Welcome to the Jungle... Traveling to the Peruvian Amazon
The Amazon Rainforest is intimidatingly massive. It covers 2.5 million square miles, houses approximately 16,000 different species of plants and spans most of South America, stretching across the borders of nine of the continents' thirteen nations. Generally, Brazil is the first country that comes to mind when one envisions the Amazon; after all, the majority of the rainforest (approximately 60%) is found here, as is most of the Amazon River which transects the country. However, it is actually Peru, where the headwaters of the Amazon River form in the Andes, that offers travelers what is arguably the best Amazon experience in South America, particularly when it comes to viewing wildlife. Peru contains two distinct Amazon regions with excellent and varied wildlife viewing, offers a choice of logistics that range from short commercial flights to multi-day overland passages through numerous ecosystems, and has a wide range of accommodation options, including truly upscale and comfortable ecolodges that are less common in rainforest environs. A few days in the Amazon, particularly in the readily accessible southern Tambopata region, is an easy and recommended add-on to a Peru itinerary.
Where? Peru's Amazon rainforest makes up 60% of the country and can be divided into two major regions, the Upper (northern) and Lower (southern) Amazon. The Upper Amazon is generally accessed by Iquitos and is dominated by rivers and flooded forest, including the protected Pacaya - Samiria National Reserve, located 75 miles by river from Iquitos. There are a few lodges, but most exploration takes place via live aboard river boats that cruise the Amazon River, beginning and ending their itineraries in Iquitos.
The Lower Amazon materializes from the eastern flanks of Peru's southern Andes and contains the pristine wildlife sanctuaries of the Manu Biosphere Reserve and the Tambopata Candamo Reserved Zone. Manu is typically accessed from Cusco via an overland journey of several days through a myriad of ecosystems. Though arduous to reach, the wildlife density is unmatched; 1,000 birds have been identified in Manu, as have 15,000 different plants, 13 species of monkey and millions of insects. Unlike many rainforest regions, Manu has remained untouched by civilization, ensuring healthy populations of jaguar, tapir and the giant otter.
Reaching the Tambopata Reserve & environs requires a flight to Puerto Maldonado (about 45 minutes from Cusco) and than a boat journey along the Madre del Dios and Tambopata Rivers. The boat journey generally takes place in a traditional dugout canoe (with outboard motor and sun shade) and can last from 30 minutes to 6 hours, depending on how deeply one ventures into this section of the rainforest. However, some of the best wildlife viewing often takes place while in transit by boat, especially at dusk and dawn when animals come to the river's edge to drink!
What to Expect? It's important to know that viewing wildlife in the Amazon is not like viewing wildlife on an African safari or on the Galapagos Islands; rainforest animals are well camouflaged and fearful of humans so observing them in the jungle requires patience, quiet and stillness. (Though that's not to say that the Amazon isn't a good choice for families! More on that below.) Traveling long distance by boat or vehicle is time consuming and sometimes less than extremely comfortable. Vaccinations and anti malarial medications are essential. Air conditioning and other resource-intensive amenities such as swimming pools are generally not available, even at luxury ecolodges. (Instead, lodges tend to be open to the forest on at least one side to allow the sounds and atmosphere of the surrounding jungle to penetrate the property. It's a wonderful experience to wake up at dawn and while still in bed be completely surrounded by the deep whoops of Howler monkeys echoing across the forest!) And though both Peru's Upper and Lower Amazon contain heavily protected rainforest preserves, the devastating effects of deforestation, mining and oil extraction are sadly encountered en route.
Oh but the brilliant, bold and beautiful things you will see! Poison dart frogs that glisten in jewel tones, troops of Squirrel monkeys that scamper across rooftops, palms with stilt 'legs' and legions of leaf-cutter ants, bearing their bright green burdens across the forest floor. Giant river otters, tapirs, peccaries, capybara, caiman and the elusive jaguar can be found throughout the Peruvian Amazon. In the North, the pink Amazon River dolphins attract the most attention while in the South, large clay licks attracting raucous bands of macaws and parrots of every color often steal the show. Excursions to view wildlife can be guided forest walks, boat trips along rivers and oxbow lakes and sometimes include ascending towers and walkways elevated above the forest canopy. Most excursions take place in the early morning or evening when wildlife is most active, leaving the middle of the day to read, relax or take a jungle siesta! Guides are often members of indigenous forest communities who possess ancient forest wisdom; some lodges work in partnership with local tribes to offer travelers a day of cultural exchange and immersion.
When to Go? In the Northern Amazon the year is divided into “high water” (December–May) and “low water” (June–November) seasons which dictate how you are likely to experience the Amazon (on foot or by water craft) and what species and behaviors you are more likely to observe. Despite the nomenclature, rain falls year round and the high water season only sees a 10% increase in rainfall over the low water season. During the high water season, the average temperature is 86°F. Flooded rivers create amazing panoramas and bring one closer to the canopy for more intimate observations of birds and monkeys that dwell in the tree tops. The low water season is a bit warmer. The average temperature is 98°F, more migratory birds may be spotted, flooded trails dry up to allow for forest hikes and hooking a piranha while fishing is almost a sure thing.
Peru's Southern Amazon region is far enough removed from equator that it has a somewhat cooler and drier climate to that of the North and more seasonal variation. The rainy season is from November through April when rain can continue for hours or occasionally even days. Around 80% of the annual rainfall occurs during this season. The dry season is from May through October when temperatures are typically in the 80s but can occasionally drop down to 50°F when a cold front moves through. There's a perception that diminishing water sources in the dry season help concentrate wildlife a bit more for viewing, but we've had excellent sightings year round.
Why Go? Go to experience the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet; to marvel at the vast medicinal applications and unique adaptations of rainforest flora; to walk through the canopy along a hanging bridge and stare out across a sea of vivid green. If you are a birder, go to tick an almost incomprehensible number of species off of your list in one visit. Go to experience what it is like to be lulled to sleep and then awakened by the sounds of the forest; to look up and see troops of monkeys feeding in the treetops rimming an oxbow lake; to feel the thrill of spotting a fresh jaguar print in the mud and know that he, though invisible, is most likely watching you. Go because the Amazon rainforest is an endangered species, and conservation-minded and responsible tourism offers it some measure of protection from going extinct.
Who is it For? Obviously birders, wildlife lovers and overall nature enthusiasts revel in the natural treasures of the Peruvian Amazon. The travel logistics to access certain regions and the pace of exploration do make some parts of Peru's Amazon better suited for adults. But the Amazon is also a great destination for families.
Inkaterra's Reserva Amazonica sits along the Southern Amazon's Madre del Dios river, just a 45 minute boat journey outside of Puerto Maldonado and close to the borders of the Tambopata Reserve. A luxury eco lodge, Reserva Amazonica boasts extremely comfortable private screened-in cabanas and offers a variety of guided jungle explorations designed for children as young as five. While the proximity to civilization makes spotting a jaguar unlikely, it isn't impossible, and excursions to wildlife rich Lago Sandoval (an oxbow lake with a resident family of river otters) and into the tree tops along the lodge's Canopy Walkway bring guests eye-to-eye with the rainforest's wild inhabitants.