By Merle Rosenstein

Who hasn’t heard of Machu Picchu, one of the most significant archeological and spiritual sites in Latin America? On July 24, 2011, Peru celebrated the 100th anniversary of Machu Picchu’s rediscovery by archeologist Hiram Bingham. Lost in the jungle for centuries and left in ruins, Machu Picchu was carefully restored by locals and is continually being enhanced.

But there is more to explore in Peru than ancient ruins. The ancient forests of the Amazon are considered the most bio-diverse in the world, supporting the greatest number of species of birds and freshwater fish, 10 per cent of the earth’s mammal species and 15 per cent of land-based plant species. The Amazon River, the largest in the world by volume, flows 6,280 kilometres from Iquitos in Peru to Brazil and the Atlantic. And the most popular places for adventure within the Peruvian portion are Loreto and Madre de Dios.

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Gateway To The Amazon

Loreto is the largest and northernmost region covering one-third of Peru, and is carpeted in thick vegetation carved by rivers waiting to be explored. Iquitos, Loreto’s capital, boasts grand, European-style buildings, a reminder of the 19th-century rubber boom. Board a boat and float down the rivers to get a first hand view of the amazing scenery; or take a trip to beaches like Tunchi Playa on Lake Quistococha, and Santa Clara and Santo Tomás on the Nanay River.

Iquitos is also an entry point for tours to the Amazon Rainforest. The Amazon River begins 120 kilometres upstream from town at the confluence of the Ucayali and Marañón rivers, and Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, the largest in Peru, 183 kilometers from the Iquitos is the place to begin. Tour companies offer many kinds of excursions ranging from one and two-day trips  to week-long cruises aboard restored riverboats complete with comfortable cabins.

Whether lodging in a fully equipped tent camp, relaxing in a comfy cabin or staying at a luxury lodge, wildlife viewing is superb. The wealth of plant and animal life includes hundreds of tropical bird species, many different types of mammals, an unbelievable number of freshwater fish, reptiles and plant varieties. Species in danger of disappearing such as the giant otter, the black lizard, the manatee and the pink dolphin call the Reserve home. Eco-tourism programs include hikes on jungle trails, visits to indigenous riverside communities, bird watching, dolphin spotting and piranha fishing.

Verdant Virgin Rainforest

The two main protected parks in Madre de Dios in southeast Peru, Manu National Park near Cuzco, and Tambopata-Candamo National Park, 150 kilometres from the capital city of Puerto de Maldonato, teem with exotic animals and plants and are definitely worth a visit.

The best way to reach Manu is with an organized tour from Cuzco, once an important urban centre in the Inca Empire. From here the journey can take nine to twelve hours to the villages of Atalaya and Shintuya, and another five to six hours by boat. There are also 30-minute flights from Cuzco to Boca Manu, where the boat ride takes another four to six hours.

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Highlights of Manu National Park include spotting the 272-kilogram lowland tapir and viewing the world’s most visited large macaw clay lick. Other impressive animals are the giant otter, jaguars and monkey species including the mustachioed emperor tamarin.

Tambopata-Candamo National Park, 12 hours by boat from Puerto Maldonado, is home to hundreds of bird species, (including 10 per cent of the world’s total number of parrot species), mammals and butterflies.

A key attraction of the Park, a clay lick on the left side of the Tambopata River draws dozens of parrots and parakeets like Mealy and Yellow-headed Amazon, Blue-headed parrots and Dusky headed parakeets at dawn, late morning and mid-afternoon.

The area is also home to large numbers of giant river otters, anteaters, giant armadillos, black spider monkeys, jaguars, pink river dolphins, yellow-headed river turtles and anacondas.

The palm-rimmed Sandoval Lake, considered the most beautiful in southern Peru, allows for excellent viewing of crocodiles, otters, cranes and turtles.

An ethno-botanical trek into the jungle demystifies the medicinal uses of different plants. Other jungle activities include ecotourism lectures, canopy climbing, sea kayaking, night walks, photography excursions, bird watching and voluntourism that supports social or environmental initiatives.

For more information on the Amazon Rainforest in Peru, visit www.peru.travel