Your visit to the Peruvian Amazon largely depends on the money you want to spend, the time you have, and what season you are traveling. If you only have three to five days and a few hundred dollars, look into lodges around Puerto Maldonado or Iquitos. If you have a week or more and a bigger budget, go to the Reserva de Biósfera del Manu (Manu Biosphere Reserve) or indulge yourself with a river cruise on the Amazon. There are exceptions to this rule, however. High concentrations of wildlife can also be found in the Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria, southwest of Iquitos, or the Reserva Nacional Tambopata, farther south of Puerto Maldonado. Either way, the best time to visit Peru’s rainforest is during the dry months, May to October, though Iquitos can be visited year-round.
Where to Go
To figure out where to go, it helps to understand Peru’s different rainforest zones. Prevailing winds in South America move west, not east as in North America. Amazon humidity cools and condenses as it is forced over the eastern slopes of the Andes. This gives rise to the damp and chilly montane cloud forests perched between 700 and 2,900 meters elevation. This is the habitat of the cock of the rock, a crimson chicken-shaped bird; the Andean bear, the only surviving bear species of South America; and a huge range of colorful orchids, bromeliads, and hummingbirds. Peru’s most accessible montane cloud forests are around Tarapoto, Tingo María, Machu Picchu, and the drive into the Reserva de Biósfera del Manu.
Lower down in the rainforest, clear mountain streams cascade through steep mountain forests, giving way to broader, progressively muddier rivers that weave through the increasingly flat landscape. This type of lowland rainforest occurs in Manu and Puerto Maldonado but reaches its greatest expression all the way downriver near Iquitos, where the Amazon reaches around two kilometers in width and the forest is perfectly flat.
There are interesting access points to the Peruvian high rainforest or selva alta, including Chanchamayo Valley in Peru’s central rainforest; Tingo María, a former drug trafficking zone that is rapidly becoming a safe and low-budget rainforest destination along with nearby Parque Nacional Tingo María; and Tarapoto, located upriver from Iquitos.
Manu Biosphere Reserve
The Reserva de Biósfera del Manu (Manu Biosphere Reserve), which stretches from 4,000 meters elevation all the way down to 150 meters, protects one of the most pristine swaths of the Peruvian Amazon, where a wide range of birds, primates, and mammals can be seen. The best time to visit is during the dry season, May to November, though only sporadic rains occur starting in November-December. There are only a handful of licensed tour operators in Manu, who charge US$800-2,250 for five- to nine-day tours with amenities ranging from beach camping to comfortable lodges. The Manu, like Puerto Maldonado, is in Peru’s southeastern rainforest and is reached by a full-day bus ride.
The advantages of the lodges around Puerto Maldonado, downriver from the Reserva de Biósfera del Manu, are cost and access: Travelers arrive within 30 minutes of flying from Cusco, and a two-night stay costs anywhere from US$80 to US$450. This area, on the edge of the Reserva Nacional Tambopata, has a good variety of monkeys, birds, caimans, and small mammals. As at Manu, the best time to visit here is May to November. There are levels of wildlife comparable to Manu at the Tambopata Research Center, a 7- to 10-hour boat ride from Puerto Maldonado. This center is next to the remote Parque Nacional Bahuaja Sonene and the world’s largest macaw clay lick, or collpa.
The city of Iquitos, in Peru’s northeastern Amazon, forged Peru’s tourism industry back in the late 1960s but has grown so large that visitors have to go a long way to find interesting rainforest. There is a wide variety of cost and quality in this area. If you don’t mind traveling a bit longer, some of Peru’s best lodges are upstream on the Marañón River, near the Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria, Peru’s largest protected rainforest area. Endangered wildlife such as the rare Amazonian manatee or sea cow can be observed here. Close to the Reserva Comunal Tamshiyacu Tahuayo, a reserve self-managed by the local communities, there are some good lodges. An hour by car from Iquitos, on the Iquitos-Nauta highway, is the Reserva Nacional Allpahuayo Mishana, the only protected white-sand forest, where new bird species have recently been discovered.
Unlike Puerto Maldonado, Iquitos can be visited year-round. The Puerto Maldonado area, which is higher rainforest, has an intense rainy season from January to April. Iquitos, which is much farther downstream, has more constant weather year-round. Although the weather is relatively constant, the river rises 7 to 15 meters during the November-May rainy months in the Andes. During these months, the forests around Iquitos flood and soils are replenished with silt. Animals can most easily be spotted on the mud banks after the river drops, between June and September. The cost of Iquitos lodges ranges US$60-200, depending on the distance from Iquitos.
Packing for the Rainforest
Yes, there are biting insects in the rainforest, so bring plenty of repellent (20 percent DEET is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends). The best defense, however, is to cover your body with light-colored long clothing and, in the evenings, cover up with a mosquito head net. Apart from two or three pairs of long pants and shirts, other items include T-shirts, lots of socks, a swimsuit, one pair of shorts, a sweater or fleece for chilly evenings, hiking or tennis shoes (rubber boots are normally supplied by the lodge or river cruise you choose), a rain suit or poncho, toiletries, sunglasses, sunscreen, binoculars, a headlamp, a water bottle, a photocopy of your passport, a camera, and one or two memory cards. Most agencies require that you keep your luggage to a minimum because of tight space on the planes and boats. You can usually store your extra luggage at the agency’s main office. Better, though, is to pack lightly.