It has been one of my lifelong dreams to visit Bucket List item #1 Machu Picchu, and when I started to plan my trip, I read my eyes crossed in Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, and scouring the very best pre-made Peru itineraries from National Geographic Expeditions, Audley, and so many others to design my own trip. I discovered that a lot of people choose to visit either the Amazon River from Iquitos or the Amazon Jungle from Puerto Maldonado, which is much closer to Cuzco, where most people start their Inca Trail or Machu Picchu experience.
There are a lot of advantages and amazing things to see and experience in both locations, but it was the day I discovered presence of the rare and wonderful Amazon River Pink Dolphin or “boto” that I made up my mind it had to be the Amazon River for me. The Amazon River Dolphin is the largest species of river dolphin in the world, and they actually get pinker when they are excited! Is that not the cutest thing you’ve ever heard? And imagine my amazement when I found that most all of the good River lodges arrange excursions for you to swim in the Amazon right alongside these magical creatures.
Having decided to make the additional trek to Iquitos versus the closer Puerto Maldonado, I debated a long time between Muyuna Amazon Lodge and Treehouse Lodge, both of which are several hours upriver by speedboat. I am a true believer that the journey is just as exciting (and memorable!) as the destination, and that is certainly true in reaching Iquitos, the largest city on Earth not connected to any other city by road–it can only be reached by boat or plane. We chose to endure an excruciatingly long series of flights from Honolulu to San Francisco to Panama City to Lima and finally on to Iquitos with only short to moderate layovers in between. Silver lining of this odyssey was that I got FIRST CLASS tickets through Copa (United’s South American counterpart) for less than I could get premium economy on any other combination of airlines. It was my first time flying first class, and I have to say I enjoyed the real food, real seats, and every last drop of that free champagne!
Iquitos itself is such a worthy destination! Everything is shockingly cheap and they are well in tune with making a very comfortable experience including all transportation (whatever you do, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DRIVE in Iquitos!!!) I would without hesitation recommend Hotel Casa Morey in Iquitos, where we stayed both the night before and the night after our River trek.
For $80 you stay in these HUGE, beautifully preserved 1913 home of one of the great South American Rubber Barons of the early 20th century. The twenty foot ceilings and windows, beautiful tile details, historical paintings and maps, sunset views over the Amazon River, and on demand air conditioning all vie for top amenity. An insider tip: the included breakfast at the hotel is amazing in the most unexpected ways: the BEST watermelon I have ever tasted, and the strongest, darkest, and smoothest Peruvian coffee you will ever find.
Muyuna Lodge takes care of your every need from arranging transport from your hotel, through all the forms of transportation it takes to get to the tiny Amazonian tributary, the Yanayuca River. The Amazon River is basically the autobahn of central South America, and every varying size of tributary is a freeway, road, lane, or trail that connects communities and resources. The Yanayuca is like a country lane, lined sparsely and intermittently with tiny groups of homes, plenty of well-managed farm land, and surprisingly, many satellite dishes provided by the government to promote education and communication with these tiny communities.
I chose the 5 day/4 night trip option, in spite of many TripAdvisor reviews stating that 3d/2n was enough. I made this decision because I know that with the length of my Bucket List, it is unlikely I will ever be able to return to this part of the Amazon River, and I really wanted to experience as many of the excursions as possible, including the rarely selected outdoor camping option, which takes you 3 hours farther up the Yanayuca River than even the remote lodge–it is true isolation and jungle immersion. In the end, I was so absorbed in the activities offered each day, I would have been more than happy to stay even longer, if I could have afforded the time in my itinerary budget.
The trek to Muyuna begins with a 2.5 hour speed boat ride up the Amazon, to the mouth of the Yanayuca. The sheer size and volume of the Amazon River itself is amazing to experience and practically indescribable. Once the boat reaches the Yanayuca, you must transfer to a smaller, shallower boat to go up the tributary. Finally, you reach the pretty little dock at the lodge, with all of the small, thatched roof bungalows overlooking the river and sunning platform.
On the first day we were offered out itinerary based on the excursions we had agreed upon before the trip. Day 1 for us included the Piranha Fishing trip (at which I failed completely, but had a blast), then a wildlife viewing hike after dinner in the dark. You wouldn’t believe the number of tarantulas a guide can spot at twenty paces that I would never have seen… Happier encounters included a sloth, a chameleon, leaf cutter ants, and some jungle frogs and toads.
On Day 2 we were treated to our headliner: Swimming with the Amazon River Pink Dolphins!! We took the small boat back down the Yanayuca and across the Amazon to a small inlet where the pink dolphins like to play. The guides and boat drivers know the individual dolphins and call out to them, make jokes to them, and slap the water to get them excited (which makes them pinker!). Once you’ve had plenty of viewing and picture taking time, they hand out pool noodles which they un-ironically refer to as “spaghettis” which made me giggle every time. We all took turns jumping and diving off of the boat deck and OOHing and AAHing as we watched and felt the dolphins swim around us. It was absolutely one of the highlights of my entire life so far, and we became instant friends with the other travelers swimming along with us just from having shared such an unbelievable experience.
After an hour or so with the dolphins, it’s time to head back for lunch, then on to our wildlife viewing boat tour along various veins of the Yanayuca. We were treated to encounters with countless types of monkeys, a pair of huge iguanas, herons, egrets, toucans, and cormorants. That evening we enjoyed a silent, moonlit shallow canoe ride listening to the sounds of the jungle.
Day 3, we did quite a long hike in the jungle to see many more species of wildlife and plants. We saw tree rats, several more types of monkeys including pygmies and howlers and the very rarely seen Night Monkey, Kapok trees, a medicinal Red Bark tree, giant parrots, the Queen Victoria Lily, the world’s largest lily pad which grows up to 8-9 feet across, and finally the prehistoric Hoatzin bird. There is just an incredible array and density of life in the jungle.
After lunch, we visited the tiny River village of San Juan, chatted with the locals about the history of the tiny town (and when I say tiny, I mean about 10 houses and one catch all store/town hall/doctor/shaman/post office where our lead guide stopped for Coca Cola every time we passed by on the river). We bought some of the locally made souvenirs to bring home with us, and spent some time just looking around. That evening we were treated to a slow, lazy sunset over the Amazon River and Jungle from our canoe.
After dinner, we participated in one of the other excursions I was most looking forward to, cayman “hunting”! We did not hunt cayman to kill them, but actually even better, to catch and handle juvenile ones inside our boat! Cayman are fairly easy to spot at night because their eyes sit just above the water and are hugely reflective in any light. Our boat pulled up near one, the guide reached in, plucked one out and began asking if anyone would like to hold it. Heart absolutely pounding, I shot my hand up in the air, much to the horror of the nice, older lady next to me–NO WAY I was missing out on this, despite my fear of somehow being irreparably maimed. The cayman was surprisingly soft and heavy to the touch, and I suddenly sadly understood why someone would kill them for their skin. We held it there in the boat for a few minutes, then let it go back about it’s business in the river.
Finally, Day 4: Camping Day. Our guides mentioned several times that it is very uncommon for people to request a camping day, they said probably because most people are afraid of sleeping out in the jungle. Not this girl! We took a small, motored canoe several hours farther upstream, more or less to the headwaters of the Yanayuca. On the trip, our guide used a spear to hunt for our fish dinner from the bow of the moving boat. It was incredible to watch. I could not identify any sign of fish at any time that he threw the spear, but with a few missed attempts, he came up with 4 different fish for the 4 of us to have for dinner (my partner and I, Moises our guide, and our boat driver, Francisco).
We spent the evening exploring the small river island and watching the guides cooking our feast of a dinner over an open fire. We ate together by citronella candle light and when we offered to share the Cusquena beers we brought along, the guides really opened up and talked with us about their experiences in the Amazon. Our lead guide throughout our stay was Moises who has been guiding in and on the Amazon for 45 years and knows the name of every species in the River and Jungle in Spanish, English, and Latin, and has guided for National Geographic, BBC, and so many others.
We spent a fairly uncomfortable night in good sized tents, but on thin foam pads–we are used to our 3″ Nemo Tensor air pads, and 1/3″ yoga mat just didn’t do it for our spoiled backs and hips. Our guides, meanwhile, fell asleep on the wooden platform the moment they laid down their heads on it. The next morning we watched the sun rise over the River, and then Moises took us on a trail-less hike through the surrounding area, breaking off branches at 90 degree angles as trail markers as we went. We saw several MORE varieties of monkeys including the beautiful Dusky Titi, the White Capuchin, several more unbelievable Kapok trees, the rare Lady Orchid, and the most exciting, the Collared Anteater hanging upside down in the canopy!
We spent the middle of the day working our way back to the Lodge in our canoe, saw lots more wildlife including a huge black boa constrictor, then collected our things and got on the shallow boat to go to the speed boat out on the Amazon proper. Moises insisted on helping us complete our included Animal Checklist to mark off all of the dozens and dozens of species we encountered on our personal trip so that we could keep that as a souvenir and to share with our friends. We spent the afternoon on the speedboat back to Iquitos, and were happy to collapse back into our suite at La Casa Morey.
The next day we hopped the two hour LATAM flight direct from Iquitos to Cuzco (at the time of writing, this flight is ONLY available Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, so the rest of the trip dates basically had to be planned around this). Cuzco, the Sacred Valley, the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu, Lima, and Panama City, Panama made up the middle and second half of this epic journey, but those are stories for another day. I hope you’ll come back and read about my #1 Machu Picchu another time, and that this post inspires you to take the risk, seize the day, and take that trip you’ve always dreamed about!