For any wildlife watcher there can be no greater thrill than tours of the Amazon rainforest, and in Peru you can find easy ways to penetrate the often impenetrable jungle.
The mighty Amazon River, which provides the life force for the vast Amazon Basin that covers roughly half of Brazil and Colombia and most of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, has its birthplace in southern Peru.
Sheltered by the heights of the Andean Mountains and brought to life by not just the Amazon but thousands of smaller rivers as well, the dense Amazon rainforest stretches from east of the Andes and offers jaw-droppingly rich biodiversity.
This unique ecosystem is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, home to more than 400 mammals and 1,800 bird species, along with 40,000 plants and two and a half million invertebrates.
In fact, the Amazon Basin represents 40% of the landmass of South America and contains 10% of all the world’s known animal and plant species!
The south-east of the Peruvian Amazon
Photo credit: InkaNatura Travel, Giant River Otters
The southern part of the Peruvian Amazon is the easiest for the traveller to access. You can fly daily from the capital, Lima, to the small town of Puerto Maldonaldo, which is on the doorstep of one of Peru’s amazing National Reserves, Tambopata.
Or, if you want to combine a wildlife tour with a historical one in Machu Picchu, the citadel of the ancient Inca civilisation, you can make your way to Manu National Park from Cusco.
The Amazonian rainforest in Peru is serious jungle – not the sort of place you take yourself for a casual day out. The jungle floor may be very dark because the trees grow so close together, and so can be hard to navigate. And there are a number of poisonous creatures to look out for.
Having said that, the immersive experience of true rainforest with all its diversity of colour, sounds, sights and smells, cannot be matched anywhere else.
It’s said that rain can take 10 minutes to reach the ground in the forest because the foliage is so dense – at least you have plenty of time to get your waterproof on!
If you are visiting the Amazon on foot and want to get the most out of the amazing landscape, help to navigate through the undergrowth and to see the most diverse wildlife, and stay safe, you need a local tour guide to smooth the way.
Your efforts will be rewarded by possible encounters with a number of wild cats, including jaguars, and sightings of anteaters, tapirs, giant otters and more exotic birds than you have ever seen before.
Alternatively, rather than hiking you can opt for an Amazon river cruise. As well as views of all the wildlife on the riverbanks, in the trees and in the air, this will also afford sightings of river dolphins, manatees, giant river otters, black caimen, and crocodiles.
One final caution: if you are a parent of small children it would be better to save your Amazon adventure until they are at least eight years old. The experience can be taxing and medical facilities not always easily obtained. The same caution about the nature of the terrain and availability of doctors also goes to those less fit and mobile.
Wildlife Specialist Tip
Giant River Otters live not on the river itself, but on one of the many ox-bow lakes formed when the river changed course, cutting off these kidney-shaped waterbodies and creating a self-contained ecosystem ideal for these huge and elusive animals.
Giant river otters are very rare indeed: the global population estimate is somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000, on a par with the tiger and giant panda.
Known as ‘river wolves’, these huge animals – more than two metres long and weighing over 70 kg are, along with the jaguar, one of the top predators in the Amazon Rainforest. They’ll happily hunt baby caimans, and even jaguars leave them well alone.
Heading north-east in the Peruvian Amazon
Photo credit: Rainforest Expeditions, Puma
Although the south-east allows a relatively easy way to see the wonders of the Amazon rainforest, to see the River Amazon in all its vast glory you really have to venture north to the city of Iquitos.
This is the largest city in the whole Peruvian Amazon area and yet, surprisingly, it is inaccessible by any form of road. The only ways in and out are by airplane or boat along the Amazon.
The largest reserve in the Iquitos region is the Pacaya-Samiria National Park, which contains some of the highest levels of biodiversity of the Amazon Basin.
More than one-third of all Amazon species are to be found there.
In the Park you can be lucky and encounter the impressive anaconda, and you have a good chance of pink river dolphins, endangered red-faced and white-bellied spider monkeys and many unusual wetland birds such as the Jairu stork and the snake bird.
Tambopata Natural Reserve
Photo credit: Rainforest Expeditions, Refugio Amazonas
Peru Amazon Tours Accessed from Puerto Maldonaldo
The Bahuaja-Sonene National Park stretches over an astonishing 1,091,416 hectares, of which Tambopata is part, and crosses the border into Bolivia.
The Park was created to protect Peru’s only tropical wet savannah habitat, important for giant anteater, maned wolf, giant otter and harpy eagle, among many others.
You make your way to the accessible part of Tambopata reserve via boat from Puerto Maldonaldo, either up the Madre de Dios or the Tambopata rivers.
Depending on the experience you’ve chosen this can involve a 45-minute canoe trip, or a longer journey deep into the jungle up some of the smaller tributary rivers and creeks.
As you travel, you leave behind all modern hustle, bustle and noise and replace it with the cries of howler monkeys and the chitter-chatter and whistling of hundreds of different bird species.
Along your journey, and while you’re immersed in the depths of the jungle, you can hope to see the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, or the large, long-nosed tapir.
Being close to the river is important, as much of the forest’s wildlife comes to the water, even swimming across occasionally, so keeping your eyes and ears open and scanning the banks can be rewarding.
Among the trees you might glimpse the slinking form of a jaguar or puma, and high in the canopy there’s a chance of many colourful bird species, including birds of prey such as the black-and-white hawk eagle or even the mighty harpy eagle.
Within the reserve there is a eco-lodge owned and run by the Ese Eja native people who belong to the Community of Infierno. The Posada Amazonas Lodge is a successful collaboration between local people and international tourism and offers a glimpse into the culture and life of the indigenous people.
Manu National Park
Photo credit: Green Tours, Macaws
Peru Amazon Tours Accessed from Cusco
Comfortably overtaking even the vast extent of Tambopata in area, the Manu biosphere covers 1,716,295 hectares. It can be accessed via the Interoceanic Highway, only completed around nine years ago, that links Peru with Brazil along a modern 1,500-mile road.
Manu has a diverse range of habitats, from high plains, known as the Puna and covered in scrub where spectacled bears roam, through cloud forest and down to humid tropical rainforest.
Its oxbow lakes are home to giant otters and caimens, and there are tall towers linked to some of the accommodation that take you high into the canopy and close to some of the 1,000 bird species that inhabit the area.
For cat lovers there are chances to see jaguar, ocelot and puma, as well as the lesser-known jaguarondi.
The largest mammal found in the Park is the Brazilian tapir that you need to look out for at dawn and dusk near the river, where you might also see giant otters.
For birdwatchers there are seven species of macaw alone, along with Peru’s national bird, the bright orange Andean Cock-of-the-rock that lives in the cloud forest.
Another curious bird to look out for on your Amazon tour in Peru, but not necessarily get close to, is the hoatzin with its punky hairdo. Locals call it the stink turkey, for good reason as its odour can be penetrating.
At Manu, as at some other reserves in the country, you can witness the phenomenon of the clay lick, where macaws and parakeets, as well as tapirs, come to ingest minerals that are important for their health.
What are Macaw Clay Licks?
Macaw Clay Licks are one of the best places to see these spectacular tropical birds. Macaws and other parrots flock in their hundreds to gather clay along exposed river banks in the western Amazon basin, allowing you to see the incredible diversity of the Amazon all in one place! Up to 10 different species visit the Clay Licks, including Dusky-Headed and Cobalt-Winged Parakeets, Chestnut-Fronted Macaws, and Mealy, Yellow-Crowned, Blue-Headed, and Orange-Cheeked Parrots.
Several areas in Peru provide especially good view of the birds and their clay banks, including Tambopata National Reserve, and clay licks in Manu National Park and Biosphere Reserve.
By visiting the Clay Lick, you also get to discover one of the Amazon’s remaining science mysteries. Researchers at the Macaw Project have studied these larger birds as they eat clay. Their theory is that animals eat the clay to supplement salt in their diet, since far from any ocean, there’s very little sodium in the water or food here. Watch for yourself, and see whether you think the theory is correct!
Pacaya-Samiria National Park
Photo credit: Explorer’s Inn, Sloth
Peru Amazon Tours Accessed from Iquitos
This reserve is bigger again than the other two mentioned. At more than two million hectares it protects the most extensive floodable zone in the entire South American rainforest.
It is famous for the very unusual looking pink dolphins that, unlike common or bottle-nosed dolphins, are a freshwater species. There are also grey tucuxi dolphins that are more prone than the pink to travel in large groups. They also surface more and so are easier to see.
Alongside the dolphins the waters of the Samiria River contain caimen, manatees, large catfish, yellow-spotted river turtles and the curious twist-neck turtles.
On land there are pumas and jaguars, white-lipped peccaries, South American coatis, capybara, brown-throated sloth and giant otters, among many others.
Birdlife numbers, among others, king vultures, horned screamers, swallow-tailed hummingbirds and the biggest of them all, the harpy eagle.
Much scientific research and conservation occurs in Pacaya-Samiria National Park, which was only designated as a protected area in 1982.
Local people are active in the management of the reserve and its natural resources, which has reduced hunting pressures from poachers coming in from outside the region and promoted the well-being of species such as the wild cats, ungulates, river dolphins and large fish populations.
- Why Peru is the ultimate birding destination
- Birding in Peru’s Amazonian Rainforest
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When to visit the Peruvian Amazon
Photo credit: Rainforest Expeditions, Harpy Eagle
The Amazon rainforest is always humid but if you’re opting for a hiking tour then it’s best to avoid the real rainy season when the volume of water can be constant, which makes getting about unpleasant and animal sightings tricky.
If, on the other hand, you’re aiming for a river cruise, then the rainy season is not necessarily a bad idea. The rivers will be flooded so you will be able to travel up some of the smaller tributaries where you can get a concentration of wild animals. You’ll also be snug and dry on the boat so sightseeing won’t be too arduous.
In Pacaya-Samiria National Park in particular, the dry season is not a great time to see large numbers of animals, and biting insects can be more of a problem. Between December and March it’s easier to travel by boat and the animals are more evident, although you’ll need your waterproofs!
The Peruvian wet season runs from November to March. From April to October the weather should be sunny with only a small amount of rain, heavier in the shoulder months. In August, the river levels will be at their lowest.
What to take on an Amazon tour in Peru
Photo credit: Green Tours, Amazonian Lowlands
Lightweight, quick-drying clothing, with full-length, or at least three-quarter length, trousers and long-sleeved shirts. Shorts and short sleeves leave you vulnerable to insect bites.
Sturdy walking shoes or boots are preferable to walking sandals.
Waterproof jackets and hats are desirable extras, even in the dry season.
You also need to have a good supply of deet-based insect repellent and powerful flashlights as the lodges in the Peruvian Amazon depend on generators and so only provide electricity for limited times and not necessarily to light the outside paths.
And don’t forget a good-quality pair of binoculars – much of the wildlife in Peru will be seen at a distance and possibly high up.
Are you interested in visiting Peru?
For more information, contact one of our specialist Peruvian wildlife tour operators and companies to book your next Amazon tour in Peru directly.