Discover Northern Peru’s Amazon Rainforest
Peru North's first encounter with tropical rainforest was not in South America. It was in Malaysia, attending a wedding in the Kelabit Highlands, on the island of Borneo, in the early 1990s. Having fired a blowpipe, tried leg-wrestling and won a pig-lifting competition, we were left with the impression that the jungles of the world were pretty exciting places!
This was confirmed with further visits to the rainforests of Central America, while leading tours for an adventure holiday company. However, it was the sheer scope and richness of flora and fauna of the Amazon region that really captured our imagination, when we finally made it to Iquitos, for an Amazon cruise to the Colombian border, in the year 2002.
Since then, he has had the fortune to visit a number of other Amazon jungle areas, in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia ... as well as elsewhere in Peru.
Geography: A sixth of the massive Amazon Basin lies within Peru, and much of that is in northern Peru, predominantly in Loreto, the country’s largest department by sheer extent of its roadless rainforest, but also stretching into the departments of San Martin, Ucayali, La Libertad, Huanuco, Cajamarca and (not surprisingly!) Amazonas.
Three major rivers, the Ucayali, Marañon, and Napo form the major tributaries to the Amazon River, but the area is braided by countless smaller waterways, some of which have been barely explored.
Peru’s most important jungle city, and the capital of Loreto Department, is Iquitos, reached only by air or boat. Roads from Lima reach Pucallpa on the Ucayali River, and Yurimaguas on the Huallaga River, from where travelers continue by iconic, decked river boats.
Stretching back to the early 1970s, Peru has generally been more aggressive than some of its neighbors in care-taking the region’s flora, fauna and indigenous peoples. While logging, mining and slash-and-burn agriculture do take place, this long-term conservation has resulted in a number of conservation areas accessible from Iquitos, including the Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve, the Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Regional Conservation Area and the enormous Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.
The rainforest in Loreto is almost entirely lowland equatorial evergreen, but when one nears the Andes, in the Departments of San Martin and Amazonas, the elevation increases and the eco-system changes. It is here we find orchid-rich cloud forest, which is a Mecca for birders.
Biology: Preserved in the varied eco-systems of Amazonia is one of the world’s great stores of biodiversity, a treasure chest of nature that is far from being fully catalogued or understood.
According to the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP), Peru boasts more bird species (around 1,800) than any other nation on the planet. It is also near the top of the charts in mammals, freshwater fish, amphibians, and flowering fishplants. And about a fifth of the world’s butterflies flit through Peruvian forests and glades.
Even though these numbers apply to the country as a whole, the Amazon accounts for the vast bulk of these creatures.
History: No one knows for sure how long humans have occupied the Amazon, but some estimates suggest it could have been as long as 7,000 years ago ... or even more. The ancient Inca actively traded with the Amazon tribes for foodstuffs, bird feathers, jaguar skins, turtle oil and medicinal, ceremonial plants like coca leafs.
The Inca may have never reached the Amazon proper, but they certainly knew their way around major tributaries flowing down from the Andes. Their name for the Madre de Dios was Amarumayu (River of the Great Serpent), after the giant anaconda that dwells along its banks.
Francisco de Orellana, one of Pizarro’s officers, led the first Spanish expedition down the Amazon in 1541-42, an epic journey that included a leg down the Napo River, in northern Peru, to its confluence with the Amazon River, near present-day Iquitos.
The Spanish then went about ignoring the region for the next 300 years. Despite the lure of El Dorado and endless riches, travel through the Amazon was just too difficult and dangerous.
It was not until the mid-19th century that Europeans ventured into the region with any consistency, in order to tap the native rubber trees, pan for gold in the riverside silt, and harvest the area’s seemingly endless forests.
Modern times have also brought oil and gas exploration, settlers intent on farming the jungle, missionaries piloting their own small prop planes, and camera-clad tourists seeking the archetypal Amazon experience that Peru delivers so well.
How To Visit: Peru's Amazon region has so many quintessential moments: watching a family of giant river otters playfully frolic outside their den overlooking an oxbow lake; hiking through epiphyte-rich cloud forest, hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower, on the way to a little-known waterfall; making your way along a steamy jungle river, in the later afternoon, as the sun slowly sinks over the snow-covered Andes in the distance.
Accordingly, there is a variety of ways to experience these moments:
To enjoy the lowland Amazon rainforest, the hardy can take a camping trip with a guide; the majority of visitors go to one of the many great jungle lodges - of varying degrees of remoteness and rusticity - located in Amazonia; and for the lucky few, a handful of small, distinctive cruise vessels offer waterborne tours on the Amazon River and her tributaries, starting and ending in Iquitos.
Tarapoto is surrounded by montane rainforest and is therefore another lodge destination in its own right. Moreover, its well-served airport means that it serves as a hub for many of Peru North's overland tours into the forests of Amazonas and beyond:
Our Chiclayo - Cajamarca 6D / 7D / 8D includes Amazonas, but skips Tarapoto.
The many endemic species to be found in the high jungle of San Martin and Amazonas mean they are a fixture on Peru North's birding routes:
And for the hardy birder, there is the chance to take a light aeroplane to the low Amazon, for four days in and around the jungle village of San Lorenzo del Marañon.