Famous for its Highlands, Peru has always been known more for its Andean mountainscapes than for what lies behind them – the Amazonian jungle. Nearly 60% of Peru is jungle, which means travelers who don’t visit the Amazon Basin are missing a huge piece of knowing Peru.
Fortunately with jet service getting to the wild and exotic Amazon doesn’t have to be an adventure. Peru has two major gateway entry points to the Amazon Basin – the smaller Puerto Maldonado and the much larger jungle city of Iquitos.
The effort it takes to have a proper jungle experience and enjoy a few days of jungle tours in the Peruvian Amazon means most travelers are left with choosing one or the other. Before choosing blindly, here’s a few of our top considerations we advise for our clients and which gateway city comes out on top.
How do you get to Iquitos, Peru? It used to be only possible by boat. But ever since daily jet service started from Lima to Iquitos the city, which is still the largest city in
the world without access by road, can be reached with a 2-hour flight to its Coronel FAP Francisco Secada Vignetta International Airport.
Most jungle lodges in Iquitos will greet you at the airport, and the river transfer to your Amazon jungle lodge will typically be at least 2 hours away. It’s jungle tranquility you have to work for.
Deforestation and development has taken its toll near and around Iquitos. This means that most reputable jungle lodges sit further away from the city up or down the mighty Amazon River making both your arrival day and departure day an extended adventure. Additionally, consider that if you plan to travel from Cusco to Iquitos (or vice versa) the Cusco Airport only offers the occasional direct flight to Iquitos (in July 2018 LATAM will offer several direct Cusco to Iquitos flights per week).
Most travelers will have to return to Lima and board a separate direct flight to Iquitos. These layovers can add up and eat into time best spent exploring the jungle, especially if you’re working with four days or less.
On the other hand Puerto Maldonado sits fairly near to Cusco. Land travel can be treacherous and that means most opt, even from Cusco, to take a quick 40-minute direct flight to its Padre Aldamiz International Airport. Of course, daily flights also arrive from Lima.
Puerto Maldonado is less than one-fifth the size of Iquitos and that means a quicker in and out. After being greeted at the airport by your jungle lodge, the average river transfer takes about 45 minutes to an hour. All things being equal, arrival to an eco-lodge in Puerto Maldonado or Tambopata is much quicker.
One important consideration between Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado is that only Iquitos puts you on the actual mighty Amazon River. Puerto Maldonado’s Madre de Dios and Tambopata Rivers are both tributaries of the Amazon and in the Amazon Basin, but not the Amazon River proper itself.
Overall Winner? Puerto Maldonado
Hotels and lodges in the Peru jungle are not known primarily for their comfort. Minimalistic amenities, simple furnishings, spotty WiFi (if any), and most do not have televisions. But hey, you didn’t come to the Amazon just for the amenities.
Fortunately there is a way to be comfortable and feel like you’re in touch with the natural world at the same time. From Puerto Maldonado, the Refugio Amazonas Lodge by Rainforest Expeditions is emblematic of a Peru eco-lodge stay and itinerary done right. Simplistic yet modern and clean, with just enough amenities for comfort, the Refugio Lodge makes you feel like you can enjoy yourself without cheating on the jungle experience.
Perhaps even higher up on the comfort scale for Puerto Maldonado jungle lodges are Inkaterra’s Hacienda Concepcion Lodge and the Reserva Amazonica. These all-inclusive Peru resorts, by the well know Peruvian Inkaterra hotel group, are eco-luxury hotels – including welcome drinks, available bar service, and on-site spas (which does cost extra).
In Iquitos, the story for nearby Peru jungle lodges is a bit different. Service level and amenities tend to be much more basic for those looking for more than a place to lay their head. There are a few exceptions – such as the unique Treehouse Lodge or the Heleconia River Lodge. But overall expectations should be tempered.
The one major exception to the more basic accommodations in Iquitos are the ultra-luxurious Peru Amazon cruises. These floating behemoths of comfort take Amazon
luxury to a whole other level. Many of the Amazon cruise boats have air conditioning, on-board lounges, areas for massages, and even a jacuzzi as they pass through the expansive Pacaya Samiria National Reserve.
Peru Amazon cruises certainly don’t come cheap and you’ll have to contend with a fixed cruise schedule, but this is as luxurious as it gets in the Peru Amazon (and perfect for a all-inclusive honeymoon in Peru)!
Winner? Puerto Maldonado
We’ve already hit on the fact that Iquitos is large being about 5 times larger than Puerto Maldonado. It’s the beating cultural heart of the Peru Amazon Basin, and has been referred to as °The Capital of the Amazon.°
At the same time, the massive Loreto Region is by far the largest region in Peru – making up almost a third of the entire country by land area. Iquitos sits as Loreto’s capital near the confluence of three rivers which make up the Amazon. The jungle is endless here and is home to a wide variety of indigenous Amazon communities. This all comes together in Iquitos, which hums with moto-taxis, commerce of jungle markets, and a wide variety of exotic tastes of the Amazon (check out this fascinating snapshot by the New York Times Travel Section).
Compare this to Puerto Maldonado, which feels much more like a small, frontier city. There’s still markets to visit, commerce happening, and excitement in the streets but to a much lesser degree than in Iquitos. Most visitors to Puerto Maldonado simply pass through on their way to their nearby eco-lodge or to the treasures in the Tambopata National Reserve.
Additionally, the Madre de Dios Region is much smaller than Loreto so the confluence of nearby indigenous communities doesn’t make Puerto Maldonado nearly as bustling as Iquitos. The Madre Dios Region is known primarily for the Tambopata National Reserve and Manu National Park which make it great to experience nature but not so much to experience Amazonian culture if you plan on spending anytime in the city.
Activity and Tour Variety
You didn’t fly all the way to the jungle to simply stay inside your Amazon eco-lodge! While the temperatures in Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado can be sweltering, a world of flora and fauna awaits outside your doors.
Whether staying near Puerto Maldonado or Iquitos, much of the diverse wildlife of the Amazon can be found at both. Certainly a rule of thumb is the deeper in the Amazon you go, the higher your chances of seeing rarer wildlife like sloths, monkeys, tapir, and the elusive jaguar.
Most eco-lodges in both Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado offer included excursions to see the extensive bird life (including macaws, parrots, parakeets, eagles, hummingbirds) and the more common mammals (including river otters, capybara, agouti, and more) along with at least one excursion for interpretation of the flora variety.
However, most lodges in Iquitos offer a more rigid, set schedule for many activity and tour inclusions and some offer few activity inclusions at all. One exception to this is the Treehouse Lodge, which offers everything from birding excursions, to dolphin spotting tours, to kayaking tours all included and available a la carte.
This a la carte activity and tour schedule is what’s available at most Puerto Maldonado jungle lodges – including our favorite the Tambopata Research Center. A list of group jungle tours is available daily and guests get to choose which ones they would like to join (though at times weather, water level, and seasonal closures can affect availability).
At times, add-on activities are available at a cost - for example river kayaking at Posada Amazonas Lodge – but the majority of activities are included with your stay.
What makes each destination unique? Near Iquitos, many jungle lodges offer excursions to see the elusive pink river dolphins of the Amazon and also tend to offer tours to visit with local native communities. Near Puerto Maldonado, many eco lodges are known for their clay licks, a natural feeding ground for macaws, parakeets and other bird life, interpretive excursions to explain the Amazonian flora, and also offer child-centric programs (like Refugio Amazonas’ Wired Amazon excursions with resident biologists)
Because of the wide options, innovative tours, and simplicity of the a la carte activities, the jungle lodges of Puerto Maldonado seem to give travelers a bit more ease.
One important consideration for serious birders is that Puerto Maldonado, Iquitos, and Tambopata eco lodges generally offer excursions an introduction to birding. For more advanced birders who want a higher chance to see more species and a more focused approach, Manu National Park seems to offer the best focused guided excursions.
Winner? Puerto Maldonado
Between travelling convenience, accommodation options, and the wide variety of activity options at the jungle lodges of Puerto Maldonado, overall we’ve found travelers have the better experience in the eco lodges of Peru there. For those looking explicitly for luxury accommodation and service, an Amazon river cruise from Iquitos does offer a unique option to see the Amazon. Check out some of Dargui's suggested jungle itineraries.
Which Amazon gateway city do you think presents the most advantages?