Visiting the Amazon Rainforest is an incredible experience. While this vast stretch of wilderness is most commonly associated with Brazil, it actually extends into several different South American nations, and Peru is one of these, of course.
There are several different places where you can get a taste of the Amazon in Peru. The most famous of these is arguably Iquitos, a city with European-influenced architecture (the remnants of a 20th-century rubber boom), which is the gateway into the northern stretches of the Amazon.
However, if you want a lesser-known destination for your Peruvian Amazon exploration, Tambopata National Reserve is the place to go. Created on 4 September, 2000, this reserve protects a large swathe of biologically diverse rainforest.
Here, visitors have the chance to spot a bucket-list-worthy array of wildlife, from the elusive jaguar and the nightmare-inducing anaconda, all the way to colorful macaws and the cute capybara. All of these animals live alongside an endless list of insects (there are potentially millions of different species of insect living in this part of the world).
The flora and fauna of Tambopata National Reserve make a visit here an unforgettable experience. To begin with, entering by boat into the thick jungle to reach lodge accommodation surrounded by nature, makes for an exciting start to your adventures. Literally your visit starts with the boat ride to get to your lodge.
But Tambopata is more than wildlife and jungle. It’s also an incredible place to charge your batteries away from the stress of daily life in the city – there is virtually no internet, and no noise at all at night other than that of animals.
Since I visited Tambopata National Reserve during my latest trip to Peru, I thought I’d write about it. Here’s exactly what you can expect from a trip there, including what sort of creatures you can see in this pristine wilderness, where you can stay and how to get there in the first place.
Where Is Tambopata National Reserve?
You’ll find Tambopata National Reserve in the Madre de Dios region, borderning the Madre de Dios River to the north. The reserve also borders Bolivia to the east, while the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park lies to the south.
Tambopata National Reserve covers an area of 274,690 hectares (1,061 square miles) and boasts an elevation range from 260 meters (853 feet) to 600 meters (1,968 feet) above sea level. The area is made up of the numerous floodplains of various rivers and encompasses a vast jungle landscape.
Best Time To Visit Tambopata National Reserve
Rather than this being a question of winter or summer, it’s more a case of wet or dry. The national reserve has two distinct seasons. There’s the dry season, running between May and October, and the rainy season that runs between November and April.
In the dry season, visitors to the park will be able to explore more of the region for the practical reason of the drier conditions. The trails at this time of year are much easier to traverse. This is also a good time as birds nest at this time of year, meaning that you can catch a glimpse of some of Tambopata’s exotic bird life, including macaws and parrots. We visited in mid October and had just one rain shower for an afternoon, and could count on sunny (though rather humid) days the rest of our time there.
The wet season is completely different. Because of all the rain, water levels in the park will be high and many trails will be inaccessible. However, you will still be able to spot some wildlife, particularly Tambopata’s reptilian wildlife, such as caimans, as well as numerous frog species, and even pink dolphins and giant otters.
The downside to traveling at this time of year, however, is not just the rain – it’s also the mosquitos. They are very prevalent throughout Tambopata National Reserve, so you’ll need to take extra precautions.
Average temperatures throughout the year, regardless of season, are around 26°C (79°F). However, the average temperature can get as low as 10°C (50°F); lower temperatures occur between June and July due to cold arctic winds that blow through the region at this time of year. Highs can reach 38°C (100°F); and conversely to the cooler months of the dry season, January and February are the rainiest months.
Wildlife Of Tambopata National Reserve
This enormous reserve protects a large portion of Peruvian wilderness that’s made up of ox-bow lakes, flood plains, bamboo groves, wetlands, and parts of the old growth Peruvian Amazon. This results in a diverse habitat that provides a home to an equally diverse array of animal species.
Here you can find more than 600 species of bird, 100 mammal species and more than 1,000 species of butterfly. No matter what time of year you visit, the chances that you’re going to spot some incredible wildlife are high.
The chances of spotting an anaconda in the Peruvian Amazon are very low. We were not lucky to see one, but alas – you may be.
The green anaconda is the largest snake in the world. This huge snake can reach lengths of up to 9.3 meters (30 feet) and weigh up to 250 kilograms (550 pounds). But even though they’re so big, they’re virtually impossible to spot. That’s possibly down to their amazing camouflage; they have black blotches that cover the whole of their olive-colored body, with a narrow head that features a distinctive orange stripe on either side. It works extremely well in a jungle setting.
They can eat just about anything: capybara, turtles, caimans, birds, among other rainforest creatures. Green anacondas are not venomous and catch their prey by constriction instead. They have specialized windpipes that allow them to breathe while still consuming their prey. Depending on the size of what they’ve eaten, the digestion process can take several days, during which the snakes are sluggish. They’re also nocturnal, which is probably another reason why they’re so hard to spot.
Jaguars also live at Tambopata National Reserve, but like green anacondas they are extremely difficult to spot. That’s not to say you won’t see them, however. We were only able to spot their footprints. Regardless, it’s pretty exciting to know that the same trail you are walking on is trotted by jaguars.
This big cat can weigh up to 158 kilograms (348 pounds) and grow up to 1.85 meters (6 feet) long, making it the third largest cat species in the world. Its eye-catching spots give this cat the perfect camouflage – which works really well as it hangs out along the riverbanks and under the jungle canopy.
The jaguar is a powerful hunter; with jaws able to bite through turtle shells, it uses this power to pierce through the skulls of its prey for a fatal blow. Its fearsomeness has long been known: the name “jaguar” is thought to come from the Tupi-Guarani word yaguara, which translates to “wild beast that overcomes its prey at a bound”.
With all the waterways that lace their way through Tambopata National Reserve, it’s no wonder that caimans appear to live here in abundance. Closely related to alligators, these large reptiles can be seen quite easily on the sides of rivers basking in the sun; but they are more active at nighttime, when they usually swim around in the water looking for prey. We spotted quite a few of them during a night boat trip along the river.
You may not see them in the dry season or during droughts; this is because they are known to go into a type of “summer hibernation” called aestivation.
Caimans usually eat fish, but will also hunt insects, birds, other reptiles and small mammals. They are in general smaller than alligators or crocodiles. However, two live in the Tambopata National Reserve: the white caiman and the black caiman. The black caiman is the largest caiman species and can grow more than 4 meters (13 feet) in length and weigh in at over 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds).
Because caimans are so ferocious, with their enormous jaws and all, they have very few predators in the wild. Only the green anaconda, jaguars, crocodiles, and humans are known to hunt or prey on the caiman.
Seeing a macaw is one of the highlights of a trip to Tambopata National Reserve. These beautiful rainbow-colored birds can often be seen on the sides of rivers and waterways in the park, flying around from one place to another. There are a couple of species that make their home here – blue-and-yellow macaws and scarlet macaws.
The blue-and-yellow macaws can be spotted, especially while in flight, due to the brilliant yellow plumage of their breast, and the underside of their tails and wings. It helps that the main color of this bird is an electric blue, making them easy to see. The scarlet macaw, with its striking red plumage and blue and yellow tipped wings, is also fairly easy to spot.
There are an estimated 32 species of parrot that live within the national reserve – making up around 10% of all parrot species in the world. These spectacular birds with their bright plumage and squawking calls are hard to miss during a visit to the Peruvian Amazon. They live on the clay licks (a haven for these birds) scattered around the park, but can be seen in trees near rivers.
Species at the park include orange-cheeked parrots, the blue-headed parrot and the white-bellied parrot. But the species most associated with Tambopata National Reserve is the amazon parrot.
A relative of guinea pigs, the capybara is considered the world’s largest rodent. At the Tambopata National Reserve, they live along river banks and other bodies of water such as lakes. Capybaras are a surprisingly social species of animal and are often seen in large groups – sometimes as large as a hundred individuals can hang around together.
It’s easy to see them hanging out along the banks of the river, and swimming – they are excellent swimmers!
These barrel-bodied creatures, with their short, red fur, can grow up to 134 centimeters (4.4 feet) in length and typically weigh up to 66 kilograms (146 pounds). As cute as they are, these herbivores are often poached for their meat and fur.
As the name suggests, howler monkeys are indeed noisy! In fact, they are thought to be among the world’s loudest animals. Their calls can be heard as far away as three miles, meaning you’ll probably hear them before you spot them. Commonly, you’ll hear them calling at dawn and dusk. We could certainly hear them every morning, around 4:00 am, and it’s quite a deafening noise that they make.
They usually hang out on the tops of trees and live in groups of 12 to 16 individuals. You may see them chilling out like this, or you also might spot them jumping from branch to branch in the jungle canopy.
While there are various subspecies of howler monkeys, the one you’ll usually spot at Tambopata National Reserve is the red howler monkey, which is a dark reddish-brown color. The social groups they live in are usually led by one or two males, with the rest of the group made up of females and children.
The alpha male leads the group to food sources and defends them from dangers, including other alpha males, while the females look after the offspring. The loud howling is often used to prevent physical confrontation between two groups.
These iconic mammals can be seen in the form of two varieties at Tambopata National Reserve: the two-toed and three-toed sloth. They are, of course, famous for their slow, almost unearthly movements; this is thought to protect them from predators such as hawks and big cats.
One amazing fact about sloths is the symbiotic relationship they have with green algae. Grooves in the animal’s hair allows space to host the algae, which grows and does two things: it helps to camouflage and provides nutrients to the sloth itself. It also provides nourishment for sloth moths, some species of which exist solely on the sloth!
Sloths also have a very slow metabolism, owing to their diet of leaves.
You’ll probably get to see a sloth during your visit to Tambopata National Reserve – we saw two, actually right at the lodge where we stayed and both times at night. On both occasions, the sloth was staying high up a tree (so bring binoculars if you want to spot them) and well – it moved extremely slowly!
Butterflies and other insects
Most people probably go to Tambopata National Reserve to spot the large reptiles and mammals that call this place home. But the critters that live here in most abundance are easily from the insect world. There could possibly be 2.5 million species of insect that live in the Amazon Rainforest in general, and so this swathe of the jungle in Peruvian Amazon probably hosts a large portion of these species. It’s more than can be imagined without making your head spin.
For one thing, there are 1,200 species of butterfly that live in Tambopata National Reserve and many more species of insects besides. From leaf-cutter ants to hercules beetles and innumerable types of damselflies and dragonflies, many of these insects are often hiding in plain sight with incredible camouflage, or simply small and hard to spot.
Going on a night walk with a guide will be the best way to see – and hear – these often-overlooked inhabitants of the rainforest.
The tarantula is one of many types of spiders that live in Tambopata National Reserve. Among tarantulas, too, there are over a thousand species, some of which can be spotted in this reserve. These large, hairy spiders hunt in the ground and in trees, ambushing their prey and killing it with their large fangs.
Contrary to popular belief, while tarantulas are venomous, their venom is relatively mild and non-fatal to humans; the bristles on their body can actually cause more damage in terms of irritation. Spotting tarantulas in their natural habitat is actually quite difficult, as they mostly hide in their nests. We were able to spot one thanks to our guide Elvis, from the Tambopata Ecolodge, who spotted a nest right under a tree.
Other Interesting Things To See And Do
Lake Condenado is a fantastic place to spot wildlife in Tambopata National Reserve. Here you can see monkeys, caimans, and kingfishers (among other bird species). It may even be possible for you to spot an anaconda (we did not, unfortunately).
Tours usually leave from the piers around the lake early in the morning. They will take you to a trail and from there you’ll walk (all the while spotting wildlife) to reach a canoe kind of boat. Paddling around like this on the surface of the lake really gives a unique perspective on this amazing slice of nature.
Another lake in Tambopata National Reserve and another chance to see wildlife from the water itself, here you can spot giant otters and black caiman, macaws, and parrots. It’s best to visit Sandoval Lake either at dawn or just before sunset, when bird species especially are at their most active.
Accessed via a short hike through the rainforest itself, there’s also a variety of plant life along the banks of the lake making for a particularly beautiful backdrop for your wildlife viewing.
A local fruit farm
Nature is abundant in the region, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that fruit and fruit farms have found their way into Tambopata National Reserve. There are several fruit farms situated along the rivers here, where orchards are abundant with a variety of fruit.
Here they grow mangoes, lemons, oranges, and cacao, among a whole array of other fruits that are so endemic to this area that they don’t even have English names. Depending on the season, you’ll be able to pick and try fruit fresh off the tree. We tried star fruit, avocados, papaya, pineapple and oranges, among other, and learned a lot about how fruit is grown in this part of the world.
How to get to Tambopata National Reserve
Getting to Tampobata National Reserve takes a bit of an effort, but I promise you it is worth it. You have several options to get there – each of them start in Puerto Maldonado, the main city in the area. You have two ways of getting to Puerto Maldonado.
Flying is by far the quickest and easiest way to reach the Tambopata National Reserve. Daily flights leave both Lima and Cusco and arrive at Puerto Maldonado. From Lima, the flight takes 1 hour 40 minutes, while the flight from Cusco takes just 55 minutes.
By bus from Cusco
You can also catch a bus from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. The bus journey takes around ten hours and is definitely not the most comfortable way to travel, but it is fairly cheap compared to a flight.
Then, hop on a boat
Once you’ve arrived in Puerto Maldonado, either by plane or bus, the adventure truly begins. You have to get a boat ride into the reserve itself, which depending on the lodge you’re staying in, can take up to three hours. It’s a pretty fun way to enter the rainforest, however.
If you have time to look around, it is possible to find a tour directly in Puerto Maldonado. This however implies spending at least one night in Puerto Maldonado, as most tours depart early in the morning. Obviously, you’ll need a few hours to speak to different tour operators and compare prices and reviews for each one.
Otherwise, you could opt to book a tour online. For example, there’s this well reviewed option, Puerto Maldonado: 4-Day Tambopata Rainforest Tour. This tour sees you picked up from Puerto Maldonado Airport and taken into the jungle on a four-day trip. You’ll be staying in a comfortable bungalow in the jungle surrounded by nature, with ample opportunity to see the wildlife that Tambopata National Reserve is famous for.
If you don’t have time for four days, don’t worry – shorter tours are available. This Tambopata Peruvian Amazon Jungle for Three Days/Two Nights, for instance, is a shorter excursion into the reserve but still offers the chance to see an array of wildlife. Tours such as this usually include cruises along the river, going to Lake Sandoval and a canopy walk through the treetops of the rainforest.
For those who are really short on time, it is possible to embark on a one-day tour. This full-day trip with canoeing around Sandoval Lake sees you embark on a tour with a knowledgeable guide to search out the wildlife of Tambopata National Reserve. It’s a chance to spot parrots, macaws and caimans as you explore Sandoval Lake and the Madre de Dios River.
Where to stay
There are a surprising number of lodges located within Tambopata National Reserve that make staying in this slice of wilderness a very comfortable experience. This being the rainforest, however, you can forget Wi-Fi (mostly) and, depending on the choice, these accommodations vary in luxury – from basic to more refined.
This is where we stayed when we visited Tambopata National Reserve, and we truly enjoyed it. From the moment you arrive at this remote lodge, you’ll be made to feel welcome – for starters, you’ll be greeted by a refreshing welcome drink.
Rooms here are in the form of two-bedroom bungalows, each with large windows that look out onto the jungle and private verandas for relaxing on. Thankfully the lodge comes with its own in-house restaurant which provides a choice of local Peruvian cuisine, and a bar where you can enjoy a drink in the evening; all meals are included in the room rates. Though it’s fairly basic (i.e. limited electricity and no Wi-Fi), you’ll have your own hot shower, which is a luxury.
Tambopata Research Center
This polished ecolodge offers up a more high-end experience for you to stay in the rainforest. The accommodation has been carefully put together, allowing it to seamlessly blend to the environment but with an added touch of luxury.
Rooms open up to views of the jungle, of course, and there’s a highly experienced team running the lodge who’ll be able to help you with anything you need. Facilities for guests include meals throughout the day, an on-site bar, and a free airport transfer service. There actually is Wi-Fi here, but there’s electricity only three times a day.
This lodge is ideal for those looking to be completely surrounded by nature on their trip to Tambopata National Reserve. Rooms are somewhat basic, but are clean and comfortable, and come with their own private ensuite bathrooms.
Staying here gives you free airport transfers, guided tours, and meals, all of which are included in the room rate. There’s no Wi-Fi at the property, but that shouldn’t matter – you can see wildlife from the room itself! It’s a perfect spot for nature lovers.
How long to stay
I would say at least 2 nights. This is a lovely, peaceful location, and you’re going to want to make the most of it. Ideally, if you have the time to spend 4 nights here, then you can see a lot of what Tambopata National Reserve has to offer while also getting to have some downtime, too.
However, I have seen that some people do opt to stay overnight near Puerto Maldonado Airport, and just go on a day tour instead. But staying in the rainforest in a lodge really is an experience worth carving out some time to do.
What to pack for the Peruvian Amazon
Working out what to pack for a trip to Tambopata National Reserve can be tricky – especially if you’ve never been to a rainforest before. There are definitely some essential things that you shouldn’t forget to take with you, however. Here’s a list of essentials.
Insect repellent – for obvious reasons! If you don’t want to be bitten by mosquitos, insect repellent with DEET is assuredly a must.
Emergency medication – it’s the jungle and you’ll be miles from anywhere. Having things like painkillers, anti-diarrhea medication, and rehydration sachets, and any other medication you may need is essential. Other less essential medical supplies such as plasters and anti-itch cream could also come in useful.
Neutral colors long sleeve shirts and t-shirts – Guess what? Mosquitos and other bugs like dark and brightly colored clothing, so leave your tropical shirts at home. Opt for beige, white, light brown or khaki clothing. You’ll also want it to be natural, so cotton or linen, to allow it to be breathable; tight clothing is not good in the rainforest. Make sure to check out Kuhl as they have a great array of neutral colors shirts perfect for the jungle.
Long pants – Keeping your skin covered up from the multitude of mosquitoes and other insects is the name of the game in the national reserves. Pack long pants that will protect your legs but are also breathable and easy to hike in.
Hiking shoes or boots – Goes without saying, but you’ll want a pair of shoes that are sturdy and extra comfortable. Depending on if you prefer ankle support or not, then you may want to opt for shoes or more of a boot situation. Bring socks, obviously, too. One tip from me is to tuck your pants in your socks to avoid insect bites such as chiggers!
Hat and sunglasses – You might be in the jungle, but you will still need to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays. A hat and sunglasses will be very useful for when you are out on the water on a boat. It can be hard to spot the wildlife when the sun is sparkling off the water and glaring into your eyes.
Sunscreen – You won’t be under the rainforest canopy 100% of the time and the sun can even affect you on cloudy days. This goes especially for when you’re out canoeing around on the lakes or hanging around at the lodge.
Camera with a long lens – You won’t always be close to the wildlife, so if you’re a keen photographer you’ll want to bring a nice zoom lens to go with your camera. This way you’ll still be able to get some incredible shots even when you’re fairly far away from your subject.
Binoculars – Make sure to bring along a good pair of lightweight binoculars. You don’t want to go all the way into the reserve but not be able to spot all of the wildlife properly. These will come in particularly useful for those keen on spotting the many birds that call the area home.
Torch or head light – Electricity isn’t always a given at the lodges you’ll be staying at in Tambopata National Reserve, so bringing a torch (or better yet, a head light) is essential for doing anything after dark. Also comes in handy when on a night tour.
Rain jacket or poncho – Downpours can and do occur in the reserve, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Pack a lightweight rain jacket, one that can fold down to small size so you can easily carry it in your backpack.
Entertainment – Bring along a book (of course, you’ll need your torch to read this at night!), or download your favorite Netflix series. To go with your laptop and smartphone, you should also bring along a portable power bank, and make sure it gets charged during electricity hours, so your laptop doesn’t die while you’re trying to catch up on your favorite series at night.
Swimsuit – don’t forget to bring along a swimsuit as you might want to swim in the area’s river or swimming holes. Just remember: don’t pee in the water because the ammonia in urine attracts parasites that will crawl up and into your bladder!
Things you should definitely leave home when traveling to the Peruvian Amazon include fancy dresses and sandals – you won’t be able to walk in them in the uneven paths in the lodges, and even less so when in the forest. A girl in our group kept going around completely dressed up in the lodge and we all thought she was a bit out of place to be honest!
These other posts will help you plan your trip to Peru:
- The Best Things To Do In Peru
- The Most Useful Things To Know Before A Trip To Peru
- The Best Time To Visit Peru
- A Classic Peru Itinerary