The Tambopata River rises in the snow-capped Andes mountain chain. Its headwaters emerge at 3900 meters (12800 feet) above sea level, in the Bolivian region of La Paz, at the coordinates 14°28′44″S 69°1′23″W.
The river flows for around 66 kilometers through the territory of Bolivia, marking the border between Peru and Bolivia for 58 kilometers of its course, before entering Peruvian territory at the Colorado Canyon. As it begins its descent from the high Andean plains to the Amazon lowlands, it passes through deep valleys and canyons created over countless millennia, where its waters erode the local geology to form a series of cascades.
At around 3000 meters (9850 feet) above sea level, the Tambopata River flows through typical cloud forest habitat, a mist-shrouded area of gnarled tree trunks, thick vegetation and abundant endemic fauna.
It is when it reaches the Amazon lowlands that the river flows through the area of tropical forest protected by the Tambopata National Reserve. With its macaw clay licks, the reserve is a paradise for birdwatchers, while its beaches offer the ideal setting for spotting major Amazon basin fauna when journeying along the river by boat, including jaguars. The Tambopata River crosses the national reserve named after it from east to west, before finally flowing into the great Madre de Dios (“Mother of God”) River, close to the major Amazonian settlement of Puerto Maldonado, which is home to some 75,000 residents.
Below 500 meters (1650 feet) above sea level, the Tambopata River flows through a rainforest habitat, meandering slowly across this vast territory and creating free standing bodies of water known as oxbow lakes when its meanders are cut off over time from the main course. As standing water sources, such lake systems are among the best places in the Amazon basin for viewing birdlife and other fauna, including the giant river otter. The Tambopata River oxbow lakes most often visited by those hoping to observe Amazon fauna include Lake Sachavacayoc and Lake Condenado.
Crossing the reserved area, the Tambopata River nourishes seven types of what are known as flooded forests, creating ecosystems particularly rich in typical Amazon fauna. These include: permanently waterlogged swamp forests; seasonally waterlogged swamp forests; lower floodplain forests; tall middle floodplain forests which are flooded occasionally; rarely flooded upper floodplain forests; old floodplain forests (flooded in the past two hundred years); and ancient floodplain forest long ago transformed into terra firma.
It is the combination of high Andean, cloud forest and Amazon lowland ecosystems along its 360 kilometer course that places the floodplains of the Tambopata River among the most biologically diverse places on Earth.