We are often asked which is the better part of the Amazon to see in Peru; Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado.
Well our answer is either; it all depends on where you will be on tour, your budget and also, what you particularly want to see.
So let us put this in perspective.
Peru is a fascinating country, in fact one of the few we know of with three distinct geographical zones namely the desert, mountains and jungle. The jungle or Selva, occupies 60% of Peru. Both Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado are in the lower jungle or selva baja.
Puerto Maldonado is a relatively small town and is considered a port town as it lies at the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata Rivers. The great thing about it is that you can fly in, or get there by bus.
The town itself is small and does not really offer tourists much by way of sights, so most people arrive and head straight out to the lodges by boat.
The most accessible protected area from Puerto Maldonado is the Tambopata National Reserve. It was settled thousands of years ago by indigenous people, who cultivated yuca and hunted in the surrounding forest. Tambopata is considered to be one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. It is home to 165 species of trees, over 120 species of mammals, 1,300 species of butterflies and 90 species of amphibians, not to mention roughly 630 bird species. And we have not started on amphibians, reptiles and fish.
One of the better known areas of Tambopata is Lake Sandoval, a majestic oxbow lake. What is an ox-bow lake? It is a U-shaped lake that forms when a wide meander of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water. Sandoval is famous for two things; the Collpa Colorado which is the largest known parrot clay lick in the world, where hundred of colourful macaws and parrots come to feed on the salt rich clay; and the lakes population of endangered giant river otters.
The area is also home to tapirs and spider monkeys.
Iquitos lies at the headwaters of the Amazon River. It is the most important and also largest of the Peruvian jungle towns. When the rubber boom hit in the early 20th century, hundreds of people from around the world flocked to Iquitos bringing with them their unique cultural heritage and architecture. This variety can be seen throughout Iquitos. Now before we go any further you need to know, that Iquitos is completely inaccessible by road, so they only way in is by plane or by boat.
One of the great tourist’s attractions of the town is the floating village of Belén, often considered the Peruvian Venice. A far cry from the wealth of its’ Italian counterpart, the houses here are build on stilts and base wood rafts, allowing them to float as the waters of the Amazon rise. And no roads means they everything is done by boat so all day an endless stream of canoes and boats ferry people about on their daily errands, from taking kids to school to heading to the markets or making the trip to the local doctor.
There are several protected areas close to Iquitos where you can stay to experience the Amazon. The best known is Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve which is also home to the unique pink, yes pink amazon dolphin, the brown sloth and the spider monkey. If it is primates that intrigue you, then the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Conservation Area is a great option. In fact the rare Bald Red Uakari is only found here. It is often called the “green paradise” of the Amazon forest and is home to hundreds of colorful bird species, including macaws and toucans.
So which one do you go to?
Iquitos has more to offer as a town for tourists that Puerto Maldonado and also offers the floating village of Belén. But given that it has more attractions it means it is also a lot busier. The only other two main differences are that Puerto Maldonado has the famous clay licks, and Iquitos has the pink dolphin.
Which ever one you choose, the Amazon has so much to offer. It provides a smorgasbord of sights and sounds and a perfect canvas to fill your memory sticks.