Iquitos, Peru: tourist destination in the jungle

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Address number 10: Ganzo Azul 578

Flag of Peru  , Loreto,
Sunday, October 4, 2009

'The Heart of the Rainforest' may not be the first thing that comes to mind when planning your vacation. Of course, there are many people who like adventure travel and would rather go on a mountain trek for two weeks, than spend their holiday on the beach. But even when they choose Peru as their holiday destination, a tour of the central and southern parts of the country, where one finds the ancient Inca culture, seems more obvious than a visit to the North.

The Incas, though keen on expanding their vast empire, never reached Iquitos. Even for them, the Amazon rainforest proved to be too difficult to take. The native tribes that still live here have been here for a thousand years, isolated from the rest of the world. The impenetrable rainforest prevented these people from being wiped out by the Spanish conquistadores. This is how it was possible for no less than 23 different races to develop, each with their own culture, traditional wear, customs and language.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, things didn’t change much in this area. But the industrial revolution brought an end to centuries of peace and quiet. The small village of the Iquito native tribe, now known as Iquitos, experienced a ‘boom’, an explosion of growth and extraordinary wealth, because of the development of the rubber industry.

The architectural and cultural heritage of those days is still visible around town, because for the ‘rubber barons’, nothing was too outrageous. They imported shiploads of the best quality products from Europe. The façades of their stately homes were decorated with beautiful ceramic tiles, imported from Portugal and Italy, that can still be admired today.

Entire operas from Europe were brought to Iquitos to entertain the rich. They had to travel across the Atlantic and 5,000 kilometers up the Amazon River to perform here.

A rubber baron named Anselmo del Águila, who visited the Paris World Fair of 1889, bought an unusual house that was on display there. It was designed by non other than Gustave Eiffel, who also built the Eiffel Tower for the occasion of the World Fair. The house was made entirely of iron and is said to be the first prefab house in the world. Anselmo del Águila had it taken apart and shipped to Iquitos, where natives carried the iron parts through the jungle, to the location where it still stands today; the Plaza de Armas in Iquitos.

And so Iquitos offers many cultural surprises that date back to the days of the rubber boom. Those days ended quite abrubtly during the early years of the twentieth century, when rubber seeds were smuggled out of the country and the rubber industry moved to Malaysia.

After the rubber boom, many immigrants stayed in this area and made the city of Iquitos what it is today. Even though there still is a small, wealthy elite in Iquitos, the large majority of its inhabitants are poor. This makes Iquitos a very cheap place to visit and to stay, where a ride in a ‘mototaxi’, a kind of motorized riksja, will cost you about 50 cents; where you can eat an excellent meal for two euros, and where seven euros buys you a modest but clean hostal room. For thirty euros you can check into a reasonably luxurious hotel, while the five-star El Dorado Plaza at the Plaza de Armas offers all the luxury and comfort you could desire. But for those who are happy with a more modest environment, there are plenty of possibilities.

Obviously, the rainforest is by far the most important reason why tourists come to this region. The Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, named after the two rivers that form its natural borders, is the main attraction. If you want to see the virgin rainforest and experience first hand what jungle life is like for its original inhabitants, this is the place to go. You have a choice of many several-day tours to this region, accompanied by experienced, bi-lingual jungle guides.

An excursion into the rainforest can be an overwhelming experience, during which you meet the native inhabitants of the jungle and see a large variety of animals. The rivers and swamps in this region belong to the caiman, the anaconda, the piraña, the giant river turtle, the river dolphin and an extraordinary number of bird species.

But for those who lack this kind of adventurous spirit, there are many things to do and see in and around Iquitos that will give you an excellent impression of nature as well as the culture of this area. Villages close to Iquitos, like Padre Cocha, can easily be reached by boat. Tribes like the Bora and the Yagua live here, at about a half hour boat ride from Iquitos and are visited daily by tourists.

In Padre Cocha, you can visit Pilpintuwasi, the butterfly farm and animal orphanage. Here, 43 different species of Amazonian butterflies are bred, but there is also a variety of animals, like a grown jaguar, a tapir, some snakes and caiman, some water turtles, and even a very rare manatee, which is a critically endangered species. Several species of monkeys, parrots and an anteater walk and run about freely.

Another great place to visit is Quistococha. This is a lake with a nice, white-sanded beach, a park and a zoo, with a lage number of Amazonian animals. There are some pavillions and it is very popular with the local youth, who come to swim, play football and volleyball.

In Iquitos itself, the ‘floating city’ of Belén is definitely worth a visit. Because of the rising water levels, the houses here are built on stilts and on rafts, allowing them to float on the water during the high water season. It has earned Belén the nickname ‘Venice of Peru’. Belén is also famous for its regional market, where products from throughout the jungle are sold. In the harbor, where you can get a tour in a canoe for just a few dollars, you can see how the countless jungle products arrive from miles around. These products are sold at the market, at bargain prices.

The people of Belén are friendly and hospitable, but it is wise to visit the market and the residential area with a local guide. The market is a large labyrinth of streets and alleys and tourists are often approached by the locals, who try to sell them goods and services. A guide can be a handy buffer and also knows what the going rates and prices are. He can also explain what the various foods and products are that are on sale here.

For example; one particularly popular local drink is called masato, or jungle beer. It is not bad at all when you try it, but you should know how it is made: The fermentation process of this beverage is achieved by chewing the yuca root and spitting it into a large barrel. The enzymes in the saliva cause the mixture to start fermenting, which turns it into a light alcoholic drink. Delicious!

Even though it cannot be reached by land, Iquitos is an important university town. Especially the national university UNAP draws thousands of new college students every year en thus impacts the cultural life of Iquitos. Iquitos is a festive town, surprisingly open-minded, with a very young population. It has a fun and exciting nightlife of many bars and discos and a large, thriving gay community.

If you want to know more about this city, its people and about the Amazon rainforest, you can visit ikitos.com. There you will find a lot of fun, interesting and useful information in English and Spanish. And if you decide to visit Iquitos, make sure you contact me at ikitos travel. You will be glad you did.
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Comments

ares58
ares58 on

Iquitos Travel
This summary sure makes one want to go and see the wonders of the Amazon. I am sure, one could only wish to have a knowledgeable guide like the writer of this travel blog.

mrgart
mrgart on

Re: Iquitos Travel
Thank you for your kind words, sir; I certainly appreciate it!

Mr. Gart

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