Iquitos - Gateway to Amazonas

Life in Iquitos, Peru revolves around the Amazon River. There are no roads leading to the city - an international airport and the muddy waters of the Amazon are the only ways in and out. The river provides food and transportation to the half-million residents of Iquitos and the many people who live in the settlements and villages that line the river's shores.

As is true of most cities along the Amazon, the booming rubber trade in the late 1800s shaped Iquitos. Buildings overlooking the Amazon along Iquitos' Malecon, its waterfront promenade, and surrounding the nearby Plaza de Armas hale from the days when the rubber industry fueled the local economy. Now a wide variety of commercial enterprises line the busy streets and "motocarros" (motorcycle based multi-passenger vehicles) provide an easy and inexpensive way to navigate the city. During the day Iquitos is a bustling port city with open markets offering fish from the river and produce from farms along its shore. The air is scented with the wood smoke of vendor's grills offering everything from chicken kabobs to whole fish. The city's main market in the Barrio Belen covers dozens of city blocks. Local vegetables, meats and fruits are abundant and stalls carry just about every type of merchandise one would need. A smaller market near the Bellavista Docks on the Rio Nanay offers an array of fruits and fish, both uncooked and grilled.

At night most people head for the Malecon, the wide, inviting promenade along the Amazon. Cafes and bars with indoor and outdoor seating line the area and a carnival atmosphere reigns. There's music, handicraft vendors, balloons and the cooling breeze from the river. The action lasts well into the night and, if you take an early morning walk the next day, you will find proprietors sweeping up small amounts of litter from the night before. Iquitos is a very clean city.

Jungle lodges and Amazon cruises are area's main attraction and the choices are many. Lodges range from primitive to deluxe and offer a variety of ways to explore the rainforest and its human and animal inhabitants. River cruises allow passengers a chance to visit more remote areas and explore a larger swath of the region. Iquitos' many hotels provide ample in-town lodging options.

My recent visit began in a somewhat primitive "Jungle Camp" east of Iquitos on the river Mamon, continued on a 4 day/3 night Amazon cruise on the area's premier ship, the Rio Amazonas, and ended at the recently built, five-star El Dorado Plaza Hotel in central Iquitos. Every step of the way we were warmly greeted, served excellent regional dishes, allowed a chance to observe local customs and treated to the opportunity to learn as little or as much as we wanted to learn about life in Peru's Amazonas.

The Jungle Camp

Located just east of Iquitos, Amazon Tours and Cruises Jungle Camp is a 20-minute speedboat ride from Iquitos' Bellavista Docks on the Rio Nanay. This property on the Rio Mamon is one of the oldest facilities offering jungle lodging to visitors to Iquitos. Made up of 26 screened rooms connected by covered walkways to a screened dining room and an open-air bar overlooking the river, the camp provides a variety of ways to explore the area.

A fifteen-minute walk through the adjacent forest leads to a small village of one of the area's indigenous tribes, the Yaguas. The people of the settlement welcome a chance to share their traditional dances with tourists and visitors are challenged to try their luck at hitting a target with darts from a blowgun. Locally produced handicrafts, including small blowguns, bracelets and necklaces are proudly displayed and cost very little.

Guides from the Jungle Camp, mostly young men from nearby villages, enjoy sharing their world with visitors and conduct excursions to nearby points of interest. We visited "Javier Serpentario" - a privately owned riverfront zoo with many unusual animals. Here one can hold a three-toed sloth, get as close to a captive boa as one dares and photograph macaws, monkeys, caimans and the rare mata mata turtle.

Our next stop was the village of Padre Cocha, a large settlement between the Jungle Camp and Iquitos. As our canoe pulled up to the bank we watched children swimming in the river. Young boys were playing a late afternoon game of soccer on the field next to the plaza as we wandered around the town. We visited the studio of a local potter who creates beautiful works of art from the local clay. As the sun began to set we returned to our canoe for the trip back to the camp.

Kerosene lanterns guided us back to the Jungle Camp's dock and the smell of the evening meal greeted us as we stepped to shore. A cold beer made the lack of electricity and hot showers easier to accept. We settled in early and listened to the sounds of the jungle as we drifted off to sleep.

Peru, Colombia and Brazil Fruit market vendors sell produce from small farms along the river
The next morning we headed back to Iquitos for a speedboat ride to the "Tres Fronteras" region of Amazonas where the borders of Peru, Colombia and Brazil form a riverfront intersection. This eight-hour trip stretched to ten because of a sudden rainstorm, but the time was pleasantly spent chatting, reading, napping, sampling the meals provided on board and gazing at life along the 250+ miles of river we traveled.

We arrived in Santa Rosa, Peru, in the late afternoon and hired a small boat to take us across the river to Leticia, Colombia. The formalities of visiting this tri-border area were very relaxed during our visit due to the Carnival celebration; however it's a good idea to make sure your documents are in order and that you have proof of a yellow fever vaccination when traveling from Peru to Brazil.

We wandered around Leticia as the sun went down and headed across the border to Tabatinga, Brazi,l for dinner. That night we stayed in Leticia's finest hotel, the Anaconda, and the next morning we re-crossed the Amazon to board the M/V Rio Amazonas in Santa Rosa.

Rio Amazonas Sunset over the Amazon
The Amazon is a mighty river and a cruise along any part of it is awesome but cruising upstream from Letiecia/Tabatinga to Iquitos is especially nice. Because of strong currents in the middle of the river, up-river-bound vessels hug the shore and life in settlements and villages along the river is easily observed. Wildlife can be spotted from a chair or hammock on deck and the sunset over the jungle is magnificent.

Our 4 day/3 night trip on the Rio Amazonas allowed us to comfortably enjoy Peru's Amazon in style.

After settling into our cabins and listening to a briefing about the ship, onboard safety and planned excursions for the next few days we headed to chairs on the upper deck to spot birds and more as the ship passed close to Monkey Island, a location teaming with wildlife. Armed with cameras and binoculars we listened as our guide identified birds in flight, plants and trees on shore, and the occasional monkey high in the canopy. We sat on deck and watched a spectacular sunset and then joined our Australian and Swiss shipmates in the dining room for dinner and conversation.

This oft updated 100+ year-old ship boasts large air-conditioned cabins with private baths, a comfortable air-conditioned dining room, a breezy, shaded deck bar, sundeck and whirlpool tub. Meals are buffet style and draw on the area's fresh seafood and produce. One day we saw a native canoe come alongside to sell freshly caught fish to our chef.

Unlike on eco-cruises elsewhere, the chirping birds that awaken you on the Rio Amazonas are the real thing. If the chatter of birds on shore doesn't do the trick, a member of the crew will knock on your door to make sure you don't miss breakfast. I enjoyed rising early and taking my pillow, binoculars and camera to a hammock on the aft deck to greet the day. The dining room is ready for early risers with hot water for tea and coffee. (Note: Passenger cabins are stocked with two bottles of water, which may be refilled from a large container of fresh water in the dining room. We applaud this ecologically sensitive way to keep passengers hydrated without adding cost to travel or the environment.)

After a typical breakfast of juice, eggs, ham and fruit, we boarded small motorboats and headed to shore to explore the jungle. According to Paul Wright, owner and operator of the Rio Amazonas' parent company, Amazon Tours and Cruises, "No two cruises are ever the same." He explains that the crew and guides determine during each cruise which locations to visit for jungle walks, the evening boat rides for caiman spotting and the daytime piranha fishing excursions. "Otherwise our crewmembers would get bored and we wouldn't be able to maintain a staff that cares so much about this area and takes such pride in showing it to guests," Paul continued.

Our jungle walk was highlighted by spotting squirrel monkeys in the dense canopy and a chance to learn from our locally born guide many of the uses the plants we were seeing are put to by jungle dwellers. At the end of the hike we tasted zapote, a locally grown fruit, before boarding the small boats that would take us back to the Rio Amazonas.

After lunch and a siesta we boarded the launches again for a visit to San Pablo and a chance to purchase wood carvings from the lepers who have made woodcarving their livelihood. Years ago Paul Wright was escorting a group of Australian nurses on an Amazon cruise who insisted on visiting the leper hospital at San Pablo. Upon their return to Iquitos they dropped off a package at Paul's office that held woodworking tools from a local hardware store. They insisted that Paul deliver the tools to the hospital and encourage the patients to use the wood from the nearby forest to fashion handicrafts. A few months after delivering the tools Paul put in at San Pablo and was impressed by the carvings he saw. Now the village is a stop on the Rio Amazonas' up-river itinerary, one of those tourism relationships that benefits everybody.

That night before dinner we boarded the launch with flashlights in hand and headed into a small river to look for the luminous eyes along shore that would indicate the presence of birds, mammals, and caiman. The only creature our guide was able to corral that night was a tree frog, but the chance to quietly float along and experience the sounds of the jungle and look deep into the Southern Hemisphere's night sky without the glare of city lights was unique to this corner of the world.

The next morning's excursion led us to a Bora Indian village where we were allowed to view and invited to join in a demonstration of their traditional dances. A wide range of handicrafts from the area were displayed and the Boras were more than willing to trade for western merchandise - pens, pencils and small bottles of hotel shampoo and condtioner.

Next we headed to the home, gallery and studio of Francisco Grippa in the Amazonas village of Pevas. Grippa is a world-famous artist trained in Paris, London and New York who has made a home in this village halfway between Iquitos and Leticia. He brings his vividly colored paintings of the flora and fauna of the jungle to galleries in Los Angeles, New York and Miami and warmly welcomes visitors to his hill-top home overlooking the Amazon. As we climbed the stairs to his home, classical music drifted down to meet us. We entered his galleries where large paintings lined the walls and polished furniture of nearby origin filled the bright, airy space. One level up is the artist's studio where brushes, jars of paint, unfinished canvases and a view of the Amazon River below cast a glimpse at what's to come. This is one of the few places on earth where you can purchase a thousand dollar painting, a $30 print or a $1 postcard and be personally tended to equally by the artist who created it.

Later in the day we tried our luck at fishing in a small river. After baiting our hooks with bits of beef we stirred the water a little before dropping our lines into the muddy water. Several fellow passengers got lucky catching small catfish and such, but no one caught the area's famous fish, the piranha. At dinner that night the day's catch was there for the tasting in addition to the regular menu.

Exploring Iquitos

That night we chatted with the other passengers, watched the stars and savored our last night on the Amazon.

The next day we docked in Iquitos in the morning and headed for the city's recently built five-star hotel, the El Dorado Plaza. The beautiful modern structure is built around a soaring atrium and has a pool, jacuzzi, gym, restaurant, gift shop and bar. Rooms are large and overlook either the pool or the Plaza below. The minibar and cable TV were great, but the biggest treat was the hot water in the bathroom. (In the region around Iquitos and other destinations along the Amazon, hot water is not always available, even in the finest hotels.)

That afternoon we set out to explore Iquitos. The El Dorado Plaza faces the Plaza de Armas so we struck out from there. The colorful Iglesia Matriz across the Plaza anchors one side of the square and the famed Iron House designed by Alexandre Eiffel and Ari's Burger restaurant, which caters to visiting gringos, occupy an adjacent side. We walked a short block to the promenade built along the Amazon. Here colonial houses sporting tilework typical of the Mediterranean are evident. This quiet stretch of riverfront comes alive at night as outdoor cafes and street vendors welcome city dwellers to enjoy the cooling breezes and carnival atmosphere of the Malecon at night.

A late-night visit to an ice cream shop on the Plaza topped off the day.

Early the next morning we headed to the massive market in Barrio Belen. This market covers multiple city blocks and vendors sell fish, meat, produce, household goods, clothing and just about everything else. A walk through the market and a glimpse from it toward the river and the floating houses where many Belen residents live is an important part of any visit to Iquitos.

Another local market can be visited daily at Bellavista, the city's dock on the Rio Nanay. Wood smoke in the air carries the aroma of grilling fish, which people carry home for their evening meal. There's fresh produce on display that arrives daily from farms along the river. Small refreshment stands opposite the docks are a great place to sip a cold drink and watch the activity.

A few miles outside Iquitos is the family-oriented Quistococha recreation area. This sprawling facility includes a lakeside beach, zoo, nature paths, picnic area and more. Families seeking a break from the heat of the city spend long weekend afternoons here. The exotic jungle animals and fish on display make this worth the excursion if you have time.

Dinner in an outdoor café on the Malecon and a visit to one of the impromptu parties that often occur in Iquitos brought our visit to a close. The next morning we caught the early Aerocontinente flight to Lima and left the Amazon behind.

-- Jane Townsend
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