Book It On the Spot: The Amazon

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By simply buying airfare to Iquitos, Peru, you can then pick up a jungle jaunt at savings of up to 500 percent off the going U.S. rate

A trip to South America's mighty Amazon - staying in jungle lodges alongside the awesome river; swaying on rope walkways above the rainforest canopy; canoeing piranha- and crocodile-filled waters; meeting forest-dwelling tribes; seeing exotic flora and fauna-is a travel dream cherished by millions of Americans. But many of the ads that appear in Sunday newspaper travel sections or glossy magazines tout trips averaging over $200/$250 a day without airfare. Yet the very same lodges and programs are available for as little as $35 to $50 per diem if you buy them from tour operators and travel agents in Iquitos, Peru's largest Amazon port and the kickoff point for many of these tours.

What the U.S. tour operators charge

It isn't that the U.S. prices are outlandish, especially for such an exotic and remote destination. But every one of them exceeds $200 a day, not including airfare from the States. Thus Miami-based Eco Expeditions (800/854-0023, 305/253-3446, www.yacumama.com), which owns the well-regarded Yacumama Lodge, charges $750 per person-land only - for four-day/three-night packages and $1,350 for six-nighters (including one night in Iquitos). Colorado's Southwind Adventures (800/377-9463, 303/972-0701) asks $1,470 (land only) per person for a seven-night stay at the long-established Explorama Lodge. California's EcoAdventures, Inc. (408/558-9565, 800/326-5025) charges $1,199 for a five-day/four-night safari to an Explorama Lodge (including air from Lima), approaching $300 a night.

Going right to the source

Downtown Iquitos is bursting with tour and cruise operators, individual guides, and jungle lodge reps who'll sell you much the same thing - including all meals, transfers, and bilingual guided touring - not only for far less, but with more flexibility. Leave early or stay longer? No problem, unlike many programs prepaid in the States.

Near Plaza de Armas (the main square), stroll along Putumayo or Pevas Streets in particular and doorways beckon with exotic offerings at lodges both remote and relatively close to town, with amenities ranging from swimming pools down to kerosene lamps and no indoor plumbing. But many tend to have a fair amount in common: thatch-roof wooden buildings connected by raised and covered plank walkways, simple wicker furniture, and local grub served buffet-style, such as river fish, chicken, beef, rice and beans, cassava, palm salad, and tropical fruit (libations are usually extra).

Your activities are also similar: jungle walks, canoe expeditions (late night for stargazing, early morning for birdwatching and spotting rare pink dolphins), fishing trips (ever munched on saut,ed piranha?), and visits to local communities and Indian tribes (though in areas closer to Iquitos, visits to tribes like the Yaguas and the Boras tend to be stagey, hokey, and aggressively commercialized souvenir-buying frenzies). You can even pay $15 or so to be part of a midnight ayahuasca ceremony involving a shaman and a hallucinogenic potion made of jungle vines and leaves (bottoms up!).

In addition, many lodges will often deal, especially in the low-a.k.a. rainy-season from December through May. The trick is to weed out the fly-by-nights, shady operators, and downright crooks (of which there are unfortunately more than a few in this neck of the jungle). Fortunately, the newly activist tourist office, headed by a bluff Texan named Gerald Mayeaux, will be tickled pinker than an Amazon dolphin to let you know who's kosher and who's not, in any price range; stop at the airport branch or the central office next to the El Dorado Plaza Hotel on Plaza de Armas (from the U.S., contact Mayeaux at 011-51-94/23-5621, fax /23-1271, turismo.mpm@tvs.com.pe).

Feel free, then, to c'mon down and browse for the agency that fits you best in terms of price, amenities, remoteness, programs, and personality (avoid the touts shouting at you outside the airport arrivals terminal; they're not only hugely annoying but more expensive, and in some cases outright shysters). There's relatively little risk that you'll get here and find the outfit of your choice booked solid-but on the rare chance such a thing should happen during the June-to-October high season, there are plenty of other reputable, registered operators to fall back on (or you can simply book before leaving home). Following is just a sampling:

Paseos Amazonicos

Calle Pevas 246, tel-fax 011-51-94/23-1618, fax /23-3110, www.paseosamazonicos.com

Has three thatch-roof lodges in separate locations and tends to attract a slightly more sedate clientele heavy on Peruvians. On a quiet tributary just 45 minutes by motorboat north of Iquitos and hosting up to 40 guests, its quarter-century-old Amazonas Sinchicuy Lodge, like many others, offers rustic quarters (sans electricity or hot water, but well screened and with private baths) and clowning mascots like Manolo the woolly monkey and Carlos the toucan. It serves up a congenial mix of good food, experienced guides who double as evening entertainers, and programs ranging from two days/one night for $125 (based on double occupancy) and four days/three nights for $251; slightly different - as well as longer - options are available at sister lodges Tambo Yanayacu and Tambo Amazonico (the latter 115 miles out of town).

Cumaceba Lodge & Expeditions

Jiron Putumayo 184, tel. 011-51-94/22-1456, fax/23-2229,www.manguare.com.pe/cumace ba

About the same distance downriver as Sinchicuy (24 miles), this 20-bungalow facility run by Ricardo Pinedo and his wife also offers similar amenities (such as kerosene lamps for nighttime lighting) and services (all activities, meals, and transfers); just under half the guests are Peruvian. Two-day/one-night programs run $85 per person, two nights for $125, three for $165, and six for $350 (kids under 13 pay 60 percent). Or you can just opt for a single day's trip, with lunch and touring, for $40. Twice as far down-river, an even more rugged 'n rustic camp called Amazon Jungle Expedition is also available for two-night rates beginning at $200 a head ($150 each if there are two or three of you, less if you're a larger group). In low season, prices drop 20 percent.

Muyuna Amazon Lodge & Expeditions

Jiron Putumayo 163-B, 011-51-94/24-2858, www.muyuna.com

One of the newest kids on the block (est. 1999) and affiliated with Hostelling International (whose discounts apply), it combines an expert guiding staff with a fresh, young approach that makes for a nice change of pace from the sometimes canned-feeling packages of longer-in-the-tooth competitors. As you'd expect, the clients they attract tend to be young, too, though ages truly do run the gamut. The eight bungalows plus dining hall are located 75 miles south of Iquitos on the tributary Rio Yanayacu, in a lake-filled area more virgin and less explored than many other lodges' environs; nighttime entertainment features an "Amazon party" with a local folkloric band and "exotic and aphrodisiac drinks." Packages include one-nighters for $110 per person (based on double occupancy) and five nights for $220; there are student discounts, per-person prices drop as your group size rises, and Muyuna's three owners are usually willing to bargain.

Heliconia Amazon River Lodge

Jiron Prospero 574, 011-51-94/23-5132, fax /23-2499, www.heliconialodge.com.pe

A bit more upscale and amenity-equipped, it's 50 miles (one hour) north of Iquitos in the Yanamono Reserve, which boasts the world's highest density of tree species. Its 18 rooms have private baths, along with hot water mornings and evenings (Similarly, there's electricity till 10 p.m.). The basic package starts with three days/two nights for $240 per adult (or $220 each for groups of two to four, down to $180 for larger groups). You can also opt for a four-night package including two at the ACEER outdoor biology station with its famous treetop walkway ($685 per person based on double occupancy). Much closer to town (therefore slightly cheaper), Heliconia's sister lodge, Zungarococha, has 13 two-room bungalows plus goodies like a pool and even a jai alai court. For both properties, additional nights are $50 for adults, $30 for kids

Amazon Rainforest Lodge

Jiron Putumayo 159, 011-51-94/23-3100, fax /24-2231, www.geocities.com/rainforest/jun gle/1936

The rattan-appointed office next door to Muyuna sends visitors to a compound 28 miles away on the Mom:n tributary: 15 bungalows fanning out from a large swimming pool. Also on-premises: a mini-zoo with monkeys, macaws, and other birds which roam the grounds during the day; an 80-foot lookout tower; even a special enclosure for the ayahuasca ceremony. There's electric power until 10 p.m., and the average guest tends to be twentysomething and foreign. Rates start at $51 for a day visit and $86 for a single night (double occupancy; rates change depending on the size of your group); three nights will run $174 and six nights $330. Kids under 16 are half off, and senior citizens about 8 percent off.

Jungle bound

There are currently no direct flights from the U.S. to Iquitos, but a number of U.S. airlines can get you there via Lima. June coach fares to Lima on Continental (800/231-0856) are running about $524 from Miami, $793 from Newark, NJ, $824 from Houston, and $906 from Los Angeles; other carriers include American and Delta. To that add about $45 to $60 for the round-trip connection (on Aerocontinente or other domestic carriers) between Lima and Iquitos.

Internationally, Aerocontinente (877/359-7378, 305/436-9400, www.aerocontinente.com.pe) is less expensive than its competitors: just $269 to $476 in June from Miami through to Iquitos. Lan Peru (800/735-5590, 305/670-5450, www.lanchile.com) can also get you to Peru for less: $259 round-trip Miami-Lima.

America's best-priced Amazon packages

From Intervac Tours of Miami (800/401-5897, 305/670-8990): $1,200 for four nights at Explorama plus an overnight in Lima, or the same at the simpler but still good-quality Sinchicuy Lodge for $742. Especially remarkable because these include round-trip air out of Miami. Hal Mayforth

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