Tumbes’s out-of-the-way location has kept visitors away from the country’s only mangrove swamps and a fascinating chain of inland nature reserves—which all compose the Reserva de Biósfera del Noroeste (Northwestern Biosphere Reserve).
The mangrove swamps can be seen during an easy, three-hour boat tour from Puerto Pizarro, a fishing port 13 kilometers north of Tumbes. Things to see include Peru’s only crocodiles, endangered because of hunting but now slowly reproducing in a nearby nursery.
There are also interesting sediment islands in the area, including Isla de los Pájaros, a good birding ground, Isla Hueso de Ballena, and Isla de Amor, which has a good swimming beach.
All the agencies in town arrange visits to this area and the more pristine mangroves at the Santuario Nacional Manglares de Tumbes, a nearly 3,000-hectare reserve that is an hour’s drive from Tumbes and includes canoe, not motorboat, tours. Though there is no crocodile nursery at the Santuario, you are likely to see a greater variety of birds.
Puerto Pizarro can be visited without an agency, by taking a US$0.75 colectivo along Tumbes Avenue to Puerto Pizarro. From there you can walk 15 kilometers northeast along the coast on a dirt road to reach the small town of El Bendito, where fishermen sometimes take visitors out in canoes. To see the sanctuary, however, you will need a guide, and most of the guided trips include stops at Puerto Pizarro and El Bendito.
Tumbes is also the starting point for three inland reserves, which form a north–south biological corridor critical for the conservation of the area’s endangered species. Because roads into these parks are lousy, government permission is needed, and there is no visitor infrastructure whatsoever, the easiest way to visit is with Tumbes Tours (tel. 072/968-3118, tumbes [at] tumbestours [dot] com, www.tumbestours.com) or with a Máncora agency. Make sure to bring bug repellent, and don’t plan to go during the rainy season January–mid-April, because often the roads are closed or impassable.
If you have a four-wheel drive, camping equipment, and a sense of adventure, you could also explore these parks on your own. Permits and updated information can be arranged through SERNANP, which administers the area and is located at new offices on the Panamericana north of the soccer stadium.
Your best bet for seeing a range of wild animals, and the area we most recommend, is the eastern El Caucho sector of the Parque Nacional Cerros de Amotape. This 75,000-hectare section of the national park butts up against Ecuador and encompasses one of Peru’s only chunks of Pacific tropical forest.
Here you will find endangered species such as the Tumbes crocodile, a local howler monkey called the mono coto, and a local sea otter, nutria del noroeste. El Caucho is filled with orchids and gigantic trees such as the ceibo—a tree with bright-green bark and umbrella-shaped crown—and pretino, a related tree with gray bark that drops seed pods the size of soccer balls. Anteaters, cats (well, just their prints), and a wide variety of birds can be seen in the reserve.
The heart of the sector is the guard-point El Caucho, from which the area gets its name. It is 45 minutes from Tumbes on a rough dirt road, and the journey presently takes 2.5 hours in a four-wheel drive, plus one hour of walking. Most agencies that visit this park offer overnight trips with camping near El Caucho, which is a good idea so you can get up early in the morning to see wildlife. The hikes include swimming in rivers and spectacular scenery.
To the south and divided by the Río Tumbes lies the drier, hilly section of the national park. Sprawling across 91,300 hectares of equatorial dry forest, this sector has more sun exposure. Resident animals include pumas, gray and red deer, anteaters, and the Andean condor.
A royal Inca highway ran along the ridge of the Amotape hills, and a few interesting ruins can be visited along the way into the park. For those who prefer to ride through the park, burros can be rented for US$6 per day, including the guide.
Farther south is a hunting reserve called the Coto de Caza El Angolo, a 65,000-hectare chunk to the southwest of the Amotape Mountains.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition