Travel: Iquitos and the Amazon [Part One]

For a London girl, living and travelling in South America can sometimes be frustrating. Forget your expectations of service or efficiency. This is Peru and nothing works the way it should.

Packaged food is always a year out of date and that´s just the way it is. Order off a menu and the first five items will receive a response of ¨no tenemos¨. Also, those prices are from 2007. The bathroom is flooded in your hotel room? It´s a feature. Public transport never gets anywhere less than 3 hours late and don´t even bother asking anyone to explain why. Lots of things are just a little bit shit, so it´s best to just accept it.

But I didn´t come here for the table service. Spending four days camping in the middle of the Amazon rainforest was enough to snap me out of my spoilt city attitude.

street-view

A streetview in the floating village of Belen

We started from Iquitos, the largest city in the world inaccessible by road, smack in the middle of the jungle. Iquitos is like every other Peruvian city; crowded, loud and suffocatingly polluted. In fact, because of its isolation, there are few cars on the road, but 25,000 mototaxis turn the streets into a demolition derby, with the fumes to match.

Ex-pats and locals live side by side; the former, pilgrims looking for a friendly city where life moves at half the pace; the latter, some Amazon Indians moved to the big smoke to sell handicrafts or tout tours, some refugees seeking shelter from their Andean or coastal cities wracked by terrorism in the 1990s.

siblings

A family at home in Belen.

The rubber boom of the 1900s that put the former Jesuit mission of Iquitos on the world map is a mere spectre. Once the grande proof of the superlative wealth of the city, delapidated Portuguese-tiled manors now house government paper-pushers, and French mansions lie vacant next to shoe-shops. The ‘Casa de Fierro‘ (Iron House) built by Gustave Eiffel is now a pharmacy.

From the main square, you could be in any city in the Americas. But walk down an alley and you´re on the Amazon river. It´s all you can see to the horizon. Watching the sun setting over the floodlands, it´s impossible to give a monkey´s about the little irritations that sometimes make long-term travelling a chore. This is why I came to Peru.

medicine

Potions for what ails you, in el Mercado de Belen

Before heading into the jungle, we spend a day exploring Iquitos’ Mercado de Belen and extending from it, the floating village of Belen. The market is a shaman’s supermarket and an animal rights activist’s nightmare. The Amazonian Diagon Alley that sells everything from potions to improve sexual virility, to dried boa skins for use in black magic rituals, ayahuasca (an hallucinogenic plant extract held sacred by brujas and Gringos on their gap-year), live monkeys, and illegally poached wild animal meat. We see turtles, snakes, capybara (a giant jungle rodent) and black caiman diced, sliced and ready for sale. None of the stall-owners seem to mind us taking pictures, which is surprising given their merch.

An enormous section of the market is essentially a slaughterhouse. Your everyday livestock is sold here; pigs, cows, poultry, plus fish and seafood. Every part of every animal is sold. Each stall has sections for every kind of inside bit: offal, testicles, eyes, skin, you name it, they’ve sliced it off. As we walk in, towards a loud crunching noise, we see a man with his meat cleaver stuck in the brow of a skinned bulls’s head.

for-the-axe

Waste not, want not, in el Mercado de Belen

Feeling slightly queasy, we’re lead by our guide through the meat section, to the dock to catch a boat to Belen village. Other than the fact that it’s a village under (or rather on top of) water for one half of the year, Belen functions like any other. Kids play in the street, women visit friends in the next house, young people return from work. Except they do it in canoes. The school, pub, petrol station, shops, church and houses all float, and people go about their business on the water. The kids are particularly adept at rowing.

Some houses are solid, with two floors above the water, electricity and lighting. Many houses lie empty, dilapidated and partially submerged. Our guide tells us some houses go up quick to accommodate people that travel from inside the jungle with a big load to sell. They sell and move on. The houses aren’t built to last. For others, maybe they start to make more money. They improve their houses and stay in Belen. It’s poor here, but many love it too much to leave.

boot-storage

Se vende: Gasolina, en the floating village of Belen

From Iquitos, there is only one road out, which cuts through dense jungle to the small town of Nauta, the second largest settlement on the Amazon river. From there it´s an hour and 45 minutes by motor-canoe to the Amazon lodge, where we would spend our first night in the rainforest. Tiny hamlets of houses on stilts pepper the banks. This is flood season and we are in the lowlands. If you live here, your house is either on the water or under it.

This is part one of two, to be continued…

Photos: Alan Chant // alanchant.com // @bonchant

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