Peru has some of the best tracts of the Amazon in the world, and no better way to explore than by boat. Traveling around the Amazon by plane, you see precious little of its wondrous wildlife, and road access is a real challenge. To really experience Peru’s wild jungle, you need to take to its rivers and waterways.

Highlights

  • Pamper yourself with a spa treatment while cruising the world's mightiest river
  • Tour Peru’s largest national park, Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samiria, at Lagunas
  • Spot animals like pink river dolphins and Amazon manatees
  • Experience three dramatically different ecosystems merge together
  • Gawk at hundreds of colorful macaws at Río Alto Tambopata's clay lick
  • Journey from Andean peaks to cloud forest to jungle to embark on a river voyage into magical Parque Nacional Manu

Overview

Peru’s rivers yield unparalleled animal and bird sightings and get you up close to what the jungle is really like for the people who live there. But such trips are no afternoon jaunts — taking a river cruise in the Amazon is generally about the adventure and experience, as opposed to comfort and luxury. They are often day-long or multi-day epics, encompassing white water thrills or old cargo boats crowded with animals and locals alike. If you're looking for luxury cruises, these can mainly only be found from Iquitos to Pacaya Samaria.

In the below river cruises, you'll access the rivers by road or plane, where transport can be arranged by your local tour operator. Overnight accommodation is almost always on board the boat, except in the case of the kayaking trip, where you'll be camping on the river bank. Common start and end points on river trips — such as Iquitos, Pucallpa and Puerto Maldonado — all have regular flights connections to Cusco and Lima.

Ríos Huallaga and Marañon (4 days) 

Marañon River, Peru
Marañon River, Peru
Fast facts
Duration 4 days (one-way, including Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria (2 days))
Transport Motorised boat & cargo ship
Start/End Yurimaguas/Iquitos
Sleeping Onboard
Budget Budget

Yurimaguas-Lagunas-Iquitos on the Ríos Huallaga and Marañon. From Yurimaguas, a quirky, dusty town in the northern Amazon, you can launch off on a two-day journey downriver to Iquitos, breaking the journey at Lagunas.

Cruising for two days through the stunning nothingness of the northern jungle to finish in the metropolis of Iquitos would be an unbelievable experience in itself, but this odyssey offers another big temptation, doable via a side-trip from Lagunas: the Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria, the largest protected portion of Peru’s Amazon rainforest. With a couple of days to play with, there's great wildlife watching in the inner reaches of this reserve. This includes the pink river dolphin, the Amazon manatee, the giant river turtle, and the caiman.

The river trip is almost always done downriver, from Yurimaguas. Lagunas, at the halfway point, has accommodation. Motorized passenger boats run from Yurimaguas to Lagunas and Lagunas to Iquitos, but to visit the reserve you must disembark at Lagunas to sign up to a tourist excursion. 

Ríos Marañon and Ucayali (5 days)

Luxury cruise ships sailing out of Iquitos
Luxury cruise ships sailing out of Iquitos
Fast facts
Duration 4 days
Transport Cruise ship
Start/End Iquitos/Iquitos
Sleeping Onboard
Budget Luxury

Iquitos-Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samiria This is the top-end way to visit the Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samiria, one of the biggest protected areas of Amazon jungle remaining. The largest of these luxury boats may not be able to get into the really wildlife-rich tributaries, but sightings are still good and conditions aboard ship are first-class. The boats with the best reputation are those run by Delfin Amazon Cruises and Aqua Expeditions. One vessel even has a spa, a gym and a pool on the top deck. Once in the reserve, the same animals as those mentioned above can be spotted.

The cruise starts and ends in Iquitos, and whilst shorter cruise options are available, you must opt for the 5-day cruise to be able to visit the reserve.

Río Alto Madre de Dios (5-7 days)

Manu River after the storm, Manu National Park
Rainbow over Manu River, Manu National Park
Fast facts
Duration 5-7 days (return)
Transport Motorised canoe
Start/End Atalaya/Atalaya or Puerto Maldonado
Sleeping Onboard

Atalaya-Boca Manu-Parque Nacional Manu on the Río Alto Madre de Dios. Parque Nacional Manu is surely Peru’s premier Amazonian wilderness. The words alone conjure up images of indigenous tribes and extremely rare wildlife like jaguars. And on this river trip, you stand every chance of sighting both. The park is, however, rigorously protected, and no regular passenger boats ply this stretch of the Río Alto Madre de Dios. This makes the journey here expensive, as you need to sign up for a complete tour and stay at lodges along the way.

Tours begin in Cusco and usher you down through the stark mountains into lush cloud forest and then, just before Atalaya, jungle. The contrasts between these three topographical zones are startling and sublime. The adventure then continues with almost a day’s journey down to Boca Manu near the park entrance, and a few hours further into the heart of the reserve. Here you can glimpse giant river otters, peccaries, pink river dolphins and capybaras as headline acts in a star-studded show of fauna.

Returning the long way upriver to Atalaya and then Cuzco, the trip requires a week, but those prepared to go on downstream to a pick-up point close to Puerto Maldonado can complete the trip in five days.

Pucallpa-Iquitos on the Río Ucayali (3-5 days)

Floating the river in Peru
Explore the local rivers of Peru
Fast facts
Duration 3-5 days (one way)
Transport Cargo boat
Start/End Pucallpa/Iquitos
Sleeping Onboard
Budget Budget

Pucallpa is a sizeable but gritty Amazon frontier settlement, with none of the tourist polish of Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado, Peru’s other big river port cities. Pucallpa sits at the end of a long, winding road down from the Central Andes with only the Río Ucayali beyond. Before you embark on this three- to five-day odyssey, the oxbow lake of Yarinacocha a few kilometers outside Pucallpa is worth a look: its indigenous communities sell high-quality handicrafts.

This river trip ranks as one of Peru’s toughest, due to the length and the basic conditions aboard ship, but these things make it an adventure in the true sense of the word. Should you be able to speak Spanish and choose to stop off along the way, this is also one of the most authentic and culturally fascinating rivers in the country, because other passengers are just locals going about their business. And at the rarely visited towns en route like Requena or Orellana you can gain a real feel for the indigenous Amazonian culture.

The trip is almost always done downriver to Iquitos: allow a week doing the journey in reverse.

Amazon River (2 days)

Port of Iquitos
Port of Iquitos
Fast facts
Duration 2 days (Iquitos-Leticia return)
Transport High-speed water taxi or cargo boat
Start/End Iquitos (Puerto Embarcadero or Puerto Masusa ports)
End Leticia (Colombia) or Tabatinga (Brazil)
Budget Budget

Iquitos to the Tri-border on the Río Amazonas. Rivers have a habit of forming international borders in Peru. This ten-hour trip rushes you down the Amazon River itself through three frontiers: Peru’s, Colombia’s and Brazil’s.

The sheer scale of the Amazon’s namesake waterway is jaw-dropping, and the journey is as interesting for observing the human life along the way as for the wildlife. There are points when the river is so wide you can barely make out the opposing bank and the variety of colorful craft on the much-plied route provides plenty of diversions: creaking canoes, spluttering cargo vessels, and glamorous cruise ships.

Then there is the hustle and bustle of some of the liveliest ports in the jungle to enjoy: Iquitos, the embarkation point, Pevas, an 18th-century backwater about halfway along and the more modern Leticia on the Colombian side at the finish. Here, you can return to Iquitos (against the current, so it takes longer) or board a boat to continue downstream towards Manaus in Brazil (and, beyond, the Atlantic Ocean).

With high-speed water taxi, the journey is doable in half a day (one-way) or two days (return): cargo boats take up to a day longer overall but offer an infinitely more vibrant experience as most locals travel this way.

Río Alto Tambopata (10-12 days)

Tambopata River at sunrise in the Peruvian Amazon
A quiet morning on the Tambopata River in the Peruvian Amazon
Fast facts
Duration 10-12 days (one-way)
Transport Kayak
Start/End Putina Punco (with transfer from Lima, Cuzco or Puno)
End Puerto Maldonado (with optional transfer to Lima or Cuzco)

Putina Punco-Puerto Maldonado on the Río Alto Tambopata. Most travelers experience the wildlife-rich Río Tambopata via a relatively sedate motorized upriver trip from Puerto Maldonado. This high-adrenalin kayak ride, running with the current from far further upriver, was invented to satisfy those who desired something more daring.

From the put-in point on the cusp of where cloud forest and jungle converge, this white water romp has you paddling at least eight days down a rarely traversed section of the waterway, camping bankside overnight. Wildlife viewing chances are very high. There are several areas of rapids on the waterway, and you wind up on day ten at the world’s most spectacular macaw lick: a clay bank often festooned with the macaws who feed there daily.

From here, motorized transport delivers you to Puerto Maldonado, where you will normally spend the night before being flown back to Lima or Cuzco.

River Trip Checklist

  • Sufficient bottled water and food
  • Insect repellent
  • Hammock for overnight adventures
  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Books (there will be no phone reception)