Río Abiseo National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Peruvian Andes. There are 15 named mountains in the park. Cerro Quinual is Río Abiseo’s highest point and Cerro Peña Blanca is its most prominent.
Río Abiseo National Park is one of Peru's 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It covers 2,745 sq. km (1,000 sq. mi) of the remote eastern slopes of the country’s tropical Andes.
The park is located in the Mariscal Caceres province of the San Martín Region. It is bordered by the Marañón and Huallaga rivers, covering much of the Abiseo river basin and the surrounding peaks. Elevations range between 350 m (1,150 ft) and 4,200 m (13,780 ft) above sea level, giving Río Abiseo a diverse mix of forest, grassland, and alpine ecosystems.
The remote river basins and mountain slopes of Río Abiseo remain largely untouched by development and untrammeled by tourists. Despite its designation as a National Park, Río Abiseo is rarely visited. Road access is minimal and tourism is highly restricted to protect the area’s fragile and culturally significant landscapes.
Part of the great Andes Mountains, the peaks of Río Abiseo formed through the subduction of the Pacific Plate under the South American Plate. The park lies on the eastern slopes of the Cordillera Central and is composed of pre-Cambrian metamorphosed sediments, Tertiary and Quaternary volcanic rock, and some Quaternary sedimentary formations.
Glaciers in this region of the Andes began to recede 6,000-12,000 years ago, creating the dramatic U-shaped valleys, gorges, ravines, and countless waterfalls that run through the park. The park is dominated by forested, unstable, and acidic soils; they have remained mostly undisturbed by agriculture, logging, and other industrial activity.
Río Abiseo is a biodiversity hotspot, largely due to the complexity and integrity of its intact habitats. The abundance of endemic species found here may be a result of the region being a ‘refuge’ for forest species, where species persisted in relatively stable conditions while disappearing elsewhere due to climatic changes precipitated by the last ice age. This phenomenon, known as the ‘Huallaga Pleistocene Refugium’ allowed evolution and forest species to thrive here even as biodiversity declined throughout the surrounding region.
Three unique ecoregions are protected within Río Abiseo: Ucayali moist forest near valley bottoms, Peruvian Yungas at montane elevations, and Cordillera Central páramo above the treeline. They contain at least seven different climate zones, including montane forest, montane rainforest, high Andean grasslands, dry forest, and tropical alpine forest.
Most of the park consists of montane rainforest, or “cloud forests”. Occurring above about 2,300 meters (7,550 ft), these high-altitude, high-precipitation evergreen broadleaf rainforests are home to many endangered and endemic species.
Río Abiseo protects over 1,100 identified plant species. This includes hundreds of varieties of ferns, orchids, lianas, and begonias. Forests are composed of large trees like renaco, sangre de grado, and cat's claw, along with many endangered species, notably the Andean cedar and the chaquiro tree.
More than 900 species of fauna have also been identified in Río Abiseo. It is famously home to the yellow-tailed wooly monkey—thought to be extinct before populations were discovered in the remote forests of the park. Many other endangered mammals, including spectacled bear, north Andean deer, jaguar, and white-bellied spider monkey, are also found throughout the region.
Río Abiseo is one of only a few regions to be classified as both a cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dozens of archeological digs indicate a rich history of human activity in the park dating back more than 8,000 years.
The Chachapoya culture, or “Warriors of the Clouds”, once flourished in the remote Peruvian Andes, predating the Inca by centuries. Evidence of this curious and sophisticated civilization is found throughout Río Abiseo. Intricate stone structures, terraces, burial sites, and settlements of hundreds of buildings have been uncovered within the park’s cloud forests.
Gran Pajatén is the most famous archeological site in the park. Sitting above the Monte Cristo River basin, these ruins include at least 26 circular stone structures, decorated with carvings of humans, birds, and complex geometries. These remarkably well-preserved remains are critical to understanding the Chachapoya culture and the history of early human habitation in the Andes.
In recognition of the region’s immense cultural and ecological importance, Río Abiseo was designated a National Park in 1983 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.
Following its designation as a National Park, Río Abiseo closed to tourism activity. Permits for entering the park are difficult to acquire—limited mostly to archeologists and ecologists conducting research within the park.
For hikers eager to explore the unique rainforests and tropical mountain ecosystems found in the park, here are a few alternatives in the north-central Andes that are open for exploring.
If the vast and remote nature of Río Abiseo appeals to you, consider trekking through the Yanachaga-Chemillén National Park. Equally remote and open to tourists, Yanachaga-Chemillén protects endless miles of biodiverse rainforest and endangered wildlife, including the spectacled bear.
The best access to the park is just north of the town of Oxapampa, where you can hike up above the clouds and forests to the summit of Abra Esperanza.
Huascarán National Park, about 400 km (250 mi) south of Río Abiseo, is far more accessible. This park is one of South America’s true hiking meccas, featuring countless opportunities for day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips. Like Río Abiseo, it also features ancient cloud forests and fragile grasslands, along with some of the most impressive peaks in all of Peru.
Looking for a place to stay in the region around Río Abiseo National Park? Here are some of the best destinations in the north-central Andes.
Tarapoto is the largest city in the San Martín region and is near one of the few access points to Río Abiseo National Park. It is surrounded by dense cloud forests and is famous for its abundance of stunning jungle waterfalls.
The city is a hub for adventure tourism and is often the base for visitors coming to explore the Amazon Rainforest. Tarapoto is filled with guesthouses, hotels, and some boutique resorts. It is home to one of Peru’s busiest airports, with daily flights to and from the country’s major cities.
Huicungo is a small town on the Huallaga River, between Río Abiseo and Tarapoto. Visitors come to explore Chachapoya culture at the Huicungo Museum, and its surrounding natural riches like the Breo waterfalls, and the Juanjuicillo caves. Hospedaje Linares and Hospedaje Yanira are among the few commercial accommodation options in town.