An Introduction to Iquitos
Located in the heart of the Peruvian rainforest, Iquitos offers visitors a city rich in history, indigenous culture and access to the Amazon River and rainforest. Iquitos owes its existence to Jesuit missionaries who settled the area seeking to save indigenous souls. The rubber boom at the end of the 19th century was a major stimulus to the city's growth and much of the ornate architecture from that period can still be seen today. Surrounded by three rivers - the Amazon, Itaya and Nanay - Iquitos is a large city, but with the feel of a small town. The people of Iquitos warmly welcome visitors. There are comfortable hotels and some fine restaurants offering international cuisine as well as delicious local dishes.
Iquitos is an Amazon Gateway city from which to begin riverboat journeys on the Amazon River or visits to jungle lodges. One of the most popular destinations is the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve located between the Marañón and Ucayali rivers southwest of Iquitos.
The rainforest has beautiful meandering rivers, towering trees, an immense diversity of wildlife and riverside villages where one can see how the local people live in the Amazon environment.
Iquitos, located on the Amazon River in northeastern Peru, (Latitude: 03°45'S. Longitude: 073°15'W) was originally one of the numerous Indian settlements organized by the Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century, and was originally known as San Pablo de Napeanos. Its population dispersed, but a community was re-established around 1760. Since the majority of the population were Iquitos Indians it became known as the village of Iquitos.
In 1864, three years after President Ramón Castilla had established the Departamento de Loreto (State of Loreto) port facilities were built and this is generally considered as the founding date of Iquitos. Iquitos is the furthest inland deep-water port in the world and receives ships coming up 2300 miles from the mouth of the Amazon on the Atlantic Ocean. To this day there are no roads in or out and Iquitos can only be reached by river or air.
At the end of the nineteenth century Iquitos, along with Manaus, Brazil, prospered greatly from the exportation of rubber. During this period of grandeur many fine buildings were erected, including the "Iron House" designed by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, which was purchased at the Paris World's Fair by a rubber baron, disassembled and brought to Iquitos where it was re-assembled in 1886 and still stands on the Plaza de Armas. The center piece of the Plaza de Armas, the Iquitos cathedral, was completed in 1911.
The Hotel Palacios (no longer operating as a hotel) was built between 1908-1912 and is one of many buildings faced with ceramic tiles imported from Italy and Portugal.
With the end of the Rubber Boom, around 1910, Iquitos fell into a deep decline and it wasn't until the discovery of oil in the mid-twentieth century that Iquitos began to prosper again.
Today Iquitos has a population around 400,000 and the economy depends on exports of oil, wood, plant products, and tourism.
Climate - Weather
The climate is hot and humid, with an average relative humidity of 85%. Temperatures are in the range of 70-90+ degrees. Coolest time of the year is usually June, the hottest is usually December. Average rainfall is 103 inches. Usually there is more rain during December to April, but not that much different than the rest of the year. If one looks at
the records over the years, every month of the year has at one time or another had the "Highest Precipitation" on record for that the year. The Amazon River and tributaries rise and fall seasonally as much as 35 - 40 feet. Over a million square miles of rainforest floods. This is not due so much to rainfall in the immediate area, but to the runoff of snow melt and rain from the Andes reaching the region. The rivers are at their highest March - April. The rivers are at their lowest in September - October. Current weather in Iquitos.
Iquitos area Tourism
Amazon River and Rainforest tourism is a very important part of the Iquitos economy. Many options are available to travelers, from low-end to upscale.
Iquitos is the place of embarkation for Amazon Riverboat Cruises within Peru. With the recent completion of a paved road from Iquitos to Nauta, riverboat cruises traveling upstream from Iquitos now depart from Nauta, a short tour bus trip from Iquitos.
There are several levels of Amazon Riverboat Cruises available out of Iquitos:
Upscale Amazon Cruises - That feature turn-down service, professionally trained chefs and large, elegant cabins. These ships travel to the Pacaya Samaria National Reserve and make day trips by small boat into the Reserve. The Delfin I and Delfin II, Agua and Aria make this type of trip with 4 day and 5 day cruises. Other ships are also available.
Mid-range Amazon Cruises - Wildlife Expeditions - Restored historic riverboats that feature comfortable, air conditioned cabins and dining room, but where the focus is more on natural history and wildlife viewing. The Rio Amazonas and Clavero riverboats are the only riverboats with permits to actually travel into the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. All other riverboats offering cruises in the region travel to the edge of the Reserve and take day excursions into the Reserve by small boat. On these cruises you will see more wildlife and experience the "real" Amazon. These are 7 day/6 night voyages.
Lower-end river travel - There are a number of local cargo/passenger boats offering hammock space (a few offer small cabins) and travel to the Brazilian/Colombian border or up river from Iquitos to Yurimaguas or Pucallpa. No excursions are offered. These are not tour boats. Simple transport from one place to another for local people and goods.
The Iquitos region is home to many Rainforest Lodges. Far too many to list here. A few we favor:
First class lodges - Explorama's Ceiba Tops has air conditioned rooms, hot water and a swimming pool. You take excursions into the surrounding rainforest by small boat and by walking. One of the major attractions of a trip to Ceiba Tops is the visit to the only Canopy Walkway in the Iquitos region. Spanning over 500 meters (one-third of a mile), connected by tree platforms, and reaching a height of over 35 meters (115 feet) but accessible without any type of climbing skill or equipment, the Canopy Walkway is a great way to get a look at the flora and fauna in the treetops. Trips to Ceiba Tops can also be combined with visits to their other lodges.
Mid-range lodges - Where the accommodations do not offer air conditioning and full time electricity, but do put guests very much in touch with the rainforest. The Pacaya Samiria Amazon Lodge on the Marañón River is a comfortable lodge that offers excursions into the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and is one lodge we can highly recommend.
Low-end lodges - Rustic accommodations, but good for those on a limited budget. One has to be careful with these as a few are run by unscrupulous operators. One that can be highly recommended however, is Otorongo Lodge. Here they offer a personalized itinerary to suite your special interests, with numerous adventures and excursions to choose from.
There are a number of people passing themselves off as "jungle guides" in Iquitos who approach tourists on the streets or in the bars and restaurants, offering tours. They are known locally as "piratas" and should be avoided. Recommendations made by hotels and restaurants should be carefully considered as these places receive commissions from local operators. Not all are "bad", but consider that some are, and at the least will not be able to deliver what they promise. Iquitos is a safe city, but as anywhere else, one must use common sense.
Ayahuasca tourism has become increasingly popular in Iquitos in recent years. Seekers of traditional shamanic healing experiences using the visionary Amazonian medicinal tea need to be careful with who they get involved with. Although some reputable curanderos (healers) can provide a safe setting for such experiences, others do not and it is advisable to be cautious.
Iquitos has a large number of hotels to choose from. They range from one 5-star, many mid-range 3-star, to backpacker hostels. The better hotels offer air-conditioned rooms, swimming pool, internet service, restaurant, bar, etc. The budget hotels usually do not have air-conditioning or restaurants, but may have internet services. We recommend three hotels, but others are also good.
What to see in Iquitos
A visit to Iquitos whether to travel by riverboat or stay at a jungle lodge really isn't complete without a tour of the city of Iquitos. The history, architecture and markets are well worth an extra day in Iquitos. There are many freelance "guides" offering tours, but one should only book through a reputable agency in order to get a guide who truly knows the city and can give you insight into the city's history and culture.
In addition to a tour of the city there are several attractions located nearby such as the Quistococha Park and Zoo, the Butterfly Farm, Amazonian Indigenous Cultures Museum, Museum of Historic Boats and visits to a nearby indigenous villages.
A favorite tourist attraction in Iquitos is the floating city of Belén, known as the Venice of Peru. Belén is situated on the south-eastern edge of Iquitos along the Itaya River. Many of the homes are tethered to large poles, from which they float upon the river's rising waters or are built on stilts. Belén's open-air market offers a cornucopia of goods for sale from foods, including fresh fish and meats, to clothing and household goods. The most notable part Pasaje Paquito, an entire block lined with sellers of local plant and animal medicines, who stock everything from copaiba to chuchuwasai.
Within the Belén open-air market, there is an illegal trade in rainforest primates, parrots, and other wildlife that are protected by the CITES treaty. Some of the small animals, marmosets, tamarins, spider monkeys, are purchased locally, but many tropical birds, primates, boas, and others are smuggled out of Peru in the illegal exotic pet trade.
The Malecon, a waterfront walk, is a good place to have dinner or drinks and people watch. There is also a large handicrafts market just below along the river.
The Bellavista Nanay port has a small market, food vendors and bars where one can watch the comings and goings of river taxis carrying people and goods.
The local fare consists of a variety of dishes using many locally caught Amazon fishes, chicken, pork, manioc, plantains and exotic fruits.
The Juane is one of the main dishes of the Peruvian jungle. It is widely consumed every day but with emphasis during the Catholic Feast of San Juan (St. John), held on 24 June each year. The juane is rice, chicken, half a boiled egg, a black olive, rolled into a ball, wrapped in a large leaf and steamed. It makes a tasty portable food that keeps well as long as it isn't opened.
Other local dishes include:
Patrashca - Whole fish wrapped in banana leaves and fire roasted.
Cecina con tacacho - Smoked pork served with a mashed and fried plantain in the form of a ball.
Ensalada de chonta - Fresh heart of palm salad.
Cebiche - Made with Amazon River fish.
Caldo de gallina - Chicken soup with noodles, manioc and cilantro. A popular breakfast meal.
Inchicapi - A thick peanut and chicken soup.
A popular Peruvian soda named Inka Kola is a must-try. Alcoholic drinks include the Pisco Sour (The national drink of Peru.) and Siete Raices (Seven Roots) which is a sugar cane distillate ("firewater") infused with the root and bark of seven local plants.
The Werner Herzog movie Fitzcarraldo (1982) starring Klaus Kinski, was filmed in and around Iquitos. The film was inspired by the real life rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald.
Iquitos Indigenous Culture
In the Iquitos region you may encounter people of different indigenous groups: Shipibo, Bora, Huitoto, Yagua, Matses, Urarina, Ocaina and Cocama.
Dr. Palma Ingles, our friend and occaisional Tour Guide for GreenTracks elaborates: "Loreto (Departamento in which Iquitos is located.) is more of an Indian culture than a Mestizo culture. For one, the pure demographics of the place make it more of an Indian culture. My guess would be that most people (70% or more) living in Iquitos could name a tribe that their parents or at least grandparents identified with. The race mixing and Mestizoness do not go back much over 100 years for many people who live there. I also think that many people continue a traditional way of life, although modified, similar to be found in indigenous villages today. As we drove around Belen a few weeks ago I noticed that some people are still cooking on wood stoves on the floor, still using canoes, still completely dependent on the river for bathing, washing clothes, bathroom, and water for their house. They still live a "forest life" but have less room around their houses for crops, and have access to a better education and cyber cafes."
"Some people in Belen continue to visit their chacras (agriculture plots), even though they may be located miles down or up river. They depend on family land in the villages they left to continue to support them by growing manioc, bananas, etc."
"Since the 1700s, when vast numbers of Europeans began to come to Loreto and started enslaving the indigenous populations, being Indian has not been popular, nor profitable. The Europeans were not capable of growing their own food so they enslaved Indians to do hard labor for them, as well as to support the cottage industries of craft making. Under subjugation I would dare say that holding on to traditional beliefs became important for self preservation and a way of escape from the white world."
"As the rules finally changed and enslavement of Indians ceased, during the last century, Indians had to hide their Indianess to be able to survive in a world now dominated by the white rule makers. As you saw when you lived in Pevas, people who usually only identified themselves as Mestizoes - and claimed not to know their indigenous roots - suddenly had full histories once I mentioned that I was studying Indians as a good thing." ... Dr. Palma Ingles, personal communication, 2001.
The ReNuPeRu Ethnobotanical Garden, located adjacent to ExplorNapo Lodge, is a teaching garden for the medicinal and useful rainforest plants of the area. The garden is tended by a local shaman and his apprentices who are always interested in explaining to visitors the uses of some of the over 240 species of plants now preserved in the garden. Many of these organic remedies are used in modern medicine and many more may be utilized in the future. Neighboring primary rainforest trails make it possible to view additional valuable plants in their natural habitat.
Iquitos is home to numerous research projects in the fields of ethnobotany, ornithology, entomology and herpetology. Cornell University owns a field station, the Cornell University Esbaran Amazon Field Laboratory. Founded in July 2001 under the direction of Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, the facility is dedicated to education, conservation, and the discovery of medicinal compounds from applied field chemoecology.
The field lab surveys and catalogs the biological diversity along the Yarapa River. It provides researchers with field experience in the broad range of disciplines necessary for this task. Another major goal is to explore value-added derivatives of biodiversity. This includes both tangible returns, in the form of new discoveries in the biomedical and related sciences, as well as less tangible goods, such as the promotion of ecotourism and an ecological ethic. They work to ensure benefits to the local communities, and to participating students and researchers.
Banking hours are 9:00-1:00 and 3:30-7:00 Monday through Friday and also Saturday mornings. ATM machines at the banks are open 24 hours per day, although they do not always have funds available. Many hotels also have ATMs in their lobby.
In Iquitos money can be exchanged at any of the banks and at most hotel front-desks. There are also hordes of cambistas in the streets waiting to buy your dollars. Theft by tricky counting, rigged calculators, bad exchange rates and false bills are commonplace. Registered cambistas wear a badge and a uniform, but there are no guarantees.
Iquitos Area Maps
Try Ms. Irene Castro in the offices of the regional government, 7 AM-noon. Avenida Quiñones Km 2. Phone number 26-3461.
Iquitos is generally considered a safe place for travelers and residents alike. There are few reported incidents of violence, most crimes being theft, pick-pocketing, dishonest vendors or scam artists such as some money changers. Still, it is advisable not to flaunt valuables or walk alone late at night.
Tourist Police: Calle Sargento Lores 834.
Telephone (65) 242-081
In Iquitos there are dozens of internet cafes, especially around the Plaza de Armas. Prices are about 2 soles per hour and some offer international phone calling as well. An international phone center is at Gaby Com, Napo 349-Arica 1124, hours 7AM-11PM.
There are two markets specializing in folk art and crafts. One is located below the Boulevard (Malecon) on the banks of the Itaya/Amazon, at the end of Calle Napo. The other is in San Juan along the airport highway. It is called the Mercado Artesanal de San Juan; any motokar will take you there.
Three-wheeled motorcycles called motokars are everywhere. Normal fee is 2 soles unless the destination is far away such as the airport (8-10 soles or more), Bella Vista (3 soles) or it is either late at night or a holiday, when base cost is higher. Often foreigners are quoted higher prices, so be prepared to stand your ground.
The best place for medical attention is the Clinica Adventista Ana Stahl, Av. La Marina N 285.