Overlanding La Selva, Peru's Enormous Amazon Rainforest | dare2go (2022)

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La Selva, literally translated ‘the forest’, means the Amazon rainforest to Peruvians. This is an enormous part of Peru, covering around a 60% of the country, but not many travellers go there. La Selva is also not really that suitable for overland travel, because there are few roads. Nevertheless, we went and had a good time.

Overlanding La Selva, Peru's Enormous Amazon Rainforest | dare2go (1)

La Selva occupies 60% of Peru – yet it’s not on the tourist radar. We travelled overland through a large part of this section of the Amazon rainforest.

For a long time, I had been keen to get more into rainforest regions. I knew that Peru takes up the second-largest portion of the entire Amazon tributary system. In Huancayo , a local had asked us why we weren’t continuing from there into ‘La Selva’. At the time I didn’t even know that Peruvians refer to their rainforest by this name. He explained to me that almost all roads are sealed and easy to drive. And, of course, that this region is “muy lindo” (very beautiful)!

For several reasons, we had to go to Lima first. Then the March floods (2017) hit the north of Peru. In Lima, we went to iPeru, the government-run tourist information service, to gather as much information as possible on road conditions and attractions in the Amazon lowlands.
To sum up: yes, there’s no problem going into the north-west of Peru – La Selva.

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Most of the roads in La Selva of Peru are sealed – although in various stages of disrepair due to fresh landslide damage. Only 80 kilometers are unpaved.

We started in Huánuco and finished in Cajamarca, thus driving a large semicircle through La Selva. We had a few weather related hold-ups and the 80+ kilometres of remaining dirt road was much rougher than we had expected, due to recent rain falls. But overall, it was a great experience, we wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

We even tried to drive from Tingo Maria to Pucallpa, but we had to give up (some 80 kilometres in) due to too many landslides threatening to close this dead-end road. When we were returning, we ignored a road closure and drove through, right underneath a fresh landslide. The water gushing down the steep slope was causing large rocks to tumble onto the road. But, if we hadn’t taken that risk, we might have been stuck there for days…

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Once we crossed the last mountain range, coming from Huánuco, the road dropped steeply into this real tropical gorge.
On the road to Pucallpa we encountered countless landslides; for some we had to stop and wait for machinery to clear part of the road. This was Yasha’s view out her window whilst I crept along the soggy edge of one such landslide.
Rainforest on the way to Pucallpa. We parked for the night behind a small indio village – this was our vista in the afternoon.
We decided not to continue to Pucallpa. On the way back we snuck through under this fresh landslide – still water and rocks coming down the steep hillside.

Along the way we made some new friends who gave us more tips – some of these were unfortunately too late for us unless we wanted to backtrack, which wasn’t an option due to time restraints on our visa.

Did you know that you can travel the Amazon river, with your vehicle – on a barge?

Large barges run from Yurimaguas to Iquitos, and then from Iquitos to Pucallpa. We could have done the same trip in opposite direction, starting at Pucallpa, if we had know about it when we were driving that way. Iquitos is considered the heartland of the Peruvian Amazon and can otherwise only be reached by plane. There are a number of lodges in this region, aimed at eco-tourists, interested in wildlife observation.

If you are interested in seeing the Amazon river system up close we would recommend that you look into this option of travelling by barge!

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Late afternoon along the highway through la Selva: rows of coconut palms reflect in a flooded rice paddy.

The 4 Cs of ‘La Selva’ in Peru: cacao, cafe, coca & coco

As in most parts of this world, where pioneers push into undeveloped land, the roads are mostly lined with small settlements and much of the land is either secondary forest, or has been cleared for crops. Which brings me to the 4 Cs of the Amazon: cacao, cafe, coca & coco. Alongside bananas and some rice on low-laying land, these seem to be the main crops in the north-west.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

Instead of being shipped in cardboard boxes, these bananas were densely stacked by hand – row by row – onto the back of the truck.
Cocoa beans laid out to dry on the edge of the highway.
A variety of local crops laid out on black tarps. One of the typical timber houses in the back is painted with an ad for the last presidential election in Peru.
One of the many businesses in a small town that buys local produce to sell on.

Many settlements are often very basic; just two rows of small wooden houses along the road edge. The only occasional decorations are elaborate timber handrails along the upper storey balconies. Out the front, the region’s crops are spread out on black tarps to dry.

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Most houses in La Selva are built from roughly sawed wooden planks; this one is unusually large.

Some larger towns serve as regional centres and supply things like hardware and fertiliser. They are also home to agricultural buyers and their large warehouses. The majority of the houses are more substantial and built from concrete and brick.

We often noticed that the locals use MotoKars (the always annoying motorbike three-wheelers) as their personal transport. Obviously, many don’t have enough money to buy a proper car yet, so a family of 5 or 6 squeezes into one of these three-wheelers. In the town of Segunda Jerusalen, we noticed hundreds of them parked in line in front of a large church.

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Hundreds of MotorKars (the three-wheeled motorbike taxis) parked in front of a church on Palm Sunday.

By far the largest centre of this region is Tarapoto. We had to stop there a few hours longer than we had wanted, to replace a broken key and get the stuck bit removed from inside the lock of our camper door. We also stocked up on provisions.

Tarapoto is a busy city, full of traffic, and steamy hot. We were glad when we had everything done and could get out to Lamas. This small town, located only a little over 20 kilometres from Tarapoto but 500 metres higher, impressed us so much that Yasha wrote a dedicated post about Lamas .

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The town square and cathedral of Moyabamba (capital of San Martín).

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A ‘tropical mural’ in the centre of Moyabamba (steet art is rare in Peru).

Further north Moyabamba is home to the state government seat of San Martín. This town has a number of tourist facilities, but didn’t impress us enough to stay. We spent the night nearby at Waqanki, a lodge with a colibri (hummingbird) garden. In the twilight, we tried hard to get at least one clear shot of these busily buzzing little birds.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

This was the most spectacular butterfly I was able to photograph (at Yacumama).
I spent a good time stalking butterflies in La Selva – you find dozens of varieties. But they hardly ever sit still, or when they do they have their wings closed…
Compared to butterflies, hummingbirds are even more difficult to photograph – they hardly ever sit still. Their main feeding times are early morning and at dusk – low light conditions which make photography even more difficult.
This little colibri (hummingbird) sat on this branch for almost 2 minutes – lucky me! Unfortunately the light wasn’t the best…

Just past Moyabamba we also spent another night on a private property, Yacumama, set in the midst of shallow lagoons, and surrounded by tropical trees. Unfortunately it was weekend, and the on-site restaurant pumped out Latin music until after 10pm – during weekdays this could be a nice, relaxing place…

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Yacumama is a private reserve, come beach, come restaurant, set in the middle of several hectares of tropical green. We would think that on quieter weekdays it’s a good spot to camp and spot some wildlife.

Our next touristy destination was Chachapoyas, which is the capital of the Amazonas province. The Chachapoyas people are famed for their ancient cities and their determined resistance to the Incas. They also developed a very unique style of burying their dead in inaccessible cliff faces.

We have written about the Kuelap ruins of the Chachapoyas culture, and their burial site of Karajia . From there we continued, along a rather narrow, scary road , to the capital of the next province, Cajamarca .

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Our final vista of the endless forest. From here the road drops down into a valley, leading towards the west (Chachapoyas).

Links for further reading

A map showing the tributary system of the Amazon river.
Wikipedia about the Peruvian Amazon .
If you are looking for general travel information online, I found that the Rough Guide had the best website. (Follow the links to the 3 Selva regions at the bottom of this intro page!).

Please be aware: for travel into the Amazon regions you need a current Yellow Fever vaccination!

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