Iquitos: The Rough Diamond of the North

I love sitting by the window on flights.  I love having somewhere to rest my head if I want to try and sleep, I love the incredible vibrant red sunsets you see when you’re above the clouds, I love watching city lights come into view, and the tiny cars travelling along the roads down below me.  However I’ve sacrificed this for the past few years, as my boyfriend is like a small child when it comes to the importance of securing the window seat, and I’ve flown so much over the years that I guess it’s not as much of a novelty for me anymore.

Our flight into Iquitos was an exception to this rule. 

Iquitos is not only the largest city  in the Peruvian rainforest, but also the largest city in the world that is inaccessible by road, and is known on the traveller circuit as the gateway to the Amazon Jungle.

So, as we started our descent, I leaned across Stu’s lap, and fought for some head space by the window because directly below us the tributaries of the Amazon river snaked their way dramatically through lush green jungle as far as the eye could see.  Not a single road in sight, nor any signs of civilisation; just mile after mile of dense trees and plants covering the ground.  For the first time in my life I was flying directly over the Amazon jungle, with just the odd scattering of clouds here and there obscuring my view of the awesome landscapes that stretched out beneath us.

When we landed and the cabin doors opened, I could feel the humidity of the jungle air surround me.  Carcasses of derelict aircraft lay abandoned at the end of the runway, and we wandered into an unmanned – aside from one gentleman casually checking the odd bag or two – single room airport, with little more than a large poster upon the wall and the words “Bienvenidos a la Selva” written across it: Welcome to the Jungle.

From the moment we set foot outside the airport, hoards of taxi and mototaxi drivers surrounded us, all vying for our fare.  I knew which one I was taking though.  You got it: the motortaxi. We haggled the fare down to 7 soles, and – along with our backpacks – squeezed into the back.  As we were driven towards the centre of Iquitos, we watched countless other mototaxis ply the dusty streets, along with colourful, rickety minibuses, and scooters loaded with more people than they were designed to carry.  Horns sounded.  Dogs sauntered bravely between the traffic or lay sprawled at the edge of the road, basking in the mid-afternoon sun.  Fruit vendors sat on tiny wooden stalls, and inviting cooking smells permeated the air.

Iquitos

Iquitos

This place screamed South-east Asia, and for that reason I knew immediately that I was going to love it here.

Historically Iquitos is known for its role in the rubber industry during the rubber boom of the early 20th century.  The city attracted thousands of immigrants from around the world, who hoped to make their fortunes in rubber.  However, whilst rubber barons became ostentatiously rich, and built mansions within the city (some of which still survive today), rubber tappers in comparison (mainly local tribespeople) suffered virtual enslavement, and some 30 years later the boom collapsed just as quickly as it had begun.  The collapse was down to A British entrepreneur who reportedly smuggled some rubber seeds out of the country, and began cultivating them in quantity elsewhere.

Even today Iquitos is a strange mix of grandeur and decay.  Crumbling colonial buildings that were once grand rubber mansions, offer a glimpse into the city’s past.  Elegant bars and restaurants symbolise relative wealth along the waterfront, in comparison to the poverty-stricken floating shantytown of Belén down below.  There’s also the fascinating contrast between the vibrant, buzzing city life, and the languid pace of life on the Amazon.  I could literally stand outside the front door of my hostel and stare out at the Rio Amazonas.

Floating shantytown of Belén

During one of our first forays out into the city, we were overjoyed to find so much colour everywhere.  Shop fronts were coated with bright, bold paint and decorative script, buses looked as though they should be part of a vintage automobile show or in the running for the winner of a hippy wagon competition, the rubber hoods that covered the mototaxis seemed to come in whichever colour their driver desired, multi-coloured parasols shaded market stall vendors and their wares, and then of course there were the vibrant range of colours on the market stalls themselves.  Bright red chillies and tomatoes, rich green limes and bunch after bunch of fragrant coriander, sweet ripe yellow bananas, and shiny orange granadillas, the smooth purple skin of the aubergines and pristine white flesh of the yams, as well as rice and beans and spices and pastes.  Iquitos was definitely big on colour.

Streets of Iquitos

Streets of Iquitos

Iquitos

Iquitos

Scotch Bonnets maybe?

Feeling glad I’d decided to wear shorts, we picked our way through the dirty corridors of one of the city’s markets.  Flies buzzed around the nondescript chunks of raw meat, which had probably been sitting on the counter in the sweltering heat for most of the day, vultures devoured a chicken carcass, pigs roamed amid underfed dogs and cats.  Yet, despite all the dirt and squalor, local markets can fascinating places where you can see, purchase and taste a myriad unusual and interesting  products.  A perfect example of this is Belén market, where you can find all sorts of weird and wonderful fruits and plants from the Amazon jungle, which are used by shamans and tribespeople to make various medicines and tonics – also sold here.

Jungle Medicine?

For many people Iquitos is little more than a transfer point to the jungle beyond, and whilst it’s proximity to the jungle is part of the city’s appeal, I really enjoyed my three days here.  I loved aimlessly wandering the streets and soaking up the lively city vibe. I loved photographing the wonderful arched windows and doorways, intricately designed balconies and beautifully decorated mosaic facades of its buildings.  I loved sipping unusual fruit shakes along the waterfront, whilst observing snippets of people’s lives as they played out before me, and I loved the wonderful view of the Amazon from my hostel window.

Iquitos was definitely my kind of ciudad, and one that I’m so glad I incorporated into my Peru travel itinerary.

Iquitos

Where we stayed

Flying Dog Hostel, Melecón Tarapaca (waterfront)

Pros: Clean, bright, airy, helpful staff, good wifi, great location.

Cons: Don’t bank on the free breakfast being available every day of the week.  The gentleman who cooks/prepares it seems to turn up when he feels like it.

Prices: Dorms from £5.74 per night; twin or double en-suite for £10.33 pp/pn

How to book: I booked my room through Booking.com

Where we ate

Dawn on the Amazon, Melecón Tarapaca 268 (waterfront)

Pros: Delicious food (I tried the Primavera Salad and Turmeric Hummus, which make a great combination), awesome (and unusual) fruit shakes, fantastic location

Cons: Prices to match the fantastic location, they charge per hour if you want to use the wifi

Karma Cafe, Napo 138 

Pros: Great vibe, comfy seats, good wifi

Cons: Main courses were a bit pricey but portions are large to compensate.

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4 Responses to Iquitos: The Rough Diamond of the North

  1. Katie August 10, 2014 at 2:16 PM #

    A little taste of SE Asia in Peru?? I’m sold! I also love cities with that kind of contrast. Iquitos just went on my must-see Peru itinerary!

    • Kiara Gallop August 10, 2014 at 6:13 PM #

      Glad to hear it Katie 🙂 Make sure you include a trip to Belén Market too, and a visit to the floating shantytown (also covered on my blog, if you’re interested) Thanks for stopping by both 🙂

  2. Heather @ Life of a Traveling Navy Wife August 10, 2014 at 5:35 PM #

    I wouldn’t have thought to stop here either! Great Sunday Traveler!

  3. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer August 13, 2014 at 11:47 PM #

    Nice photographs. The town looks so quiet and colorful 😀

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