The views alone were worth the price of the flight — just $73. First, we soared over the Andes mountain range, and then dipped low over the snaking tributaries of the Amazon river. I snapped picture after picture and later captioned my first Instagram from Peru, bienvenidos a la selva; welcome to the jungle.
When the plane landed, the doors opened and I could feel the steamy jungle air creep into the cabin. A rusting carcass of a plane rested at the end of the runway, and a one room airport welcomed us to Iquitos – the largest city in the world unreachable by road.
A hungry crowd of cab drivers awaited. Viente soles, they demanded, though I had written in my notes that the fair rate was quince soles. I stood my ground and a very small older man agreed to take me for that price, much to the ire of his younger competitors. We walked to the vehicle, and I had to exert great effort not to giggle. Back home, this rust heap would have hit the scrap yard years ago. The driver opened the door for me with all the chivalry one would expect entering a Lincoln Town Car. I noticed the window was not rolled down but rather missing entirely, as revealed by the jagged shards of glass still clinging to the edges. A faint click revealed the driver had turned on the air conditioning – in the form of a small, battery operated fan hitched to the center console.
As we attempted conversation despite my broken Spanish, Iquitos rolled out in front of me. A little boy kicked the deflated shell of a soccer ball, men piled on top of cargo on top of strained pickup trucks, colorful buildings seemed to sag in the heat, and Southeast-Asia style tuk-tuks battled motorcycles and more rusty cars through traffic. I watched intently as a policeman chased a man out of a store, and gasped when in the space of a second the officer caught up to him, drew his batton, and beat the man straight across the ribs with a firm single thwack. Welcome to the jungle, indeed.
Like so many visitors to Iquitos, my first move was to leave — for most, the city is little more than a transfer point to the jungle beyond. Luckily, I had scheduled almost four full days in Iquitos between my two forays into the remote Amazon. Lucky, because it only took me moments to know that this was my kind of cuidad.
Here, past meets present, and city meets jungle. Old rubber-mansions, once grand, now stand crumbling, and a peek inside reveals hammocks strewn from the mosaic-tiled ceilings. Here, the urban chaos of 370,000 people come face to face with the languid pace of the Amazon river, and a special energy emerges.
One building — below right — was designed by famed French architect Gustave Eiffel, and shipped into the city piece by piece in 1890. A local told me that the structure was originally meant for a rubber baron in Quito, Ecuador, but ended up in Iquitos due to a misunderstanding over the similarity of the city names. I simply stared at him, impassive, unable to determine if this was a joke, a bizarre-but-true slice of history, or a fiercely believed urban legend.
Today, the building holds a small pharmacy on the ground floor.
While the city’s colonial past is fascinating, so too is its colorful present. While I spent the majority of my time in Iquitos holed up battling the horrific internet connection, whenever I needed a break I would head out with my camera to capture some of the bright and bold street art. Some referenced Iquitos’ grand landmarks, others gave nod to life in the jungle, and some scrawled warnings that hinted at the area’s lascivious underbelly.
The ports and waterfronts of Iquitos are as busy as any main street at rush hour. Ground the planes, and boats are the only way in and out of this city. From my bed at my hostel, I could stare right out at the Rio Amazonas.
One day, I treated myself to lunch Al Frio y al Fuego. This floating restaurant was quite the splurge, but I was drawn by the novelty – and the pool. Afterwards, I had a panic about my budget, and that night had banana oatmeal and Diet Coke for dinner, leaning over the counter of the hostel kitchen.
But it was worth it.
To be honest, I spent a small fortune on food in Iquitos. I was putting in twelve hours a day in front of the computer and when I took breaks to eat, I wanted to really enjoy them. My favorite was Dawn of the Amazon, which had a mango salsa will change your life, beautiful river views and prices to match. After dinner there with two American guys from my hostel, our server politely asked them to write Ohio, their home state, on the back of a receipt so he could look it up on the internet.
Karma Cafe was another hit with free wifi, occasional live music, and a distinctly dreadlocked vibe. I also tried Amazon Bistro, but I liked the atmosphere better than the food.
Despite my heat-induced exhaustion I managed to sample a bit of the Iquitos’ famed nightlife. One evening, one of the hostel employees invited me to a local concert, and I accepted despite the fact that my evening yawning had already kicked off. Motorcyclists slowed down briefly to be patted down by security, and then carried on driving right into what appeared to be a major plane hangar, where a stage filled with scantily clad salsa-ing ladies and heavily hair-gelled boy band members crooned. In a crowd of several hundred, Miguel pointed out that I was one of three foreigners.
My final stop in Iquitos, on the morning of my departure, was to Belen Market. This bazaar is one of Iquitos’s main attractions – kind of the Chatuchak of the Amazon, if you will. However, I fielded warnings from both my guidebook and various hostel staff members about the safety of visiting the city’s most dangerous neighborhood sans guide. The consensus was that if I went alone with nothing for anyone to steal – wallet, camera, even sunglasses – I’d be fine. If I wanted to take pictures, I needed a guide.
So a guide I hired, of course.
The market was fascinating. There were little stall streets of flower vendors, others of medicinal and potion vendors. Most shocking were the fish and meat streets, where the hacked off tail of an endangered crocodile and the legs of threatened tortoises sat alongside chicken and beef. The police looked on, bored. Other items sure to be seized at customs: belts made of jaguar fur, wallets made of anaconda skins, skulls of various jungle mammals.
Obviously, this market should not be on the itinerary of any weak-stomached travelers.
We briefly walked through the town of lower Belen, where the guide told us to hold all our belongings close, walk quickly, and avoid eye . Ascending back to upper Belen, we walked down what looked like the dentist’s equivalent of The Garment District – cement cell after cement cell marked by wooden signs advertising tooth extractions within. Peeking discreetly into the open doors of people’s homes — more cement cells — revealed dozens of hammocks strewn from the ceilings with lawn furniture surrounding small TVs. This is the poorest and more crime-ridden area of Iquitos, and one I’m very grateful to have seen with my own eyes.
Iquitos charmed me — there were hints of Southeast Asia in the air, making it the perfect transition between continents. Crumbling and colorful mosaic-lined architecture, the kind of sweltering heat I love, hints of hectic chaos and a scenic river promenade that becomes a lively gathering place for seemingly the entire city’s population come evening. I could not have asked for a better introduction to Peru.
Where I stayed: Flying Dog Iquitos
Where I ate: Al Frio y al Fuego, Karma Cafe, Dawn of the Amazon
How I got there: StarPeru flight from Lima, $146 RT. The only options are flights or ferries — Iquitos is unreachable by road.
Bonus Tip: Tuk Tuks are a cheap and fun way to get around. Rides through town cost 2-3 soles.