Iquitos is a swanky and sassy place to go, with around half a million inhabitants and hemmed in by muddy rivers and flooded rainforest on all sides. Being the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road, Iquitos’s only bridges to the outside world are planes and boats. It is the launching pad for exploring Peru’s northern Amazon.
Because of its isolation, terrorism never reached the city during the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps as a result, Iquitos has a relaxed, laid-back vibe that seems much closer to Bangkok than, say, Cusco. The air is thick and steamy, and the noisy buzzing of the mototaxis indaves all your senses. Life revolves around the Amazon River, a couple of kilometers wide after collecting water from all of Peru’s major rivers. People descended from a dozen different Indian groups and waves of European and Chinese immigrants.
The weather in Iquitos, even during the October–May rainy season, is fairly predictable. The sky dawns blue most days but by late afternoon fills with the clouds of convection storms, which release sheets of cool rain. Between mid-December and June, the Amazon rises anywhere from 7 to 15 meters), carrying silt and fallen trees brought down from the Andes. Andes. The river floods hundreds of kilometers of forest around Iquitos. Oil supertankers and huge passenger cruisers make the 3,600-
kilometer odyssey from the Atlantic.
The floods enrich the surrounding fields, which are planted with rice, peanuts, watermelon, and pumpkin, as soon as the water begins to recede in July. Fish leave the oxygen-poor oxbow lakes in the low season and concentrate in the river, prompting huge harvests of corvina (bass), dorado, catfish, and paiche (a prehistoric-looking fish, quite tasty, and the biggest in the Amazon).
After Francisco de Orellana’s epic descent down the Amazon River in 1542, the Spaniards left the area to the Jesuits, who founded a settlement here in the 1750s before being expelled from Latin America shortly thereafter. Two hundred years later, the ramshackle settlement exploded into one of Peru’s richest cities thanks to the rubber boom. The flip side of the opulence was the oppression and abject poverty of the Indian and mestizo rubber tappers, who lived in virtual enslavement and frequently died of malaria and other diseases. The floating city of Belén, which some call the Venice of South America and others a slum, is a leftover from that era.
Iquitos is the pioneer of Amazonian tourism, which began in the 1960s, and is the base for a variety of lodges, cruise ships, and adventure agencies. Other industries include lumber, agriculture, the export of exotic fish and birds and barbasco, a poisonous plant used by the natives to kill fish that is now being used as an insecticide.
Getting to Iquitos
Because Iquitos is water locked, nearly all visitors arrive by plane. Iquitos’s airport is seven kilometers outside of town or a US$5, 20-minute cab ride.
Two airlines fly from Lima. LAN (Lima tel. 01/213-8200, Iquitos tel. 065/23-2421, www.lan.com) has four daily flights and Star Perú (Lima tel. 01/705-9000, Iquitos tel. 065/23-6208, www.starperu.com) has three daily flights. From Iquitos, Star Perú also flies to Tarapoto and Pucallpa (one daily flight each).
The only other way to enter or leave Iquitos is by boat. From Puerto Masusa, on the north end of Iquitos, boats leave for Pucallpa and Yurimaguas (US$25–110), and sporadically on the weekends for Puerto de Coca in Ecuador up the Río Napo (US$30, 15 days). Public colectivo boats head upstream to Nauta from the Puerto Bella Vista–Nanay, 15 minutes outside of town and reachable from buses that run along Próspero. Boat tickets should be bought the day of or the day before departure.
Covered passenger boats also go down the Amazon from here to Pevas and the border towns of Leticia, Colombia, and Tabatinga, Brazil. Most of these companies have their offices in the third block of Raimondi. Two recommended options are Golfinho (Raimondi 350, tel. 065/22-5118), with departures Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 6 a.m.; and Hover Amazon Express (Raimondi 390, tel. 065/23-3201), with Tuesday and Friday 6 a.m. departures. The boats leave from a small dock on Marina Avenue across from the San Carlos gas station.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition