Pacaya Samiria National Reserve: Amazing 7 Days Camping Adventure in the Amazon
Guide to Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. Read more about how to visit Amazon in Peru and how to travel there from Iquitos. We share useful tips and advice on how to enjoy one week in Peruvian Amazon. Take a trip to the jungle of mirrors with us.
Sweat was pouring down our faces almost constantly for seven days and six nights. No wonder when the outside temperature was hitting 30°C every day, and we were wearing long-sleeved t-shirts and long trousers to protect ourselves from obtrusive mosquitos and other insects, sticker plants and other things we didn't even want to think about.
But when we arrived back to Iquitos, after a week without a proper shower, after a week sleeping in a tent, when we cleaned our clothes from the last stains of mud, took a shower and I removed a tropical tick out of my leg, we agreed that seven days camping in Pacaya Samiria National Reserve in Peru was one of the best things we've ever done.
The Amazon Rainforest or the Amazon Jungle is an area in South America which covers about 7,000,000 square kilometers, and rainforest grows in most of the Amazon basin. As you can see, the size doesn't help in making a decision which part of the Amazon to visit and how. Although the majority of the rainforest is within Brazil, we decided to travel to the jungle in Peru which is with 13% of rainforest on the second place and is also among one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet.
If you think of Peru only as about a country of beautiful blue lakes, towering peaks, mysterious Nazca lines, deep canyons, and ruins, you might be surprised, that the Amazon region comprises 60% of the country, even though for many it is still not a reason to visit the area while in Peru. And because Amazon River has its source in Peru, in the mountains near the famous Colca Canyon, it is another reason why to travel here.
PACAYA SAMIRIA NATIONAL RESERVE
One of the largest protected areas in Peru in the Loreto region caught our attention right after we started planning our Peruvian itinerary. It seemed untouched, not that heavily visited, we couldn't find informative articles on other travel blogs and we knew in an instant that it is the place where we want to experience the Amazon. It is also home to many animal species and a large number of plants (very often medicinal) which we were hoping to see. Very soon we learned that this experience would be completely different from the one we've had on the Galapagos Islands, where it seemed that animals are waiting for us to take a perfect shot. But more about it later. Pacaya Samiria is also nicknamed jungle of the mirrors thanks to the beautiful reflections of trees on the water surface, and we can confirm it did not get this name by mistake.
There are a few ways how to visit Pacaya Samiria, but one thing is for everyone the same. No one can (legally) enter the reserve without a guide. When choosing a travel company or a guide, make sure they have a license to operate within the area as only several companies can enter the reserve.
The best way how to find out is to visit an official visitor center in Iquitos where they have a list with all companies who have permission to access Pacaya Samiria. We've read a few reviews when guides took clients only around reserve's borders but did not enter it. There is an official checkpoint Santo Domingo about 3 hours by boat from Nauta, where you will get off the vessel, the guide should pay here your entrance fee, and you must sign in by writing down your name and details into the book.
WHAT IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT PACAYA SAMIRIA NATIONAL RESERVE
There are generally two seasons in the Amazonas - dry and rainy. In Peru, the dry season is from May to October while the rainy season begins in November and ends in late April. Of course, it won't start raining exactly on November 1st, but there is a higher chance to get wet, especially during the afternoons. Because of the heavier rains for six months, the water is culminating, and the highest level of water in the river is in May. We visited Pacaya Samiria at the end of the dry season, in late October, and we still could see marks on trees how high was the water last year - more than 3 or 4 meters higher than when we visited the area! Probably the best time to visit the region, when the water level is reasonable, and you have a high chance to see wildlife is in July and August.
Although every season has its advantages and disadvantages, you should make sure you know what to expect and what you want to see in the jungle the most during each season. When the water level is high, hiking is limited to smaller areas (you will spend more time on the boat or canoe which was one of our most favorite activities by the way), it can be a bit harder to find some species of animals, but you will be closer to birds and monkeys hiding on treetops. The biggest downside of traveling in the wet season are omnipresent mosquitos.
It can happen in the dry season that all waterways won't be navigable (we recommend to hire a smaller boat to increase your chances for passing), but there are fewer mosquitos, better fishing, and hiking opportunities. Temperatures in both seasons don't differ much it's hot and humid throughout the year.
WAYS HOW TO VISIT PACAYA SAMIRIA NATIONAL RESERVE
There are several ways how to visit Pacaya Samiria Reserve. You can spend here anything from one day to several months it only depends on how your time is limited!
We wouldn't bother coming only for one day unless you want to tick off another destination from your list. Even though three days might sound like a reasonable amount of time, don't forget that you won't do much the first and the last day because you will travel to and from the reserve. From our experience, anything between five to seven days should give you an idea about Amazon and also guarantee you plenty of chances to spot wildlife.
To spend your time in Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, you must take a tour which includes either camping or sleeping in the villages within its boundaries. You can also opt for staying in a private lodge or taking a cruise, but note there is no lodge within the reserve's borders and no big ship is allowed to enter it, so you will only be able to visit the Pacaya Samiria during a one day trip but you will have to return before the park closes.
Iquitos is the world's largest city which cannot be reached by road. Apart from this fact, it is an unappealing city which serves only as a gateway to the Amazon for those who want to experience the jungle, but lately, it became a meeting point for people with no interest in nature or wildlife - for people who arrive here to try indigenous psychedelic plant Ayahuasca. We are not fans of drugs, so we can only ask you to be careful when experimenting. Using drugs, especially in an unfamiliar environment can be tricky. Not mentioning that Ayahuasca ritual became a profitable business in Iquitos and you can never be sure about the quality and people who prepare the drink for you.
Iquitos is connected by road only with Nauta, a small port town from where we started our Amazon journey. It is about two hours drive from Iquitos and in case you are looking only for one day trip, the cheapest way is to arrive in Nauta on your own and go to the port where you can find boat driver without using an agent.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST TRAVEL AGENCY
Honestly, we don't have the answer because even though our tour in Pacaya Samiria was great, there were still some things which could have been done better.
Before arriving in Iquitos, do online research, and select several travel agencies you like based on their websites, itineraries, and reviews. When in Iquitos, try to visit all of them and compare the price they will offer you and also take into account the feeling you have from the presentation and the staff in the office.
Unfortunately, sometimes in countries such as Peru, we have a feeling that people want our money (which is understandable) but don't realize they should provide us with the service we pay for. If you need an English speaking guide, ask the manager to meet him in advance (although there can always be the last minute change in staffing). We can't even count how many badly English speaking guides we've already had (and it is easier for us to understand them than it is for native speakers) and we did not want to experience it for a whole week.
Very quickly we became wanted customers in Iquitos. The reason was simple. The most of all travelers visit Pacaya Samiria for two or three days. Because we wanted to spend there seven days, everyone was more than interested to have us. We visited several offices, and later we were even followed by companies' employees because they wanted to know where we go next.
We recommend you not to book a tour via website or email. Not only the online price is always the most expensive, but you won't be able to make a decision based on your feelings. Usually, the tour cost around $100 per person per day. One company we eventually did not go with offered us the lowest price $55 per day, but because we were not sure about the guide's level of English, we finally decided to go with a travel agency which seemed the most professional for $70. Bargain, but always remember you will get a service you paid.
You don't need to worry that you won't find a tour available as departures are daily. There should be minimum two people, but if you travel on own, try to ask around and find fellow travelers or be prepared to pay a bit more.
WHAT IS INCLUDED IN THE PRICE
Before paying in full, always make sure that you won't need to pay anything extra during your trip. What should be usually included in the price: transport from and to Iquitos, boat, fuel, guides, boat driver, food, drinking water, camping equipment, accommodation, rubber boots (came in useful), canoe. We only took our mosquito net, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, sunglasses, and clothes.
Food is simple but satisfactory. Breakfast consists of toast (we wouldn't buy the cheapest one though), jam, eggs, fruits, and coffee or tea. Lunch and dinner was usually rice, potatoes, vegetables, and fish or meat.
What we would always appreciate is to have tips included in the price. Not only tipping is not comfortable for us (it is probably the cultural difference), but sometimes guide can make from this case very uncomfortable situation. Jokes, like we have many kids to support (ok, so don't have them when you don't have money), makes us uneasy, not mentioning that we paid for this trip $1000 which is a lot of money for us and we would presume that the tip is already in the price. Sometimes the feeling that for some people we are only walking wallets is not satisfactory.
On the other hand, we can appraise good service and gave a tip to the local, not English speaking guide who always went an extra mile to make us happy. Also, we were not sure if he gets the same share as our naturalist, English speaking guide.
GUIDES in Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
It brings us to guides. On our trip, we had two guides and one boat driver/cook. Although we were afraid that it would be awkward, only two of us and three crew members, at the end everything was fine.
The main guide spoke English well and in Buenos Aires, a village where we spent our first night, another guide joined us. At first, we were a bit skeptical about the non-English speaking guide in our team, but he turned out to be our favorite member. Because he lives all his life in Amazon, he knew a lot about flora and fauna, was able to spot and hear wildlife on a long distance, could catch some animals with his bare hands (he released them later) and overall passed on a lot of valuable knowledge. Without him and his machete, we wouldn't have seen that much during the whole week.
Our naturalist guide was also great, knowledgeable (his family lived in the jungle for a long time) and was also able to explain even more about local life and customs of people living in the Amazon. The only issue we had was that he was not willing to follow the itinerary (although he knew it well as we read it to him word by word twice). We chose to go to the Amazon for seven days to get more in-depth, more intense experience. We wanted to go to places not many people visit and get a better chance to spot wildlife.
Since day two, we were behind our schedule. Every day, we were supposed to travel three hours by boat deeper to the jungle, but after one hour, he decided to stop and camp at this place for a night. In the beginning, we were alright with it as we thought this place might be exceptional for some plants or animals. But when it happened the next day again, we started to be cautious and asked the crew to carry on. Luckily, they followed our orders. Our guide also wanted to camp twice on one spot (maybe to save himself work with building our tents), but we refused.
Only thanks to our phone and GPS we were able to guess where we are, but sometimes it was hard as in the Amazon, there are areas with some names, but it is not always obvious where the zone starts, or finish. And when the guide told us we are here, it was impossible to argue. This issue was probably the only bigger downside of our trip - we had to be all the time cautious where we are, how long we travel for and if the information given is more or less correct.
Another, rather funny thing was that we noticed our crew sometimes left the better fruits for themselves, but we let it be. Our Spanish is still tragic, but we can already understand something and had a feeling when listening to our crew's conversation that they are worried we don't have enough fuel - that's why we also pushed them to carry on further every day.
SERVICES in the jungle
If you are thinking about visiting the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, great, we only must advise that conditions are very basic. There is no toilet and no shower. If you want to be clean throughout your trip, you must go to the river or use a canoe and a bucket. Also, do not expect to have clean clothes, we recommend taking some old or not valuable clothes. We were several times stuck in the knee-deep mud not mentioning our clothes were clammy for most of our trip.
Our days were busy from the morning to the evening, and we had time to rest only when we were on the boat moving from one place to another. Activities we could do during this trip were piranha fishing (some were more successful than others, Martin was rather good in catching logs), pretty demanding jungle walks (some lasted for several hours), wildlife spotting from the boat, canoeing and the program did not finish after dark as we went for night walks or night canoe rides to see nocturnal animals.
WILDLIFE WE COULD SPOT IN PACAYA SAMIRIA NATIONAL RESERVE
Amazon is not zoological garden and wildlife spotting is not guaranteed at all. Here came our guides handy the most as without them, without their well-trained eyes and ears, we wouldn't be able to see almost anything. Birds sit high on the branches, river turtles jump into the river once they hear a noise, and monkeys make themselves invisible in treetops.
What we spotted (and sometimes were even able to take a photo of)? Sloths, grey and pink dolphins, tarantulas, scorpion spiders, frogs, insects, lizards, snakes (some closer than we wanted), several kinds of ants, common squirrel monkeys, black tamarin monkeys, howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, butterflies, Amazon hawks and other species of birds (such as camungo, macaws, hoatzins), fishes (piranas, black armour fish or small arapaima), otters, caymans, jaguar footprints (maybe), turtles, bats. There was for sure a lot we did not see, but for the first visit, we considered ourselves lucky. Probably the only animal our guide tried hard to find for us was anaconda, but with no luck (which I did not mind, to be honest).
To get a better an idea of how the wildlife spotting in the jungle looks like, we can share our experience with howler monkeys. Howler monkeys make a loud and frightening sound we could hear when we were coming back to our campground from jungle walk. Our guides got excited and we were literally running behind them. They were pacing quickly in front of us and cut lianas by machetes to make a passage. But monkeys were moving from one tree to another and finally we reached the river only to realize, that the monkeys are on the other side. Then they stopped howling. We were not lucky that afternoon, but our guides were sure we will see them the next day in the morning.
We got up at 5 AM and went on a canoe to the other bank of the river, but the jungle was silent. Suddenly, the howling started, and it seemed that the noise is coming from a place near our campsite. Our guides were paddling quickly back we jumped off the canoe and again started to follow the noise. Only this third attempt was successful. This is how spotting of wildlife in the Amazon can look like. Nothing is guaranteed, but your guides will do their best (including making animal noise) to find animals for you.
PLACES WE STAYED AT IN PACAYA SAMIRIA NATIONAL RESERVE
We spent the first night in a village Buenos Aires. It was also the only night we did not sleep in a tent but in a house with a local family. Our local guide also lived here with his family. It was incredibly hot, and we could hear a loud frog concert all night. Here we also swore to the office manager, who told us not to take a soap or shampoo - only this way we won't pollute the environment. We actively followed his advice, but once we arrived in Buenos Aires, we understood we were naive and could use whatever with a good conscience (although we are proud we did not add up any pollutions). People along the Amazon river are deeply connected with the water and use it literally for everything. They throw food to the river, take a bath in it, wash their cloth (and we doubt they use decomposable soap), wash the dishes, kids play in it, and they even drink it!
We spent the second night near Arequipa village where was a beautiful inlet full of river dolphins doing puffing noises all night long.
On the third day, we arrived in Renaco. A few hundred meters behind our camp was a green swamp which is usually underwater. Apart from wildlife, we could watch a sunset on the bank.
Next day we navigated quite a long time and slept near a village called Yarina. After dinner, we were canoeing, and our guide caught more than a meter and a half long cayman with his bare hands. Evening canoeing became our most favorite activity. It was something we've never experienced before - to float on the river in the absolute darkness, only surrounded by impenetrable jungle, unknown sounds and bright stars above us.
The fifth day we arrived at Chingana where we met local fishermen and their families, but they left before dark. Here we realized how rare this experience is. We haven't met a single tourist for five days straight!
The next day we had to start returning, and our local guide chose a spot to sleep near his home, Buenos Aires village. The place was called Shanshal (not sure about the correct spelling), and for me, it was the nicest campground we've had so far. Near the lake where we could watch our last and the most spectacular sunset.
VILLAGES in the reserve
There are several inhabited villages along the route we traveled in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. It is interesting that some of them are named after the date when those villages were found. Thanks to the easily memorable name, all people even those who live in nearby villages know when the celebration will take place. We were in the area when one of the communities celebrated the anniversary of its foundation, and it was funny to watch it.
People from settlements around arrive in the village where they celebrate for several days - sometimes for three days, sometimes for five (we found out because when we stopped in another community, it seemed empty, so we asked our guide where are everyone, and he replied that of course in the village we passed two days ago, still celebrating). But if you think they only dance and drink alcohol, you're wrong. There is a serious football championship when villagers don't play only for the prestige, but also for money.
But of course, it wouldn't be a celebration without a local alcoholic drink. The drink is called Masato, and although we were offered to try it, we had to politely refuse. Masato is a drink made from yuca root. Several people chew the root and then spit it to a large container. Here all the roots and saliva is mixed, and the natural fermentation starts its process (more days the fermentation takes the stronger the drink is). Well, maybe next time.
When traveling in the Amazon, we noticed several things we were not sure how to handle. Pacaya Samiria is a protected area, but it is also a region where people live for thousands of years. It is incredibly hard to balance an impact people have on flora and fauna in the Amazon.
How do you want to explain to a person whose ancestors lived in the area since time immemorial that all of the sudden he cannot hunt monkeys or fish as he like? Especially when he and his family are hungry? The management of the reserve stepped in, and people now can hunt and fish only specific amount of fish or other species, and cut wood in the jungle only when they need to build a new house but we are a bit skeptical that they follow those new rules when nobody is watching.
We could see it in practice. Our guides, those who should be in the first line in protecting the nature were fishing and taking fishes home for their families. Also, when our guide caught two caymans, one large and one small, he put them in our boat with an idea to release them near our camp. He released the big one, but somehow 'forgot' that the small cayman is still there. When we reminded him, he said something he knows and will release him later, but when after an half hour nothing happened, we had to ask him again and finally, he reluctantly set him free. This is an example of behavior, we think won't be uncommon here - we are pretty sure he wanted to keep the cayman and sell it for meat or skin.
It will take time, and we know it must be hard for people living in the Amazonas to understand all those changes - that nowadays, in interest to protect nature, they cannot hunt and eat endangered or almost extinct species, but we believe that it is only a matter of time and the balance will be established anytime soon. The beautiful place like Amazon deserves it.
WHAT TO PACK
You don't need much when traveling to the Pacaya Samiria. It is hot and humid and there is always an option to wash your clothes in the river.
Here's what we find essential to have:
long-sleeved shirts and t-shirts
loose long trousers (for girls no leggings)
sunscreen (the sun is strong in the Amazon jungle)
toiletries, toilet paper
hiking boots (but we all the time used rubber boots because of the mud)
pills (although everyone in the city told us there is a low risk of malaria, we were using antimalarial pills)
phone, power bank (you can check your location on the map using gps)
binoculars (one of the most important things to bring, though our guides had one)
camera (with a telephoto lens, 300mm focal length on full frame body is a minimum, you really need that extra reach) and spare batteries
mosquito net (our tent was in good condition, but it is better to have double protection)
linen into the rented sleeping bag (we slept only in our cocoon as it was too hot anyway)
headlamps and extra batteries (no electricity when camping in the jungle)
backpacks and dry sack (it’s humid and during wet season, well… it’s wet)
WHERE TO STAY IN IQUITOS
Iquitos has a very compact center with many hotels, restaurants and travel agencies.
You can search for accommodation in Iquitos HERE.