Tingo María to Pucallpa or to Tarapoto.

Tingo María to Pucallpa or to Tarapoto.

This section describes the attractions around Tingo María, and the two roads that lead to Pucallpa and to Tarapoto. The first of these is relatively straightforward, and gives a good view of both the selva alta and baja. The second should be attempted only by those with a sound 4x4 vehicle, good Spanish and a capacity to accept some personal risk.

Tingo María was the centre of the cocaine-based drug industry until serious effort was made in the late 1990s to eradicate this. The trade continues - supplemented by opiates - but in a much more diffuse form than hitherto, and with a regional emphasis that has much lessened the significance of Tingo María in this. Around 10,000 hectares of coca is licensed by the government for unprocessed leaf production, which is used by the Quechua people. The gray area between legitimate and illegitimate culture remains diffuse, and there were riots by farmers in Tingo María in 2004 over attempts to manage this more tightly. As a basic rule, never ever involve yourself with the drug trade in Perú, and really, really do not do so here.

We have described the route to Tingo María from Huánuco here, and the Northern route to Tarapoto here.

Tingo María

Tingo María (670m) lies in a region which gets around three metres of rain every year, and closer to ten metres where the rock walls rise steeply. Its climate is not as suffocating as that in the selva baja but neither is it cool; but the influence of the forest keeps it similar throughout the year. The people are plainly of the jungle rather than the sierra, but not to the extent noted elsewhere in this guide. Many have a strongly European appearance.

Click here to see a series of images The town sits chiefly on the East bank of the Huallaga river - here 100m wide - and the residential district on the West bank runs against the foothills of the Cordillera Azul. The section of these hills that lie to the South of the town is known as la Bella Durmiente, 'the sleeping beauty', after its fancied similarity to a sleeping woman. Smaller rolling hills enclose the valley on the East.

This is not an old town, and most of its principal monuments were erected in 1960-70 period, following the agreeable fixation of those times with poured concrete. The Plaza de Armas is a long, rectangular affair which is also the site of the permanent market. One can find all manner of jungle-based handicrafts on sale amongst the baby chickens and mounds of papayas. There are many hotels of all qualities, including the excellent Madera Verde. This has extensive gardens in which butterflies are raised, parrots present a traffic hazard and - rather less to my own taste - a variety of the larger animals of the region are maintained in small cages.

Trips around Tingo María can visit a number of pre-existing sites, or follow your own interests. The chief concerns of people who come here with specific interests are the butterflies, orchids and caves in the region. We will get to these in a moment.

The road into Tingo María from Huánuco has a number of points of interest off it. Las Palmas is approached across a bridge on the Huallaga, and leads into the 18,000 hectare Parque Nacional de Tingo María. This extends up the mountainside to 400m above the river, and encloses remarkable hanging forest. It is said to have 144 species of higher plant, 104 of higher animals, making this a densely biodiverse location. The park contains around 500 families who undertake traditional agriculture within its boundaries. Almost the whole of the la Bella Durmiente mountain chain is enclosed within the park, and there are a series of scrambles, rather than walks, which access much of this. An alternative approach is la Cueva de las Lechuzas of which more below. This said, the park is focused more on preservation than access and you may want to engage the services of a guide: perhaps one of the many students from the Universidad Agraria that dominate the approach to the town.

The access point that is described above is also close to other attractions. One of these - at the bridge called Puente Cuevas - is the Cueva de las Pavas, a name meaning either the cave of the female turkeys or - if you come from Argentina - the teakettle cave. The bridge has a range of restaurants, and this is a well-visited cave mouth. A 30 minute walk gets to the waterfall called Las Ninfas. The nearby Quebrada de las Pavas is a forested gully down which flows a clean, green brook that offers natural swimming pools before emptying into the Huallaga. The Gloriapata waterfalls are a thirty minute walk from Tambillio, on the same road. There are a number of walks from closer to the town - for example, The Santa Carmen waterfall is a 30 minute walk from near the university.

Other attractions are further from the town. The principle one of these is the Lechuzas cave, located across the river and a twenty minute drive up into the hills. The road rises above the main river, giving fine views back on Tingo María and on the surrounding landscape. Orchid-fanciers should keep their eyes open for several small nursery gardens on the way, which charge a small fee to inspect their collections. The road crosses the river and the entrance to the cave is immediately after this, on the left.

One pays a small fee to enter and a guide attaches himself. (You will need to pay him later.) A short walk through woodland leads to a milky green, lime-saturated stream that emerges from a minor entrance to the caves. A few paces further brings the main entrance, a circular void in a white karst limestone face measuring around 10m in radius. One climbs stairs to enter.

The cave in inhabited by swallows, bats and lechuzas, which are not owls but the insectivorous Steatornis caripensis. These are also called guacharos, but the "owl" designation has stuck to he cave. Be careful if you have a lung complaint, as the cave is known for Histoplasmosis - an infection arising from fermenting bat dung. The cave system is barely explored, but said to have four huge chambers with large speleothems. Some say that a lake in one of the caves mimics the Bella Durmiente outside, making this a site sacred to the goddess of water. Others do not.

It is worth mentioning that the whole of this karst formation is riddled with cave entrances and, presumably, cave systems; but next to nothing has been done about this. There is no permit system, but it is advisable to have a guard to watch your gear and to explain to the police what you are doing and where.

Less focused interests of this sort need time is they are to be done well. One has to bring together the right ambitions with the right people and timing. This can often take days in locations such as Tingo María, where capable people are frequently out of town. There are usually four things which bring people specifically to Tingo María: butterflies and other insects, orchids and other plants, birds (and occasionally reptiles) and the cave systems. All but the caves get better the further you are away from the town, and achieving this takes enquiry and planning.

The road which we have described as going to the lechuza cave passes as far as Monzón, plunging deep into the jungle-clad hills. Unhappily, they are also clad with coca bushes, and this should give pause even to the most adventurous. Nevertheless, successful expeditions are mounted in this area, but their acceptance came through planning, gaining permissions and general good intelligence. The orchids are spectacular: Cattleya rex, a pair of Miltonia species, many Oncidiums are amongst the most striking when in flower. Insect specialists comes from all over the world to this area of outstanding richness. We had to stop the car once on the road to Pucallpa, in order to scrub butterfly wings from out if the radiator which was overheating because of them. However, if good advice tells you that you cannot go to a particular area, then take it - however far you have come and however disappointed you may be by this. The alternative could be fatal.

Tingo María to Pucallpa

This route has frequent public transport, but the following is written on the assumption that you are traveling in your own vehicle. The road North of Tingo María runs parallel with the river to Santa Rosa, where the Pucallpa road branches right. A subsidiary road from this leads to the coffee-growing districts of Pumahuasi, which can be interesting if you have time. However, the main road rises to cross what can only be called tropical badlands - an area of erosion which indicates very directly what happens when tropical soils are abused. The highest point in this ascent is the abra divisionaria at 1660m and it is worth stopping for the view. When doing so, note how the vegetation and birds have changed with the altitude and rainfall. Perú is a mass of such ecological distinctions. Despite the erosion, there are frequent parrots, seen or heard, in the gullies around.

The road now descends and enters the Ucayali province, 40km from Tingo María. The road runs along a natural ridge between two valleys, offering fine views. As it descends, it is vulnerable to mud slides which can block it for days during the rainy season, November to March. Forest cover increases and is complete by the time that the road reached the Río Chino.

The road follows this to Previsto, where the river unites with yet another tributary of the Ucayali. The road continues to fall to a spectacular cutting which the river has made in the intervening hills, called the Bocarón de Padre Abad, 360m. The site is named for the Franciscan priest who discovered it in 1755. A finger of the Andes runs into the jungle, and the Yuracyacu river cuts through this at this point. The result is a cañón of polished rock, on which tropical vegetation claws a place, marked with frequent waterfalls. One can stop and walk to the 90m Velo de la Novia waterfall, encountering abundant butterflies on the way.

Click here to see a series of images The road eventually enters a 400m tunnel to get through this natural opening. Emerging from this, about 75 km from Tingo María, one find the spectacular cascade known as the Devils Shower, or Ducha del Diablo. This is followed by a restaurant shaped like a flying saucer (why?) after which the valley opens up to the selva proper. The forest is rather open and dominated by palms.

A feature of the road here and of the road North in San Martin are the presence of concrete structures in the middle of the road. These are intended to stop drug-carrying aircraft from landing on the straight sections of the highway. They are reinforced concrete and have also stopped many a truck, dead.

Aguaytia (270m) and about 100km from Tingo María is a trading town that also has fuel, vehicle repair facilities and restaurants. Its inhabitants are largely mestizo, but their clients are dwellers of the deep jungle. It is worth stopping for refreshments in order to take in the atmosphere. The town has a huge bridge which crosses the river. Beyond this, a few hills are lapped by the jungle and the road goes up and down to Huipoca, which also offers the above services and a wider selection of restaurants. The road to San Alejandro used to be amongst the worst in Perú, but its 40 km have been subject to much work and are now relatively easy. Further, one encounters Alexander von Humboldt, where the still-dreadful road from Oxapampa and Chanchamayo connects. A series of nondescript towns mark what is now a flat road to Pucallpa (125m) and 265 km from Tingo María. The largest of these, from which fuel can be bought and where tyres can be repaired, is Campo Verde, 230 km from Tingo María.

Pucallpa (150m, "red earth" in Quechua) is a relatively modern town, founded in 1888, that is focused more on the Ucayali river than the land. None of the buildings are particularly exciting, although the port is full of life. It is the second city in Amazonia, after Iquitos. Boats set off up and down the Ucayali at all hours, bearing goods and people and river transport is obviously prime over the road.

There are marked seasonal differences in rainfall - as above - but it is wet all the year around. The region is extremely hot and humid, and mosquitoes abound at dusk. (I recall waking to see that the hundred or so mosquitoes on the metal mesh on the window of my room had abruptly stopped whining. The reason was that a vampire bat was seeking entry.) There are many hotels, some more than adequate in the town - the Sol del Oriente has always served me well - and two tourist-oriented lodges on the main river itself. One of these can only be reached by boat. There is something of a tourist industry, once again focused on the river, and you will have no difficulty in finding someone to help you bird watch, fish or simple explore.

Pucallpa and the Ucayali as seen from space. The town is the pinkish patch in the top left.

The cultural differences in Perú are as surprising as those of climate and ecology. The selva people are, as a group, more extrovert and talkative than those in the mountains. Clothing is minimal and morals negotiable. Pucallpa has a number of discotheques at which such negotiations take place, and at least one movie theatre that shows Brazilian pornography. There is a drug subculture that revolves around ayahuasca, although also influenced by the former Tingo María cocaine trade. This is a place in which to be careful of the contacts which you make; or perhaps a place in which to make contacts carefully.

The town has a number of shops and markets which sell local produce, including handicrafts from the local shipiba people. These are chiefly textiles, wood carving and necklaces. There is no organised method of meeting the shipiba, although the communities discussed below - under lago Yarinacocha - can be approached directly. Less public groups are harder to meet, but if you hire a boat with a human engine or guide, then they will surely be from one of these groups and no doubt open to negotiation. They will, for certain, want to establish what kind of person you are before making such an introduction, and you are advised to take matters slowly and calmly. When entering such a community, accede to all and any request that they make of you - within reason - and show respect and a quiet demeanor. Dress down, using muted colours, and do not bellow with laughter, point at people or take pictures without permission. Treat the house as a sacred place, and the fire as particularly so: do not, for example, burn rubbish in the cooking fire. To do so is rather like wiping your rear with the bathroom curtains in a Western home.

The local market sees trading in everything from fresh fish to pornographic DVDs. The University has a botanical garden that is an interesting walk, some kilometres from the town by easily accessible by Moto three wheeler taxi. It has a small museum of local natural history. One or two local artists have established shops to sell their pictures. One tries to render the ayahuasca drug experience in paint, with aesthetic success that you must judge for yourselves.

Click here to see a series of images A glance at the map will show you that Pucallpa is surrounded by rivers and islands, lakes and other resources suitable for fishing. Almost everyone in the town is a part-time fisherman or has a relation who is. As a result, it is easy to organise a fishing trip for yourself, taking local advice on when and where to go after a given species. Even if you have never held a rod in your life do please take advantage of this, as the peace of the river - and the glimpses that you get of the life in the bordering jungle - cannot be bettered. [There is more on fishing here.]

The 20 km Yarinacocha lagoon is amongst the best of the fishing lakes, and has interesting Shipibo-Conibo villages around it. These are called Comunidades Nativas, and include San Francisco, Santa Clara and Shipibo-Conibo. The last is the oldest and largest, and has about 200 inhabitants who maintain their traditional medicines, language and rites. There are a number of curanderos - shamanic healers - and ayahuasceros - drug-using shamans - in the area. In general, the more willing these are to offer their services, the less authentic they are. The lake has the ruins of Nueva Requeña near it, but these have never been accessibly documented and this remains a site that has yet to be properly explored. There may now be a land trail to it, but it has been only accessible only by boat.

The much smaller Cachibococha lake has developed restaurants which serve local cuisine. Many of these are based on local fish, called things such as the paiche, bueten or the patarashu. Local drinks are called things like camu camu, aguajina, ungurahuina or shibe and distilled spirits are known as para para, clavo huasca, chuchuhuasi and so forth. All extremely exotic stuff, and different each time you try it!

Masisea is a town around an hour up-river from Pucallpa, and part of a pleasing day trip. Its inhabitants are Conibos, once feared for their warlike nature and alleged cruelty in victory. The native populations around Masisea are less exposed to the outside world that those in the area around Pucallpa. The town itself was founded as early as 1843 as a site from which to exploit wild rubber. Unhappily, little of this has survived the tropics and the Plaza de Armas is essentially modern. However, it is the land around which is attractive, and the Tamaya river offers open prospects on a wealth of wildlife. It also leads to the 22km Imiria lagoon, which has fine fishing and a cluster of villages: Junín Pablo, Caimito, La Perla del Imiria, Nuevo Loreto and Nueva Generación. These live by hunting and fishing in a way which has changed very little from tradition. Archaeological investigation has found the so-called tierras negras, where the charcoal from millennia of camp fires have stained the river bank black. Carbon dating shows three thousand years of habitation in this area. Polychrome, rectangular ceramics have also been found near Caimito that are thought to be of local origin and to have a similar age. They have anthropomorphic designs. The upstream lagoon of Chahuya is in many ways similar. The Cashuera river offers an area where one can take shorter or longer walks in the jungle. Most last between 3-8 hours and you absolutely must have a guide. The trails are not clear and the forest is very confusing. (Pictures of Masisea are given above.)

Masisea has a single poor hotel and only the most basic of communications. However, there is a great deal of room in which to camp, and that is how most visitors live who intend to pass several nights in the area. Plainly, you will need both mobility and a guide. You can rely on the villages for restaurants - fish, and today's specialty, fish with another fish - but you will have to bring everything that you need with you. However, it is possible to fly from Lima to Pucallpa in an hour and, an hour or so later, be in as remote a spot as it is possible to imagine.

An even more remote location, however, is the 35km long Chauya lagoon. This is eight hours by boat from Pucallpa. It has a range of habitations and also floating islands, made of driftwood and held together by plants called things like puto puto and huama. It has fine fishing and birds, plus everything else you could want from a jungle. Consider turtle-watching as the ultimate leisure (in)activity.

Essentially, Pucallpa is "about" messing about in boats, or using boats to go somewhere else. It is a place of passage, and my advice would be to either use it as a jumping-off point for river trips, or else follow the road only to the Bocarón de Padre Abad as a long day trip from Tingo María. The Oxapampa circuit from "86" - Alexander von Humboldt, which is 86 km from Pucallpa - is worth thinking about, but only if you are completely confident in your vehicle and capabilities in it, and are inured to bad roads. Take emergency equipment, food and camping gear.

Tingo María to Tarapoto

Much the same can be said of this route, which is essentially impassable during the rains. When the road is open it is not, however, particularly bad - although long, narrow and patched with difficult spots - and its reputation comes from the poor security along the middle stretch of it. This was and some extent still is the centre of the drugs trade in Perú and, whilst this is much lessened and less brazen, there are still "asaltos" - armed robbery - in which vehicles are hijacked or their drivers forced to pay a toll. Driving by day - as opposed to dawn or dusk - much lessens this risk, as does paying a policeman or army NCO to accompany you. They will be happy with US$50, and you will be completely safe in their company as is possible in this region. The road to Tocache and after Juanjuí is rough but not difficult. The problematic stretch is between these two.

Click here to see a series of images Having frightened you off, I have to say that this is one of the most enjoyable of the jungle runs that I have done, anywhere. It allows you to make a complete circuit of the North of the country, returning through, perhaps, Huaraz - in one direction - or Trujillo or Cajamarca in the other. There is public transport, but of low quality and some irregularity. It is these buses which are most frequently stopped and their passengers robbed.

The route starts on the same road that leads to Pucallpa, but continuing North at Santa Rosa. A rather good road passes through a series of communities which grow oil palms and other crops. A police post at Tulumayo will probably stop you, and even if they do not you should stop and make yourself known, explain what you are doing and ask about the way. This is a good place to seek an escort if you want one and have space in the vehicle. You may need to come back the next day if the cannot help you immediately, but Tingo María is only a short drive away and you can explore on the Pucallpa road.

The bridge over the Río Concha changes the crops that are grown: now the low shrubs yield cocoa. A further bridge leaves this behind, and the road reaches Aucayacu around 40 km from Tingo María, perched on the bank of the Huallaga. This is last town of any substance before Tocache. The still-adequate road runs through a series of small villages built chiefly from wood and thatched with palm leaves, and past a number of military bases. Make sure that your papers and those of the vehicle are easily available.

The relatively flat land gives way to petty forested rolling hills about 40 km from Aucayacu, called the Cerro Verde. The road winds through these, with picturesque huts an settlements appearing in occasional clearings. The road worsens after this, but remains relatively wide. Nuevo Progresso is the largest of a series of villages on the way, located around 50 km from Aucayacu, and it has at least one adequate restaurant, serving river fish and other local produce. Beyond this, the character of the soil changes and the forest falls back to afford open prospects of a flat grassland, dotted with palm trees and herds of cattle. Rice is also grown, and tropical fruits. The town of Tocache (500m) is entered over a bridge about 120km from Aucayacu.

Tocache is a modest sized modern town, built primarily in brick and concrete, with good services. It has a number of hotels, at least one of them adequate, and assorted restaurants arranged along its high street. Its period of expansion was in the early 1980s, when the President of the time promise to develop the margin of the selva, and set aside funds for the road that you have been following. Unhappily, his successors did not take the same view and Tocache marks the end of the line for the project. However, the region is rich in agricultural produce and it is the concentration and export of this which now earns Tocache its living. The inhabitants still use the Plaza de Armas for the once-universal paseo, in which the better families turn out and greet each other at dusk.

The road continues North, again through oil palm plantations. A bridge over the Tocache river ends this, and a series of little side roads lead off to various estates. The next village is Villa Palma, where the palms have in fact been abandoned. A state agency was broken up and the land parcelled out amongst the workers, who found the result sub-optimal and have for the most part let the tree stand. The Huallaga reappears after about 30 km of driving. Puerto Pizana, another 10km further, has simple restaurants and is a good place to pause, buy fuel and collect intelligence about the road ahead. More villages follow, and the military base at Pólvora, 55 km from Tocache.

After this, the route becomes narrow, and rises into relatively mountainous (and extremely pretty) terrain, with plants whisking down both sides of the vehicle simultaneously. The state of the road depends entirely on when it was last graded, but trucks can create mud wallows as deep as a jeep is high, which either set as concrete or act as an adhesive soup. One vehicle that gets stuck will, of course, create a backlog of others. A second military base has been established at Nuevo San Martín, 80m from Tocache. One drops from here to a bridge and the rises again into hilly country. The bridge at Puente Arenas (130 km from Tocache) was the largest effort in the road-building project and, as it is painted with garish orange anti-rust paint, is known locally as the 'golden bridge'. It affords excellent views after some hours of close confinement in the forest.

The road after this is both more open and more level, running parallel to the now-huge Huallaga. The village of Campanilla was home to the most notorious of the drug lords, Vaticano, and you can see his unexciting-looking house by the road. However, this town offers the first solid structures of the day and suggest that you are emerging from the worst that the route has to offer. Balsayacu is a nearby village that is focused on animal-rearing, and the inhabitants of it are obviously proud of their houses and maintain fresh paint and bright gardens.

Juanjuí is reached 180 km from Tocache, an exhausting journey that takes around six hours. We broke a front shock absorbers in a land-cruiser whilst crossing it, and shredded the under-engine shield. It is fascinating, but not to be undertaken lightly.

The main body of Juanjuí is right from the main road, and it would be possible to drive through the town without noting that it is there. It appears to be a slightly larger town than Tocache, but has fewer multi-story buildings. It faces onto the Huallaga and it is easy to organise a fishing expedition or simple a trip of exploration. The main square has a good garden, with a monument to the Chachapoyas culture in the centre of it. Good restaurants ring the square, and one can see river fish being brought in still twitching as one studies the menu. There are a number of hotels, none very formal but at least one - run as a guesthouse - very adequate. The town's patronal is that of the Virgen de la Merced, and it takes place on the 15th to the 24th of September. There is also a lesser celebration of the town's foundation on July 2nd.

The huge extent of the Cerro Azul national park abuts on the road, and the offices are in the town. This also caters for the more remote Río Abiseo national park. This last is an enormous expanse (274,520 hectares) that runs from the Marañón river to the Huallaga, ranging from over 4000m to 500m. It is a World Heritage site. Two things are key about the Río Abiseo park:

First, it contains some of the least inhabited and most biodiverse regions on the planet. It is the centre of diversity for the Solanaceae (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers.) There are four major ecosystems within the park: dry forest; moist montane forest; tropical alpine forest and montane rainforest. Each of these has a large number of endemic species and it is safe to say that none of them have been fully - or even partially - classified. (When we called at the park offices, the staff had been unable to visit the park for three months, due to lack of funds with which to buy fuel. The ranger with whom I spoke was owed eighteen months of back pay.)

The cloud forest alone supports 132 recorded species of birds. Unusual birds include:

Mammals include the following rare or showy species:

I will not get started on the orchids. However, the park has been the source of at least three showy new species in the past five years.

Second, the park corresponds to the range of the ancient Chachapoyas culture. Elsewhere, we describe the majestic ruins at Kuellap. The forests of Río Abiseo are known to hold similar structures, as yet visited only informally and not at all assessed, let alone excavated. There are estimated to be 1,500 square kilometres of such ruins within the park. Radiocarbon dating at the Gran Pajaten cave show that humans were living there from 900BC and at the Manachagui Cave there is direct evidence for continuous habitation from 1800 BC.

If you intend to visit the park, it is important to recall that you must buy a permit in Lima, as they cannot be issued locally. The park wardens are extremely happy to collaborate on sensible ventures, including those aimed to explore or otherwise increase our knowledge of the park. Such plans should be refined in advance, as they are likely to involve complex logistics. Next to nothing has been said about the Cerro Azul area, because very little is known about it. It has been blighted by the cocaine trade, and whilst it is now accessible to rangers, very little information has emerged about what has to be one of the least documented areas of upland in the world.

The road from Juanjuí to Tarapoto is largely flat and wide, if at times rough. It passes through much more open country in which the forest has given way to pasture and to extensive areas of rice cultivation. Patches of rough pasture and short forest work though these, and the river flows along to the right of the road. The town of Bellavista is 40km from Juanjuí, and has adequate restaurants and fuel. Ten kilometres further, La Libertad is the centre for rice trading and distribution for the region. Other, very similar villages and settlements follow, increasing in density as Tarapoto is approached.

Puerto López is 100km from Juanjuí. It is not of itself particularly attractive, but it has a toll bridge over the Huallaga which leads to a road on the far bank. This leads to a 5 km lagoon at Punta Gallinazo, which is famous for the richness of its fishing. There is a pleasant hotel, called Puerto Patos, "ducks' port".

Returning to the main road, Momonaquihua offers some pretty waterfalls. Later, Puerto Palmeras offers a natural lookout point, 133 km from Juanjuí. The area is, as the name suggests, rich in palm trees, and the village has a pretty, simple little church that would not be out of place in a Western movie.

Tarapoto is reached five kilometres further, passing a tourist resort on the right. The town was founded in 1782, and has become a thriving commercial centre. It is busy and crowded, and comes as something of a slap in the face after weeks in the country. It does, however, have all facilities and hotels of all qualities. Most travellers will, however, prefer to make the short trip on a good road to Moyobamba, which is altogether a quieter place, and with access to much the same resources. Tarapoto is, however, the jumping off place to Yurimaguas - a rough trip, although not so rough as the one just described - and visits to the local shamans who are associated with the town. More on this area here.