For the quality of the lodging and the amount of wildlife that visitors see, the jungle lodges around Puerto Maldonado represent an excellent Amazon value.
Just a half-hour plane ride from Cusco , Puerto Maldonado is the place for people with a limited budget and limited time. In an action-packed stay of two or three nights, visitors are likely to see a few types of monkeys (there are seven species in the area), capybaras and other jungle rodents, a wide variety of water and forest birds, caimans, and turtles. Large mammals such as tapirs and jaguars are seldom seen, though chances become better farther into the jungle at the Tambopata Research Center , which is inside the Parque Nacional Bahuaja Sonene.
Though there are fewer species here than in Manu , getting to Puerto Maldonado’s jungle is a heck of a lot easier. Visitors arrive at the airport, where they are picked up by their lodge and taken up a river in a motorboat. In as little as three hours after leaving Cusco , visitors can be in a comfortable jungle lodge surrounded by miles of Amazon rainforest .
Standard features of most trips include early-morning bird-watching followed by a nature walk, piraña fishing, and a visit to a local community and/or medicinal plant talk by a local shaman. If guests have energy, guides lead night jungle walks or boat rides to spot baby caimana, a close relative of the alligator, along the river bank. Prices include airport transfer, boat transport, lodging, and food.
There are two main protected areas near Puerto Maldonado. The Reserva Nacional Tambopata (275,000 hectares) stretches east from Puerto Maldonado all the way to the Río Heath on the Bolivian border. It serves as a buffer zone around the Parque Nacional Bahuaja Sonene (1.1 million hectares). The whole area of 1.4 million hectares is across the Río Heath from the Parque Nacional Maididi in Bolivia, forming the largest patch of protected rainforest in South America.
The jungle lodges are clustered in two areas on the edge of the Reserva Nacional Tambopata. The first group is an hour’s boat ride down the Río Madre de Dios . The lodges here include some of the most comfortable in the Amazon, including Reserva Amazónica  and Lake Sandoval Lodge . There are lower-budget options in this area as well.
The other main group is 3–4 hours up the Río Tambopata , on the way to the Parque Nacional Bahuaja Sonene. In general, wildlife-spotting opportunities are about equal between these two groups of lodges—all of them are near the reserve’s buffer zone and are mostly surrounded by secondary forest.
An exception is Explorer’s Inn , built in 1976, which is the only lodge inside the Reserva Nacional Tambopata and seems to have more bird and animal species than the other lodges—including frequent sightings of the giant otter and world-record levels of birds and butterflies. The reserve also includes areas of virgin forest, unlike the other lodges, whose large mahogany and cedar trees were cut down years ago.
The world’s largest macaw clay lick, which attracts nearly all the area’s species of macaws, parrots, and parakeets, is seven hours up the Río Tambopata near the Tambopata Research Center . Most Puerto Maldonado lodges offer two-day trips to the lick, which include a night of camping on a sandy beach, a guided hike through the forest, meals, and a morning visit to the lick.
As it is a short flight most travelers arrive via plane to Puerto Maldonado’s airport (tel. 082/57-1531), which is eight kilometers from town, or about US$2 by taxi. Airlines fly Lima–Cusco–Puerto. LAN (Lima tel. 01/213-8200, www.lan.com ) has regular flights and a local office at León Velarde 503 (tel. 082/57-3677, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Sat.). The cheaper option is Star Perú (Lima tel. 01/705-9000, www.starperu.com ), with flights from Lima and Cusco.
The road between Cusco  and Puerto Maldonado is now part of the Interoceanic Highway, the US$1.2 billion ongoing project to build a highway between Peru and Brazil. The highway was first proposed 30 years ago and is now nearly complete. Construction on the road has already made the bus journey to Puerto Maldonado far easier than it used to be—instead of a bumpy 20 hours, the journey is now a relatively smooth 12-hour trip past the high Andean villages of Ocongate, Tinqui, and the snow-covered peak of Ausangate before dropping into the Amazon.
The Bolivian border is six hours downstream from Puerto Maldonado, and boats sporadically leave from Puerto’s port of Capitanía. Before you leave, however, you must get your passport stamped with an exit stamp at Peruvian immigrations. Visas are not required at this time for travelers from Britain, New Zealand, and Australia. North Americans need visas.