Trip to Peru

Trip to Peru – Iquitos in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon

What to do and what to see in Iquito in Peru

I arrived in Iquitos for the first time in April 2014, during my year of civil service in Lima, and I returned to the Lorraine jungle 5 more times, some times for short periods and other times for longer periods.

Only this year I decided to return for a permanent volunteer project, where for six months I taught swimming to 80 children living in the Belén district. I also trained 30 teachers and students so that they could then teach swimming to children. If you would like to read or see some photos of the project, you can open the website . On the home page of the site there is a video that explains well how to live in Belén, while in the News section there are photos of the project.

Living in Iquitos is completely different than traveling there for short periods.
This experience allowed me to connect with the inhabitants, pick up their accent, learn their customs, I learned to cook typical dishes.
There are also many opportunities to travel and visit some community or simply immerse yourself in the forest.
In recent years I have become friends with Luis, a curandero, a shaman who lives with his family in the forest. Luis has a formidable memory and recognizes all the master plants, useful for treating numerous symptoms. Shamanic practice is passed down orally from father to son over generations.
Iquitos is my second home and I have another family there made up of friends and people who love me. I am sure that this bond will not be interrupted and will soon return.

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General information about Iquitos

Iquitos , located in the extreme north-east of Peru , about 100km from the border with Colombia and Brazil, is the capital of the Province of Maynas in the Department of Loreto. Iquitos is considered the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by land as it can only be reached in 4 days by boat , after a long crossing of the Andes, or more comfortably with a couple of hours’ flight from Lima.

Today, almost half a million people live in Iquitos, which qualifies it as the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon and the fifth most populous city in Peru . Iquitos is not an ordinary city, in fact, quite the opposite. We can define it as an island because of the rivers that surround it: the Rio Nanay and the Rio Itaya, both tributaries of the majestic Amazon River that laps the northern part of the city.

The history of Iquitos

The exact date of the foundation of the city by the Spanish Jesuits who arrived here, on the banks of the Rio Nanay, lands of the indigenousIquito ” and “ Cocama ”, in around 1757 is not known.

Driven by the evangelical mission and with the aim of civilizing the savages, the missionaries brought with them smallpox, tuberculosis and pneumonia which severely decimated the indigenous populations. Forcibly gathered in the city and converted to Christianity, the indigenous people were enslaved , tortured and murdered by mean people who made a fortune during the rubber fever (1880-1915), when European industries began producing the first tyres.

Rubber, latex or natural rubber, in those years was mainly extracted in the Amazon, which caused a real socio-economic change in cities like Iquitos or Manaus.
Imposing colonial buildings began to arise , decorated with “azulejos”, finely decorated ceramic tablets imported from Portugal.

In the main square of Iquitos ( Plaza de Armas ), the “ Casa de Fierro ” was erected in 1887 , designed by Gustave Eifell himself. The House arrived in Iquitos after crossing the Atlantic and traveling up the Amazon River aboard a Brazilian ship. When rubber production became intensive in the Philippines, the fever passed and the flow of money diminished, leaving the city of Iquitos in poverty.

Today the city survives thanks to fishing, the (often illegal) logging of wood trees, the agriculture of local products and the oil wells located on the border with Ecuador.

In recent years tourism has had a notable increase, especially due to the rediscovery of the millenary shamanic culture which attracts travelers from all over the world eager to try Ayahuasca , a drink used in ancient times as medicine, purifier and potentially hallucinogenic, now consumed in ceremonies where the shaman through his songs, guides you on an introspective journey.

Iquitos offers the visitor much more: from the possibility of sailing the Amazon River , born from the union of two large rivers a few km before the city, on long boats on the surface of the water called “Peke Peke” due to the noise of the engine ; to the thousand adventures offered by a fascinating and unexplored Selva, rich in incredible plants and animals; discovering ancient traditions and peculiar ways of living of millenary cultures that have adapted to living in an inhospitable context full of dangers such as the Amazon forest.

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The city offers numerous noteworthy places. In the center you can observe the numerous colonial buildings, imperious and decadent at the same time, dating back to the golden age of rubber.

Il M alecón

The   malecón offers a broad view of the Rio Itaya and beyond the infinite green sea. On the malecón you will find the most touristy bars (I recommend the Karma Kafé which houses a gallery of Amazonian art with many paintings and various sculptures), craft markets, ice cream parlors and in the evening it is possible to see various shows and finally get a breath of fresh air fresh.

Iquitos boardwalk

Bethlehem neighborhood

A 10-minute motorbike taxi ride from the center, or a 20-minute walk along the malecón, we find the most picturesque and magical neighborhood of Iquitos: the Barrio de Belén .

The neighborhood was born on the banks of the Rio Itaya and is divided into two parts, the upper one which houses its enormous market, the pulsating commercial heart of the city, and the lower part, called Pueblo Libre de Belén, the most densely populated and marginal area of ​​the city .
The Rio Itaya suffers from the floods of the Amazon River and in the months from March to June the lower part of this neighborhood floods and several meters of water transform the lives of the inhabitants of Bélen.

Belen Amazonia

The ground floors of the houses are emptied and people live on the first floors. Kilometers of wooden walkways , a few meters high, are built throughout the neighborhood so you can walk without getting your feet wet in the dirty muddy waters.

In June the tide goes down leaving tons of rubbish never collected during these months and a worrying health situation with many animals finding food in the rubbish including mice, dogs and numerous ” gallinazos ” (relatives of vultures).

Furthermore, in the pools of water that are created when the tide goes out, millions of mosquitoes are born that carry diseases such as Zika and Dengue .
Oranges, bananas, yucca, spices, fish and meats of all kinds.

The Belén market

Over the last hundred years the Belén market has changed little and remains the quintessential shopping place in Iquitos. On its stalls, open every day from Monday to Sunday, you can buy fish freshly caught in the rivers and still alive, smoked meats hunted by communities in the forest, fruit and vegetables from the Amazon region, but also household items, mobile phone accessories and clothing. Salespeople shout, customers haggle, everyone is looking for the deal .

Belèn is the main market of the city , where thousands of people sell and buy the numerous products of the Amazon region. Open from 5am to 1pm, the market is a huge labyrinth with a thousand alleys full of stalls and informal shops teeming with people. The sensation upon entering is that of being sucked into a vacuum cleaner and transported to some bygone era.

There are around 150 native communities who arrive by river even before the market opens to sell their products: Amazonian fruit, yucca or strange fish just caught in the rivers. At the market you can find more than 200 different types of plants and more than 120 species of animals, both terrestrial and aquatic.
The smell and dirt increase as the hours pass and the heat increases, reaching its peak at 2pm.

Paquito Passage

Worth visiting carefully is one of the alleys of the market, the “Pasaje Paquito” , perhaps the most famous alley in the market. Here, among dozens of stalls, you can find all the medicinal herbs used by the “curanderos” to cure every type of ailment, dozens of ” tragos ” (aphrodisiac liqueurs), ointments of all kinds and even palo santo, natural incense, powders from magical psychotropic effects.
There is no shortage of craftsmanship: lucky seeds, woven bracelets and fish scale necklaces are some of the products created by skilled local hands.

The craft markets are excellent spaces to learn about local folklore while admiring splendid paintings painted with natural resins depicting ancient indigenous people, proud with their feathers and their Shipibo fabrics.

San Juan Craft Market

About twenty minutes from the historic center, along the road that leads to the airport, you can visit the San Juan craft market. There you will find a gentleman who for many years has been painting paintings depicting the gaudy shamanic visions, where pumas and snakes light up with fluorescent colors in the darkness of the Amazonian night. His landscapes are also interesting : spectacular sunsets and full moon nights along the banks of the Amazon River. Incredibly beautiful paintings that he sells starting from 10 euros each.

The sunsets of the Amazon

Unmissable are the sunsets visible from the malecón or from the “ Moronacochalagoon , where the Sun colors the white Amazonian clouds pink and illuminates the calm waters of the lagoon where some ladies go to fish for dinner.

Recommended tours in Iquitos

If you’ve come this far you definitely don’t want to miss out on some of the most beautiful tours in the area.
As always for South America I rely on DeNomades which is the best site on the continent when it comes to tours offered by locals.

If you have a few more days I highly recommend you take part in the expeditions in the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve , the second largest protected area in Peru which has 1000 species of animals and almost as many species of plants.  

The wonder of this reserve is not only the result of the incredible ecosystems but also of the fact that native communities live here which today survive thanks to experimental and responsible tourism.

So if you want to choose from the many options, these are the tours I recommend you consider.

What to eat in Iquitos and the Peruvian Amazon

The cuisine of Iquitos is very varied and represents a source of pride for Peruvian gastronomy. Due to the influence deriving from the Amazon Forest , the cuisine of Iquitos has several typical dishes with traditional flavors which include guisos , sauces, meats, salads, soups and many grilled specialties. Most of the ingredients are obviously specific to the region, while others are imported from Lima because it is impossible to grow them in the Amazon.

Fruit is omnipresent , with various shapes, colors and flavors. The most emblematic fruit is the Aguaje , from the palm of the same name native to humid and water-rich places. With 50 times the vitamin C of orange, Camu Camu resembles a cherry and is used to prepare drinks and fruit juices. Other fruits are coconut, maracuyá, guanábana, melon, macambo, lúcuma ett.

I could spend hours naming all the incredible varieties of fruit and the remarkable properties of each but I think I would ruin the surprise of trying them in the markets and stalls of Iquitos.

Among the stalls you can find the meat of animals such as the ” sachavaca “, a giant tapir, the sajino or a wild boar, armadillos, turtles, crocodiles and monkeys. We do not recommend the consumption of some animals as they are in danger of extinction. Among the immense variety of fish present in the market stalls we find the Paiche , which is the largest fish in the Amazon River. This river giant can reach a length of 2.5 meters and a weight of 300kg.

Fish and meat are grilled and wrapped on the leaves of a palm called ” Bijao “. The very famous ” Juanes
” are closed with the same leaves , prepared with rice, spices, chicken meat and finally an egg and an olive.

Other typical dishes are the ” Tacacho ” or a dish based on mashed, piled and fried bananas, the ” Ensalada de Chonta ” based on the chonta fins, a palm, finishing with the ” Patarashca “, a whole fish cooked on the grill wrapped in Bijao leaves and surrounded with various sauces, including the sauce of ” Cocona” , a very acidic fruit, or of ” Aji Charapita “, a very very spicy tiny yellow chili pepper.


If you want to cook some of these dishes, you can find typical Amazonian ingredients in the markets, especially that of Belén but also that of Bellavista-Nanay where the people of the communities bring their products by river. If you don’t feel like cooking, you can try one of the numerous restaurants in the city, among which ” Al Frio y al Fuego ” stands out, given its particularity of being located in a huge floating ” maloca ” (wooden house with a roof of leaves). in the middle of the river.

Rubber fever brought a more cosmopolitan vision to Iquitos . As throughout Peru, here too there are numerous ” chifa ” or Chinese restaurants that have mixed their cuisine with Peruvian cuisine, pizzerias such as ” Antica ” and restaurants with American influences adapted to Amazonian ingredients such as ” Aris Burger ” .

The Amazon and native communities

The Amazon , not only by definition, is the green lung of the world, contributing essentially to the possibilities of survival on our planet. The forest surrounding Iquitos is very rich in biodiversity .

More than 850 species of plants live in the forest, including 22 species of orchids and the majestic ” Victoria Regia ” water lilies.
In the dense woods live 130 types of mammals, 330 types of birds, 250 fish with very different shapes and 150 different species of reptiles and amphibians. Just think that a few years ago two specimens of bull sharks were found in the waters of Iquitos which had traveled up the 3,360km of the Amazon River from the Atlantic Ocean!

The nature reserves were created to protect these wonderful yet delicate environments from the informal construction that afflicts the outskirts of Iquitos.

The Allpahuayo Mishana National Reserve is an incredible reserve that begins just 20km from the city of Iquitos. It extends along the entire Rio Nanay. Surprising are its white sand forests where 17 different species of primates live. Along the rivers and lagoons it is possible to meet gray dolphins or the much larger ” bufeos “, the pink dolphins of the Amazon.

Near the entrance to the reserve you can visit the Quistococha complex where in the dry season it forms a huge beach along the banks of the Rio Nanay and it is possible to swim in the river. You will also find a snake house and a small zoo.

The Pilpintuwasi mariposario is located in Padre Cocha and can be reached by boat going up the Rio Nanay from the port of Bellavista. Here you can observe more than 40 species of insects including many colorful butterflies.

In the surroundings of Iquitos it is possible to visit numerous communities that still live in contact with nature, where consumerism still seems to have not succeeded in transforming millennia of habits and traditions. The community closest to the city is that of the Boras, a pueblo originally from Colombia and forcibly forced to move during the rubber fever.

Another pueblo that nevertheless lives in communities, without electricity and in houses made of wood and straw, is the pueblo of the Yahuna or Yagua .

They too, originally from the Colombian border, were forced to move to be employed as slaves in the rubber harvesting. Many agencies in the city offer the possibility of visiting these two communities, transforming them into tourist attractions.

Other communities are just a few hours or days away by boat along the Amazon River. Reaching those areas, as well as being challenging, is dangerous due to malaria and the distance from any medical facility, so I recommend always entering the forest with an expert guide.

How to reach Iquitos

Getting to Iquitos has never been easy. I imagine the difficulties that the first Spanish settlers had to overcome to reach those lands so distant and wild.

The distance from everything and everyone has meant that Iquitos has always been isolated from “modernity” and has grown at its own pace. Without a road connecting it to the coast or the Andes, the city has always been a real world apart with particular rules and customs.

Today it is possible to reach Iquitos in two ways: a traditional one by river and a more modern one by air.

Getting to Iquitos by land

To get there by land you need to reach one of the two ports that connect Iquitos to the rest of Peru: “ Yurimaguas ” on the Rio Marañón and “ Pucallpa ” on the Rio Ucayali.

In both cases you have to cross the Andes with long hours on the bus rewarded by the wonderful landscapes you will see from the window. At the port , an old three-storey boat called a ” lance ” will be waiting for you. The ground floor is dedicated to all the goods that periodically arrive from the coast.

The first and second floors, however, are enormous spaces that gather hundreds of people. Once you have placed the hammock , all you have to do is arm yourself with patience because the boat will leave when it is full. If you are unlucky it can take more than a day . Once you set sail you will arrive in Iquitos after 4-5 days, depending on which port you left from.
Spending all these days on a boat is not for everyone. You sleep in hammocks very close to each other, you can’t get off the boat and the hygienic conditions are somewhat questionable, especially in the bathrooms and showers, as the brown river water comes out directly. However, all this is rewarded by the knowledge of your travel companions, the freedom you breathe and the incredible Amazonian sunsets. For this type of experience you need to take at least a week.

I will arrive to Iquitos flying

Arriving in Iquitos by plane is a completely different matter. The airlines that offer daily flights from Lima to Iquitos are “Peruvian Airlines” , “Star Peru” and “Lan” . Both planes and airports are modern and safe. There are no low cost flights in Peru. The cheapest airline is often “Peruvian Airlines” . From Lima it takes an hour and a half if the flight is direct, more than two hours if it stops in Tarapoto or Pucallpa.

How to get around Iquitos

Once you land in Iquitos you will be swallowed up by the noisy city traffic , so much so that the sound contamination turns Iquitos into the noisiest city in Latin America.

There is only one road that connects the airport to the city and it is crossed by dozens of antiquated buses and hundreds of motorbikes and motorbike taxis that travel around without respecting any rules. Means of transportation, in the end, are part of local folklore.

The colorful buses , called “Jumbo” , are the cheapest way to get around the city. They are made entirely of wood and covered externally with metal sheets.
The vehicle par excellence is instead the moto-taxi , an omnipresent motorbike with three wheels and a sofa that can comfortably accommodate three people, sometimes many more. One day I saw 3 mothers with 9 children with them!

The moto-taxi is used for any travel as the vast majority of Iquiteños do not own a car. It is also used for all removals, for weddings and funerals, to bring goods and animals to the market, in short, you can see a bit of everything. There are more than 5,000 in the city. It is certainly the most versatile and popular means of transport.

Another vehicle widely used, especially by those who live in indigenous communities outside Iquitos, is the peke peke , a long motor boat that can accommodate around twenty people plus various goods. With these boats, daily connections between the various ports of the city and the nearest communities are guaranteed. For more distant communities there are faster and more modern boats.

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