Puerto Maldonado: Gateway to the
Travel responsibly in Peru’s Tambopata reserve and to the Amazonian city of Puerto Maldonado
Puerto Maldonado was a massive difference from Cusco, where I’d spent the previous month. Other than the colossal obelisk, there were no buildings over three stories, some of the roads were still made entirely of dirt and puddles, and motorbikes, scooters, and mototaxis outnumbered cars by a large ratio. It felt more like Southeast Asia than South America. I had the feeling that this town wasn’t quite finished.
The laidback vibe was perfect, and after spending lots of time in the mountains, being able to breathe without worrying about altitude sickness was a welcome relief. Although the town was characterful and fun, that wasn’t why I had come. Puerto Maldonado is one of two gateways t
o the Peruvian Amazon (the other being the much better-known Iquitos in the north), and the vast Tambopata reserve – one of the largest areas of untouched rainforest in the world, said to be home to ten percent of the world’s known species.
During my trip to Puerto Maldonado, I spent four days inside the Tambopata reserve at a jungle eco-lodge, where I saw capybaras, what seemed like millions of macaws and parrots flying between the trees early in the morning, and even a three-toed sloth, along with snakes, monkeys, and a whole host of other animals. Not only was seeing these animals in their natural habitat wonderful, being able to totally disconnect from the world and relax in the jungle lodge was a luxury I’d almost forgotten.
The best thing about staying in lodges like this is that they are a great way to practice responsible tourism. My guide (you can’t enter the jungle without a registered, certified guide) knew a lot about the animals, and the right places to see and interact with them, without actually stressing the animals out or disrespecting their space. At no point did I feel like I was in danger, even when meters away from caimans, tarantulas, and at one point, a boa constrictor.
For animal lovers, this is up there with the Galapagos Islands as one of the best places to see wildlife in South America. I would jump at the chance to go back.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Puerto Maldonado is located in the region of Madre de Díos, in the South East of Peru. Its airport, Puerto Maldonado Padre Aldamiz (PEM), sees many flights land daily from Cusco (45 minutes) and Lima (90 minutes). Not all flights from Lima are direct, and some may make a stop in Cusco, so double check when you are booking.
If you don’t want to fly, buses from Cusco take between eight and eleven hours (overnight options take a little longer). If you’re going to travel from Lima by bus, it will take more than 24 hours; although it’s possible, we don’t recommend it.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Get a view of the city from the Obelisco
Watching over the city is the spaceship-like ‘Obelisco de Puerto Maldonado,’ also known as El Mirador de la Biodiversidad (the biodiversity tower). This 13-story building is the tallest in Puerto (as the locals call it). For just a few soles, you can visit a museum focused on the area and its wildlife, before getting the best view of the city and surrounding three rivers and rainforest from the top.
Take a boat trip to Lago Sandoval
Lago Sandoval is one of the most popular day trips from Puerto Maldonado. This oxbow lake is 45 minutes down the Madre de Díos river and is home to a wealth of wildlife. You’ll have the chance to spot capuchin monkeys, caimans, and giant otters, amongst others. There are four eco-lodges on the lake if you want to stay longer, but you’ll have to arrange all that in advance. You can only enter the Lago Sandoval reserve with a registered guide.
Relax in a jungle eco-lodge
One of the main reasons to visit Puerto Maldonado is to get out into the jungle. There is a range of eco-lodges to choose from; they are a responsible way for you to visit one of the largest remaining rainforest reserves in the world. At a lodge, you can do activities such as bird-watching, piranha fishing, jungle walks, and night-time caiman searches. Sometimes, you’ll even see animals like snakes at the lodge itself.
Visit the world’s biggest clay lick
Just what is a clay lick? Well, it’s one of the best spots in the jungle to spot wildlife – the equivalent of a watering hole in Africa. Because plants and berries that make up the diets of most omnivorous and herbivorous animals are filled with toxins, the clay neutralizes them and keeps the animals healthy. Come in the early morning to see spider monkeys, scores of parrots and macaws, and, if you’re lucky, some of the predators that lie in wait for their catch. Chuncho clay lick inside Tambopata reserve is the biggest one in the world.
Stay – Accommodation
A great budget option in the city center which offers free wi-fi, breakfast, and even the usage of a pool. Arguably, the best thing about this hostel is their sister eco-lodge, located inside the Tambopata reserve. You can explore this fantastic ecosystem during tours which last from two to four days.
Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica
A real luxury lodge deep in the jungle. You’ll have to book this one well in advance as it sells out pretty quickly. You can book an entire bungalow here, and your reservation comes complete with all meals. The pièce de résistance is a massage spa overlooking the Madre de Díos forest.
Eat – Restaurants
Puerto Maldonado market
A great budget option where you can get almuerzos (two-course lunches with soup, a main, and a drink) for as little as 5 soles. If you’re feeling really brave, try suri kebabs – a delicacy made of large white worms. You can also buy aguajes here, a fruit which is an essential part of the city’s economy.
Here, you’ll find some of the best regional cooking in Puerto Maldonado. One of the most well-known restaurants in the Tambopata region, it also offers some tasty international food. Only a two-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
The best time to visit is during July and August. This is the time when most of the fruit is in season; as many of the animals – like monkeys and parrots – have a fruit-based diet, you’re more likely to see them. Because these animals are out and about, you also have more chance of seeing predators like the jaguar too.
Visiting in the rainy season (between October and April) isn’t particularly bad, but rivers swell at this time, and the chance of seeing anacondas and caimans is reduced, although it is still possible.
Safety – Possible risks
Going into the jungle does carry some risks. Always listen to your guide, especially with regards to swimming in rivers, etc; there are a number of creatures that can harm you both in and out of the water.
Take mosquito repellent with you. Although the mosquitos here don’t carry malaria or zika, they are everywhere and can leave you a spotty red mess.
In the unlikely event that you are bitten by something poisonous, jungle lodges keep antivenom on site so that you can be tended to immediately, or as soon as you’re back at your accommodation if it happens on a trip. However, this is a highly unlikely occurrence.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Puerto Maldonado itself is cheap for food, and souvenirs cost less than the likes of Cusco and other big cities on the Gringo Trail (a great reason to get off it). Accommodation depends on your tastes; there are many options to suit your needs.
Jungle tours and lodges aren’t cheap by Peruvian standards. A three-day, two-night stay starts at around 250USD. Transport, accommodation, all meals, and activities are included in that price. The only thing you have to pay extra for is drinks and tips.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Not only is it dangerous to enter the Tambopata reserve without a guide, but it’s also illegal. Don’t do this; instead, travel with a certified guide. When choosing an agency, make sure you use one which pays guides a responsible wage. Most tour operators in Puerto Maldonado practice ethical and responsible travel, so that’s a good start.
When you’re in the jungle, keep a safe and respectful distance from the animals. Although monkeys and parrots especially may seem friendly, they’re certainly not pets. Touching animals not only puts you in danger, but it also stresses them out and means they’re more likely to react unpredictably.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Going into the jungle does not guarantee that you’ll see animals. Parrots and monkeys are widespread sightings, but seeing bigger mammals like tapirs and jaguars depends on a lot of factors. If you don’t see them, don’t be disappointed, and please don’t use this against your guide/lodge or post negative reviews on Trip Advisor.
http://www.gotambopata.com – the official website for the vast Tambopata reserve, which is what Puerto Maldonado is the gateway to.
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