The capital of the Department of Ucayali and an important logging and agricultural centre, Pucallpa is a fast-growing city of over 300,000 inhabitants. It is also the gateway to a number of biological and geographical wonders, such as the Sierra del Divisor, with its iconic Cerro El Cono (Cone Mountain); the Cordillera Azul (Blue Mountains); and Alto Purus National Park, the largest reserved area in Peru, containing some of the remotest, most rugged and unexplored territory in Amazonia.
It is now hard to imagine that the population in 1900 was only 200, but the arrival of the highway from Lima in 1930 made this Peru’s major Amazonian city, after Iquitos. There are now numerous daily flights, with various airlines, between Lima and Pucallpa, but if you do take the overland route, you will be rewarded with some spectacular scenery.
Of particular note is the 255 km (158-mile) section of highway between Tingo Maria and Pucallpa which passes through beautiful cloud forest as it climbs from Tingo’s 655 m (2,150 ft), over a 1,613 m (5,292-ft) pass at Boqueron del Abad, and down to Pucallpa at 154 m (505 ft). Because of the views, the six-hour journey is best done during the day.
Pucallpa, while somewhat unkempt, is not without its attractions! Parque Natural, on the road to the airport, has a small zoo, botanical garden, picnic area, lake with rowboats, children’s playground, and museum exhibiting fossils and cultural artifacts from local tribes.
Pucallpa’s most famed highlight is Yarinacocha, a beautiful, oxbow lake 8 km (5 miles) northeast of the centre. Here, boats can be hired to see dolphins, visit Shipibo Indian villages, or see the Chullachaqui Botanical Garden, a 45-minute boat ride, followed by a 30-minute hike.
The Shipibo Indians are a matriarchal society famed for the distinctive geometric designs that they use to decorate their handmade ceramics and textiles. They wander around the streets of central Pucallpa selling their crafts, and many live in open-sided, stilted, thatched-roofed houses in villages such as San Francisco, Nuevo Destino, and Santa Clara, on Yarinacocha. All can be reached in about an hour by boat, and the first two now are linked by dirt roads to Pucallpa.
The slow ships cruising down the Ucayali River north of Pucallpa to Iquitos, in four to six days, carry cargo and passengers, and are an essential link between Iquitos and the rest of Peru. There are no luxury cruises, but there are rápidos (speedboats) linking the main towns along the river.
Alternatively, sling your hammock on the boat in Pucallpa and spend the best part of a week in intimate contact with life on the river all the way to Iquitos.