Peru is certainly a land of contrasts – from the huge city of Lima with its population of 9 million people, to the coastal deserts, high Andes Mountains and the Altiplano plateaux and the jungles in the Amazon. It’s an incredible country!
The country also has an amazing historic and cultural mix too – with pre-Incan Pyramids and ruins that date back thousands of years, to the times of the Incan Empire, Spanish conquistadors and Indio’s indigenous tribes that have lived for thousands of years in the jungles of the Amazon River and its many tributaries.
While Spanish is the official language of Peru with around 84% of the population speaking Spanish, there are also Quechua which is the language of 13% of the people and Aymara, spoken by 1.7% of the population. Most Peruvians who speak Quechua or Aymara will also speak Spanish and many people will also be able speak some English, particularly in the main tourist areas.
Added to these three main languages are the multiple languages and dialects spoken by the Indios indigenous people who live in village within the vast Amazon forest regions. Over half of Peru is covered by rainforest jungles.
In coming to Peru, most tourists and travellers will be planning to see the Incan ruins of Cusco and Machu Picchu, but many will also come to Iquitos to experience a very different city and lifestyle here in the upper reaches of the Amazon River basin.
When planning for a trip here to the Amazon, also be aware that there are mosquitos and Malaria – so you need to prepare for this, with mosquito repellent, malaria tablets, some bite cream, clothes suited to hot humid weather that also cover your exposed skin too. A poncho is good to have too, one that will protect you from the rain and also your backpack if you have one.
Iquitos with a population of around 500,000 is around 1100 kilometres to the north of Cusco or around 1000 kilometres north east from Lima, so a very long combination of road and river travel to get there or a few hours of flight time. Iquitos is not connected by road to the rest of Peru, but there is an 84 kilometre long road that crosses through the jungle between Iquitos and the river town of Nauta where many of the river cruise and jungle tours leave from. See www.rainforestcruises.com
While the Incas conquered a vast territory, the jungle tribes with their poison blow pipes and great knowledge of the rainforest, rivers and swamp land were never conquered by the Incas.
It was in 1757 that the Spanish first attempted to establish a settlement here, naming it San Pablo de los Napeanos, but it would be another hundred years before Iquitos was established, no doubt as a way for the Spanish to claim ownership over this land, knowing that the Portuguese had established Brazil to the east.
The most amazing thing is that Iquitos located here on the Rio Amazonas, 3° degrees south of the Equator, is over 3600 kilometres (2250 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil and the river is so massive that ocean going ships can travel downriver from here- roughly a 23 day journey.
Here in Iquitos the Amazon River is around 3 kilometres wide (2 miles) and Iquitos it is just 104 metres above sea level! Compare this with Cusco which is 3400 metres above sea level! Back in the Ice Ages, the river flowed west, before the Andes Mountains pushed upwards causing the river flow eastwards to the Atlantic Ocean.
Iquitos grew into prominence during the ‘Rubber Boom’ era when vulcanised rubber came into massive usage as the development of the car industry developed in the late 1890’s to the 1930’s and needed rubber tyres. Rubber trees grew in the Amazon rainforest – so cities like Iquitos and Manaus (in Brazil) both rapidly developed as ‘boom cities’ and money poured in to those fortunate enough to capitalise on this development. The terms ‘Rubber Baron’ and ‘Robber Baron’ were coined during this time to describe the wealthy few, who made their fortunes from Rubber.
Today in both Iquitos and Manaus, you can still see some of the old grand mansions that were built during this era. (See Brazil Amazon section of this website).
In many ways, Iquitos has the feel of a frontier or wild-west town, with the noise of traffic, market sellers, the river boats and activity all around you, and a mix of old Spanish colonial buildings and elsewhere houses on stilts with thatched roofs and other newer buildings constructed from cement and iron roofs. There is certainly wealth here but also poverty too.
In Iquitos next to the Itaya River that flows into the Rio Amazonas here is the floating town of Belén, where the houses stand on stilts above the water with canoes being the main form of transport. Here in Belén you will be able to visit the floating market in the mornings to see all sorts of fish, meats, vegetables, fruits and medicinal herbal medicines and concoctions. It is a real spectacle to see the array of things being sold here.
Motor bikes and Motocarros – 3 wheeler motorbike with a cross bench seat behind, with an awning roof for protection from the sun and rain are the main form of transport in Iquitos with Motocarros also used as Taxis too.
The main Tourist offices are located at the Airport and also on the Plaza de Armas in the city centre -at 161 Napo Street and it is worth stopping by them to get information to help you as needed. Tourism is a big part of the economy here and as a tourist you will also be the target of people wanting to sell you their tours and services as a guide or take you to a great place to eat or drink. As always, you need to be conscious of your own safety and be a bit street-wise.
Iquitos has grown as interest in Eco-Tourism and the Amazon has evolved, as has the interest in finding new plant based Pharmaceuticals sourced from the rainforest. As a river port city, Iquitos also ships out timber, Brazil nuts, bananas, tobacco and oil, but sadly there is also a trade in wild animals, birds, fish and exotic animal parts too. You may well come across tourist souvenirs that have animal parts as part of their creation and may well be shocked at some of these items that you see in the markets.
In and around the Plaza de Armas and the Boulevard that runs along the Riverfront you will find bars and restaurants, colonial buildings, the Iglesia Matriz church, Municipal Museum, the 1890 Iron House (Casa de Fierro) which is attributed to Gustave Eiffel as the designer, though this may or may not be true. The Iron House is located on the corner of Jirόn Prόspero and Jirόn Putumayu. Also look for the nearby ‘Malecόn’ River walk with its tiled walkways, gardens and markets here too, as well as the Amphitheatre where there is music and other things happenings most nights.
There are plenty of bars, clubs and good restaurants to get a drink and/or something to eat in Iquitos as well as plenty of places to buy souvenirs and supplies if you are headed off on a Jungle trek or day or longer cruise.
There are also Shamen (Medicine Men and sometimes charlatans) who will introduce you to a traditional Amazonian Spiritual Healing ceremony with a brew of leaves made with Ayahuasca, which has a hallucinogenic effect that can last for between 4 and 8 hours. A number of people have died as a consequence of taking a drink made using Ayahuasca, and given that you are in Peru means that you are a long way from home if something happens to you.
The greatest thing about being in Iquitos and seeing the Amazon River is simply being here! It is a very special and different part of the world, something that only relatively few people in the world will experience.
The Pacaya Samira National Reserve is here covering an area of over 20,000 square miles and it is here where you will see the Flooded Forest – what is better known as the “Jungle of Mirrors” where you see the reflection of the surrounding forest trees, vines and leaves in the waters. Another huge forest area on the Nanay River is the Allpahuayo Mishana National Reserve.
While the Rio Amazonas is huge and magnificent, the river is also fed by lots of tributaries and it is on these smaller tributaries that you are closer connected to the jungle sights, smells and sounds around you as you travel by boat from Iquitos and/or Nauta – the other town where many of the Boat trips leave from.
In most cases River and Jungle Cruises will include taking you to places to see local indigenous villages as well as to hopefully see lots of animals in the wild. Depending on your budget and time, your cruise might be 3 to 8 days long, with the night stays in a lodge or other accommodation. As you would imagine, the Rainforest comes to life at night too.
In Bellavista in Iquitos next to the Nanay River on the Playa (beach) there are places where you can hire a canoe for an hour or so to paddle up the river and take your time to take in the surrounds.
Some of the animals and birds that you will hope to see here in trips on the rivers and into the jungle are Pink River Dolphins, Caimans(a type of Crocodile), Giant Turtles, Otters, Monkeys, Giant Anteaters as well as Boa Constrictors and thousands of birds, including Macaws, as well as butterflies and insects of all sizes and types.
In Iquitos you should also see if you can the Manatee Orphanage, where orphaned Manatees (Dugongs) that have been rescued are cared for. It is located on the road to Nauta at 4.5 kilometres from the centre of Iquitos.
About 2 kilometres further along the road to Nauta is a small Zoo - Laguna de Quistacocha Zoo where you can see many of the animals that live in the forest. There is a sandy beach here too with lifeguards and many local people come here to see a Dolphin show or go to beach to swim.
Certainly spending a few days in Iquitos and taking a cruise to stay in a lodge in the middle of the rainforest will be memory that will stay with you for a lifetime. It is possible to head downriver to other places along the huge Amazon River as it winds its way eastwards to the Atlantic, or to catch a flight back to Lima or to some of the other cities in Peru such as Tarapoto or Pucalipa, as well as flights to some other cities in South America. If heading across the border to Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia or Bolivia, you may need to have a Visa document as well as your passport – so check with your airline office to see what is needed or with the Tourist Office here in Iquitos.
Above all – stay safe and have a great time here in Iquitos and Peru.