The mighty Amazon reaches widths of about 4km (2 1/2 miles) beyond Iquitos, and the river basin contains 2,000 species of fish (among them, everyone's favorite, piranhas); 4,000 species of birds (including 120 hummingbirds); native mammals such as anteaters, tapirs, marmosets, and pink dolphins; and 60 species of reptiles, including caimans and anacondas.
Although the town itself holds a kind of sultry fascination, ecotourism is the primary draw for visitors to Iquitos, and the giant Amazon river system just beyond the city holds a wealth of natural wonders: rustic jungle lodges, canopy walks, and opportunities for bird-watching, piranha fishing, visits to Indian villages, and wildlife spotting (as well as less-standard activities, such as shaman consultations and ayahuasca drug ceremonies). Your options for exploring the jungle are lodge stays, which include jungle activities such as treks and canoe excursions; river cruises; or more adventurous camping treks with private guides. Most people head for lodges of varying degrees of rusticity and distance from Iquitos. The jungle is immense, and most parts of it are inaccessible. Immersing yourself in anything resembling pristine jungle is both costly and time-consuming. The northern Amazon basin within reach of Iquitos has been explored and popularly exploited far longer than the more remote southern jungle areas of Manu and Tambopata.
Don't expect to spend your time in the jungle checking off a lengthy wildlife list of sightings; no matter where you go, your opportunities for viewing more than a couple of species of birds, fish, and mammals will be severely limited. You'll see lots of birds and, if you're lucky, perhaps a few monkeys, caimans, and pink dolphins.
For a quick and simple experience, you can stay at a lodge only an hour or two (within a 50km/31-mile radius) by boat from Iquitos, in secondary jungle. You're likely to see more fauna and have a more authentic experience in primary rainforest, but you'll have to travel much farther (beyond a radius of 80km/50 miles; up to 4 hr. by boat) and pay quite a bit more for the privilege. Generally, you must trade comforts for authenticity. Very short trips (2-3 days) are unlikely to produce much in the way of wildlife, although you can still expect enjoyable contact with the Amazonian habitat. A true foray into virgin jungle, far from the heavy footsteps of thousands of guides and visitors before you, requires at least a week of demanding camping and trekking. Hard-core eco-types might want to contract private guides to go deep into the selva and camp. (Ask at the tourism information office for a list of licensed, official guides; the office also has a list of blacklisted guides.)
Prices for lodges and tours vary tremendously. For conventional, easy-to-reach lodges contracted in Iquitos, lodge tours average around $50 to $65, and $175 or more per person per day for lodges located farthest from the city. Some budget lodges offer bargain rates, as little as $30 a day (although, in most cases, you get what you pay for), and independent guides might charge as little as $15 a day. Costs are directly related to distance from Iquitos; the farther they are, the more expensive they are. Costs include transportation, lodging, buffet-style meals, and guided activities (beverages cost extra).
Be careful: There are lots of lookalike lodges and tours. Lodges and ecotourism companies come and go, and everyone's competing for your dollars. Hustlers, con artists, and all manner of disreputable touts abound in Iquitos, and you need to exercise a certain amount of caution before handing over money for a promised itinerary. The local tourism office (tel. 065/260-251) works hard to ferret out guides, tours, and lodges with bad reputations. The office has photo albums of lodges and a thick book of travelers' comments, with pages and pages of frank opinions on virtually every lodge and tour. If you're making a tour decision on the ground in Iquitos, it's a good idea to visit the office first for the most up-to-date information.
Most jungle lodges feature either individual rustic thatched-roof bungalows or main buildings with individual rooms, beds with mosquito netting, communal dining areas, hammock lounges, covered plank walkways, toilets, and either hot- or cold-water sinks and showers. A few lodges have extras such as swimming pools, lookout towers, canopy walkways, and electricity. Guests are taken on guided day- and nighttime excursions, including jungle walks, piranha fishing, and canoe and motorboat trips to spot birds, caimans, and dolphins. Many lodges offer artificial, even cheesy, visits with local Indian tribes, staged for your pleasure, and some host ayahuasca rituals.
Eco-nomizing -- Although the prices of some lodges might seem steep to backpackers accustomed to dropping $10 for a place to sleep in other parts of Peru, getting by on $50 a day or a little more is really a pretty decent bargain, considering that food, river transportation, English-speaking guides, fishing and wildlife trips and treks, and shelter are all included. That said, you can almost certainly get a better deal when signing up with a lodge or tour on the ground in Iquitos by going door-to-door to the sales offices and comparing programs and prices than you would contracting one in Lima or from your home country before stepping foot in Peru. Especially during the off season, lodges are willing to negotiate. However, you risk not getting the tour you want when you want it. For many travelers, the extra hassle and uncertainty might not be worth the dollars saved. Prices quoted on websites and through travel agents might be quite negotiable if you contact operators directly, depending on season and occupancy levels.
Trippin' Amazon Style -- Several Amazon lodges offer ayahuasca ceremonies, which involve the privilege of taking a natural hallucinogenic potion prepared by an "authentic" Indian shaman, at $15 a shot. It's the local version of taking peyote with Don Juan, but at some joints, it teeters on the edge of spring break at the ecolodge. Ayahuasca is an authentic ritual and herbal drug with deep roots in local communities. A shaman boils diverse Amazonian plants and roots for up to 6 hours, and the resulting potion can indeed be very hallucinogenic. It is taken as part of a cleansing ritual, to purify the body and mind. The ceremony is not to be taken lightly, although some lodges seem to do just that, for the sake of selling a cool Amazon experience. Reports circulate about some travelers losing their minds, but it's hard to say if they should be taken seriously. At a minimum, ayahuasca is a cultural practice that should be respected and not abused by gringos.
For travelers who want to get away from the lodges and groups and riverboats, more flexible independent treks into the jungle could be the way to go. You'll see more fauna, and especially flora, than will other travelers, and you'll get to visit native communities that aren't merely putting on a show for your benefit. You'll rough it in varying degrees (everything from eating cans of tuna and rice and beans cooked over an open fire, to enjoying fresh-caught fish straight from the river, to camping in makeshift sites along the way). To immerse yourself in the dense Amazonian jungle, you need an experienced, reliable wilderness guide. Scores of independent guides operate in the jungle around Iquitos and scout for tourists in the city. Their quality and professionalism vary tremendously, however, and many plainly are not to be trusted. Several guides in Iquitos have criminal records for robbing the very tourists who trusted them. The local tourism office maintains a book of disreputable, blacklisted guides.
Because you're going to be spending all your time in the jungle with the guide, depending on him to lead you, communicate with you, cook for you, and build good campsites, selecting a competent guide is of the utmost importance. Most guides are "extralegal"; only a couple of guides in Iquitos are officially licensed to operate as full-fledged independent jungle guides (possessing a license, an expensive bureaucratic requirement out of reach of most guides, isn't the only determination, however). No matter what you hear from other travelers, if you're considering hiring a guide for a solo or small-group trek into the jungle, visit the tourism information office in Iquitos before exchanging moneys; ask for the office personnel's recommendations -- which they're usually happy to dispense -- and take a look at the review books of comments about guides. Rates depend on the number of travelers and length of trips; they can range from $40 to $50 a day per person to more than $100 per day.
If you manage to locate a guide for an independent trip, never pay upfront before your arrival in Iquitos; some travelers have been scammed.
Riverboat cruises down the Amazon and along its tributaries don't allow you to see much in the way of fauna or pristine jungle, although you will likely spot lots of birds and dolphins. Cruises are best for people who don't want to rough it too much and who like the romance of traveling the Amazon by boat, although varying degrees of rusticity and luxury are available. Many cruises stop off at reserves for jungle walks and visits to local villages. Some of the best cruises are those to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.
- GreenTracks Amazon Tours & Cruises, Requena 336 (tel. 800/892-1035 in the U.S. and Canada, or 065/231-611; www.amazontours.net). This American-owned company has been active in the northern Amazon for more than 4 decades. Its midlevel cruises are aboard older, air-conditioned fleets that aren't quite as nice or as expensive as those of Jungle Expeditions . Four-night riverboat cruise on the Delfin II is $1,808 per person in a double room; a 7-night cruise on a rubber boom-era riverboat to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve is $2,500 per person.
- Aqua Expeditions (tel. 866/603-3687 in the U.S. and Canada, or 065/601-053 in Peru; www.aquaexpeditions.com) has blown the old concept of creaky, uncomfortable Amazon cruises out of the water. Its luxury river cruises are aboard the gorgeous, modern 130-foot MV Aqua, designed by the well-known Peruvian architect Jordi Puig, and the menu is overseen by a fashionable Lima chef, Miguel Schiaffino. Sleeping quarters are sleekly contemporary, with swank indoor and outdoor lounge spaces, 12 air-conditioned rooms with high-quality bedding, and large, panoramic windows that make it look like you're watching a big-screen movie of the Amazon. Cruises depart from Iquitos and go through the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. Prices range from $2,250 to $5,250 per person for 3-, 4- and 7-day cruises.
- Jungle Expeditions, Av. Quiñones 1980 (tel. 065/261-583; www.junglex.com). This company offers luxury river cruises on a fleet of six very elegant, 19th-century style boats, and cruises upriver along the Río Ucayali. Prices are about $2,700 for 7-day and $3,300 for 10-day expeditions. The company also accepts passengers through their Lima booking office (tel. 01/241-3232) or International Expeditions (tel. 800/633-4734; www.internationalexpeditions.com) in the United States, which offers air-inclusive packages and programs with Cusco and Machu Picchu extensions.
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.