Lodge versus cruise: Exploring the Peruvian Amazon
You haven’t truly experienced the wonders of South America until you’ve immersed yourself in the canopy of the Amazon and explored its many waterways. Until you’ve got up close and personal with a macaw and heard a howler howl…
The numbers don’t lie. The Amazon Rainforest covers about 2,100,000 square miles, making it far and away the largest rain forest on the planet. The Amazon River, without which there would be no forest, is the world’s largest river by volume and – recent studies suggest – also the world’s longest. The Amazon Rainforest is shared by eight different countries, with Brazil, Peru and Columbia boasting the largest swaths.
By area 60% of Peru is rainforest, but only 5% of the population calls it home. What it lacks in humans it makes up for with a multitude of plants, insects, birds, animals and fish that is quite simply without compare. The Amazon is the most biodiverse place on the planet and it has to be seen to be believed.
Lodge or cruise?
Almost all visitors to the Peruvian Amazon go via one of two towns: Puerto Maldonado in the South (near Cusco) or Iquitos in the North. Puerto Maldonado can be accessed via short flight from both Lima and Cusco (the gateway to Machu Picchu) making it an extremely popular option with many travelers. If you choose to visit this part of the Amazon you will spend your nights in one of several gorgeous lodges in the area and your days exploring the rainforest with fascinating local guides.
If you have your heart set on cruising the Amazon in a large vessel for several days, then Iquitos is where you need to be. Accessed via a flight from Lima (there are no direct flights to/from Cuzco), Iquitos is the base for all of Peru’s luxury Amazon riverboats. The cruises are the stuff of dreams and guests are virtually guaranteed to spot pink river dolphins and manatees – two species which do not occur near Puerto Maldonado. The cruises do come in at higher price point and they require more travel time and an additional connecting flight, for those going to/from Cusco. But once you’re on the boat the experience is probably more seamless and everyone who goes on a cruise raves about it.
The Puerto Maldonado lodge experience
Once you’ve arrived at Puerto Maldonado you’ll be transferred to your lodge via motorized canoe – depending on which lodge you choose this can take several hours and is an experience in itself. (Important Housekeeping Note #1: Most of the lodges have a weight limit so you may need to leave some of your stuff at the lodge office before boarding your canoe.) Whichever lodge you choose you can expect to sleep comfortably, eat very well, and be shown around the rainforest by extremely knowledgeable guides with a passion for nature. Most of our guests stay at Reserva Amazonica or Hacienda Concepcion, but there are also a couple of really great (Posada Amazonas and Refugio Amazonas) lodges situated deeper into the jungle which allow you to see more diverse wildlife. (Important Housekeeping Note #2: None of the Puerto Maldonado lodges has air-conditioning).
We recommend spending 4 days/3 nights in the Amazon as this gives you two full days to explore the jungle. But, of course, we can tailor your itinerary to suit your needs: if time is short, a 2-night stay at one of the lodges closer to town is a great option, while serious birders / botanists / bug fiends should consider a longer itinerary which takes in two lodges and/or delves further into the jungle.
The Iquitos cruise experience
It doesn’t get better than falling asleep to the sound of water lapping against the bows and waking up to uninterrupted views across mirror-calm water and the jungle beyond. Once you’ve landed at Iquitos you’ll be whisked off to your vessel where the luxurious adventure begins. Whichever boat you choose, you can bank on living, sleeping and eating in the lap of air-conditioned luxury. Daily excursions on smaller skiffs will allow you to witness incredible wildlife (including evocative pink river dolphins) and you’ll also get to go piranha fishing and visit a manatee rehab center.
Iquitos may be harder to combine with Machu Picchu than Puerto Maldonado, but once you get there, the experience is more seamless. A 3-night itinerary will afford you two full days of exploration, while spending 4-nights on the boat will allow you to penetrate deep into the jungle and see places few ever reach. You’ll also enjoy the comfort of air conditioning and get a chance to see pink river dolphins and manatees – none of this is possible from a Puerto Maldonado lodge.
When to go
The Amazon is a hot and humid environment, but it can easily be visited all year round. Daytime temperatures average in the high 80s to 90s (Fahrenheit) dropping to the 60s and low 70s at night. During the winter months (June-August) cold fronts called friajes may pass through, lowering temperatures to the 50s.
Keep in mind that the summer months (December –March) correspond with the rainy season. The rainiest months are January and February and you can expect heavy downpours during these months (although showers are common throughout the year). Lodges provide rubber boots for guests for these muddy situations, year-round. During the summer rainy season, river levels rise dramatically and boats are able to travel further into the jungle.