No trip to Peru is complete without a trip to the Amazon. But with so much space and multiple ports to enter through, it’s hard to know the difference between which Amazonian destination will suit your needs best. Aren’t they all the same? Not exactly. When choosing which Peruvian Amazon destination to visit, consider the insights below to make sure you do get the experience you’re hoping for.
In Peru, the two biggest Amazonian cities (and points of entry) are Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado. Both can be accessed by plane or boat, and Puerto Maldonado is accessible by car. Usually, travelers will make their way to one of the cities, then enter the Amazon where they will spend the duration of the trip. Here we’ve laid out the differences between these two most popular gateways into the Peruvian Amazon: Iquitos vs Puerto Maldonado.
One plus to visiting Puerto Maldonado over Iquitos is its proximity to the tourist hotspots of Cusco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, although bear in mind a flight is still required to get to either Amazonian destination. That said if you are only going to the Amazon once in your life, you’ll want to do it right even if there is a little more travel time associated with one option over another.
Apart from the logistics of getting there, there are two main considerations. Firstly, how do Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado differ as cities (and destinations), and secondly, how they differ as a means of entering the Amazon.
Iquitos is the largest city in the Amazon, and only accessible by plane or boat. Sitting on the intersection of the Amazon and Itaya River, Iquitos has quite a bit to offer within itself.
As the largest destination in the Amazon, the city offers a unique look at “city life” within the midst of the rainforest. Wander through wild markets selling exotic fruits, deadly catches, and herbal drinks claimed to deliver all sorts of effects. Dine at innovative restaurants in old colonial buildings that sit on the water’s edge, where the man-made jungle meets the untamable natural one.
Visit the Manatee Rescue Center, and see and learn about the different species before you encounter them firsthand in the wild. In its Belen district, see the rustic stilt houses lining the Itaya River. Wander through the European-inspired buildings around the main square, and take a tour that can teach you about the city’s history.
For a couple of days before setting off onto the Amazon River, Iquitos offers visitors an introduction to life in the jungle, with a culture unlike any other city in the world.
Puerto Maldonado is smaller than Iquitos, but another great city in the Amazon for bringing travelers to where the city meets jungle. Unfortunately, the city itself doesn’t have many tourist attractions, and its connection to the rest of the country by road has had a visible impact on it: mining has steadily increased.
The city is much more of a setting-off point than the destination, although visitors sticking around for a couple of days can visit the rescue snake house or Obelisk lookout tower for a view out onto the jungle. You’ll see some markets selling vintage goods that are worth a look but expect prices to be higher than elsewhere in Peru.
Since most tourists visit either destination solely to enter the Amazon, let’s discuss the difference between the jungle surrounding both Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado, and which will let you see the best of the Amazon.
It’s important to note that Iquitos tours offer both Amazon River cruises and jungle lodges, whereas Puerto Maldonado only offers jungle lodges. In this way, heading to Iquitos gives travelers a wider choice of tour options and the ability to easily combine an Amazon river cruise and lodge stay so you don’t have to decide between the two. Traveling along the river by rainforest cruise is a great way to explore more of the Amazon as you get to sleep in different parts of the rainforest each night while you navigate. Iquitos is also home to a unique property in the Treehouse Lodge, allowing guests the chance to sleep in the rainforest canopy itself.
Iquitos has several protected natural areas on its doorstep, such as the vast Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve and smaller Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve. The reserves are home to hundreds of unique species of flora and fauna including the Amazon pink river dolphin which cannot be seen further upriver or in Puerto Maldonado.
In contrast, due to its relatively isolated location on the Madre de Dios and Tambopata rivers (tributaries of the Amazon), Puerto Maldonado doesn’t have the river cruise options, history, infrastructure or attractions that Iquitos has, but it does have some of the best lodges in all of Amazonia offering exploration of some of the most pristine primary rainforest in the world.
Most travelers visiting Puerto Maldonado are there for the things to do outside of the city, and often make a beeline for the Tambopata National Reserve, home to rare wildlife like spider monkeys, tapir and jaguar, and many lodges for varying budgets. Tours tend to focus on its two main attractions: Lake Sandoval – a majestic oxbow lake home to endangered giant river otters – and the Chuncho Macaw Clay Lick – the largest parrot clay lick in the world.
Another option a little farther from Puerto Maldonado is the remote Manu National Park, which offers more adventurous travelers the chance to stay in more expensive lodges deep into the largest protected natural area in Peru, home to many rare and endangered species, and several indigenous groups.
Perhaps the only downside to visiting Puerto Maldonado is the presence of some illegal mining and logging activity which may be unsettling for visitors.
Ultimately the answer to whether Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado is better comes down to personal preference and the type of amazon rainforest activity you wish to participate in. If you want to take an Amazon river cruise and see pink dolphins, and witness some rubber boom era history then head to Iquitos. If you prefer more land-based activities with a slightly better chance of seeing larger mammals, or are short on time and visiting Cusco and surrounds anyway, then Puerto Maldonado is a great option. If you can’t decide, you could always get some expert advice from our Amazon destination specialists to help you make your choice, or even visit both!
While Rainforest Cruises aim to provide accurate and up-to-date information, we make no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information herein or found by following any link on this site. Rainforest Cruises cannot and will not accept responsibility for any omissions or inaccuracies, or for any consequences arising therefrom, including any losses, injuries, or damages resulting from the display or use of this information.