Things to Do in Amazon
The mighty Amazon River and its enormous, thickly forested basin are the heart of South America, the lungs of the world and the guardian of one fifth of the Earth’s fresh water. This river is the reason for Iquitos’ very existence and though it flows past the northern tip of the city, a bit beyond the river walk, the Rio Itaya, its influence is felt by everyone.
While its origins are much contested—any of the big river’s innumerable tributaries has a legitimate claim to the title—the “Birthplace of the Amazon” can be said to lie at the confluence of the Ucayali and Maranon Rivers, accessible from the Port of Nauta, 90km (56mi) from Iquitos on the newish paved highway. It is the quintessential daytrip, allowing travelers to ascend a 30m (100ft) observation tower that offers the region’s iconic photo op. There are several ways to experience the Amazon and its unparalleled biodiversity, all of them beginning with a boat trip.
This Peruvian Amazon establishment is a haven for orphaned and injured manatees. Established in 2007 and run by the Institute for the Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) in partnership with the Dallas Aquarium, the Manatee Rescue Center educates visitors and allows for interaction with these endangered animals.
Visitors can see rescued adult and baby manatees in natural pools and witness their rehabilitation. It is also possible to volunteer with the center and even bottle feed a baby manatee. The staff members take great care to teach about the importance of preserving the species and the present dangers to their habitat, as many local manatees are poached and babies captured to be sold as sold as pets, often with a high mortality rate. Tours are conducted in both English and Spanish.
Covering over half of the country, yet home to a mere 5% of its population, the Peruvian Amazon is Peru’s most precious natural asset, a vast wilderness of lush rainforest and indigenous lands stretching east of the Andes Mountains.
Peru’s principal ‘Gateway to the Amazon’ is the northern town of Iquitos and its location on the banks of the mighty Amazon River makes it a popular starting point for multi-day river cruises and river activities like canoeing, piranha fishing or swimming with pink river dolphins. From here, it’s possible to cruise all the way to Manaus in Brazil, stopping along the way to visit tribal villages, trek through the jungle or sleep out in an Amazon eco-lodge.
The southern region of the Peruvian Amazon is also prime ground for wildlife spotting and home to a burgeoning eco-tourism industry, a colorful array of bird life and everything from howler monkeys to tapir prowling through the jungle.
Peru’s largest and most important protected area is the massive Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria, a vast 2.08 million hectare (8,030 square miles; roughly the size of New Jersey or El Salvador) swath of pristine rainforest threaded with endless waterways. The two most important, forming the borders of the roughly triangular reserve, are Maranon and Ucayali Rivers.
Where Pacaya Samiria narrows to a point, at their celebrated confluence, the official birthplace of the mighty Amazon. Climb the viewing tower for the iconic photo. Visitors to the reserve must come with a guided tour. The Pacaya Samiria begins about 183km (114mi) south of Iquitos, a trip that can be done entirely on the water, or more quickly (if less scenically) by driving along the 90km (56mi) Iquitos–Nauta Highway, to the Port of Nauta. Scores of different tours are on offer, following the Maranon, Ucayali, and other assorted waterways through the thick vegetation and canyons.
This impressive and historic fortress is located a three-hours walk from the hotel district of Santa Maria and attracts travelers from across the globe thanks to its imposing stone walls and the four hundred individual buildings that make up the complex.
Travelers can climb to the top of the fortress and look out over the lush vegetation of the Utcubamba Valley on a trip to this remote destination. Locals agree that the pre-Incan structure is far less visited than the famed Inca Trail, but travelers say its impeccable views, ancient history and steep hiking paths make it the perfect stop for anyone looking to learn more about the culture and history of Peru. Be advised that high elevation means weather can change in an instant, so warm and dry clothes are essential. Though Kuelap is well off the beaten path, visitors say the journey to get there is almost as scenic as the destination itself.
The Rio Nanay undulates along the northern border of the city, a slow and interesting tributary of the Amazon that plays hosts several interesting cruises from Iquitos. The almost sensual curves of the river create beautiful white-sand beaches when the water is low, and crystal clear. These are popular day-trips for locals during dry season, though most travelers head further upriver, into the wilderness, often visiting small Yagua, Bora and Mestizo communities, such as Santo Tomás, Padre Cocha and Santa Clara, along the way. While most Nanay tours are day trips, there are a handful of lodges scattered around the rainforest, offering adventurous travelers the opportunity to stay in remote villages and really get a feel for life on the Amazon. Or, travelers could continue on to the region’s newest conservation area, Reserva Nacional Alpahuayo Mishana. The 57,600-hectare (222-square mile) reserve, created in 2008, is located about 23km (14mi) south of Iquitos.
These incredible waterfalls tower some 771 meters into the sky and at one time were ranked among the tallest in the world. Today, travelers can venture to what’s considered the 15th highest set of falls on earth and revel at their breathtaking wonder while they look out over stunning views of thick emerald rainforest.
Intrepid adventurers will want to spend an afternoon navigating the network of wooded trails that winds through the forest valley to the top of the falls. The round-trip trek takes about six hours and passes by a total of 22 individual waterfalls during rainy season. Travelers can also elect to journey on horseback if they prefer to avoid the strenuous hike that those in the know warn is not for novice wanderers. Visitors say the views are epic and truly worth the trip whether it’s on foot or by horse.
The city of Iquitos is arguably an island (particularly during the rainy season), bound on three sides by massive rivers. To the northeast is the mighty Amazon, accessible by Puerto Masusa. The northwestern border of town is caressed by the curvaceous course of slow and winding Rio Nanay. Finally, forming the eastern border of the town, with the most convenient boat access is the Rio Itaya.
Most of the city’s main attractions are within a few blocks of the riverfront, home to the popular Tarapaca River Walk. The neighborhood of Belen, just south of the city center, famously floats right atop the Itaya. While the Plaza de las Armas and most of the city’s most important buildings lie one block inland, several hotels, restaurants, bars and fine old buildings, such as the Museo Etnografico and neighboring Gobernacion Regional, overlook the water.
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