The Crumbling Charms of Iquitos
The views alone were worth the price of the flight — just $73. First, we soared over the Andes mountain range, and then dipped low over the snaking tributaries of the Amazon river. I snapped picture after picture and later captioned my first Instagram from Peru, bienvenidos a la selva; welcome to the jungle.
When the plane landed, the doors opened and I could feel the steamy jungle air creep into the cabin. A rusting carcass of a plane rested at the end of the runway, and a one room airport welcomed us to Iquitos – the largest city in the world unreachable by road.
A hungry crowd of cab drivers awaited. Viente soles, they demanded, though I had written in my notes that the fair rate was quince soles. I stood my ground and a very small older man agreed to take me for that price, much to the ire of his younger competitors. We walked to the vehicle, and I had to exert great effort not to giggle. Back home, this rust heap would have hit the scrap yard years ago. The driver opened the door for me with all the chivalry one would expect entering a Lincoln Town Car. I noticed the window was not rolled down but rather missing entirely, as revealed by the jagged shards of glass still clinging to the edges. A faint click revealed the driver had turned on the air conditioning – in the form of a small, battery operated fan hitched to the center console.
As we attempted conversation despite my broken Spanish, Iquitos rolled out in front of me. A little boy kicked the deflated shell of a soccer ball, men piled on top of cargo on top of strained pickup trucks, colorful buildings seemed to sag in the heat, and Southeast-Asia style tuk-tuks battled motorcycles and more rusty cars through traffic. I watched intently as a policeman chased a man out of a store, and gasped when in the space of a second the officer caught up to him, drew his batton, and beat the man straight across the ribs with a firm single thwack. Welcome to the jungle, indeed.
Like so many visitors to Iquitos, my first move was to leave — for most, the city is little more than a transfer point to the jungle beyond. Luckily, I had scheduled almost four full days in Iquitos between my two forays into the remote Amazon. Lucky, because it only took me moments to know that this was my kind of cuidad.
Here, past meets present, and city meets jungle. Old rubber-mansions, once grand, now stand crumbling, and a peek inside reveals hammocks strewn from the mosaic-tiled ceilings. Here, the urban chaos of 370,000 people come face to face with the languid pace of the Amazon river, and a special energy emerges.
One building — below right — was designed by famed French architect Gustave Eiffel, and shipped into the city piece by piece in 1890. A local told me that the structure was originally meant for a rubber baron in Quito, Ecuador, but ended up in Iquitos due to a misunderstanding over the similarity of the city names. I simply stared at him, impassive, unable to determine if this was a joke, a bizarre-but-true slice of history, or a fiercely believed urban legend.
Today, the building holds a small pharmacy on the ground floor.
While the city’s colonial past is fascinating, so too is its colorful present. While I spent the majority of my time in Iquitos holed up battling the horrific internet connection, whenever I needed a break I would head out with my camera to capture some of the bright and bold street art. Some referenced Iquitos’ grand landmarks, others gave nod to life in the jungle, and some scrawled warnings that hinted at the area’s lascivious underbelly.
The ports and waterfronts of Iquitos are as busy as any main street at rush hour. Ground the planes, and boats are the only way in and out of this city. From my bed at my hostel, I could stare right out at the Rio Amazonas.
One day, I treated myself to lunch Al Frio y al Fuego. This floating restaurant was quite the splurge, but I was drawn by the novelty – and the pool. Afterwards, I had a panic about my budget, and that night had banana oatmeal and Diet Coke for dinner, leaning over the counter of the hostel kitchen.
But it was worth it.
To be honest, I spent a small fortune on food in Iquitos. I was putting in twelve hours a day in front of the computer and when I took breaks to eat, I wanted to really enjoy them. My favorite was Dawn of the Amazon, which had a mango salsa will change your life, beautiful river views and prices to match. After dinner there with two American guys from my hostel, our server politely asked them to write Ohio, their home state, on the back of a receipt so he could look it up on the internet.
Karma Cafe was another hit with free wifi, occasional live music, and a distinctly dreadlocked vibe. I also tried Amazon Bistro, but I liked the atmosphere better than the food.
Despite my heat-induced exhaustion I managed to sample a bit of the Iquitos’ famed nightlife. One evening, one of the hostel employees invited me to a local concert, and I accepted despite the fact that my evening yawning had already kicked off. Motorcyclists slowed down briefly to be patted down by security, and then carried on driving right into what appeared to be a major plane hangar, where a stage filled with scantily clad salsa-ing ladies and heavily hair-gelled boy band members crooned. In a crowd of several hundred, Miguel pointed out that I was one of three foreigners.
My final stop in Iquitos, on the morning of my departure, was to Belen Market. This bazaar is one of Iquitos’s main attractions – kind of the Chatuchak of the Amazon, if you will. However, I fielded warnings from both my guidebook and various hostel staff members about the safety of visiting the city’s most dangerous neighborhood sans guide. The consensus was that if I went alone with nothing for anyone to steal – wallet, camera, even sunglasses – I’d be fine. If I wanted to take pictures, I needed a guide.
So a guide I hired, of course.
The market was fascinating. There were little stall streets of flower vendors, others of medicinal and potion vendors. Most shocking were the fish and meat streets, where the hacked off tail of an endangered crocodile and the legs of threatened tortoises sat alongside chicken and beef. The police looked on, bored. Other items sure to be seized at customs: belts made of jaguar fur, wallets made of anaconda skins, skulls of various jungle mammals.
Obviously, this market should not be on the itinerary of any weak-stomached travelers.
We briefly walked through the town of lower Belen, where the guide told us to hold all our belongings close, walk quickly, and avoid eye contact. Ascending back to upper Belen, we walked down what looked like the dentist’s equivalent of The Garment District – cement cell after cement cell marked by wooden signs advertising tooth extractions within. Peeking discreetly into the open doors of people’s homes — more cement cells — revealed dozens of hammocks strewn from the ceilings with lawn furniture surrounding small TVs. This is the poorest and more crime-ridden area of Iquitos, and one I’m very grateful to have seen with my own eyes.
Iquitos charmed me — there were hints of Southeast Asia in the air, making it the perfect transition between continents. Crumbling and colorful mosaic-lined architecture, the kind of sweltering heat I love, hints of hectic chaos and a scenic river promenade that becomes a lively gathering place for seemingly the entire city’s population come evening. I could not have asked for a better introduction to Peru.
Where I stayed: Flying Dog Iquitos
Where I ate: Al Frio y al Fuego, Karma Cafe, Dawn of the Amazon
How I got there: StarPeru flight from Lima, $146 RT. The only options are flights or ferries — Iquitos is unreachable by road.
Bonus Tip: Tuk Tuks are a cheap and fun way to get around. Rides through town cost 2-3 soles.
man, that market totally makes me really wanna go there right now. Looks a bit like Nicaragua, but with better tiles.
It was one of the more exotic markets I’ve visited in my time! One thing I should have mentioned in the post… if possible, wear rain boots. The ground is pretty nasty 🙂
Alex, the photos and descriptions are so vivid, I feel I’m there with you…it may be also that the markets and concrete homes of people living in poverty in Iquitos evoke memories of similar places I’ve experienced in Indonesia.
I felt many similarities between Iquitos and Southeast Asia! Which as I said, made it a great transition point. I’m missing the heat now here in the highlands!
I know your travel experiences will be very different, but I would love to see a SE Asia vs South America post at the end of your trip! I know they have been kind of done to death but I still love reading them 🙂
I love those posts too Amanda! However I’ll have to see how extensive my South America travels end up being. If I only get to two countries, it probably won’t be fair to compare that to the eight I’ve visited (again and again) in Southeast Asia! But we will see…
I loved seeing Iquitos through your eyes – I actually hated most of my time here. Loved the crumbling architecture but after 3 days of street hawkers following me everywhere I went all day long bothering me, I was at my breaking point. We have some of the same photos of the street graffiti! Glad you got to see Belen too…I have no photos of it because we took literally nothing with us. We met 2 other foreigners in the market who had just had packpacks stolen right off their backs. A lot of poverty there!
I was thinking about you saying that when I was there, Rikka. I only had two people approach me my entire time I was there. One was kind of unnerving as he approached me when I was already a bit nervous about flashing my big camera, but they both backed off quickly when I explained (in Spanish) that I had just returned from the jungle. Maybe they’ve cooled their jets since you were there, to the joy of all travelers I would think!
I’m SO glad to hear that!! It was 2009 when I went, so hopefully it’s changed since then. It was horrible 🙁 glad you enjoyed it!!!
Great writing! Descriptions were vivid and the feel palpable. Excellent!
Thanks Nadia! I was very inspired by Iquitos and wrote dozens of notes right on my iPhone, almost right in the moment. I think it paid off.
Love your post! That floating restaurant is very cool. All of your pictures are incredible!
Thank you Krista! Much appreciated 🙂
I have heard so much about Iquitos, but would have never imagined it to be like this. It looks so beautiful. I love places like this, with the crumbling colonial architecture (reminds me a little of Kampot in Cambodia), and the market looks awesome. You make me sooo excited for my trip to Peru next year. 🙂
Yes, if you love Cambodia, I think you’d love Iquitos too! I can’t describe the parallels very well but I think when you’re here you’ll see if for yourself 🙂
I went to the Bolivian side of the Amazon and the town there looks tiny in comparision to Iquitos! The tiles and architecture in Iquitos look absolutely gorgeous.
Later in this trip I am headed to another jungle town, Puerto Maldonado, which I admit I’m nowhere near as interested in. I think Iquitos is just special!
Loving the ‘practical info’! I’ve always wanted to go to Iquitos but thought it would be too expensive to get there due to the no road access. Think I might go and book a ticket right now.
That was a suggestion from the reader survey! One of many which I am slowly implementing 🙂
Thanks for the enjoyable article. I have been in Iquitos for years and love to read about newcomers’ impressions.
The people of Iquitos, excluding the thieves, are the best and nicest people you can find: They are warm, friendly and hospitable; they like Life to be easygoing.
It was funny to read the motocarristas wanted to charge you 20 soles to go into town. I usually pay 4 soles if I’m being generous.
One has to accustom one’s self to life in Iquitos, which is very different from anywhere else, and oftentimes much more rewarding than the outside world. The answer is to come into balance with a day-to-day life that is somewhat of a disconnect.
Glad you enjoyed, Boo! I’m not sure if I was using the correct terminology. The car taxi drivers wanted 20 (though I payed 15) though what I call “tuk tuks” were asking for just 7 soles.
Lovely post, thanks for sharing. We’re planning a trip to South America early next year, I loved reading this. Thank you
You are welcome Anton! I have lots more South America content coming up, so stay tuned 🙂
Many towns in this part of the world are mixed between old world charm and poverty. I’ve seen both as well.
Karma Cafe – I LOVE a place that advertises FREE WIFI that much.
In Iquitos, wifi is actually incredibly rare (and pretty terrible!) I’m not surprised they were proud of their decent connection 🙂
Caiman tail? Huh. That’s a new one. Or crocodile or alligator, I guess. I’ve always found it a little weird that people would want to eat rare things instead of staring at them.
It was very sad 🙁 It’s the same reason the Amazon manatees are almost extinct. People like to eat them, and I can understand how the concept of endangered species would be difficult to explain here.
Iquitos looks beautiful! Random fact: the man on the stall in the third photo at Belen market is wearing a t-shirt of a Swedish death/prog metal band!
Ha! That is a random fact. Love it! 🙂
I’ve read so much about Iquitos in guidebooks (I have a slight obsession with that part of the world, especially the Amazon River and surrounding jungle – yet to go there though!) and have always tried to imagine what it looks like. Now, thanks to your photos, I know! 🙂
I do the exact same thing — scour guidebooks to places I have no plans to go! It’s a great hobby 🙂
So glad you reshared this on TBS. What a beautiful post. You truly captured the spirit of Iquitos and after having spent many weeks in Peru myself, you brought me back to my own memories in the Peruvian Amazon.
Thanks Emily! This is one of the posts I’m proudest of in my entire blogging archive.
Thanks for your great description storytelling and photos, it’s like being there. I am planning to go next august and I have a few questions.
I will be going there as a humanitarian clown with Dr Patch Adams, and most of our actions will be in the Belen neigborhood, there is a whole team of local care clowns taking care of us so I’m not worried. My questions are more for after, I am thinking to stay for 4 – 5 days to just enjoy the city by myself. I’ve been to Guatemala and India with Clown groups, but not by myself. I would stay in Hostels and would walk around with basically the clothes on my back. As far as I read the ‘danger’ is mostly for pickpockets and personal belongings, for the rest the city is pretty safe? Are there personal areas to avoid, or better neigborhoods to find a hostel in? Any other impressions would be great!!
Thanks again for a wonderful post!
Guy aka Citizen Clown :o)
Hey Guy! Sounds like a fun trip 🙂 I reviewed the hostel I stayed at, Flying Dog Iquitos, in another post. I loved it! I felt safe there and the staff gave me great and practical advice about the routes and safety anytime I wanted to walk there. Outside Belen I brought my camera everywhere, practiced reasonable caution, and felt very safe.
I can’t believe they let you down into the village. I was there in 2007, and tried to go down, and a military personnel stopped me. Pointed to my bracelet- it had silver plastic beads- told me someone would steal it- and I told him it was fake, but he kept telling me it wasn’t safe and wouldn’t let me pass.
Personally- I was traveling with a friend who would later (briefly) become a professional badass- I wasn’t worried at all.
If you’re ever back there- might I reccomend the Yellow Rose of Texas. American proprietor who married a Peruvian woman, and everything is delicious.
When I was out there the US dollar was much stronger, and we stayed in a really fancy hotel for almost nothing.
I think having a local guide was very helpful — he was friends with everyone, it seemed, and so I don’t think anyone was going to mess with him while we were together! He was well worth the guide fee.
Great blog, it’s now in my bookmarks! I spent a lot of time over in SE Asia and I am itching to do Peru, I’m a lot wiser now from back then too. When you say the market is dangerous, on what level?
I heard from many, many locals (backed up by my guidebook) not to even considering going without a guide if you want to bring a camera. One girl told me she went alone just to wander so left everything in her room, and still had the sunglasses stolen right off her head! I felt totally safe while with a local guide, though.
I know it was a while ago you were there, but would you suggest pre-booking an amazon tour or finding someone in town offering better deals?
Hey Erin! Hard to say. Definitely you could book a tour in Iquitos, and probably pay less — but pre-booking allows you to study reviews and have a bit more certainty about what you’re getting. You can’t go too wrong, I don’t think.