TARAPOTO, known as the “City of Palms”, is a well-developed jungle settlement, with surfaced roads, fairly good hotels, a large market and an unexpectedly high proportion of young professionals and business people. It is also a good base from which to explore this part of Peru, visit the folkloric locus of Lamas, prepare for a jungle trip, or do some whitewater rafting on the Río Mayo. It’s also the start point for one of Peru’s best Amazon river trips: by road to Yurimaguas, then by riverboat following the Río Huallaga further into the jungle, along the edge of one of Peru’s best and least-visited protected lowland forests, the remote rainforest haven of Reserva Nacional de Pacaya-Samiria.
The town, founded in 1772, lies just 420m above sea level and has an agreeable temperature range of 29–37°C (85–99°F). The Río Huallaga flows on from here, via the Amazon, until it finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean many thousands of kilometres away. A strange sort of place, Tarapoto has a large prison and a big drug-smuggling problem, with people flying coca paste from here to Colombia, where it is processed into cocaine for the US market (see The journey into the jungle). Nevertheless, the locals tend to be friendly and pleased to see tourists, themselves still few and far between.
This newly opened up jungle region around Tarapoto is full of quite astonishing natural treasures, many yet to be revealed to the travelling public. The Cataratas de Ahuashiyacu is a popular and scenic local swimming spot, with small but very pretty waterfalls; they are situated along the road east towards Yurimagua, and you can take a taxi here (30min; S/15). The falls are one of several ecotourist destinations around Tarapoto. Other contenders, all within easy taxi reach, include the waterfalls of Huacamaillo and also those of Shapaja (21km), the village of Chazuta with its fine ceramic tradition, the stunning Laguna Azul (50km from town) and the wild rainforest of the valley of Shilcayo.