Ah, Peru: A chart-topper in the history department thanks to its Sacred Valley, elegant colonial cityscapes and the bucket-list-busting Machu Picchu; a must-visit for its vibrant, Pisco sour-fueled nightlife; a great destination for beach lovers and culture buffs. What more could you want? How about some of the most biodiverse national parks on the globe? Why not…
Manu National Park
UNESCO attested and covering over 1.5 million hectares, packed with Amazon moist forests, wet puna landscapes and the rare habitats of the Peruvian Yungas, the Manu National Park is an undisputed chart topper on the line-up of protected areas in South America. It's famed for having a whopping 1,000 individual bird species (more than in both Canada and the US) and comes packed with mind-boggling creatures like the red macaw, the Brazilian tapir, pygmy marmosets, lowland paca, jaguars and ocelots. Today, areas surrounding the vast reserve offer the chance to zipline through the verdant canopies, raft over the roaring rivers, and bed down in the rustic ecolodges of the cloud forests.
Pacaya Samiria National Reserve
Set on the water-doused western ridges of the Peruvian Andes, where countless rivers cascade off the cloud forests and roaring waterfalls crash into the tributaries of the great Amazon, this sprawling national reserve is one of the most remote in the country. It's a whopping 200 miles away from Iquitos, which means the people who flock here don't mind long and arduous trips on rumbling 4X4s, seaplanes or riverboats. The payoff is untrodden and primeval rainforest the likes of which you've never seen before, stalked by Peruvian jaguars and home to alien-like tree frogs that are brighter than the sunset.
Tambopata National Reserve
One of the jewels of the Amazon Rainforest, the reserve of Tambopata is now one of the top ecotourist draws in Peru. Covering a mega eight separate habitats, ranging from high-altitude forests to lowland wet forests, the whole place is awash with wonders. Some come to see the curious salt licks of the multicolored macaws. Others come to spy out opossums on night safaris. Others come for wild camping sessions, or whitewater river rafting down the rivers out of Putina Punco. The choice is yours.
Huascaran National Park
With the shimmering, turquoise-hued waters of the Llanganuco Lakes, the snow-topped peaks of the Andes, the soaring summits of Huandoy and Huantsán, the ancient cave paintings of Tiog and the rolling, cacti-spotted grasses of the puna plains, there's no question that Huascaran deserves its UNESCO tag. It's a land of veritable superlatives, and none more dominating than the colossal 6,768-meter-high Huascarán peak itself – the highest in Peru and a mecca for expert mountaineers. Then there are the positively alpine surroundings, the rustic villages of highland folk and the endless ice sheets of the glaciers perched up above!
Tumbes National Reserve
Tucked into the top north-western corner of Peru, the Tumbes National Reserve is neatly sandwiched between the mountains and the sea. Rising up to the equatorial forests of the Amotape Hills (another of the country's awesome national parks, but more on that one later!), it's got swathes of deep green tropical rainforest that tumbles down to the shores of the Pacific. The unique climate is enough to give rise to rare howler monkeys, crocodiles, jaguars and more – perfect if you're looking to see some of South America's rarer creatures.
Rio Abiseo National Park
Although it can be tricky to bag a tourist permit to head in to keep the woolly monkeys and Andean guans of the Rio Abiseo National Park company, it might just be worth the extra red tape. Boasting a unique medley of yungas highlands and montane rainforest, the whole place is awash with curious dwarf woods and swaying meadows. There are two things that really draw visitors though: the wildlife and the history. The first means rare spectacled bears and jaguars, while the latter means UNESCO-attested remains of the old Chachapoyas culture.
Cutervo National Park
Once trodden by the fascinating pre-Columbian peoples of the Peruvian Andes (the folk that lived here before the Spanish invasions of the New World), this wild and mystical land in the heart of the mountains offers a balance of wildlife and human history. You can spend days wandering the rugged trails in search of mountain tapirs and rare otters in the babbling creeks of the Cordillera de Tarros. Or, you can make a beeline for the digs of El Perolito to see aged settlements going back centuries.
Tamshiyacu Tahuayo Reserve
On the menu for most folk who head to the fabled gateway to the Amazon (Iquitos), this jungle-dressed national reserve rarely fails to impress with its feral rivers and mist-topped banks of impenetrable rainforest. Boating through the water channels of the Alto Tahuayo and Blanco rivers is one of the most popular ways to see the area – just be sure to keep the eyes peeled for spectacled caimans on the muddy shores or even the occasional pod of uber-elusive pink dolphins!
Pampas Galeras National Reserve
One of the rare national reserves in the dry and dusty plains of southern Peru to make this list, the Pampas Galeras lives on the sun-blasted side of the Andes, where the high plateaus are the perfect habitat for the native alpaca, llama, and – most importantly of all – the vicuña, whose fine wool is a local specialty. The landscapes might look arid and barren, but they are the best place for these hardy creatures to make their home, and the locals have festivals to the iconic creatures each year to boot. Oh, and it's not far from this part of Ayacucho to the bucket-list-busting Sacred Valley, Nazca et al.
Amotape Hills National Park
The dry forests of the Amotape Hills, perched high on the plateaus just above the rolling surf of the Peruvian Pacific coast and joined at the hip to the Tumbes National Reserve, are amongst the most unique plant habitats in South America. Packed with colorful orchids and waxy tropical blooms, rare ferns and thorny thickets, they are home to some less-than-savory locals: the boa constrictor snake; snapping crocodiles. The place is great for making a trip out to see the different natural environments that dominate the windward and oceanic region of northern Peru.
If you're a veteran traveler of the Peruvian wilds, or can think of any other national parks that would easily make this list, we'd sure love to hear about them in the comments below. Or, if you think it's time you packed your bags, waxed the walking boots and hit the trails of one of the wildernesses above, be sure to check out LBW's line-up of tours in Peru…
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