The Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, famous for its biodiversity. Although the Amazon is often associated to Brazil, it stretches also to many other countries; Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. In fact, 60% of Peru is covered by the amazon rainforest. The Amazon river in Peru starts near the remote town of Iquitos, but the jungle area can already be visited at the more accessible Tarapoto. That is where we spent 3 days and 2 nights, wild camping in the wilderness of the jungle; amidst colourful birds, monkeys, mosquitoes (especially them) and a gallimaufry of vegetation. The Amazon in Peru is a wonder of the nature that is definitely worth exploring!
While we volunteered in Tarapoto, we kept on hearing so much about the Amazon rainforest, that locals call “la selva”.
It’s just there, so near, right outside of town, basically at the end of a street. Of course it’s part of the people’s life here; the reason they breathe, the reason for the regular rainfalls, the reason a boa constrictor was found on the street. It can be also their source of income, either through tourism or deforestation for agriculture.
At the end of our stay we decided to go on a hiking-camping trip in Alto Shilcayo and experience the richness of the rain forest. This area is part of a bigger conservation area, called Cordillera Escalera.
Amazon rainforest climate
The Spanish word “selva” can be understood as “the wilderness” as well as “the forest”. And that’s exactly how I imagined it; wild, dense vegetation where the sun can hardly shine through, tropical climate, humid air, sweating hot temperature, difficult terrain.
The rain forest climate is tropical all year round, but not so unbearably hot as I expected. It was humid, especially in the evening, so wet clothes dried only during the day when it was sunny. There were a lot of mosquitoes – that’s definitely the wildlife we saw the most! It would have been unbearable without insect repellent and it sometimes was even with it.
Tarapoto’s piece of Amazon rainforest in Peru
Tarapoto is not a very popular tourist destination. The jungle fame is taken by Iquitos, a town in the northern corner of Peru which is accessible only with boat or plane. So we met absolutely no one during our 3 days in the jungle.
I find it amazing that we swam in beautiful waterfalls completely alone. It certainly contributed to the feeling of being so close to nature there.
I really enjoyed being alone with Anthony in this magical environment. Even the idea of “wild camping in the jungle” has a good ring to it, doesn’t it? I’m considering adding it to my CV. So to those who’d like to feel the remoteness, we heartily recommend this place.
If you’re interested in Iquitos, read Kali’s amazing account of their stay in an Amazon lodge.
Hiking & camping in the Amazon rainforest, Peru
From the town centre, we just had to walk an hour to the park entrance. That’s where the real work started. We hiked through dense vegetation on a narrow path that seemed to lead nowhere until we arrived to the river.
“You will have to cross the river like a hundred times.” – we remembered the words of our hostel’s friend.
Sometimes the path on the other side of the river continued 50 m downstream, it was impossible to see it. We found it after going up and down, balancing on the rocks of the riverbed and on the ledge of the steep rock overlooking the river. All this while carrying a tent and food for 3 days!
Because it’s so difficult to find the right way, this route is usually hiked with a guide. Finally, after 4 hours hiking uphill and downhill; having lost our way thrice and crossed the river about 15 times; with wet tent and backpack because they fell into the river during one of the manoeuvres; we arrived to the refuge tired, sweaty but utterly happy to feel the jungle literally vibrating all around us.
The refuge? That’s the proper word for it! The “accommodation” is basically a piece of ramshackle roof on a 2-story weather-beaten wooden building. We were advised to sleep on the upper floor in case a snake would sneak in. Our bedroom is our tent, our bathroom is the nature and the cold river.
Different setting, same hotel: Our wild camping adventure in Patagonia
Places to visit in Alto Shilcayo
We hiked to 2 nearby waterfalls; the smaller (but prettier) Cascada Vestido de la Novia (the “girlfriend’s dress” fall) and the taller Cascada El Tamushal.
The plunging streams of water were framed with dense, green vegetation – a true jungle atmosphere! It was an amazing experience to swim in these waterfalls completely alone, as no visitors came while we were there. The water wasn’t as cold as I expected: with constant moving I could keep myself warm. After the dip, I dried myself sunbathing on the stones circling the waterfall pool.
In the north of Alto Shilcayo there’s a “community” whose name I’m forgetting now – it’s not on any map. We expected a native indigenous community living secluded from civilisation in the deepest part of the jungle. “Indians” running around naked, with no smartphone and no Facebook – that kind of image.
But to our disappointment, it’s a resort in the jungle for groups of foreigners on a 15-day ayahuasca retreat. They pay a high price to take a plant-made hallucinogenic brew with a shaman. Don’t get me wrong: we have nothing against that, even considered doing it ourselves. But where was our community..?
At that time there were only a few Peruvian workers preparing the site for groups arriving a few days later. The community leader and his wife were really friendly; they invited us for a soup and chicha, the typical homemade corn drink of the Andean people.
Mirador Natural viewpoint
One of the most spectacular places we visited was a rock lookout in the middle of the jungle, called Mirador Natural. It’s a famous site in the area, the one on the header image of this article. Definitely a must-see: sitting on the rock we could see only thick rain forest canopy until the eyes could see!
The hike there was all uphill from our camping site, a solid 1.5 hours of climbing.
From the lookout we tried to reach another waterfall (Cascada Vinoyacu) at the western part of the area. But the way led among sharp grassy vegetation and without marked way / wikiloc route we estimated the path shorter than what it turned out to be. So in the end, tired from our 2 camping nights and our walk, we gave up and turned back.
Rainforest animals and plants
Our 3 days passed beautifully, in complete tranquillity and peace of mind, except for the odd noise at night. We watched big, colourful butterflies flying all around; little frogs sleeping on the river rocks; hummingbirds looking for food on trees.
Of the 2.5 million species of insects, we saw quite a few (and felt especially mosquitoes!); including huge spiders hanging around on trees in their extensive cobweb. We met only 2 small snakes but they were very cute.
We knew there were monkeys around and heard one from time to time, or so we think. Several people warned us against them, as they can become aggressive if they smell food (our protein bars, not us).
The dense jungle vegetation fascinated me: the tall tropical trees with fruit-like coffee beans; flowers looking as if they were made of clay; and the crawling plants that cover the soil and the tree trunks. You can literally see life constantly moving here; but so slow, it slowed me down too.
Peace of the jungle
You think that by escaping to nature, you’ll find stillness and silence, being out of the city’s constant traffic noise? Well, think again. In the Cordillera Escalera rainforest, there’s the continual murmuring sound of the river and of the different insects signalling life. But this sound is rather soothing and the whole environment made me feel so close to nature.
In the evening we watched the night fall upon us (having forgotten to bring candles); and the sudden flashing lights of the myriad fireflies. So close to the Equator, darkness came early, at around 6 pm. But we had no problem falling asleep in an almost complete darkness that was broken only by the many stars.
Amazon in Peru: deforestation
Alto Shilcayo at Tarapoto is part of the Cordillera Escalera Conservation Area. It’s original rainforest, that is endangered by illegal deforestation. Deforestation is a very serious issue in the countries of the Amazon like Peru and Brazil.
As we learnt from the park rangers at the entrance, the main concern in this area is that people illegally take parcels of land to make farms (called “chacras“). They just burn down a whole area to turn the land into pastures or arable soil. It’s what caused the violent fires that outraged the world in 2019; but the problem isn’t new and has existed for decades throughout South America.
However, at Alto Shilcayo the conserved area has been restored and is now well protected by park rangers. The guides used to be the owners of those “chacras”, who were given a new source of income through tourism.
It’s nice to hear that the authorities don’t only take back the land; they also make sure that those affected don’t remain without a living, by training them as guides. It’s a wonderful effort in making a long-lasting and sustainable change.
In Alto Shilcayo rain forest, we didn’t see any jungle animals bigger than insects, frogs, snakes or the occasional hummingbirds. No monkeys or parrots, even though we knew there were; someone takes on the hard task of running a refuge centre in the middle of the jungle. Of course without forest, these animals would have no home.
There’s very good and extensive information on rain forest deforestation on the Mongabay website.
Jungle tour at Alto Shilcayo
This hike is usually done with a guide, which we do recommend for a number of reasons:
- Avoid getting lost; or even worse, getting injured on a path that isn’t meant to be one and turns out to be dangerous
- Get first-hand information on the flora and fauna of the rain forest – it’s an amazing and very interesting environment
- Support the community by paying a local guide
We recommend booking tours that are led directly by the Alto Shilcayo park rangers. They lead eco-sustainable tours which are safe and give an authentic jungle experience.
These tours can be booked on the To Do Peru website, that is owned by the non-profit association where we volunteered in Tarapoto.
Read about how to make your travels more sustainable
Alto Shilcayo self-guided: deep in the Amazon in Peru
The more adventurous out there can use Wikiloc’s hike route to Cascade El Tamushal and the map at the park entrance (take a pic of it!). We stayed overnight at the refuge marked with a house (without a name) on the map, right below Cascada Vestido de la Novia. The park rangers can give advice upon entering the park.
As I said, prepare to cross the river many times on foot and look for paths that are hardly visible on the other side!
The entrance to the park costs 10 soles/person and 10 soles per tent to stay overnight, as many nights as you want (so in our case we paid 30 soles altogether).
Tips for a jungle adventure
- Bring insect repellent, because there are gazillions of mosquitoes!
- Bring sunscreen in case you find yourself sunbathing on a stone at a waterfall; most of the time, you won’t see the sun much
- Wear trekking sandals if you can, so you can leave them on when crossing the river so many times. Otherwise prepare to take on and off your shoes (as Anthony did) or get them wet (as Anthony did too).
- It’s humid in the jungle so wet stuff will not dry fast.
- Don’t bring food that would go off even medium easily. We brought cooked carrots and green beans and had to throw them out a day later! Better to take fruits or bars.
- Water purifier comes very handy – otherwise bring enough water for your whole stay. Water from the streams are not potable, no matter how clean it seems!
- Bring candles or matches to make a fire – unless you want to enjoy darkness at 6 pm. Make fire only at the designated area near the refuge!
- Have plastic bags to collect and carry your rubbish out of the park. Please don’t litter…
Map of the Cordillera Escalera and Alto Shilcayo
The below map, that we used for navigation, shows places of interest in the Cordillera Escalera and Alto Shilcayo. You can take a picture of it at the entrance.
Entrance to the park: 10 soles
Overnight stay in your own tent: 10 soles regardless of how many nights you are staying
Would you go on a trip to the Amazon rainforest in Peru? What is the most interesting for you there? Let us know in the comments below!
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