The Amazon: Iquitos

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Every former Spanish colony has a central square called the Plaza de Armas. Iquitos is no exception.

It’s nice being a lady of leisure. But it’s also a tad boring. I’ve walked miles here in Arequipa (training for my upcoming Nepal hike) and while it’s a great city, I was getting restless to see something new. One morning it hit me hard. I was missing something really important while I’m here in Peru: The Amazon. I walked to my favorite tourist agency in the Plaza de Armas and rectified that problem. I booked 5 days in the wet, sticky Amazon area, with one night in Iquitos and 4 additional nights in the rustic Cumaceba Lodge. An adventure!

To get to Iquitos, I took an early flight from Arequipa to Lima, then a connecting flight to get to my destination. So far, every flight I’ve taken out of Lima has been delayed. Fortunately, there was someone at the airport to meet me and take me to my hotel.

The Amazon has been the stuff of legends for me since childhood. I read that the Amazons were a fierce tribe of women warriors, almost unimaginable in my patriarchal family. While I didn’t see any women wielding bows and arrows, I am convinced that living in the Amazon jungle takes a tremendous amount of strength and ingenuity. I really enjoyed my stay, but it’s safe to say I won’t be building a summer cottage here.

Iquitos has a boardwalk. It was beginning to get dark, but I went for a stroll before bed.

Iquitos, also known as Iquitos City, is the capital city of Peru’s Maynas Province and Loreto Region. It is known as the “capital of the Peruvian Amazon.” The city is located in the Great Plains of the Amazon Basin, at the confluence of the Nanay and Itaya rivers. Iquitos is the largest metropolis in the Peruvian Amazon, east of the Andes and the sixth most populous city of Peru. If you want an Amazonian adventure, this is a good place to start. It’s also the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road – it is accessible only by river and air.

The boardwalk is colorful and had a lot of tourists. This is a common spot for excursions in the Amazon. You can take day trips from here, or, move onto an Amazon Lodge, as I did.

While long inhabited by indigenous people, the founding date of the European city is uncertain. Spanish historical documents state that it was set up around 1757, about 200 years following the conquest.

My first view of the Amazon–or so I thought. Turns out the river moved a few years ago, but Iquitos is still at the confluence of two rivers, both tributaries of the Amazon.

The architecture and historical treasures reflect the colonial and early 20th-century European period, attracting an increased tourist trade in the 21st century after the airport was expanded for international flights. Iquitos is a center of ecological tourism. It has become a major cosmopolitan city with strong roots in the Amazon, featuring a complex history and cuisine, Amazonian landscapes, nightlife, and a growing cultural movement.

Plaza de Armas, located just 2 blocks from my hotel.

In 2012, a quarter of a million tourists started their adventure vacations to the Amazon here. The Historic Center of Iquitos has several structures designated as part of the Cultural Heritage of the Nation: the Cathedral of Iquitos, the Iron House, the Old Hotel Palace, Cohen House, and more than 70 other buildings. Other landmarks are the Plaza de Armas (which I saw); Jiron Prospero, a shopping and historical area; and the lively neighborhood of Belén, often dubbed the “Amazon Venice” for its many waterways (neither of which I saw). The city is also home to the Amazon Library, one of the two most important in Latin America.

I stopped for dinner and got the Criola special (a general term for a Chinese-Peruvian fusion dish). The yellow “circle” in the middle is a causa, which means the main ingredient is potatoes. This one also had shredded chicken. Trust me, there will always be potatoes on the menu in Peru–and often starch yucca or boiled plantains.

Most people travel within the city via bus, motorcycle, or the ubiquitous auto rickshaw (mototaxi, motocarro or motocar). This is a modified motorcycle with a cabin behind supported by two wheels, seating up to three (very thin) people. Transportation to nearby towns often requires a river trip via boat, a pequepeque (Pronounced: PEH kay-PEH kay, an onamonapia–the name is roughly the sound the motor makes).

The Garden House was a more upscale hotel than I usually stay in, but then, I have pretty low standards for lodging. I often stay in hostels, but had been warned against the ones in this city. After seeing the filthy residents emerge from the backpacker hostel across the street, I believe the hotel was worth the extra money. The Garden House was clean and well located. The door to the room had recently been stained and sealed, and I imagine it will take more than a week to dry in this humidity. They were supposed to serve breakfast, but there was a power outage just as I sat down to order. Fortunately, the coffee was already made. They did give me bread and jam, though.
My hotel, The Garden House, was just two blocks from the Plaza de Armas. It was also my last night with air conditioning for awhile.
This artist’s shop has an entrance from the boardwalk. During the rainy season, the water will rise almost to the bottom of the building.
The boardwalk includes an old steam boat, which is dry docked now, but floating during the rainy season.

These houses are in the river’s flood plain, but are designed to float when the water rises.
Boardwalk of Iquitos. The next morning, I got a walking tour of Iquitos from my new guide, Sergio.
This (rather uneven) soccer field will be under water soon.

The  Iron House (on the left) was designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame.

Tourism is one of the most vital industries in Iquitos, due to its location just off the banks of the Amazon River. The river is often described as “one of the seven natural wonders of the world.” By my count there must be at least a hundred “Natural Wonders of the World.” Must be the New Math? Iquitos receives a considerable amount of foreigners, and has adequate infrastructure to accommodate tourists from all levels, from pricey 5-star hotels to backpacker hostels.

This shows the major forms of transportation in Iquitos: The body of the orange public bus is made of wood, and only costs 1 sole for a ride. There are lots of bicycles, motorcycles and scooters (often with 2-3 passengers). The ubiquitous transportation, however, is the mototaxi–a modified motorcycle that will carry two or three passengers, plus luggage. It’s similar to the tuk-tuk in Thailand.
The streets of Iquitos are dominated by more than 25,000 auto rickshaws or motokars, known in the rest of Peru under the name of mototaxi. They are mostly used by foreigners to provide taxi service. The buses are large vehicles made of wood with direct routes. Pedestrians do not have the right of way, so crossing the street is dangerous!
Those may look like electrical poles, but these floating houses don’t have any electricity. Or plumbing.
It’s a very trashy area. Notice the turkey vulture picking through the rubbish for a late breakfast. The numerous stray dogs do the same.
Iquitos cathedral, across from the Plaza de Armas. The Iglesia San Juan Bautista (church of Saint John the Baptist) is characterized by its Gothic Revival style and Swiss clock. It is considered one of the urban symbols of the city.

The St. John the Baptist Cathedral (Spanish: Catedral San Juan Bautista, Catedral Metropolitana de Iquitos) also called Iquitos Cathedral is the main Catholic church, in neo-Gothic style, in the city of Iquitos in Peru. It is located in Iquitos Center at the intersection of Arica and Putumayo streets. The property of the Catholic Church, it was declared a Cultural Heritage of the Nation of Peru in 1996, and is considered an urban icon in Iquitos.

Currently, it is the tallest religious temple, also notable for including a crypt–unusual in a place with annual flooding. Construction of the cathedral began in 1911 after the demolition of the ancient temple. It was inaugurated on March 16, 1919, though the tower wasn’t finished until 1924.

Interior, cathedral
Interior, cathedral
Altar. Interior, cathedral
This is the port of Iquitos and men are unloading ships and climbing the almost vertical stairway (to the far left) with backbreaking loads. This is the low water mark since it was the dry season and there had been no rain for 2 weeks. It rained every day I was here, however, so I’m sure the level rose a few feet. The area is strewn with trash from the river. This is the port we left from to reach the Amazon River and then our rustic lodge.
In this heat and humidity, unloading ship’s cargo is a tough job.
This is not my ideal place for a summer cabin, even in the dry (winter) season. On the up side, since this is “temporary” ground, these floating houses pay no rent or property taxes. They also have no electricity, running water or even screens on the openings from the bugs. Wonder what are the levels of Yellow Fever or other mosquito borne illnesses?
Another photo of the port.
A map of the area. This is the headquarters of my tour company in Iquitos. We took a boat for about an hour to Cumaceba Lodge (the word is a name for a type of local tree). If I go back, I’ll check out the Mariposario–the butterfly farm.
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Beth

I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

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