Into Peru’s Amazonian heart of darkness
Passing Victoria Regia plants on a tributary near Iquitos, Peru. (Paul Kennedy/LPI)
The Peru of most travellers’ imaginations is one of Andean landscapes and Incan ruins, but there is another side to the country: the Amazon. And if Cuzco is the gateway to the Inca Trail, its jungle counterpart is the northern city of Iquitos.
There is no “road” to Iquitos. This isolated city is reached by either a quick plane ride from Lima or, for the cheap-and-adventurous route, a days-long journey by boat. Travellers are often quickly taken with the vibrant city’s laid-back tropical vibe. Scooters and motorized rickshaws (aka mototaxis) buzz through the streets and locals wile away the day and evening strolling the Malecón Tarapacá, a pedestrian walkway that runs above the mighty Amazon River. The malecón is lined with cafes and bars, and it is a prime spot for street performers hoping to earn a few Peruvian soles by entertaining the crowd.
Iquitos was put on the world map during the rubber boom in the late 1800s. The mansions from this period, with Spanish tile and European iron balconies, are still there, some occupied or turned into hotels. One restored building contains the Museo Regional Amazónico, with a collection of native tribesmen sculptures from the region.
Another Iquitos landmark is the Casa de Fierro, or Iron House, part of a structure built by Gustave Eiffel (of Parisian tower fame) for the city’s 1889 Paris Exposition. Other than eat at the restaurant, there is little to do inside.
During the colonial years, as now, many residents lived in poverty. You can still see the shantytown of Belén, where tethered houses float up and down with the river. Locals take tourists on canoe trips around the neighbourhood, and most hotels will caution not to roam around Belén on your own. Visit the market, one of South America’s most chaotic and colourful, with clothing, kitchen utensils, produce, chickens, cow parts and exotic natural “medicines” for sale. If you were hoping to procure a jungle aphrodisiac, you have come to the right place.
Many travellers pre-book jungle lodge stays well before they get to Iquitos, but it is just as easy to spend a few days here, get some advice and then book a trip. The expat community is large and you can find its members downing cervezas at the Yellow Rose of Texas, where the bar stools are designed as horse saddles. The enterprising foreigners have even carved out a nine-hole golf course a short distance from Iquitos. They claim it is the “only course in the world where golfers are issued a machete” just in case.
Prices for stays at jungle lodges vary, but unlike much of the country’s accommodation, none are cheap. They afford a unique opportunity to go on several jungle tours each day, with guides pointing out monkeys, birds, caimans, and sloths. Spooky night tours afford the best opportunity to see several types of tarantulas, including the Peruvian pink-toe. In fact, pink is pretty popular in the jungle. River dolphins of that colour can be spotted in the Amazon River.
About three hours by boat from Iquitos is Muyuna Amazon Lodge, where simple, comfortable cabins are lit by kerosene lamps in lieu of electricity. There is a similar set up of no electricity and cold-water showers (not a problem in the jungle heat) at Otorongo Lodge. The solar-powered Amazon Yarapa River Lodge has designated some land as a natural preserve and partnered with Cornell University to build a field laboratory. Amazonia Expeditions' Tahuayo Lodge has a satellite research centre deeper in the jungle, and a zipline above the jungle canopy. If you are looking for something more hotel than rustic cabin, Ceiba Tops Luxury Lodge has air conditioning, a swimming pool and wi-fi. Its company, Explorama, operates two other, slightly less luxurious, lodges and a canopy walkway.
Before you go, and for an entertaining (and fictionalized) look at Iquitos’ wealthy rubber baron days, watch Werner Herzog’s epic film, Fitzcarraldo, or the more recent documentary on the difficulties of making the film.