The Southern Amazon
Easily accessible from Cusco, the southern jungle boasts some of Peru's finest and least spoiled Amazon rainforest. The area has been less penetrated by man than has the northern Amazon; indeed, the southern jungle remained largely unexplored until expeditions into the remote rainforest were undertaken in the 1950s. Two of Peru's top three jungle zones -- and two of the finest in South America -- dominate the southeastern department of Madre de Dios. The region's two principal protected areas, the Manu Biosphere Reserve (which encompasses the Parque Nacional del Manu, or Manu National Park) and the Tambopata National Reserve (Reserva Nacional de Tambopata), are both excellent for jungle expeditions, although they differ in terms of remoteness and facilities.
Manu, one of the largest protected natural areas in the Americas and considered to be one of the most pristine jungle regions in the world, remains complicated and time-consuming to visit. Flights in and out of Boca Manu are now handled by the National Air Force rather than commercial carriers, and travel is possible only with one of eight officially sanctioned agencies. Expeditions last a minimum of 5 or 6 days (and most are a week or more), involve both significant overland and air (not to mention extensive river) travel, are expensive, and are very rustic, with the focus much more on contact with nature than creature comforts. Access is easiest from Cusco, although it involves a (spectacular) day's travel overland (or a half-hour flight), followed by a couple of days by boat.
Travelers without the time or budget to reach Manu often find Tambopata a most worthy alternative: Its wildlife and jungle vegetation are nearly the equal of Manu in some parts. Most lodges in Tambopata are considerably easier to get to and cheaper than those in Manu, although a couple require up to 8 or even 12 hours of travel by boat from Puerto Maldonado. The jungle frontier city of Puerto Maldonado, which is the capital of Madre de Dios department and just a half-hour flight from Cusco, is the jumping-off point to explore Tambopata. Travelers interested in the least time-consuming and least expensive way to see a part of the Peruvian jungle can visit one of the lodges on Madre de Dios River or Lago Sandoval, the latter an oxbow lake within a couple of hours of Puerto Maldonado.
In travel packages to both destinations, round-trip airfare from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado or Boca Manu (the gateway to the Manu Biosphere Reserve) is usually extra. Cheaper tours travel overland, stay at lesser-quality lodges (or primarily at campsites), and might travel on riverboats without canopies. Independent travel to Tambopata and two-way overland travel to either are options only for those with a lot of time and patience on their hands. Independent travelers not only find it complicated to enter many parts of the jungle, but they are also not permitted to enter the most desirable section of Manu, the Reserve Zone. Organizing a trip with one of the lodges or specialized tour operators listed below is highly recommended, in terms of both access and convenience. Most have fixed departure dates throughout the year. Do not purchase any jungle packages from salesmen on the streets of Cusco; their agencies might not even be authorized to enter restricted zones, and last-minute "itinerary changes" are likely.
Searing heat and humidity are year-round constants in the jungle (though in the southern jungle, occasional cold fronts called friajes are common). Appropriate gear for steamy tropical conditions is a must. Dry season (May-Oct) is the best time for southern jungle expeditions -- during the rainy season, rivers overflow and mosquitoes gobble up everything in sight. Be careful to note when a tour operator's fixed departures leave (some are every Wed, others every Sun, and so on). Most lodge visits include boat transportation and three meals daily, as well as guided visits and activities (some, such as canopy walks and distant clay-lick outings, entail additional fees).
Puerto Maldonado -- Founded in 1902 and once a prosperous rubber town, Puerto Maldonado is a humid, scruffy, and fast-growing place, a frontier market town that has gone through several phases of boom and bust, as have most jungle outposts. After the rubber boom came the game hunters and loggers. It's the kind of place where streets just off the main square are still unpaved and full of muddy potholes. Today the town's primary industries continue to be based on exploiting the rainforest that surrounds Puerto Maldonado: gold prospecting, Brazil-nut harvesting, and ecotourism. For most travelers, Puerto Maldonado is merely a gateway to the jungle, and groups booked on Tambopata package tours often blow through town with little notice, ferried directly from the airport to waiting riverboats. For some visitors, it's a stiflingly hot one-horse (and motor-scooter) town, but the frontier atmosphere, which continues to draw dreamers from across Peru, proves interesting to others, at least for a day or two before they push on into the jungle.
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.