One of the questions we receive the most while helping tourists organize their trip to Peru’s Amazon rainforest is: Iquitos or Tambopata? The truth is that they both are amazing places to visit while traveling around the Peru jungle but, because of time and budget, you might want to choose only one of them. Here we give you some tips to help you decide.
First, it is essential to understand that Iquitos is a “big” city (almost 500 thousand people live there) in the northern jungle of Peru, while Tambopata is a natural protected area in the south part of the country. From Iquitos, it is possible to visit Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and some other natural areas and even cruise the Amazon River, considered the largest in the world. In Tambopata, you will be able to spot some amazing animals and enjoy the peace of nature.
In this article, we will compare the experience tourists can have in the northern jungle of Peru (around Iquitos), and the one you can get in Tambopata.
If you arrive in Peru via Lima (which is the most common), it is easy to fly to both Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado (the city where you start the trip to Tambopata). Several airlines are doing both routes.
Flights to Iquitos from Lima take about two hours. Once in Iquitos, you can go by car to the “malecon,” and from there, you will be looking at the amazing Amazon River. But the real wildlife experience in the northern jungle occurs in the surroundings of the city. There are several lodges in Iquitos offering high-quality services. Also, one of the best ways to enjoy the Amazon river and it’s breathtaking landscapes is in one of the luxury cruises of the Amazon. Many tourists come to Peru to visit Machu Picchu, located in Cusco (the southern Andes of the country). Now, tourists can also fly directly from Cusco to Iquitos. Still, this route is only available on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
To get to Puerto Maldonado (the starting point to get to Tambopata National Reserve), you can fly from Lima or Cusco. Either you decide to fly from Lima or Cusco, you will find several itineraries during the day, every day of the week. Once in Puerto Maldonado, you should go by boat to the lodge you will stay in (this transport is usually arranged by the lodge you booked). The boat trip can take from 30 minutes to 4 hours, depending on the location of your lodge (the furthest you go, the more possibilities you have of spotting wildlife). You can learn more about this in the “lodging” section of this article.
Wildlife and Nature
It’s important to mention that although both northern and southern jungles of Peru offer incredible landscapes and the opportunity to spot wildlife, both areas are quite different.
Iquitos is the most populated city in the Peruvian Amazon, and most of the people living there are farmers, which has degraded the forest around the town. This makes it very difficult to enjoy wildlife in the areas close to the city. Still, the city itself is an excellent place to get a sense of the ribereño culture (the culture of the people living by the river). The best option if you want to experience wildlife is to visit Pacaya Samiria National Reserve or Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Communal Reserve (both are close one to the other). There are no lodges inside Pacaya Samiria, but you can stay in lodges close to them (some of them located inside Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Reserve). Another way to visit the Pacaya Samiria is to do it by cruise, which is one of the most luxurious experiences a tourist can have in Peru.
Pacaya Samiria is well known for its breathtaking landscapes. It is called “the jungle of mirrors” because the beautiful blue cloudy sky reflects in the dark (almost black) water of the river. In terms of fauna, probably the best experience in the northern natural protected area is to see the famous pink dolphin, which can only be seen in the Amazon and Orinoco basins. In the forest, you will be able to spot animals such as birds, small monkeys, turtles, sloths, and a wide variety of insects.
Puerto Maldonado is a small city and doesn’t have a long history of logging industry and migration (compared to Iquitos). Despite some ongoing threats from illegal miners, the forests near Puerto Maldonado are some of the most pristine in the world. Some people say the city is boring, and it is mostly used as a departure point to get to some of the most amazing Amazon lodges in the country. One of the best natural areas to visit from Puerto Maldonado is Tambopata.
In a three-day trip to Tambopata, you will be able to see between three to five species of monkeys, agoutis, capybaras (world’s largest rodent), white caimans, giant river otters, and many species of birds and insects. With just one more day (four days in total), you can visit the heart of the reserve and visit the famous macaw clay licks, see herds of white-lipped peccary, and, with some luck, spot a jaguar (there are 30% chances of seeing it).
You might have a better idea of what are the pros and cons of visiting Iquitos or Tambopata. In this last section, we want to recommend some lodging options in both Pacaya Samiria surroundings and Tambopata.
Northern jungle lodges:
- Tahuayo Lodge: this eco-lodge is located 90 miles upstream from Iquitos. With only 17 cabins, this rustic lodge is one of the best places in the north of Peru to spot wildlife. Some electricity provided by solar panels and batteries, so guests can recharge camera batteries. Lighting is provided by LED lights.
- Muyuna Lodge: This eco-lodge is located almost 90 miles upstream from Iquitos, inside Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Communal Reserve, and very close to Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. This location is surrounded by primary forest, assuring wildlife watching. Their 17 cabins are scattered across the river and the jungle, giving total privacy to their guests. Each cabin has electricity provided by solar panels.
- Delfin Amazon Cruises: Delfin I, Delfin II, and Delfin III, each one with a different level of luxury, are all very comfortable options to cruise the Amazon River. The routes of the cruises include Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. They also stop in local communities where tourists can learn about their cultures.
- Jungle Experiences – Amazon River Cruises: This enterprise operates three different cruises, each one offering a different experience. Zafiro is their luxury cruise, La Perla is their adventure cruise, and Amatista is their expedition cruise. Part of their itinerary is to visit Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and the local communities around.
Southern jungle lodges:
- Tambopata Research Center: This is the only lodge located inside the Tambopata National Reserve, making it one of the most remote shelters in South America. The remote location of the lodge means that it is surrounded by the best wildlife that the Amazon Rainforest has to offer. Their naturally constructed rooms have an open wall to the surrounding jungle, giving tourists a safe way to enjoy this diverse ecosystem, even during free time.
- Inkaterra: An eco-luxury lodge in front of Madre de Dios River with 35 wooden cabins. It is located in a pristine, remote, and yet easily accessible area adjacent to Tambopata National Reserve. From here, tourists can visit the Inkaterra Canopy Walkway, a bridge system at 30 meters above the ground, that allows adventurers to enjoy a fantastic view of the forest.
- Inotawa Expeditions Amazon House: This eco-lodge is located right in front of Tambopata National Reserve and next to their very own Private Conservation Area. This rustic lodge offers all the comfort and basic services to live in the jungle at its nearest. The family in charge of the lodge uses the money from tourism activity to conserve their area.
- Posada Amazonas: This lodge is located inside the private communal reserve of the Ese Eja Native Community of Infierno. Posada Amazonas offers a unique set of activities ample opportunities to observe wildlife and to discover ancient indigenous heritage. This lodge was developed thanks to a unique partnership between Rainforest Expeditions (private business) and Infierno Ese Eja community, giving opportunities, jobs, and income to its families.