Visitors to the Amazon are often surprised by how dark, gloomy, and colorless the rainforest ground can be. The situation is completely different 30 meters or more up in the air, where a dazzling array of orchids, bromeliads, and mosses hang out on the treetops and soak in the scorching sunlight. The fragrant scents of these epiphytes and the succulent fruit of the ubiquitous matapalo or strangler fig lure monkeys and a huge range of pollinators, including birds, bats, and insects.
Most of the Amazon’s biodiversity is in the canopy, which U.S. biologist Bruce Rinker describes as a “leafy aerial continent, elevated on stilts, called the treetops.” Biologists have come up with ingenious ways to explore this airy world with a combination of suspended cable walkways, tree house–like platforms, and rope-climbing techniques adapted from rock climbing.
Many of Peru's Amazon lodges offer canopy walks. Below are descriptions of a few of the best.
In the early 1990s the nonprofit ACER organization funded the Amazon’s longest canopy walkway, which was built 80 kilometers northeast of Iquitos at the Explorama Lodge. It is a cable bridge, suspended between a series of giant rainforest trees, that runs for nearly half a kilometer and reaches 35 meters above the ground. Visitors hang out for hours on the walkway, peering down the sides of trees to the jungle floor below or scanning over the treetops for hundreds of different birds.
The bridge is completely safe, even for children. There are safety cables at shoulder height to grab onto, a wooden floor, and thick mesh stretched between. The whole thing is like a giant channel of mesh out of which it would be hard to climb, much less fall. Visitors climb up a wooden tower with wide staircase to access the bridge, and no harnesses or other safety precautions are necessary. Guides usually let visitors wander wherever they want on the bridge.
Reserva Amazónica east of Puerto Maldonado area has built a similar canopy walkway. A dozen other lodges in Peru’s rainforest offer observation platforms. These platforms, such as the one at the Manu Wildlife Center, are up to 35 meters off the ground and are usually reached via a circular staircase that is made of steel and held upright via steel cables. Again, no safety harnesses are required and, as long as you are not terrified of heights, getting to the platform is easy.
There are plenty more adventurous canopy options in Peru’s rainforest, including the wooden platforms at Cocha Salvador in the Parque Nacional Manu. To reach these airy tree houses, you must don a rock-climbing harness and climb the rope via a set of jumars, ascending devices used most commonly in rock climbing. It is a completely safe, though strenuous, experience that allows you to appreciate how high 35 meters off the ground really is. For those uncomfortable with climbing the rope, another option is to be pulled up into the tree house by a geared contraption that is cranked by the guide.
The Tahuayo Lodge, 145 kilometers upstream of Iquitos, has what it calls a zip line, which is essentially a harness that slides along a set of steel cables about 30 meters above the ground. From a wooden platform, visitors launch into space and can either zing through the canopy or stop and hang quietly in order to observe wildlife. Obviously this is for those extremely comfortable with heights!
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition