Tambopata National Reserve

650km (404 miles) NE of Cusco; 37km (23 miles) SW of Puerto Maldonado

Upstream from Puerto Maldonado, jungle lodges in and around the Tambopata National Reserve (Reserva Nacional de Tambopata) -- a massive tract of humid subtropical rainforest in the department of Madre de Dios -- are located either along the Tambopata or Madre de Dios rivers. The National Reserve covers 275,000 hectares (nearly 680,000 acres), while the entire area, including the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, encompasses some 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of Amazonian jungle. The Peruvian government prohibited hunting and logging in the area in 1977 and created the reserve, then called the Tambopata-Candamo Reserve Zone, in 1990. Nearly one-third the size of Costa Rica, Tambopata has more species of birds (595) and butterflies (more than 1,200) than any place of similar size on earth.

Visits to lodges here are considerably more accessible than those in Manu. Most trips involve flying a half-hour from Cusco and then boarding a boat and traveling by river for 45 minutes up to 5 hours to reach a jungle lodge. Primary lodges are those that travelers can get to the same day they arrive by plane in Puerto Maldonado. Although mankind's imprints are slightly more noticeable in the Tambopata region, the area remains one of superb environmental diversity, with a dozen different types of forest and several gorgeous oxbow lakes. Environmentalists claim that Tambopata's great diversity of wildlife is due to its location at the confluence of lowland Amazon forest with three other ecosystems. At least 13 endangered species are found here, including the jaguar, ocelot, giant armadillo, harpy eagle, and giant river otter. The farther one travels from Puerto Maldonado, the greater the chances of significant wildlife viewing.

The Tambopata Macaw Clay Lick (collpa de guacamayos) within the reserve is one of the largest natural clay licks in the country and one of the wildlife highlights of Peru. Thousands of brilliantly colored macaws and parrots arrive daily at the cliffs to feed on mineral salts.

Most visitors prearrange tours to Tambopata in Cusco or in their country of origin, although one could also book a lodge visit by stopping in the local offices of travel agents and tour operators in the center of Puerto Maldonado or at the airport (though you will have less information and opportunity to compare offerings). Access to Tambopata is by boat from Puerto Maldonado. Packages begin with 2-day/1-night arrangements, but 3-day/2-night packages are preferable. Lodge stays generally allow visitors to see a large variety of trees, plants, and birds, but sightings of wild mammals, apart from monkeys and otters, are rare. Large and rare species such as jaguars and tapirs are infrequently seen, though visitors to Lago Sandoval, an oxbow lake, have the exciting opportunity to see an extended family of resident giant river otters (known in Spanish as lobos de río).

Lodges are located predominantly either along the Río Tambopata, which extends south of Puerto Maldonado, or the Río Madre de Dios, east of the city. The area around the Río Tambopata, with greater primary forest, is generally considered better for wildlife viewing.

Manu Biosphere Reserve

242km (150 miles) NE of Cusco

Manu, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site, certainly doesn't lack for distinctions and accolades. The Biosphere Reserve encompasses the least accessible and explored jungle of primary and secondary forest in Peru, and it is about as close as you're likely to come to virgin rainforest anywhere in the world. In fact, it's so remote that not only did the Spaniards, who found their way to virtually every corner of Peru except Machu Picchu, never enter the jungle, but the Incas, who created an empire that stretched from Ecuador to Chile, never conquered the region, either. The forest wasn't really penetrated until the late 1800s, when rubber barons and loggers set their sights on it. Peru declared it a national park in 1973.

Only slightly smaller than the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, Manu -- about half the size of Switzerland -- is one of the largest protected areas in South America, with just less than 2 million hectares (nearly 5 million acres). Its surface area of varied habitats includes Andes highlands, cloud forests, and lowland tropical rainforests. The park encompasses an area of almost unimaginable diversity, climbing as it does from an altitude near sea level to elevations of 3,500m (11,480 ft.).

A single hectare of forest in Manu might have 10 times the number of species of trees that a hectare of temperate forest in Europe or North America has. Manu, which contains the highest bird, mammal, and plant diversity of any park on the planet, offers visitors perhaps their best opportunity for viewing wildlife that has been pushed deep into the rainforest by man's presence. It boasts nearly 1,000 species of birds, 1,200 species of butterflies, 20,000 plants, 200 species of mammals, and 13 species of primates. Species in danger of extinction include the spectacled bear, giant armadillo, and cock-of-the-rock.

Birders thrill at the prospect of glimpsing bird populations that account for 10% of the world's total, more than what's found in all of Costa Rica. Hugely prized among wildlife observers are giant river otters, parrots, and macaws at a riverbank clay lick; preening and bright red cocks-of-the-rock; and lumbering lowland tapirs gathering at a forest clay lick. Scientists estimate that perhaps 12,000 to 15,000 animal species remain to be identified. Manu is also home to dozens of native Amerindian tribes, some of which have contact with the modern world and others that remain secluded.

Going with a group tour to Manu is the only realistic way to visit the park, and only a handful of travel agencies in Cusco are authorized to organize excursions to the Manu Biosphere Reserve. The Reserve comprises three zones: Manu National Park, an area of dedicated conservation reserved for scientific study (the largest zone, it occupies 3.7 million hectares/9.1 million acres, or about three-fourths of the entire reserve); the Reserve Zone, up the River Manu northwest of Boca Manu, accessible by permit and accompanied by an authorized guide only for ecotourist activities; and the Multiuse or Cultural Zone, home to traditional nomadic groups and open to all visitors. Traveling independently to the Cultural Zone is possible but extremely demanding and time-consuming -- too much so for all but the hardiest ecoadventurers with plenty of time.

Getting to Manu is itself an ecoadventure. Overland access to the Manu Reserve Zone from Cusco (from Puerto Maldonado is much more difficult) is a stunning (and stunningly beautiful) 2-day journey through 4,000m (13,120-ft.) mountains and cloud forest before descending into lowland rainforest. The scenery along the narrow road, full of switchbacks and great panoramic views of glaciers and the eastern Andes, is so extraordinary that many lodges and tour operators travel overland and return to Cusco by small aircraft (a 25-min. flight from Boca Manu). The trip passes through Paucartambo and travels along roads whose steep descents are thrilling -- though unsettling to some travelers -- on the way to high jungle. Bus or plane travel to Boca Manu is followed by up to a couple of days of river travel to lodges, campsites, and principal points of interest in the reserve. Because Manu is so isolated and access is so restricted, reserve visits are expensive and plainly beyond the scope of most budget travelers ($700 to more than $2,500 or more per person for a 5- to 8-day trip). Most visits to Manu require about a week.

All Alone in the Forest . . . with a Few Good Friends -- As remote and huge as the Manu Reserve Zone is, don't expect to find yourself enveloped and alone in the quiet of the jungle during high season. The few lodges and tour operators with a presence in the zone are very busy during the months of June, July, and August, and travelers' contact with each other might greatly outdistance their contact with species native to the rainforest. This is the case despite the official limits of 30 travelers per agency per week. (If all 10 agencies have full loads, that's still 300 people traveling many of the same waterways and racing to arrive first at primary observation points.)

Manu Tour Operators -- Only eight tour companies are permitted to run organized expeditions to Manu, and the number of travelers they can take there each week is strictly limited. The best firms listed below are closely involved with conservation efforts and local development programs. The least expensive expeditions bus travelers in and out or return by small plane. Land (and river) travel is very time-consuming, but it makes for an excellent opportunity to experience the diverse terrain and types of forest that comprise Manu. Note that most companies operate with fixed departure dates only in the dry season, from May to November. The prices below do not include air transportation from Cusco.

Most of the tour operators below post detailed itineraries and information about their Manu trips on their websites.

  • InkaNatura, Calle Ricardo Palma N J1 Urb., Santa Mónica, Cusco (tel. 084/255-255; www.inkanatura.com): Perhaps the most serious and sophisticated outfit operating ecotourism trips in the Peruvian Amazon, InkaNatura, associated with the Peruvian conservation group PerúVerde and the American organization Tropical Nature, organizes stays at the famed Manu Wildlife Center (of which InkaNatura is a joint owner). The lodge, opened in 1996, is located near the world's largest tapir clay lick, as well as the Blanquillo macaw clay lick, and it features 48km (30 miles) of nature trails and two canopy-viewing platforms. Accommodations are in 22 spacious, private bungalows with tiled bathrooms. InkaNatura also operates shorter trips to the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge (in the Selva Sur Nature Reserve at an elevation of 1,600m (5,250 ft.), excellent for birders), several lodges in Tambopata, and multilodge sojourns that include Cusco and Machu Picchu. 
  • Manu Adventures, Plateros 356, Cusco (tel. 213/283-6987 in the U.S. and Canada, or 084/261-640; www.manuadventures.com): This agency offers some of the most affordable trips, ranging from 5 days/4 nights (in and out by plane) to 8 days/7 nights (overland), with 2 nights in open-air lodges and the rest in campsites. 
  • Manu Expeditions, Urb. Magisterio, segunda Etapa G-5, P.O. Box 606, Cusco (tel. 084/226-671; www.manuexpeditions.com): One of the pioneering ecotourism operators in the southern Peruvian Amazon, Manu Expeditions -- run by an ornithologist who is the British Consul in Cusco -- has been organizing rainforest tours for more than 2 decades. Tours include stays at the Manu Wildlife Center, of which the group is part owner, near the famed macaw clay lick, and a safari camp facility deep at Cocha Salvador within the Manu Biosphere Reserve. The Wildlife Center is considered the best lodge in Peru for birding. The longer tours include initial stays at the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge in cloud forest. 
  • Manu Nature Tours, Av. Pardo 1046, Cusco (tel. 084/252-721; www.manuperu.com): A highly professional, prizewinning outfit with 20 years' experience in Manu -- it was one of the first to send expeditions to the reserve -- Manu Nature Tours operates the well-known and comfortable Manu Lodge, situated next to a pristine oxbow lake and the only full-service lodge within Manu National Park itself and the excellent Manu Cloud Forest Lodge, the first of its kind in Peru, overlooking a waterfall. The agency claims that the oxbow lake is one of the best spots anywhere in the jungle to view giant river otters. Add-on options include mountain biking, rafting, and tree canopy climbs. The office in Cusco is attached to a Patagonia outdoor gear shop and a rainforest cafe, in case you needed any reassurance of their commitment. The agency has expanded its activities to include trekking programs in the southern and central highlands, as well as more traditional tourist trips throughout Peru.
  • Pantiacolla, Saphy 554, Cusco (tel. 084/238-323; www.pantiacolla.com): An initiative of a Dutch biologist and Boca Manu-born conservationist, this agency operates the small Pantiacolla Lodge, with double rooms in bungalows, on bluffs overlooking the Madre de Dios River at the edge of Manu National Park. The organization also operates a community-based ecotourism project with the Yine Indians of the Manu rainforest. Pantiacolla is a good choice for ecotravelers on a budget.

Other reputable Manu tour companies and lodges, which run economical camping-based trips, especially for budget travelers, include:

  • Mayuc, Portal de Confiturías 211, Plaza de Armas, Cusco (tel. 084/242-824; www.mayuc.com): Mayuc is a traditional tour operator with programs across Peru, plus good budget-camping programs to Manu.
  • SAS Travel, Garcilaso 270, Plaza San Francisco (tel. 084/249-194; www.sastravelperu.com): This well-run and popular all-purpose agency offers varied programs to both Manu and Tambopata, and stays at various lodges.

Manu Tour Considerations -- The best deals are usually available by arranging your trip on-site in Cusco rather than your home country. However, doing so carries some risks. Your chosen tour operator might not have space available. Another warning worth heeding is that previous travelers have gone to Manu but had their returns delayed (by weather conditions and mechanical and other mishaps) by several days. It's wise to schedule a Manu expedition in the middle of your trip, with a few buffer days before your scheduled departure.

Most trips to Manu visit jungle trails and lakes Cocha Salvador and Cocha Otorongo. Both are uniquely endowed with wildlife, including several types of caimans and wild monkeys. Cocha Otorongo is home to a prized, endangered group of giant otters. Virtually all tours make stops at key observation piers, platforms, and towers for wildlife viewing. Many longer Manu trips include visits to a macaw clay lick.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.