Peru is one of nine countries sharing the Amazon Rainforest. You may be inclined to think that Amazon is the Amazon, but consider this—only some of these countries contain the infamous Amazon River, and certain creatures, such as the pink dolphin, are found in only specific parts of the Amazon.
Both the Amazon River and pink dolphins call Peru home, but you’ll need to be in the right place to find them. And even then, you may decide after reading this article that the Amazon experience you’re seeking isn’t where the Amazon River and dolphins are located.
If you’ve already done some research, you probably know that there are two main places developed for tourism in the Peruvian Amazon—Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado.
I’ve been to both (in the case of Puerto Maldonado, multiple times), and each destination has its advantages.
Let’s delve in so that you can discover which Amazon experience is the best fit for you.
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Did You Know?
In 2007, Slovenian swimmer Martin Strel swam the entire length of the Amazon River. The journey took 66 days, and he swam for up to 10 hours per day.
If your initial reaction is admiring the endurance such a task entails, this might change your mind: on his website advising others how to swim the length of the Amazon, Strel urges swimmers not to urinate in the water.
Because of the Candiru.
The parasitic Candiru fish, which is in the catfish family, is supposedly attracted to urine…and it has a bad rep for swimming up human private parts.
If it’s any consolation, scientists believe this is more myth than fact, stating that the Candiru would quickly die in the urethra due to a lack of oxygen. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that Candiru or no Candiru, Strel is a brave man.
Location: The Amazon is the Amazon, Right?
Yes and no.
Regardless of whether you visit Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado, you’ll be in the Amazon Rainforest. No question.
However, it’s a common misconception that you’ll be on the Amazon River if you visit Puerto Maldonado. Puerto Maldonado is located on a tributary of the Amazon River, not the Amazon River itself.
That matters to a surprising amount of people, but let me tell you why it shouldn’t.
The Amazon River may be the second longest river in the world, but its more than 1,100 tributaries are the pulse of the Amazon Rainforest. These tributaries sprawl out from the main river, allowing the Amazon to be as large as it is.
I won’t beat around the bush—seeing the immensity of the Amazon River in person is impressive. But on the other hand, the river is so wide that it’s hard to spot terrestrial wildlife unless you’re right along the shore.
So, in that sense, visiting the Amazon’s smaller tributaries offers a more intimate experience.
The bottom line here is that it’s great to say that you visited the Amazon River. But isn’t it just as wonderful to say that you visited the Amazon?
Travel Tip: During the dry season (June – November), the Amazon River loses more than 20 miles of width at its widest points. December – April is the rainiest season, so if you’re going to the Amazon River, aim to visit in May or June to see the river in a fuller, more impressive state.
Getting to the Amazon
Now, let’s take a look at the different options for arriving in Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado.
How to Travel to Iquitos
Here’s a fun fact: Iquitos is the largest city in the world inaccessible by car.
Pretty neat, right?
Since no roads lead to Iquitos, it can only be reached by plane or boat. Taking a flight is the easiest way to get to Iquitos (and Puerto Maldonado, for that matter).
There are multiple departures to and from Lima every day, and the flight takes just under two hours.
You also might be able to snag a direct flight from Cusco to Iquitos with LATAM Airlines, although availability for these flights depends on the time of year. When flights between Cusco and Iquitos do run, they only operate a handful of times per month.
If traveling to Iquitos by boat is more your style, you can take a multi-night boat trip between Iquitos and Brazil. The boats are primarily used by locals, and amenities are basic—you can even book a hammock as a bed!
Departure times and dates vary based on weather, the number of travelers, and the boat driver’s will, so make sure to arrive at the port with flexibility (and a Spanish dictionary, if you aren’t fluent).
Travel Tip: If you’re traveling to Iquitos via a layover in Lima, allow extra time to catch your Iquitos flight. You’ll need to pass through Lima security and, depending on how your ticket is booked and airline policies at the time, you may even need to stand in line to re-check your bag.
How to Travel to Puerto Maldonado
Traveling to Puerto Maldonado is easier and cheaper than Iquitos. There are daily flights from both Lima and Cusco. From Lima, the flight takes around 1.5 hours and from Cusco, it takes around 40 minutes.
You also have the option to travel between Puerto Maldonado and Cusco by bus. The bus ride takes anywhere from under eight hours to around eleven hours, depending on the bus company and the number of stops they make.
Most buses depart in the evening, getting you into Cusco or Puerto Maldonado first thing in the morning.
The changing jungle and Andean landscapes are stunning, so you could rent a car if you wanted to see them. However, keep in mind that you’d be on winding rural roads with drop-offs and without much cell phone service.
If you’ll be traveling from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco by bus, be prepared for the altitude change. Altitude sickness is common on this route, given that you’ll be climbing about 10,000 feet on curvy roads to get to Cusco.
Cultural Experience: Livin’ Life Like the Locals
Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado are immensely different when it comes to the local way of life, so culture is an important factor to consider when you’re working on choosing which place you want to visit.
Let’s first take a look at Iquitos.
Culture in Iquitos
When you arrive in Iquitos, it’ll be hard to imagine that no roads lead there. On your way to your accommodation, you’ll likely sit in heavy traffic, squeezed between a combination of cars and moto-taxis.
And with a population of around 470,000, there are a lot of people that need to get around.
I personally love Iquitos. There’s no doubt about it—parts of the center have a touristy feel. But for the most part, the city feels designed for locals.
My number one recommendation if you travel to Iquitos is to visit the Belén Market. You’ll get to see a variety of ready-to-eat Amazonian river fish and medicinal Amazonian plants.
You can buy some ayahuasca there, too, although it’s best to hire a professional shaman to guide you through the ayahuasca experience.
The Belén Market is a labyrinth and can be intimidating for some visitors, so consider hiring a guide to accompany you.
P.S.- Visiting Lima? Make sure to check out my post on Markets in Lima.
You can sign up for market tours at the tourist shops in downtown Iquitos. If you’re strapped for time, you won’t have trouble finding an employee at a tourist shop willing to give you a private market tour on the spot.
The downtown area of Iquitos is small. Like any city, it has a plaza, but a tiny one. There are some old colorful historical buildings around, many of which are run down (in a rather charming kind of way).
There’s also a little river boardwalk you can walk along. Depending on the levels of the river, the water might be quite a distance away, so don’t be surprised if a grassy-looking field greets you.
There are tons of street food stands and restaurants to eat at in Iquitos. Some are geared toward tourists but many more are geared toward locals.
If you’re an adventurous eater, consider trying some grilled Suri grubs on a stick or Suri soup!
Now let’s talk about culture in Puerto Maldonado.
Culture in Puerto Maldonado
Puerto Maldonado has a population of about 85,000 people and feels much more like a town than a city.
Whereas it’s fairly common to spend a night or two in Iquitos city, it’s relatively rare for people to spend time in Puerto Maldonado.
This is, in part, because boats to and from the jungle lodges are accommodating of same-day flight arrivals and departures, making an overnight stay in Puerto Maldonado town unnecessary.
But another reason people don’t usually spend the night in Puerto Maldonado is that there’s not a whole lot to do there.
So, you might be wondering: Is visiting Puerto Maldonado worth it?
In my opinion, it absolutely is.
If you’re strictly interested in going to the Amazon for a nature experience and not a cultural one, then Puerto Maldonado is hands down the best option for you.
Now, you’re probably thinking: what about the Amazonian tribes?
You can visit indigenous Amazonians in both Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado, although Iquitos offers a greater number of community visits. Make sure to check with your lodge/cruise if this is a must-see for you since not all programs include it.
My only caution here is to expect your community visit to feel very touristy—they’ll put on a little demonstration about life in the jungle, they’ll invite you to dance with them, and they’ll try to sell you handmade products.
You should make it a point to purchase something if you visit an Amazon village since it’s a large part of how they make their living.
All About Weather
Quick—how does the rainforest stay so lush?
If you said rain and sun, you’re onto something. Now just add this: rain, rain, and more rain.
You’ll likely have a mix of rain and sun during your stay in the Amazon, with the months of December – March usually receiving heavier amounts of rain than other times of the year.
Get ready for high humidity, too.
And here’s an extra bonus—the evenings may even get cold.
On occasion, cold weather invades the Amazon, dropping temperatures into the 60’s at night.
Mix that with humidity and it makes for a chilling experience when you packed for 80-something-degree weather. Speaking from experience, here—it happened when I was there!
So, while the bulk of your Amazonian wardrobe should consist of lightweight long-sleeve shirts and pants (to ward off the bugs), it wouldn’t hurt to pack something a bit more suitable for cooler weather, just in case.
Impact of Weather on Tours
Having a flexible mindset when visiting the Amazon is important. Tours can change depending on weather, so it’s best to travel there ready to flex those flexibility muscles.
The high tourist season in the Amazon corresponds with the high tourist season for Machu Picchu—the greatest number of travelers visit there from May – September.
Unlike Machu Picchu, you won’t have to worry about encountering hoards of tourists.
This is thanks to the limited number of cruises/lodges and how far apart most of them are from one another. For this reason, you should book your accommodation as far in advance as possible.
Travel Tip: Your lodge/cruise should provide you with tall rubber boots for your tours. Therefore, a single pair of flip-flops should be all the footwear you need when you’re not on a tour.
Pink Dolphins: Are they really pink?
If you’re asking this, it’s the wrong question.
Do you have your heart set on seeing “pink” dolphins? If so, the first thing you need to ask yourself is: Where can I find them?
Hint—it’s not in Puerto Maldonado.
Pink dolphins are located in the Iquitos region of the Peruvian Amazon. Therefore, skip Puerto Maldonado if you want to see them.
Now, to answer the question in the title of this section, pink dolphins are pink-ish. They have a light pink/grey hue to them. They aren’t the most refined-looking creatures, but they are a cool sight to see.
Pink dolphin sightings in Iquitos are pretty common, so chances are if you’re staying at a lodge for a few days you’ll get to enjoy seeing them during your tour.
Some lodges even offer the chance to swim with pink dolphins….assuming they’re around, of course.
Lodges vs. Cruises
There are two primary ways to experience the Amazon—by staying at a lodge or a cruise.
Cruises range from budget to luxurious. When looking at luxury Amazon cruises, they’re far nicer than any lodge or hotel anywhere else in the Peruvian Amazon.
Amazon cruises only run out of Iquitos. Therefore, if a cruise strikes your fancy, your choice between Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado is easy—you’ll be going to Iquitos.
In contrast to the cruises, both Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado have lodges where you can stay. A boat ride is normally involved to get to them since they’re usually in a remote location, away from downtown Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado.
As a result, people who stay in Amazon lodges typically see more wildlife than those who take a cruise.
However, with less civilization comes less amenities.
The lodges in Puerto Maldonado, in particular, are basic with electricity in the form of generators or solar panels. Generators are usually turned on 2 – 3 times per day as a means to charge small electronics and to have warm water for a shower.
Travel Tip: Most Amazon lodges encourage or require leaving larger bags of luggage behind at their mainland office. Not only is this less to carry between the boat and the lodge, but it reduces the risk of your belongings getting wet and muddy.
In Iquitos, there are options for lodges with more comforts of home—some, like the Ceiba Tops Lodge, even have 24-hour electricity, air conditioning in the rooms, and a pool.
Travel Tip: Availability can fill up months in advance in the Amazon. If you have a limited number of days to travel and aren’t doing anything else time-sensitive like the Inca Trail trek, it’s best to arrange your travel dates around the lodge you want to stay at.
Should I visit Puerto Maldonado and Iquitos?
Probably not, unless time and money isn’t a factor.
Getting to either destination takes legwork. In addition to that, lodging costs are higher in the Amazon than in many other destinations in Peru. Therefore, by visiting both Puerto Maldonado and Iquitos, you’ll be spending more money and travel time.
While there are significant differences when comparing Puerto Maldonado and Iquitos, regardless of which destination you visit, you’re going to be in the rainforest.
Here’s my advice when you’re trying to choose between the two: Go with your gut.
Then, enjoy the destination you choose!
Is there more wildlife in Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado?
Generally speaking, because Puerto Maldonado is a small town, you’ll have a higher chance of seeing more wildlife there than in Iquitos.
However, this rule depends largely on where you’re staying.
For example, if you stay at a lodge close to the town of Puerto Maldonado, you’ll likely see less wildlife than if you’re on a cruise departing from Iquitos.
If you want to see the most amount of wildlife as possible, the Tambopata Research Center (based out of Puerto Maldonado) is your best bet.
In fact, scientists frequent this lodge to run Amazon research projects.
Below are three other wildlife-related items to consider when you’re trying to decide whether to visit Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado:
- If you’re itching to see pink dolphins more than any other Amazon critter, you must go to Iquitos.
- Accessible clay licks are almost exclusively located in Puerto Maldonado.
- You can go piranha fishing in both places, but you’ll want to check with your lodge or cruise to ensure they offer it.
Ayahuasca: Nature’s Drug…Or Not
I’m not here to argue for or against ayahuasca’s role in society.
So let’s just cover the facts.
Ayahuasca is a drink made from boiled Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of a Psychotria viridis shrub. Ideally, the brew is taken under the supervision of a shaman and is traditionally used for religious and spiritual practices.
Ayahuasca has hallucinogenic properties. In order to properly prepare for an ayahuasca ceremony, it’s recommended to avoid caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, sex, and drugs in the days or weeks leading up to the experience.
Now that we’ve got that covered, you might be wondering: where can you participate in an ayahuasca ceremony?
Iquitos offers the most options.
Since I haven’t participated in an ayahuasca ceremony, I’m not in a position to offer recommendations about the best ayahuasca tour agencies. Just make sure to do your research so you choose a reputable shaman. Google and Trip Advisor will be your friends here.
Do I Need a Yellow Fever Vaccine for Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado?
Yellow fever isn’t common anywhere in Peru, including the Peruvian Amazon. Nonetheless, it’s a good idea to get the vaccine, just in case.
I recommend speaking with your doctor about yellow fever and any other vaccines you’re considering before you travel to Peru. You can also check the CDC Peru page for a list of recommended vaccines.
So, Which Will You Choose?
I hope this post helped to shed some light on your options for a Peruvian Amazon experience.
So, what will it be—Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado?
I’d love to hear which destination you’ve chosen or what your experience was like if you’ve already been to Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado.
P.S.- Will you be heading to Machu Picchu? If so, head over to my post about ending the debate on whether it’s best to start your trip from Cusco or the Sacred Valley.