different from the classic jungle lodges of the deeper Amazon, and can more correctly be described as eco-lodges. Many of them are located in stunning surroundings, with rooms at very reasonable prices.

Velo de la novia waterfalls Chanchamayo Peru

Velo de la Novia waterfalls, Chanchamayo, Peru

Selva Central jungle

To experience the lowland jungle in the Selva Central, head about 200 miles north of Chanchamayo to Pucallpa in the Ucayali Region (or fly directly to Pucallpa from Lima). Pucallpa is a port city on the banks of the Ucayali River, a main headstream of the Amazon River. The city itself isn’t too pretty, and the jungle immediately surrounding it has been largely cut down. Just a few miles north of Pucallpa, however, is Lake Yarinacocha, a huge oxbow lake formed by an ancient meander of the Ucayali.

From the small port village of Puerto Callao, tourists can hire boats to explore the lake. You can visit the indigenous Shipibo-Conibo communities that sit along the banks of the lake, where colourful and intricate craftworks are on sale. Bird spotting opportunities abound, and you’re likely to see river dolphins as you cruise across the waters. You’ll also find jungle lodges dotted around Yarinacocha, ranging from rustic and affordable to luxurious and expensive. Yarinacocha is also known for its ayahuasca ceremonies, in which shamans guide people through lengthy sessions under the influence of the jungle vine.

From the large but often chaotic port in Pucallpa, you can board cargo boats for the four-day trip to Iquitos. Alternatively, you can fly directly from Pucallpa to Iquitos or Lima. As with the Selva Central in general, Pucallpa has a tropical climate. The wettest months tend to be in March and December, but that shouldn’t deter you from visiting.

Puerto Maldonado and the Southern Amazon

Peru's best wildlife reseves

In comparison to Iquitos and the northern Amazon, the southern region around Puerto Maldonado sits at a slightly higher altitude and has much more dry land. This makes for better year-round wildlife-spotting and nature hikes through the forest. The region is home to two famed wildlife reserves: Manú National Park and Tambopata National Reserve. Both parks offer vast areas of largely untouched lowland rainforest and rank among the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Choosing which one to visit is a tough decision, but a few factors will help you decide.

Tambopata National Reserve

Tambopata National Reserve covers more than 1,000 square miles of rainforest in the Madre de Dios Region of Peru. Hunting and logging have been prohibited in the area since 1977 and the first reserve was created in 1990. Thanks to these protective measures, Tambopata is an almost untouched refuge for thousands of animal species, including around 595 species of birds and more than 1,200 butterfly species. The reserve is also famous for its macaw clay licks, particularly at Collpa de Guacamayos. Here, thousands of colourful macaws and parrots arrive daily to feed on the salts in the mineral-rich clay. If you’re lucky – and there are no guarantees in the jungle -- you might see a collared peccary, giant river otter, Peruvian spider monkey or two-toed sloth. And if you’re very fortunate, you might catch a glimpse of a jaguar or puma.

Amazon turtle in Tambopata National Reserve Peru

Amazon turtle, Tambopata

Tambopata National Reserve receives more visitors than Manú simply because it’s more accessible and, in most cases, significantly more affordable. Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the Madre de Dios Region, is close to the reserve and receives daily flights from Cusco and Lima. Jungle lodges inside the reserve can be reached within two hours, and their accessibility makes them cheaper than those in Manú. Jungle trips from Puerto Maldonado to the Tambopata National Reserve typically last three or four days at most. They are easy to arrange and therefore easy to fit into your itinerary. Tambopata is, therefore, a better option for travellers on a budget or short on time. If you’re really short on time, you can take a day trip, or spend the night, at Lake Sandoval, located about two hours from Puerto Maldonado by boat. The lake is a wildlife hotspot, and you’ll likely see caiman, turtles, monkeys, a huge amount of colourful birds and maybe some giant river otters. A handful of lodges sit on or near the lake, so you can stay for longer if you like.

Manú National Park

For the ultimate jungle experience, adventurous travellers head into Manú National Park. Covering 6,600 square miles and encompassing lowland jungle, Andean puna grasslands, mountain cloud forest and yunga forests, Manú is an unrivalled reserve of terrestrial biodiversity. The park is home to some 850 species of birds and 160 species of mammals and serves as a vital haven for many rare species, including giant otters and giant armadillos. It’s also the best place in Peru for spotting jaguars, which are often seen in the park.

Jungle lodge Manu national park

Jungle lodges in Manu National Park, Peru

Manú National Park spans parts of both the Cusco and Madre de Dios regions of Peru. Established in 1973, it has remained almost entirely untouched by human activities. Indigenous peoples, such as the Machiguenga, are the only permanent inhabitants. For this reason, access and infrastructure within the park are extremely limited. Accommodation within the park is typically rustic, with larger lodges located just outside the park boundaries; if you want to stay in a luxury jungle lodge, you might want to consider Tambopata instead. But if you’re happy to camp or stay in simple stilted wooden structures, then a multiday trip into Manú is well worth considering.

Jungle trips into Manú require more time and planning than those in Tambopata. With no commercial flights to the region, and only infrequent and unreliable light aircraft serving a small airstrip at Boca Manú, just getting to the park is an adventure. Most trips depart from Cusco and involve a six- to eight-hour trip overland via Paucartambo before descending into the Amazon Basin. Once at the park boundary, groups typically travel for a day or more by land and river to get further into the reserve. These trips, therefore, last a minimum of five days, while expeditions of two weeks or more are not uncommon. The inaccessibility, travel times and general logistics of tours into the park make Manú National Park a more expensive option than Tambopata. You can expect to pay two or three times as much per day for a trip into Manú, but if you’re looking for a true deep-jungle Amazonian adventure, Manú is hard to beat.

Both Manú and Tambopata are open throughout the year. The dry season runs from May to October, and during this time trail conditions are at their best. During the rainy season, from November to April, expect muddy trails and hordes of mosquitoes, but also an increased chance to see wildlife due to the higher water levels.

Best places to visit in the Peruvian Amazon

Tony Dunnell

Tony has been living in Peru since 2009. He has also written on a range of subjects for publications such as Atlas Obscura, Vice, Mental Floss, and many more. You can see more of his writing at tonydunnell.com.

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