It’s worth asking: is it the right question? Are we leaving important Amazonian destinations out? And the answer is YES, it is the right question and NO we are not leaving any important Amazonian destinations out. You may have heard of Tarapoto, Huanuco or the Selva Central (San Ramon, Oxapampa). These are all fine and dandy if youre a birdwatcher. Otherwise the access vs nature / wildlife cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t cut it. At each of these places you have to travel further for lesser quality wildlife/nature than at Tambopata. So, we will stick with our original question. And we will answer this question with our two-dimensional lens: access vs nature.
Before getting started, let me say each destination has a mature service offering. What this means is you will find tour and lodging services ranging from home stays with a warm welcome but no running water to some of the worlds most exclusive nature experiences.
Here we go!
Tambopata and the Puerto Maldonado area
There are three main reasons to travel to Tambopata (1) You want a good to great nature and wildlife experience (2) You want to see the world famous Macaw Clay Licks that showed up in National Geographic, BBC, etc and/or (3) You don’t have much time. The good to great gradient for nature and wildlife depends on your time. If you’ve got four days (or more) you will get a great experience. If not, you will get a good one.
Here is why.
- Access to Tambopata.
We are bunching up two Trip Advisor (and Lonely Planet, and Rough Guide, etc) destinations in this section: Tambopata and Puerto Maldonado. They really are the same from the perspective of access. To get to both, you fly to the Puerto Aldamiz airport from Cusco or Lima. There are five daily flights (LATAM, Avianca, Starperu) only 50 minutes from Cusco. Once in Puerto Maldonado, all lodges are accessible by river. The closest (Reserva Amazonica) is 30 minutes away. The furthest (Tambopata Research Center) is 7 hours away. Your principal concern here should be: am I staying close to the Tambopata National Reserve? And close means INSIDE or ADJACENT to the Tambopata National Reserve. If so, you will get plenty of wildlife. If not – mmmeeeehhh, you are going to have a dropoff in the quality of the nature / wildlife experience. Dr Varun Swamy actually put it in numbers. He measured monkey density in four locations around Madre de Dios. We placed two of them on a map of Tambopata and surrounding areas to help you visualize the difference.
So, in terms of access – first check if you are adjacent (i.e. on the same side of the river) to the Tambopata National Reserve. Second try to wrangle four (or more) vacation days for Tambopata. More days = more wildlife observation opportunities and more time to push further into the Reserve.
Tapir on the Tambopata by Lucas Bustamante, copyright Rainforest Expeditions
- Nature and Wildlife of Tambopata
Nature and wildlife in Tambopata are in good shape. The reserve has been protected since 1990. Before then it was too difficult to get to, so suffered little hunting, fishing or logging. A three-day trip into the Tambopata National Reserve should produce 3 to 5 species of monkeys (howler monkey, brown capuchin monkey, dusky titi monkey, saddleback tamarin, and squirrel monkeys), agouti and capybara (world largest rodent), white caiman and giant river otters (if you visit an oxbow lake) and dozens of species of birds. Don’t forget the treehoppers, scorpion wasps, dung beetles, army ants, tiger moths, and millions (literally) of species of insects. You may even discover a new one (not kidding- check it out). A four day trip (or more) will take you into heart of the reserve and add the world famous macaw clay licks, a 10-20% chance of seeing jaguar (depending on the season), spider monkeys, and herds of one hundred white lipped peccary. Its hard to believe one day makes all the difference. The reason is the “defaunation shadow” we talk about below. In Tambopata / Puerto Maldonado the shadow reaches the reserve boundary– and stops. In that extra day : you cross it.
Don’t forget. If you want to figure out how to choose your Tambopata jungle lodge operator, we recommend you download our very own (and free) ebook: How to Choose a Jungle Lodge.
Manu National Park and the Cloud Forest Road
There are two main reasons to go to Manu: (1) You are a birdwatcher. (2) You have plenty of time (a week or more). BTW, cancel if you hate bumpy roads or small aircraft (bimotors, and such). Bonus reason: meet the Machiguenga.
Here is why. And yes, we touch upon Nature / Wildlife first for a reason.
- Nature and Wildlife in Manu
Manu is one of the two gold standard in Amazonian protected areas open to tourism. The other is Tambopata (see above). There are no equivalent nature tourism experiences in the Amazon (until Colombia opens up!). Like Tambopata, Manu was declared a National Park in 1974, before any kind of serious farming, logging, hunting ate it up. Steep mountain ranges with impenetrable cloud forest protect it from squatters and loggers. It is the only one (including Tambopata) that has vast swaths of accessible cloud forest. Unlike Tambopata, the Manu Cloud Forest is accessible by road. Thus, in Manu, you get Tambopata plus the cloud forest. That means you get woolly monkeys and cock-of-the-rock. And you add one hundred plus species of flycatchers, antbirds, tanagers and hummers to your bird list. That is why, if you are a birdwatcher, Manu is your first choice. However, if you are not…
Andean Cock of the Rock by PE Hart Wikmedia Common
- Access to Manu
Getting to Manu is tough! The Manu Road begins in Cusco and climbs and descends two ridges. It is long (8-10 hours in the dry season) and super bumpy. Not recommended in the rainy season (November through March) as you might get stuck waiting for a mudslide to be cleared. Once you are in the lowlands you still have 4 to 10 hour boat rides, depending on where you are headed. And don’t forget your way back. Chartered small aircraft can get you to the lowlands in no time at all so ask your operator about them. One year they are there, the next one they aren’t. Keep your eyes peeled.
In summary, to repeat what we started out with – if you have the time for a one week expedition to the Manu area and don’t mind roughing the transport bit, go for it!
And not to forget our bonus reason: Meet the Machiguenga. Machiguenga communities have opened up to tourism with lodge operations in the past 15 years. Check out Casa Machiguenga and Pankotsi Manu Lodge . If you don’t mind modest lodging and food services you will learn a lot from the super friendly and fun loving Machiguenga. As I tell my kids – in the most exclusive places in Peru, you sleep on the ground.
And worth repeating one final time: if you want to figure out how to choose your Manu jungle lodge operator, we recommend you download our very own (and free) ebook: How to Choose a Jungle Lodge. If you can afford the time, go Machiguenga for a week!
Iquitos and the Amazon River
There are three main reasons to go to Iquitos. (1) You want to see the Amazon river per se. (2) You want to take a cruise boat (3) You want to experience present day Amazonian present day ribereño culture. If nature and wildlife is what youre looking for, stick to Tambopata or Manu.
Here is why.
- Access to Iquitos and the Amazon River
Iquitos and the Amazon river are fairly accessible from Lima. As of this writing, there are eight daily flights (from Latam, Star Peru and Peruvian Airlines). Flights are direct and two hours long. Once you arrive to Iquitos, head to the “malecon” (as we know piers and breakwater esplanades in Spanish). There you are, that is the Amazon River, the worlds largest river. Not great huh? Looks pretty much like any dirty dock in the world. To really enjoy the Amazon river, you have to go a bit further. Do this by booking a trip with any of the lodges or operators mentioned below.
- Nature and Wildlife in Iquitos and the Amazon River
Iquitos is a bustling city with no road connection to the rest of the world. Thus its 450,000 people consume what arrives by boat or plain or what they can wrangle out of the forest by farming, collecting, fishing and hunting. And there lies the problem. Four hundred thousand people in the middle of the jungle using chainshaws, fertilizer, shotguns and fishnets cast a long shadow. A recent study in Manaus, Brazil (pop 2 million) discovered it had a “defaunation shadow” of 1000 kilometers! In other words, for 1000 kilometers around Manaus, wildlife as affected by human activity such as hunting, fishing, logging, etc. BTW, the fact Iquitos has 400 thousand people means it is the best place to experience present day Amazonian ribereño culture. As you step off the plane you will get a whiff of street vendors selling macambo and aguaje. Visit the market and you will see fresh carachama fish and bush meat.
Amazon floating Village by Sacha Grabow Wikmedia Common
This doesn’t mean Iquitos is hopeless. Here is what it means. It means that if you want to see Amazonian wildlife and nature in good health you will have to take a week to visit El Dorado in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. Or you may find a watered-down nature experience is enough: visit Alpahuayo Mishana Nature Reserve 20 kilometers from Iquitos to spot small endemic antwrens and small monkeys. Or you may want to splurge on one of the 5 most luxurious experiences in Peru on the Aqua or El Delfin cruise ships. You will experience some of Peru’s finest dining and pink river dolphins!
If you want to figure out how to choose your Iquitos jungle lodge or cruise, we recommend you download our very own (and free) ebook: How to Choose a Jungle Lodge. If you can afford it though – CRUISE the Amazon to Pacaya Samiria!
And of course, if you´re thinking (or even dreaming) of Amazon Travel, you can chat with the Amazon travel experts here. We will help you get there.