Visiting The Peruvian Amazon

Places To Visit In Iquitos

Places To Visit In Iquitos
By Tony Dunnell

Iquitos has the intriguing distinction of being the largest city in the world that is unreachable by road. To get to this frontier-like jungle city you either have to fly or take a riverboat. Once there, you’ll be deep inside the northern Peruvian Amazon, with Iquitos serving as a gateway to the surrounding rainforest.

The city is situated on the banks of the mighty Amazon River itself, and the entire region is a watery world of interconnected rivers, tributaries and networks of smaller channels. For much of the year there's more water than dry land, which makes this part of the Amazon ideal for river cruising and stays in stilted lodges.

The region was first settled by outsiders in the 17th century, when Jesuit missionaries arrived and began to force the native Amerindians to settle in reducciones, or reductions, and work on farms.

Iquitos only began to grow significantly in the late 1800s, when the rubber boom saw thousands of immigrants arriving in Iquitos from all over the world. The rubber boom came to an end around 1912, but its influence can still be seen in Iquitos. Some of the mansions built by wealthy Europeans still stand, albeit in various states of repair. One of the most famous buildings from this period is the Casa de Fierro, an iron structure on the main square said to have been built by Gustave Eiffel, despite a total lack of evidence to support this claim.

Docked along the riverbank, meanwhile, is the riverboat Ayapua, used during the rubber boom and now serving as a small museum.

Visiting Iquitos

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Floating houses in Iquitos Peru

Floating houses in Iquitos, Peru

Things to see and do in Iquitos

Before you go to Iquitos, try to watch the 1982 movie Fitzcarraldo, based loosely on a true story. Directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski, it’s a crazy epic set in Iquitos and the surrounding jungle during the rubber boom days. Not only will it give you a good feel for the rubber-boom days in the region, but it’s also connected with some interesting places in the city.

The real-life Fitzcarraldo is buried in Iquitos General Cemetery, a fascinating cemetery with colourful tombs, an interesting Jewish section, and rows upon rows of burial niches. Then there’s Casa Fitzcarraldo, a tranquil guesthouse owned by Walter Saxer, who was the production manager for Fitzcarraldo. The main stars of the movie, including Kinski, Claudia Cardinale and Mick Jagger (who didn’t make it to the end of the troubled production), all stayed at Casa Fitzcarraldo. Today it’s a great place to stay and has a wonderful treehouse near the swimming pool.

Most people who visit Iquitos are there for the surrounding jungle and the chance to spot wildlife in its natural environment. But before you head out on a river cruise or to a jungle lodge, it’s worth visiting two attractions just outside the city.

A short but scenic boat ride will take you to Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm and Animal Orphanage, where a mind-boggling array of stunning butterflies live alongside a handful of animals, many of which were rescued from the illegal wildlife trade.

Then there’s the Amazon Rescue Center, located just west of town. Arguably one of the most heartwarming places you’ll come across in Peru, this aquatic centre is home to orphaned baby manatees. Feeding leaves to these chubby little things is a wonderful experience, especially knowing that your very presence is helping to keep the centre going. Once they are ready, the orphans are released into specific locations in the surrounding area.

When you’ve had your fill of the city and want to go explore the Peruvian Amazon, you can head out on a river cruise or stay at one of the many jungle lodges in the region. Some lodges are within a 30-minute boat ride, while others are further out (a few hours) and are reached by speedboat.

Lodges tend to be quite expensive compared to normal accommodation, but they typically offer a range of activities including boat expeditions, treks, trips to indigenous communities and night walks for spotting nocturnal wildlife. As an example, the Treehouse Lodge, billed as the only all-inclusive treehouse lodge in the Amazon, has rooms for US$150 per night, including all meals and daily excursions.

If that’s above your budget, you can shop around and do some research and find somewhere more affordable. Just make sure you don’t accidentally book a room in one of the many ayahuasca-oriented retreats – unless you want to try ayahuasca, of course. Also be aware that some lodges, especially those further away from Iquitos, have a minimum stay.

Peru amazon delfin cruise

Delfin cruise boat, Peru

Cruises from Iquitos

Amazon River cruises have traditionally been an activity for wealthy tourists, and that still generally applies in Iquitos today. A four-day cruise with one of the more luxurious riverboats can cost between US$2,000 and $4,000. That’s a lot of money, but the price normally includes good food cooked by experienced chefs, bilingual naturalist guides, daily kayak or small boat excursions for wildlife spotting, and visits to indigenous communities.

If you’re on a tight budget, you don’t have to go on a cruise to explore the Amazon. You can arrange much cheaper excursions with agencies in Iquitos, and often through your hotel or hostel.

A three- or four-day excursion by riverboat and/or canoe can cost around $100 a day, all included. One excellent option is to take a trip into the spectacular Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in Peru.

Covering an area of more than 8,000 square miles between Iquitos and Tarapoto to the southwest, Pacaya-Samiria is a haven for flora and fauna, including manatees, tapirs, jaguars, river dolphins, giant otters, monkeys and much, much more. Ideally, you’ll enter the reserve in a dugout canoe, rowing almost silently through the river system, which greatly increases the chance of seeing all kinds of animals and birds.

It’s a magical experience: I spent four days inside Pacaya-Samiria and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

How to get to Iquitos

Iquitos is only reachable by air and river. The easy way to get there is by a direct flight from Lima. There are also flights from Tarapoto.

Alternatively, you can get to Iquitos by riverboat from the port town of Yurimaguas (a couple of hours by bus from Tarapoto) or from Pucallpa. If you take one of the large cargo and passenger boats, prepare yourself for a voyage of three to four days. Or you can take a smaller, faster boat, known as a lancha rápida, which takes anywhere between 12 to 16 hours.

Best time of year to visit Iquitos

Iquitos has a tropical rainforest climate, and it can rain at pretty much any time.

It’s also hot and humid throughout the year. There is a rainy season, which roughly begins in November and ends in May, with March and April typically having the most rainfall.

That said, you can visit Iquitos and the surrounding jungle throughout the year – just bring lightweight waterproof clothing.

Places To Visit In Iquitos

Tony Dunnell

Tony has been living in Peru since 2009. He has also written on a range of subjects for publications such as Atlas Obscura, Vice, Mental Floss, and many more. You can see more of his writing at tonydunnell.com.

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