When many think of Peru outside Lima, what springs most readily to mind are the likes of the mighty Andes, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu. But nearly half the country is actually part of the great Amazon rain forest and ecosystem, with two main cities: Iquitos in the north and Puerto Maldonado in the south, near the border with Bolivia.
The latter, capital of the Madre de Dios region, is an hour and 40 minuted from Lima by air and just an hour from Cuzco. Though usually sweltering and humid, it’s an especially great place to experience the eco wonders of Peruvian Amazon, thanks to its location at the confluence of the Tambopata and Madre de Dios rivers. Puerto Maldonado (pop. 139,000) dates back to 1902, and has been a boom town for at various times lumber, rubber, gold, and oil – and these days, the boom is in ecotourism.
Visitors often get off the plane and transfer right to boat which whisk them up the Madre de Dios to Manu National Park, Peru’s largest protected jungle reserve, or along the Tambopata (above) to the Tambopata-Candamo Reserved Zone and Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. A third river, the Heath, leads out to a savannah called the Pampas del Heath.
Lots of visitors head out to jungle lodges such as Sandoval Lake Lodge, Wasaí Tambopata Amazon Eco Lodge and Research Centre, and Posada Amazonas, this last co-owned by the local Ese-Eja people. They range in price and amenities from basic to relatively luxurious (a few have air conditioned rooms, for example, but various others do not).
Others stay in town and take excursions from outfitters. But regardless of how you do it, the variety of wildlife in the area is truly breathtaking, including myriad monkeys, black caimans, sloths, giant anteaters, tapirs, anacondas, peccaries, pumas, armadillos, and a more than 500 species of birds including macaws of various types (in fact, the single most prominent and unusual local eco “attraction”, I guess you could call it, is Tambopata’s “macaw clay lick” (top), where hundreds of macaws and parrots from 15 species have a 50-metre-high (164-foot) river bank; it’s thought that chemicals in the clay neutralise toxins in the plants that form a large part of the birds’diet).
And while all the above is of course the reason most everyone comes to this still relatively grittty city, there are some attractions in Puerto Maldonado which could merit an overnight or even two. The main square, the Plaza de Armas, is great for photos and for rubbing shoulders with locals in their “outdoor living room”. So is the main open-air market, where you can find local fruits like aguaje, other foods (try the skewers of fruit maggots, yum!), and household and other consumer goods. The Obelisk is an eight-story lookout tower affording sweeping views out over the city and jungle. After dark, there’s a decent variety of restaurants, pubs, and dance spots in which to let your hair down a bit.
There are several nature-related attractions in town, as well, starting with the Jaguar Zoo, which not only houses a variety of Amazonian fauna but also includes a nighttime disco! In the middle of the Madre de Dios River there’s also Isla de los Monos, an island home to hundreds of several types of monkeys (just watch out, they’re thieving little buggers!). And not far from the local airport is a modest, volunteer-run serpentario (snake house), with rescued boa constrictors (which you can put around your neck), poisonous species (safely behind glass), and a few other different animals.
Yet as cool as seeing the critters in those places is, there is of course nothing like the wonder of spotting them in their natural setting out in the jungle. It’s this that is truly the primordial allure of the Puerto Maldonado area, and something that all human beings should experience at least once especially in these ecologically troubled, climate-stressed times.
More information: Peru.travel.