Along the Amazon River, clamoring monkeys and birds, huge primeval trees, hanging vines and abundant insect activity bring to life every jungle movie scene you've ever watched. As you whack through the undergrowth with your machete or drift down a tributary in your dugout canoe, you'll be reliving the experiences of early explorers (and a few actors)—not much has changed with the passage of time. Although there are several ways to experience the rain forest, we suggest staying in a jungle lodge. The lodges have varying degrees of seclusion, but all are reachable only by boat and offer comfort levels that range from very basic to basic but comfortable.
Another way to experience the river is on a boat cruise. These vary in length; the majority begin or end in Iquitos, others in Leticia, Colombia. On local passenger boats everything begins to look the same, so choose the more expensive tourist boats that make stops at indigenous villages and on trails in Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. For those who can tolerate jungles, heat and insects in order to see a great variety of birds (and, if you're lucky, some other animals), the trip can be worthwhile.
In addition to the tourist cruises, you can easily secure passages on one of the numerous cargo boats that travel where few tourists go: a trip of three to five days down the Ucayali River from Pucallpa to Iquitos, or two to three days down the Huallaga and Maranon rivers from Yurimaguas to Iquitos. These cheap trips are usually booked locally at the docks in Iquitos, Pucallpa or Yurimaguas, and accommodations are either in stuffy little cabins with bunks or hanging your own hammock, easily bought in jungle cities.
Puerto Maldonado, reachable by air or bus from Cusco, is another place where you can embark on jungle adventures. A few hours by river from Puerto Maldonado is the spectacular Tambopata National Reserve, with an extensive variety of birds, mammals and more than 1,000 species of butterflies. (Our favorite, the beautifully blue iridescent Morpho, has a wingspan of up to 8 in/20 cm.) There are several jungle lodges offering multiday excursions from Puerto Maldonado.
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