Most visitors to Peru only go to see Machu Picchu and Cusco. Some also include the Amazon but many tend to visit the southern part rather than the north. I understand why – it’s more straightforward to go to Puerto Maldonado especially if one is travelling from Cusco. But I’d wanted something more off the beaten track so I turned my gaze north. To Iquitos, to be exact. And boy am I glad I did.
Iquitos is the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon region and is the sixth largest city in Peru. What makes this city so unique is that it is the largest city in the world that is only accessibly by air or water – you cannot reach it by road! It’s a humidly hot hot place and if you don’t melt into a puddle of goo, you’ll discover that there is a lot to experience here.
Iquitos Has a Unique History
Iquitos was founded by the Spanish Jesuits sometime in the 17th century, probably to do their usual “convert or die” routine with the local indigenous populations. It didn’t really grow, however, until the late 19th century due to… rubber. Yup, rubber. Soon people from all over came to Iquitos to make their fortunes in the rubber boom. There was serious wealth made here either directly because of rubber or indirectly through related merchant trades or banking. You may be wondering, why rubber? Well, remember the time period – the late 19th century was the rise of the automobile and related industries – and they required a lot of rubber to keep up with worldwide demands. Unfortunately for Iquitos, its boom ended about 1912.
Vroom Vroom to Iquitos
When we first landed in Iquitos and took a taxi to our hotel, I totally did not feel like I was in a South American city. It felt more like a stereotypically Southeast Asian city – and this was because of the sheer number of auto rickshaws. There are thousands of them. If it isn’t an auto rickshaw, it’s a motorbike. It is noisy and chaotic and smelly at times. But it’s so much fun! Auto rickshaws are a great way to get around the city and they are pretty cheap, too. Ask your lodgings to recommend a driver.
Iquitos is a Gateway to the Amazon River
The city is undeniably the gateway to the Amazon rainforest and river. It is surrounded by the Itaya and Nanay Rivers, both of which are tributaries of the Amazon (which really, is only a 15 minute boat ride away). Iquitos location makes it feel like a frontier city but because it is the humid jungle, it retains a relaxed feel at the same time. To get the full effect of Iquitos location, find the boardwalk and stroll along it – at any time of day, you’ll find people hanging out, boats and ships sailing away, and many beautiful vistas.
Iquitos Has Great Architecture
One of my favourite things about Iquitos is its Victorian architecture. A lot of it seems aged and neglected but many buildings have been restored so there remains a feeling of faded grandeur in the city. These buildings would have been built during the rubber boom of the late 19th century and feature things like beautiful Italian or Portuguese tiles and airy mansions. There is even the Iron House, a building designed by Gustav Eiffel and shipped in pieces to Iquitos in 1890. It now holds a pharmacy with a good ATM machine so that could be your excuse to go inside! Iquitos also has, of course, simpler architecture as well. I guess some would call it ‘rustic’ or ‘ramshackle’. Iquitos certainly runs the gamut.
Iquitos and Venice – Sister Cities?
To some, the neighbourhood of Belen is known as the “Amazon Venice” because of its waterways. Others call it a “floating village”. Um. So, I’ve not been to Venice so I can’t compare the two. But the one big difference between the two is that Venice is built of stone and Belen is built of woods. So, there is a totally different look and feel. But they both do have waterways! You can hire a boat to take you through the floating village but I recommend hiring a reputable guide in advance to organize that for you.
Where to Sleep: Casa Morey Hotel –Built by a rubber baron in 1913, this large Victorian mansion turned hotel has typical period features (tall ceilings, large windows, beautiful tile work) and not so typical period features (wifi, air conditioning). Also has a great breakfast.
Where to Eat: Dawn of the Amazon – Fantastic food (tons of choices, both Peruvian and American), wifi, guaranteed purified water, great location, friendly staff. If I lived here, I’d eat here all the time!