Iquitos: The Gateway to The Amazon

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I’ve lost count of how many towns and cities and tiny cities all refer to themselves as the ‘Gateway to the Amazon’. I think the definition is, essentially, slightly more accessible than remote jungle villages, so you can pop in and out for a day and tell yourself you’ve seen the Amazon.

Crumbling colonialism juxtaposes the wild of the rainforest in Iquitos. The entire city is inaccessible by road, so flights, boats or 100km hikes through the jungle are your only viable options. As such, there’s not really cars here. Bar the odd taxi, the town is dominated by mototaxis and bikes, flocking through dusty roads like hoards of honking locusts. It’s surprisingly hectic for a small jungle town.

The tourist scene, on the other hand, was a little light on the ground while I was there. My hostel consisted of me, the owner, his mother and his baby. Granted, I arrived off season, and during peak you’re far more likely to find jungle day-trippers and ayahuasca tourists. The latter makes up the bulk of the tourism industry in Iquitos, with all restaurants and cafes boasting menus based around an ayahuasca diet.

The famous Amazonian hallucinogenic requires a very strict detox, which these menus cater to. You have to avoid all fat, dairy, oils, alcohol, spicy foods, caffeine, yeast, sweets, red meat, and the list goes on. By all accounts it’s a great method for losing a whole ton of weight real quickly. After two weeks of this detox, you are ready to be taken off for your ayahuascha experience. I personally decided against it, but if you’re looking to sample the drug then Iquitos is the place to do it. The prices can run into the thousands of dollars for sharmic experiences, but you’re best off not cheaping out. While in Leticia, I made friends with a few of the locals, who told me that plenty of people they know charge a ‘cheap’ price for ayahuascha, take tourists out into the jungle, pump them full of cheap steroids, and tell them they’ve experienced the drug. Needless to say, these people aren’t qualified shamans. I would recommend doing your research before signing up.

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The bulk of the other tourism in the city is from people looking to take multi-day trips into the Amazon. If you’re just staying in Peru, this is probably the best spot to start your jungle journey from. There are options from bigger cities like Cusco, but they’re far less deep into the jungle and you don’t get to experience the river itself. There’s plenty of different tour companies operating in Iquitos, you can arrive and browse the tours available, with travel agents along the river front touting tours of various lengths.

The other tourists in the city, of which I was one, were there to get the boat. I opted for the fast boat from Iquitos to Santa Rosa, though there is also a slow boat available. From here I carried on to Manaus. If you’re interested in taking the cargo boats through the Amazon, which I would recommend if you aren’t too squeamish or particular about your hygiene, you can read more about my experience here.

The other main tourist attraction in Iquitos in Belen market. Personally, I had no interest in going here. It sounds intriguing, being a thriving market for the trade of illegal Amazonian products. Crocodile tails and jaguar skins, necklaces made of the teeth of endangered species, and whipped monkeys dancing for the tourists, until they become unamusing and are slaughtered in the market. Buying any of these products or encouraging their trade through tourism jeopardises the safety of protected Amazon animals.

That being said, if you’re interested in going, it is strongly recommended to hire a guide for the experience. Petty theft is rampant in the market, with tourists obviously being the clearest targets.

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Iquitos is a good spot for sampling Amazonian food- the nice, creative kind, rather than the questionable flame roasted piranha I lived off in deeper parts of the jungle. Peruvian food varies massively, Andean dishes and coastal cuisine being totally separate joys, and jungle bites are no different. Plantain is a big winner in the area, as well as across Ecuador and Colombia. I was more used to eating plantain in the context of West African or Caribbean cooking, so mixing it with Amazonian flavours was a bit of a diversion. It’s served with everything. There’s also plenty of opportunity to sample fish from the Amazon, often cooked wrapped in banana leaves. You can also get burgers and nuggets made of alligator, or even raw alligator, if you so wish. Like I say above, I’d recommend avoiding the sale or consumption of endangered Amazonian animals, but it’s less of an issue up in Iquitos.

Even if you have no interest in visiting the market, it’s worth your time to wander through the stilted neighbourhood of Belen. Anybody with previous experience in South East Asia might recognise the housing method used frequently in Myanmar or Cambodia. You can take a ride in a local boat for a couple soles, and look up at the river houses from the Itaya, or walk through the ‘streets’ on wooden planks connecting houses.

Strolling along the waterfront itself is a pleasant way to pass the day too. Lively with locals, the river is the hub of activity in the town. Catch pastel sunsets from the cafes facing the water, and wile away the sweaty afternoons with the last good coffee you’ll see in a while, if you happen to also be taking the onward boats. For countries famous for their coffee production, the Amazonian boats in Colombia and Brazil provide maybe the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted. You can wash it down with an Inca Cola though, which, after 8 months, I’ve still not worked out why anybody drinks.

Hectic and lively, Iquitos is far more bustling than other Amazonian towns I visited in my journey through the jungle. Join locals pouring out of every shop when the football starts, or play with local children on the banks of the river, and enjoy life in this relatively remote jungle town.

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Travel blog guide to Iquitos, Peru and the Peruvian amazon