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The opportunities for enjoying spectacular wildlife sightings and experiencing how locals truly live in the Amazon are severely diminished in most areas where the jungle lodges are located. For primary rainforest and more authentic native villages, you have to be willing to rough it more than traditional lodges force you to. However, as jungle tourism in Peru continues to grow, several midrange and luxury cruise operators are now organizing river cruises to one of Peru's greatest jungle zones.

About 300km (190 miles) south of Iquitos, a couple days removed by boat and sandwiched between the Marañon and Ucayali rivers, is the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, the largest protected area in Peru and one of the most pristine in the world. Established in 1982, it contains 2,080,000 hectares (5,139,800 acres) of thick, untouched rainforest and wetlands. Incredibly, that accounts for 1.5% of Peru's total surface area. Riddled with rivers and 85 lakes, it's huge and daunting, and should be explored only with an experienced guide. Some of the Amazon's finest and most abundant wildlife resides in the reserve, such as pink dolphins, macaws, black caimans, spider monkeys, and giant river turtles. The reserve's numbers are staggering: It is home to 539 species of birds, 101 species of mammals, 256 kinds of fish, and 22 species of orchids. Guides typically take visitors by dugout canoe from Lagunas (upstream from Iquitos) through the reserve. Villages on the outskirts of the reserve worth visiting are San Martín de Timpishia and Puerto Miguel. To enter the reserve, officially you need permission from INRENA, the Peruvian parks authority. Contact its office in Iquitos (Pevas 350; tel. 065/231-230) or in Lima (Los Petirrojos 355, Urbanización El Palomar; tel. 01/224-3298) for additional information. You'll need a minimum of 4 or 5 days to do the trip from Iquitos. Jungle Expeditions, Amazon Tours and Cruises, and Paseos Amazónicos all organize Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve river cruises and, in the case of the latter, camping trips.

The Cocamas native community at San Martín de Tipishca, in the northern edge of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, has an American woman working with it as an interpreter and is reaching out to travelers who want an experience of close contact with the people of an Amazon village. Reports are that the trips are extremely professional in character. Contact Virginia Blum, care of her office at Piura 1072, in Iquitos (tel. 065/251-185; virginiablum@yahoo.com). The community charges $40 per day per person, plus the $19 permit to enter the preserve. Trips usually last 4 to 5 days and are limited to groups of 12 to 15 people (although as few as two people can arrange a trip). Other, less involved visits to local native communities, such as the Huitotos, Boras, and Yaguas, can also be arranged. Inquire about independent trips at the tourism office on the Plaza de Armas in Iquitos.

Another option for down-and-dirty exploration of Amazon culture and sights is to cruise the rivers not on (relatively) pampered boats that take tourists out to lodges, but aboard the three-decked riverboats that form the transportation backbone of the region, ferrying people back and forth from villages on Amazon tributaries to Iquitos and other towns. The boats are rough going, stuffed with animals and densely packed families and their household goods, and are almost entirely absent of comforts. You should take along plenty of bottled water, a hammock, and foodstuffs such as fruit and canned items. Journeys can last several days, but slinging yourself into a hammock on the top deck and floating slowly down the Huallaga or Ucayali will certainly win points among your friends when it comes to regaling them with vacation heroics. For budget travelers, it's a perfect antidote to high-priced lodges and river cruises: It's virtually impossible to spend more than $15 a day, including transportation.

For more details about how to organize trips to Pacaya-Samiria or simple river transport along the rivers, contact the helpful folks at the tourist information office on the Plaza de Armas in Iquitos for up-to-the-minute suggestions.

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.