Iquitos, Peru, is surrounded by grand rivers and lush rain forest. This charming city has been my home port for adventure cruises on the magnificent Amazon River for three years. Please let me share my love for this frontier town of Iquitos.
Your first impression is the warm, oxygen rich, moist air. It feels good and it is easy to breathe. Your second impression is that there are thousands of motorcycles and three wheel rickshaws called moto-kars whizzing around. Be careful. The biggest adventure most travelers experience in Iquitos is racing through the streets perched on the edge of their seat in a moto-kar weaving in and out of traffic.
The rules of the road are different from what you are used to; a bad wreck seems inevitable. Keep your arms, legs and baggage inside the steel frame. When the moto-kar arrives, move out on the sidewalk side, never the street side. Pedestrians do not have the right of way.
Iquitos has no roads connecting to other cities, making it the largest, most isolated city on any continent. Cars are status symbols. I do not have one. Boats are important. I have four river boats. I walk or take a moto-kar, and I spend a lot of time in my boats.
I want to attempt to correct a mistake perpetuated by the travel industry, and guidebooks, and found on the internet. Their combined wisdom is that the best time for the traveler to come to Iquitos is during the “dry season”, from June through November. There are two seasons – and they are not dry or wet. What is termed the “dry season” should actually be called the "low water season" when the water level can be 40 feet lower than the high water season. High water levels are from December through May.
The rise and fall of the water has little or nothing to do with rainfall. It is the snow melt and rainfall on the east slope of the Andes that cause the rivers to rise. In my opinion, the only activities that are better in the low water season are fishing, collecting ornamental fish and walking on the beach. Everything else is better in the high water season.
The most important historical event in Iquitos was the rubber boom, which caused an explosion in population and prosperity from 1880 through 1912. The legacy from the rubber era can still be seen in the city's architecture, in the elegant mansions, as well as the Iron House and bandstand designed by Eiffel. Most of the mansions are decorated with exquisitely painted ceramic tiles imported from Portugal, and with mahogany elaborately carved by the most skilled Italian artists. Take a tour of the historical buildings of Iquitos. Visit the Museo Amazonico, constructed in 1863 and admire the many sculptures by Felipe Lettersten, as well as the old photographs from the turn of the 19th century.
Shopping is not good in Iquitos, unless you want to buy tropical fruits, natural medicines, or other jungle extracts, in which case it is great. I wish every traveler would take a special tour with a knowledgeable guide to the Belen Market in the morning for an unusual shopping experience. In the alleyway known as Pasaje Paquito, there is a natural medicine to cure every imaginable illness. In the lower Belen Market, you can buy anything that can be sold.
The Plaza de Armas has a wonderful fountain. We like to buy ice cream cones from across the street and eat them in the cool mist from the fountain. It can be very romantic.
Another good place to hang out is the Malecon, also called the boulevard, or river walk, with the best view of the sunrise over the Itaya River. Perhaps we will meet. I live on the third floor of the corner building across the street from the historic chapel and seminary. My office is on the ground floor. Look for the sign that says Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises. Stop in and say hi.
On Saturday and Sunday night, the boulevard is the place to be. People gather to see and be seen. You would enjoy visiting some of the “characters” from the ex-pat community, drink a cold Iquiteña Extra beer (locally brewed), and watch the action. Clowns on stilts, mimes, slapstick comedians, capoeira, a brass band, street musicians, a dog and monkey show, and beautiful women all compete for your attention. My favorite is the group of capoeiristas that performs the capoeira, an acrobatic martial arts dance, every Saturday at 8:00 p.m. I have the best seat in the house from my balcony.
I can take you in one of the boats for a few hours. The port area is an interesting parts of the city. Most travelers never see it. I like to cruise slowly close to shore and watch the tugs and barges, the colectivos, llevo-llevos, lanchas, lanchitas, canoes, and rafts, – full of people, livestock, fruit, charcoal, and other jungle products they look like they would surely sink. Coming and going, loading and unloading – not many places in the world have more interesting maritime traffic than the Iquitos ports.
The best way to experience the most picturesque area in Iquitos, the Barrio de Belen, is from a boat during the high water season. The houses are built on balsa rafts and float up and down as the water level changes. The floating houses are laid out in streets of water. The area is known as the Venice of Peru. Everyone has a canoe or llevo-llevo with a peque-peque motor. We like to cruise – slow and easy – watching life being lived in a different way. One of my boats was built here; I know the neighborhood well – a most interesting place.
A short boat ride away from Iquitos are the Amazon Animal Orphanage and Pilpintuasi Butterfly Farm, the Momon River, a small winding stream with the jungle close on both sides, a petting zoo where you can wrestle a giant anaconda, the Bora and Yagua indigenous villages, and a good place to watch the pink river dolphins. Doesn't a day cruise around the rivers of Iquitos sound great?
The best of Iquitos
The most important components of Iquitos, Peru, are the friendly non-violent people. Streets are safe and clean (swept by hand every night). Violent crime is nearly unheard of, but, of course, there are plenty of hustlers, so use common sense.
The population census shows far more women than men. You have probably never seen so many people smiling and laughing, ready to dance, drink, play and flirt for fun. Every holiday is thoroughly celebrated, and there are a lot of parades and parties, plus we are blessed with eternal summer.
Iquitos, Peru, is known as The City of Love. If you are not in love when you arrive, there is a good chance you will be when you leave.
Bill Grimes is a writer, photographer, jungle guide and president of Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises, a small cozy adventure outfitter for independent travelers. Check the Dawn on the Amazon.