Iquitos – a steamy jungle metropolis

27 Dec

Iquitos is the largest city in the world which isn’t linked to the rest of its country by road and it’s best described as a sensual, steamy jungle metropolis with attitude. Despite its attractive promenade with wonderful river views, its historic buildings and leafy plaza with quaint eateries and coffee shops, Iquitos retains a working class identity with a somewhat edgy feel. We got the sense here that anything goes if you know the right guys and that the law of the jungle is very much alive and well.


Once a wealthy centre for the rubber trade, nowadays this bustling port city is a hub for many types of jungle industry – rubber, logging, oil, precious metals, cargo shipping and more recently, tourism. Dozens of annoyingly persistent street touts and agencies sell jungle tours which typically include stays at eco-lodges with canoe rides, forest walks learning survival skills, animal spotting and piranha fishing. Just a week before our arrival my childhood hero and somewhat of an ageing heat-throb, Harrison Ford, was in Iquitos with wife Calista Flockhart and their son to take advantage of what Peru’s deep amazon had to offer, the only difference being they did it on a luxury yacht and staying in a jungle spa resort. After our three days cruising down the river on a cargo boat, we’d seen a lot of the jungle and decided instead that we’d like to spend several days finding out what this unique city and its surroundings had to offer.

Belem market and floating village


As we stepped out of our taxi, the driver looked us up and down and suggested that Dan remove his watch and I hide our camera. We realised Belem market would have a rather shady undercurrent and we held our breath as we walked towards it. Around one central indoor meat and fish market, a rabbit warren of covered streets stretched in every direction. The market was crammed full of stalls selling everything we could imagine.


There was a vague order to the chaos in that certain types of products were sold in specific areas but really, anything seemed to go. Some indigenous forest dwellers sold hand-made products such as woven baskets, colourful woollen bags and pretty painted wooden jewellery. At times we almost felt like we were the attraction – in some cases attracting looks and stares you would imagine a Martian would receive if he visited Earth, and in others huge smiles and hand gestures to “Come look, come look!”


Several stalls sold rainforest specialities with leopard skins hanging from the walls, caiman teeth necklaces and potions and lotions made from ground plants for anything from hair restorer to Viagra. Young boys sat at tables piled high with strong tobacco and their nimble fingers worked it into rolled cigarettes. The music blared from stalls selling fake DVD’s and traders repeated their patter over and over.


Some of the smells made our mouths water, such as freshly ground spices and a lady squeezing oranges for fresh juice and others, especially the piles of rubbish and waste which lay decaying, made us feel sick.

One lady called us over with a toothless smile and opened the lid of her bucket to reveal a writhing mass of yellow grubs each the size of a thumb. We both pulled a face that said “Yuk!” and politely declined her offer to fry a couple for us to sample.


For the locals this dish is a delicacy and we witnessed one man devour five which had been grilled on a skewer and then lick his fingers with satisfaction. It was almost too much for our delicate Western bellies to take!


Elsewhere in the market rows of steaming charcoal grills cooked fresh river fish to be served in large banana leaves.


Currently an illegal practice in Iquitos, the sale of live monkeys and tortoises is still big business in Belem market and traders whispered and beckoned us into darkened corners to see the poor animals in cages.


Big, mean looking scavenger birds perched in the rooftops waiting for their chance to feed off leftovers, adding a slightly unsavoury appearance. Grubby looking kids walked barefoot through the market with mischief in their eyes. Any wallets in back pockets would surely be a target.


From the market, we looked over onto Iquitos’ poorest neighbourhood – the famous floating houses of Belem. From our viewing point, this seemed to be an idyllic way to live, with coloured wooden houses right on the river – some on stilts and others built on top of tyres allowing them to float up and down with changing water levels.


As we walked closer we saw that the reality was a hard existence. Where the great Amazon river had receded it had left behind stagnant mud pools and a sea of rotting litter.


The houses were very unusual and striking and the poor locals had taken great pride in painting them up, however, the rows of wooden toilet blocks at the back of the houses had no running water and raw sewage emptied into ditches and out into the river. In the same area, women washed their clothes and small children played together, lacking anywhere else to go.


There was a real sense of community here as boys played football, women gossiped over fences and men hunkered down to play poker in lively drinking dens.


The children were beautiful and had no inhibitions, waving and shouting “Hola” at us with giggles. Three siblings played in a wooden boat under a stilt house and it was clear that big brother was the captain looking after the young ones.


Every house had a boat tied to it and when the water rises the streets become an intricate maze of waterways. It made the notion of popping out for a pint of milk slightly more complex.



The Amazon manatee rescue centre (ACOBIA-DWA zoo) has been open just a few years but has already earned support and partial funding from the Dallas World Aquarium in the USA. It saddened us to discover that these gentle giants of the river, who lead a peaceful life eating river plants, are still hunted in the Amazon for their meat and hurt or killed by the propellers of motorboats which stray into their feeding grounds. The locals don’t discriminate and often young calves of two or three months old will be left to fend for themselves when the mother is killed, and sadly die without access to her nutritious milk. This is where the rescue centre comes in. Their aim is to rescue and rehabilitate any manatee in need and so far they have 9 success stories under their belt.

The sanctuary is only small – with three distinct areas. The first area of three pools is where manatees new to the centre are placed so they can be assessed and monitored. Usually, injured manatees will receive veterinary care here and young calves will be bottle fed milk until they are stronger. Once given the OK, the manatees are transferred to a larger pool where they are integrated with other manatees and move onto solid food which is still hand fed to them by staff. The final stage is a nearby small lake where the manatees have only very limited human contact and learn to forage for food independently. From here it is both the happiest and saddest part for staff, when the manatees they have looked after and learned to love are released back into the wild.


When we first caught sight of the sea cows hovering under the water, we felt an overwhelming sense of emotion. I looked at Dan and said “Don’t cry” as my eyes were filling up with tears. A guide joined Dan and I and took us to the different stations whilst explaining the history, vision and day-to-day practicalities of the centre. We were introduced to an orphaned calf who had been brought to the centre in a distressed condition by a kind-hearted fisherman. It was touch and go as to whether the calf would survive, being badly undernourished and very anxious. Staff at the centre sat for hours, day after day, trying to wean the manatee onto bottled milk and eventually they had a breakthrough. It was hard to think this was the same animal as the guide gently slapped the water and the sea cow instantly came to the surface and confidently started sucking the guide’s fingers searching for milk.


Baby manatees need milk bottle fed to them every hour around the clock and an adult can usually eat 10% of their body weight (around 50kg) of river plants per day so it’s a constant battle to keep up with their feeding demands and of course the cost associated with this. The highlight of the visit for us was the second pool where three lively friends lived happily together.


We bought bowls of river plants and bananas to feed them and crouched down on a purpose-built walkway next to the pool. The signal for dinner is slapping the water and within seconds these graceful underwater giants were vying for our attention.

DSC08936     DSC08956

The manatees looked like dolphins on the bottom half and cows on the top, with big rubber lips that peeled backwards to reveal small bristles and a big pink tongue. We seriously considered smuggling one away with us in our bags – they were simply gorgeous.


It was funny when they rested their top lips on the edge of the pool whilst waiting their turn for a feed and a scratch. One in particular was very fond of banana and would sit patiently by the banana bowls clamming his mouth shut when we would try to feed him green plants, but slurping any banana down greedily. The other two weren’t so fussy. The manatees took food from us very gently and their bristles, which are used when foraging for food, tickled our hands. Whilst feeding with one hand, we could rub their tight but soft skin under the water with the other. They particularly seemed to like long strokes down their backs.


Dan likes to think he holds a certain amount of animal magnetism and true to form he had three manatees queuing up for his attention.


We wished everyone at the sanctuary well as we reluctantly said goodbye and made a small donation as we left. We both knew for sure that our new favourite animals were the manateeeeeees!

Padre Coche

The village of Padre Coche is only a 20 minute boat ride from the port of Bellavista-Nanny in Iquitos but it feels like a world away from the chaotic, frenzied city life.


As we pulled up to a small dock in the village, families sat relaxing and enjoying the breeze on the river banks. Children played together on the water and daring young boys somersaulted from the edge with huge splashes.


Well fed looking dogs stretched out in the sunshine briefly glanced our way and then went back to their dreams. Two old boys sat at a wooden table with flaky paint, sharing a large beer between two glasses while playing cards.


On the green, just a short walk from the dock, more children from the village indulged in Latin America’s national past-time, football. The kids skillfully passed the ball between them and didn’t seem affected by the heat and humidity which was zapping our energy just walking up hill.


We passed simple wooden houses with tin roofs painted in bright colours. A few basic stores sold provisions and one in particular was piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables. Rows of bananas hung by the door ripening in the sun whilst watermelons were piled high on the ground looking like something the army had left behind, with an old machete resting on its side next to them waiting to split them in half and reveal the juicy pinkness inside.


Our first stop was Pilpintuwasi, a butterfly farm and animal orphanage. For a small centre funded by donations and run by volunteers, the place had a great feel to it. We were guided around by an Australian girl who was spending one month of her South American trip working there. The first animals we met were freely roaming the grounds but seemed to be confused, treating us like monkeys and thinking we were just one of the family.


Huapo Colorado monkeys are only found in the Amazon and are particularly rare due to hunting and habitation loss. They have fluffy orange fur and distinctive red faces, not particularly like humans but they held out their hands to us, jumped on our backs and even performed some much-needed grooming!


Pilpintuwasi was proud to discover that one of the females become pregnant and the birth of her baby was the first ever of its kind to be born in captivity, showing us what good work the centre was achieving.


Introduced to the Pygmy Marmoset, we thought we were looking at an empty enclosure until we realised that it contained the smallest monkey in the world with a maximum weight of 300 grams. At the opposite end of the scale, Pedro Bello, was a beautiful jaguar, one of the biggest cats in the world. He padded back and forth eyeballing us. His paws were the size of dinner plates and his spotted coat shimmered in the sunlight. When our guide threw a chunk of meat into the enclosure we saw a flash of strong, white teeth and lunch was quickly pulled apart and devoured.


An inquisitive Ocelot called Harry looked very much like a domestic cat in need of a scratch behind the neck, but at 18 kilos and a proficient hunter, this kitty isn’t one you would want on your lap.


Colourful, noisy Macaws sat preening in the low branches of a tree and Tucans showed off their bright feathers.


A ring tailed Coati foraged in the dirt for insects and fruit. The sloths looked like giant teddy bears and we contemplated what a nice life they lead, spending the majority of their days eating and sleeping.


Our guide said that tourists will often buy wild animals sold in Belem market and bring them directly to the centre in an effort to help. However, this was not recommended as it encouraged poachers to continue killing a mother to sell a baby and often the centre would need to turn the animal over to the authorities rather than keep it. Poaching and illegal trafficking is unfortunately still big business in this part of the world. Large sums of money can change hands for animal skins or babies which seem interesting to the buyer at first but which are soon discarded when they grow too big or when they become weak and undernourished as a result of the owners feeding herbivores chicken and rice meals.

The butterfly farm was home to several endangered species which flitted promiscuously between plants in this safe environment.

DSC09071     DSC09070

Flashes of colour darted this way and that and tickled our skin when they landed on us momentarily.


On our way back to the boat we decided that it would be rude not to call into one of the local drinking establishments and show our support for the local community by purchasing a couple of beers.


We stopped at the Tarapotino Bar which was brightly painted and sporting a disco ball and sound system for when it got busy in the evening. The owner of the bar was Francisco, who had lived in Padre Coche all of his life and who was the definition of  ‘Salt of the earth’ – a genuine man who asked for nothing but offered us his kindness and friendship.


Sometimes when you travel to touristy destinations it can seem like local people only want to talk to you to sell a tour or to invite you to their friends hotel so this exchange was very refreshing. We sat for an hour drinking beer and speaking in Spanish about life in Padre Coche and back in England, which Francisco was fascinated by. We were introduced to his wife and two beautiful kids.

As we were about to leave, Francisco said he would like to take us to see a local community of native Indians who lived close by and still practiced their indigenous culture. We agreed immediately and a 30 minute walk later through the jungle we were in village having our faces painted and dancing with bare-chested ladies.


The tribe has embraced certain technological advances but their traditions and beliefs were still alive and well. Local markets have now made it easier to purchase food for the village but hunting and fishing are still widely practiced from a young age. Iquitos offers access to modern medicines and doctors but many still prefer to use the healing properties of jungle plants and turn to the wisdom of the Shamen. Football shirts and shorts provide comfort and modesty for the men who leave the village but their feather head-dresses and animal skins are still paraded regularly and worn with pride at frequent ceremonies.


We banged the tribal drums hoping that we weren’t signalling for a pot of boiling water to be prepared for the ritualistic cooking of Gringos. Even Dan’s limited dance moves could cope with five steps one way and kick, and five steps the other, however, the biggest problem was not knowing exactly where to look and to ensure hands were kept firmly at our sides!


After some family portrait style pictures with the tribe, we left the village following Francisco once again back to our boat.


We promised we’d write to Fransisco and enclose some pictures from our afternoon at the bar (which we did from Ecuador) and as we waved goodbye from the boat, we knew that Padre Coche would always hold great memories for us.


One Response to “Iquitos – a steamy jungle metropolis”


  1. Rio Amazonas by Cargo Boat | latin chattin' - March 28, 2015

    […] logged trees and ocean cruise liners making their way 3,500 kilometres inland from the sea to Iquitos in Peru, the only city in the world that cannot be reached by […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: