Abutting the neighboring nations of Bolivia and Brazil, the vast tract of the southern Amazon Basin is among Peru’s remotest territories: comparatively little is either inhabited or explored. That said, this is changing almost as fast as a Peruvian bus timetable, thanks to the Carretera Interocéanica (Transoceanic Highway) transecting much of the region.
Visibly blossoming from its recent road connection to the outside world, Puerto Maldonado, capital of the southern jungle, has an increasingly smart sheen to the mayhem of its central streets, a-buzz with manically tooting mototaxis (three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw taxis).
For a quick Amazon fix on long weekends and holidays, limeños (inhabitants of Lima) usually head for this relatively accessible area of the Amazon, reachable in eight hours by bus. The tropical Chanchamayo province, which accounts for most of this region, is as different to the coastal desert or the Andean mountains as can be.
The busy port of Pucallpa has a distinctly less jungle-like appearance than other Amazonian towns. Although this is an important distribution center for goods along the broad, brown Río Ucayali, which sweeps past the city en route to join the Río Amazonas, the rainforest feels far away.
Around Puerto Maldonado
Four key watery areas are of interest to tourists, and two converge right in Puerto Maldonado. With its headwaters actually in Bolivia, the Río Tambopata churns through a large portion of southern Peru. Upriver (southwest) of Puerto Maldonado, it winds through much of Reserva Nacional Tambopata, and on balance contains the region's best selection of jungle lodges.
This sleepy, unspectacular port is one of the Peruvian Amazon’s best-connected towns and the gateway to the northern tract of the Amazonas. It’s visited by travelers looking for boats down the Río Huallaga to Iquitos and the Amazon proper or by those wanting to experience one of Peru’s most animal-rich paradises, the Pacaya-Samiria reserve, accessible from here.
Two key periods in history have shaped this pretty ranching and coffee center, 75km north of La Merced. The first was during the mid-19th century when it attracted some 200 settlers from Germany, the descendants of which (many still blonde-haired and blue-eyed) inhabit Oxapampa and its surrounds.
About 10km northwest of central Pucallpa, Yarinacocha is a lovely oxbow lake where you can go canoeing, observe wildlife, and visit indigenous communities and purchase their handicrafts. The lake, once part of the Río Ucayali, is now landlocked, though a small canal links the two bodies of water during the rainy season. Boat services are provided here in a casual atmosphere.
The Manu area encompasses Parque Nacional Manu and much of the surrounding jungle and cloud forest. Covering almost 20,000 sq km (about the size of Wales), the park is one of the best places in South America to scout out a whole shebang of tropical wildlife. The park is divided into three zones.
Travelers come to muddy, mosquito-rich Lagunas because it is the best embarkation point for a trip to the Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samiria. It’s a spread-out, remote place; there are stores, but stock (slightly pricier than elsewhere in Peru) is limited, so it’s wise to bring your own supplies as back-up. There are no money-changing facilities and hardly any public phones.
This amiable jungle town is the center of a coffee- and fruit-producing region 130km by road southeast of La Merced. This road was paved in 2000 to provide an outlet for produce, and Satipo is grew rapidly in response. It’s of interest to travelers as the start of a way-off-the-beaten-path track and river journey to Pucallpa (although few foreigners attempt the odyssey).