Location Iquitos Peru | Dates July 3-6 | Accommodation Flying Dog Iquitos & Victoria Regia Hotel (free night!)
Our next stop after Lima (maybe I’ll blog about Lima, probably not) was the airport, to grab a flight to Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon. We took the Quick Llama shuttle and arrived for a flight delay and rude girl screaming at the desk agent about it. Onboard, snacks and free Inca Kola. We stepped off the plane and it was finally legitimately warm! Within moments of entry into baggage claim, we were accosted by people trying to sell us Amazon tours, then by aggressive mototaxi drivers screaming “Taxi?” “Mototaxi?!!!” Into our faces as we walked outside. Only a few minutes into the ride, our taxi driver began: “I also sell Amazon tours” and tried to take us to the tour office at 10pm. We declined.
Iquitos is the largest city in the world not accessible by road. A cheap alternative to flying is to buy a hammock in the bottom of an overcrowded barge crammed next to many others and ride for 3+ days (no, thanks). It’s also a major gateway to the Peruvian Amazon, meaning there are tourist elements to the town. While many people don’t stay, we were pleasantly surprised by what the city had to offer. It felt very jungle-y, with the standard Peruvian city staples (street food; local restaurants with menus; stray dogs), plus innumerable mototaxis zipping around at all hours, yelling “mototaxi?” at us at every turn (why they assume we cannot walk and need 60+ taxi rides/day, I do not know).
By far and away, this was my favorite part of Iquitos. Probably the most interesting market I’ve ever been to (bold statement), it’s hard to adequately describe. An insane hustle and bustle that goes on for block after block after block, with a portion of the market becoming a floating market in the rainy season when the water rises towards street level. The market is covered in tents, tarps and umbrellas, with things displayed on wooden tables, plastic buckets, anything imaginable, spilling into the Belén shantytown on one side and the busy highway on the other. The food portion contained more dead animals, meat and fish than I have ever seen in a single place; fruits, vegetables, cooked foods in a dining area, fresh juice, dough being kneaded for bread. Massive triangular mounds of trash at each cross-street growing higher with each passing hour. Blood and guts and dog poop and on the often-muddy ground between the tightly packed stalls, hundreds of thousands of flies and bugs, people yelling, peddling goods on the move, cooking, bargaining. Absolute chaos. [Didn’t have my phone out much so not many photos.]
Below the market is the shantytown of Belén – a neighborhood of wood houses built on stilts above the mud (and water, in rainy season), opening to the murky brown waters of the river. Wooden boats in questionable condition are on wait to transport people and goods — or us! We hired a boat for 10 soles for a tour of all of Belén via waterway seeing life on the river unfolding.
After this we explored Belén, taking in the streets coated in deep mud from rain, rows of bananas straight from the tree on their thick stalks, people cooking and selling even more things in the grimey streets as the town came alive at 6:30am.
Belén is certainly not for everyone. It’s filthy, smelly, loud, overcrowded and a bit terrifying at times (stray dogs, vultures eating carcasses, people using huge machetes to chop, flying chunks of raw meat) but absolutely amazing and beautiful in its own way. We went back 3 times – two mornings (Wednesday was more crowded than Thursday) and again in the late afternoon as it was shutting down.
Architecture & Historical Buildings
There was some surprising colonial architecture leftover from the rubber boom days in Iquitos, too. The town map includes all buildings of note all near the main strip and Plaza de Armas. Additionally, the Casa de Fierro (iron house) is quite interesting and the last building of its type left in Iquitos.
I also visited a slightly offbeat attraction, the General Cemetery. I read about it online and upon learning Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald’s grave (inspired some movie) was there became obsessed and determined to go! The fact I’d never heard of this man until prior to that moment is not relevant. The huge cemetery is home to a number of graves, many housed in the “apartment grave” structures we’ve become familiar with in South America. The cemetery is beautiful, colorful, and orderly and disorderly at once. I didn’t actually find the guy’s grave (nobody was there to point me to it; the caretaker will do so for a small tip) and started to feel a bit weird about wandering the cemetery so I left, but it was a worthwhile venture. Some good non-touristy streets en route, too.
There is a small malecon, or walkway along the river in Iquitos. Along it views of the river/jungle, some statues and flags, a few of the historical houses mentioned above, food vendors frying plantains, shaving ice in old metal shavers (!) and some bars. It is also home to the Musuem of Indigenous Amazon Cultures (we didn’t go but peeked in; looked budget and lame). Further up is the ships museum (also didn’t go in). While walking here a man advised us to turn back as there was an aggressive dog ahead; another man tried to sell us some “plants.” Not clear.
There is an “artisan market” on stilts at the side of the malecon. Not super exciting. More exciting is the huge abandoned riverboat covered in graffiti. You can easily walk right up to it if you go down a path in the park grass, and although it says Danger! Do not enter! Many people were climbing all over it.
Parks: Plaza de Armas & Plaza 28 de Julio
There are 2 large parks – the Plaza de Armas (of course!) and Plaza 28 de Julio. PdA is standard; square of grasses, benches, etc surrounded by the tour offices, tourist restaurants, street stalls right downtown. 28 is nicer, with children riding toy cars, bubbles being sold, and lots of candy and other goods. Several Chifas surrounded the park, although we didn’t eat at one. We went at night and felt safe.
Wandering about outside the main tourist areas into potentially-questionable spots (as I tend to do) brought us to some cool spots.
Eating & Drinking in Iquitos
Restaurant Paulista | We certainly abandoned cooking months ago, as food in Peru is cheaper than cooking (many locals eat all meals out as such is true).
In Iquitos we had our daily menu meal at a spot called Paulista. It was well off the main drag, on a side street towards the city and no foreigners were there (phew)! We thought it cost 10 soles but wound up being 13, but was worth it. We got a pitcher of some brown juice which had a lime/root beer taste, huancaina (appetizer of cold potatoes with cheese topping), chicken salad, then chicharon de pollo which is basically chicken fingers and Sarah had the best beef dish of the trip. Plus we got a box of the leftovers!
Ivalu | We enjoyed a corn & chicken tamale (wrapped in jungle leaf) at this small bakery/cafe that was well-regarded. The item was delicious but way overpriced at 5 soles.
Street Food | In terms of other goodies, we ate some street cake (so rich and amazing, we turned back after consuming it all in one block and bought more; popcorn with red sugar, the traditional rice and chicken with spices in a palm leaf; fried plantains; a coconut drink plus all the meat (man scooped out for us).
Drinking | We went to 2 very local bars where we had a liter of Crystal beer for 5 soles, sitting on the plastic tables with locals, stray dogs looking like rats at our feet, old man playing cards nearby.
In our first spot (name unknown), the girl working flirted with some boys and one washed his face in an unsanitary bucket of water. At our second spot, Bar Rosita, a women sorting thousands of lollipops from a recent shipment in the bar and handing them out by the handful to the excited children, all their hands stained red. Her son even brought us 2! Prices at these bars were about ⅓ the price of a beer at the tourist spot and we enjoyed the local atmosphere!
Booking An Amazon Tour
We visited many agencies in town to gauge options and prices, then vetted our choice online prior to booking. In general, this is always cheaper than pre-booking online and preferred if you have time (then you can also negotiate). Our search started with the aggressive airport vendors and continued with a few awful tourist lodges near the city. Even worse, most boasted that you could hold the animals! Very wrong and sad to disrupt them and rip them down from trees for photos (some were even in cages) 🙁
Leaving one such office we were accosted by Diego, a large man in a red Tommy Hilfiger shirt telling us he had a better tour and dragging us 2 blocks to his office (why did we go with him?). Said office was actually a desk in a dirty hostel. He began selling us the tour, skipping over photos of people holding sloths since we mentioned our horror about this. “We never kill animals” he proudly boasted…why would that comment be necessary? We weren’t going with him, yet he pretended to call his father and “ask for a lower rate” for us slash walked into the other room and watched us. When we said we no he changed tactics and insulted other agencies, then in a last-ditch effort tried to sell us a hostel room. Every time we went into town he was in the Plaza on the prowl, still trying to sell us!
In the end, we booked with the preeminent tour agency – Muyuna Lodge (post on this coming next). It was more expensive but worth it as they treated the animals properly and we had an excellent experience. We simply took a 30-hour bus ride instead of a flight to make back the money we exceeded from our tour budget…
Budget and Practicalities
Lunch Menu | As low as 5.50 up to 13 or so during lunch. Tourist places of course much higher.
Beer | As low as 5 for a liter of Crystal! Go to a local spot rather than a tourist spot, of course. Recommend Bar Rosita.
Airport Taxi | 20 soles for taxi (car), 10 for mototaxi.
Boat Ride in Belén Market | No more than 10. They will try for 20 or higher; start negotiating at 5. Ride is about 30 minutes for this price.
Street Food | Mostly 1 sole per item. For cheap items go to Belén, food (and other items) are less there.