The form and functioning of peatlands depend strongly on their hydrological status, but there are few data available on the hydraulic properties of tropical peatlands. In particular, the saturated hydraulic conductivity (K) has not previously been measured in neotropical peatlands. Piezometer slug tests were used to measure K at two depths (50 and 90 cm) in three contrasting forested peatlands in the Peruvian Amazon: Quistococha, San Jorge and Buena Vista. Measured K at 50 cm depth varies between 0.00032 and 0.11 cm s−1, and at 90 cm, it varies between 0.00027 and 0.057 cm s−1. Measurements of K taken from different areas of Quistococha showed that spatial heterogeneity accounts for ~20% of the within-site variance and that depth is a good predictor of K. However, K did not vary significantly with depth at Buena Vista and San Jorge. Statistical analysis showed that ~18% of the variance in the K data can be explained by between-site differences. Simulations using a simple hydrological model suggest that the relatively high K values could lead to lowering of the water table by >10 cm within ~48 m of the peatland edge for domed peatlands, if subjected to a drought lasting 30 days. However, under current climatic conditions, even with high K, peatlands would be unable to shed the large amount of water entering the system via rainfall through subsurface flow alone. We conclude that most of the water leaves these peatlands via overland flow and/or evapotranspiration. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.