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Iquitos: History and arrival

General information - water seasons - the natives are driven away by rubber boom - oil and natural products - arrival, sellers, tourist offices and city tours

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)

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from: Dilwyn Jenkins: The rough guide to Peru; Rough Guides, New York, London, Delhi; 6th edition September 2006; www.roughguides.com

Click for Iquitos, Peru Forecast

Iquitos and arounds

Iquitos "island" city 104m above sea level - cafés and clubs and beaches - shamans with ayahuasca - water seasons

At the "island" city of Iquitos, by far the largest and most exciting of Peru's jungle towns, there are few sights as magnificent as the Río Amazonas. Its tributaries start well up in the Andes, and when they join together several hours upstream from the town, the river is already several kilometers wide, though a mere 116m above sea level. The town's location, only 104m above sea level yet thousands of miles from the ocean and surrounded in all directions by brilliant green forest and hemmed in by the maze of rivers, streams, and lagoons, makes for a stunning entry to the northern jungle.

Most people visit Iquitos briefly, moving on into the rainforest but wisely, few travelers actually avoid the place entirely. It's a buzzing, cosmopolitan tourist town, connected to the rest of the world by river and air only. Iquitos is the kind of place that lives up to all your expectations of a jungle town, from its elegant reminders of the rubber-boom years to the atmospheric shanty town suburb of Puerto Belén, one of Werner Herzog's main locations for his film Fitzcarraldo, where you can buy almost anything, from fuel to ayahuasca.

Tourist facilities here have developed gradually over the last thirty years - the town has a friendly café- and club-scene, interesting museums and beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings, and the surrounding region has some great (p.509)

island and lagoon beaches, a range of easy excursions into the rainforest, and the possibility of continuing down the Amazon into Columbia or Brazil. The area has also become something of a spiritual focus, particularly for gringos [white men] seeking a visionary experience with one of the many local shamans who utilize the sacred and powerful hallucinogenic ayahuasca vine in their religious psycho-healing sessions.

Seasons of high and low water

Unlike most of the Peruvian selva, the climate here is little affected by the Andean topography, so there is no rainy season as such; instead, the year is divided into "high water" (Dec-May) and "low water" (June-Nov) seasons. The upshot is that the weather is always hot and humid, with temperatures averaging 23-30°C (74-86°F) and with an annual rainfall of about 2600mm. Most visitors come between May and August, but the high-water months are perhaps the best time for seeing wildlife, because the animals are crowded into smaller areas of dry land.

Some history of Iquitos

Iquitos: The natives are driven away: Iquito, Yaguar, Bora and Witito

Self-confident and likable, IQUITOS is for the most part, a modern city, built on a wide, flat river plain. Only the heart around the main plaza contains any older, architecturally interesting buildings, but the river port and market area of Belén boasts rustic wooden huts on stilts - a classic image of Iquitos. If it weren't for the abundant stalls and shops selling jungle Indian craft goods it would be hard to know that this place was once dominated by hunter-gather tribes like the Iquito, Yaguar, Bora and Witito who initially defended their territory against the early Spanish missionaries and explorers. The townsfolk (p.510)

today, however, are warm and welcoming, wear as little clothing as possible and are out in numbers during the relative cool of the evening.

Foundation - rubber - oil - natural products - receding riverfront and questions of the reason

Though founded in 1757 under the name of San Pablo de los Napeanos, the present center of Iquitos was established in 1864. By the end of the nineteenth century Iquitos was, along with Manaus in Brazil, one of the great rubber towns [for the destructive western "civilization"]. From that ear of grandeur a number of structures survive, but during the last century the town vacillated between prosperity (as far back as 1938 when the area was explored for oil) and the depths of economic depression. However its strategic position on the Amazon, which makes it accessible to large ocean-going ships from the distant Atlantic, has ensured its importance. At present still buoyed by the export of timber, petroleum, tobacco and Brazil nuts, and dabbling heavily in the trade of wild animals, tropical fish and birds, as well as an insecticide called barbasco, long used by natives as a fish poison, Iquitos is in a period of quite wealthy expansion.

The river has receded significantly from the main riverfront, which has necessitated moving the town's downriver port away from its center. Some locals blame downstream canalization for this shift, others point to a drop in rainfall along the Amazon's headwaters in other parts; or it may be that increasing deforestation of the ceja de selva higher up means that, during the rainy season, rainwater simply runs off the surface, leaving none to gradually filter down during the dry season. Whatever the reason, the riverfront now stretches all the way from the old port and market of Belén, which the Amazon waters hardly reach any more, to the newer floating port of Puerto Masusa, 3km downriver (p.511).

Arrival, information and city transports in Iquitos

Arrival by boat, by airplane - and the sellers

If you've come by boat from Yurimaguas (5 days), Pucallpa (6-7 days), Leticia or Tabatinga (both 3 days), you'll arrive at Puerto Masusa, some eleven blocks northeast of the Plaza de Armas.

Flights land at Iquitos airport, Aeropuerto Internacional de Francisco Secada Vignetta [Francisco Secada International Airport] (T. 065-260147), 6km southwest of town and connected by taxis ($3-4) and cheaper motokars ($2). Once you're off the plane, you're likely to be surrounded by a horde of desperate touts [sellers], all trying to persuade you to take their jungle tours or stay in their lodges; at this stage, the best thing to do is to avoid conversation with any of them, apart perhaps from saying you'll meet them in a couple of hours - which will give you time to get settled in and think about where you want to go and how (p.511)

much you are prepared to pay. Buses pull in on the Plaza de Armas and on calles Huallaga [Huallaga street] and La Condamine [La Condamine street].

The first things you'll notice when getting to central Iquitos are the vast quantities of mototaxis and motorbikes; the next thing is probably the scores of street kids.

Tourist offices in Iquitos

The local consejo [town council] run a helpful tourist information kiosk at the airport (daily 8am-9pm, T. 065-236144, e-mail iperuiquitos@promperu.gob.pe, www.regionloreto.gob.pe and www.amazonriveriquitosperu.com, which also sells CDs of the region's music and videos of local attractions. They have brochures and maps, can advise on hotels, keep a list of registered tour operators and guides, and can help book accommodation. For more in -depth inquiries, the Dirección Regional de Turismo [Local Tourist Management],  can be found at Avenida Ricardo Palma 113, 5th floor.

The Iquitos Review newspaper ($1.50), circulated in the Iquitos area, through hotels, tour offices and some shops, as well as being loaded with fascinating jungle tales, is also a good source of information.

City tours - change - street kids

City tours of Iquitos itself are offered by many of the tour companies and some hotels (try the Hostal La Pascana for tickets); they take about three hours, usually leave daily at 9am and again at 2pm, costing around $10. For getting around Iquitos you'll probably want to make use of the rattling motokars; alternatively, motorbikes can be rented - try the shop near the Ferretería Union (block 2 of Raymondi), or the one at Yavari 702. Expect to pay around $2 an hour or $10 for twelve hours (you'll need to show your passport and license), and remember to check the brakes before leaving. For getting around town by car, try the office at [Jirón] Tute Pinglo 431 (T. 065-235857). If you want to get onto the river itself, canoes can be rented very cheaply from the port at Bellavista.

For money exchange it's best not to do it on the street with the cambistas [money changer] who have a bit of a reputation (particularly at the corner of [Jirón] Prospero with [Jirón] Morona) for ripping tourists off, especially after around 8pm. Use one of the casas de cambio [money change houses] on [Jirón] Sargento Lores or the banks. The street kids, too, have a growing reputation for picking pockets, but they're certainly not all bad, and a Transit House has been built for them in Iquitos, so things may improve (p.513).

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