Iquitos; A City Without Roads

I don’t know what it was which made me stir; the gentle drumming of rain on the tarps hung rigidly on either side of the deck, keeping it dry, or the gruff, hushed laughter of the boat’s captain which occasionally echoed in the silent night? Or perhaps it was just my bladder begging to be emptied.

I stepped gingerly off the hammock, careful not to wake the girls blissfully wrapped in their sleeping bags. Who would have thought; it actually got pretty cold at night on the Amazon basin. After using the bathroom, I stood on the deck for a few minutes, just leaning against the rusty railings. It was completely dark, except for a yellow moon reluctant to shine, and absolutely silent, except for the occasional muffled cries of the creatures lurking in the dark forest. For a fleeting moment, the world appeared as it must have been before we came; untouched, unexplored, and ever-lasting.

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The Huallaga River (a tributary of the Marañón River) and our boat

I was travelling on a riverboat from Yurimaguas to Iquitos in northern Peru, accompanied by three recently graduated American girls; Hannah, Julia and Mikayla. I had met them the day before in Tarapoto, a small town 2 hours drive from Yurimaguas, and we decided to do the boat journey together. 

Insider Tips: Iquitos is accessible via only two methods; flying or catching a river boat. The boats leave from either Yurimaguas (2.5 days, Cost 100 Peruvian soles) or Pucallpa (4-5 days, 100 soles). The boat from Yurimaguas leaves on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 12 p.m. Tickets can be purchased on the ship. Hammocks can be rented for 20 soles and you are allowed to pitch your hammock and stay aboard the vessel if you arrive one day earlier at no extra cost.

On the boat, most of the locals resided on the lower deck, which meant we had the upper deck to ourselves. But some occasionally came up for a chat or to play cards. The girls –two of whom spoke Spanish– made an effort to converse with them and that delighted the Peruvians to no end. The were passionate about women’s rights in developing countries and well aware of global issues. I found it fascinating that I should have some of my most intriguing conversations during one of the most isolated legs of my trip.

Insider Tips: The boat ticket includes three meals a day, consisting mostly of rice, cassava, oatmeal broth and bread. Don’t forget to bring the following:

  • Drinking water (7 litres was enough for me)
  • Utensils, Tupperware for meals
  • Snacks, fresh fruits
  • Books, playing cards for entertainment
  • Warm clothing

As the largest continental city in the world, inaccessible by road, I’m not sure what I had expected Iquitos to be like. But I was a little disheartened to find it a jumble of concrete slabs and frantic activity nonetheless. It felt ragged and dirty and lonesome, its only saving grace the river-front promenade, where old colonial-style buildings of white marble stood perishing slowly under the tropical sun and rain. But we only spent a night there, before heading into the forest for an Amazon rain-forest experience.

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Our charming wooden boat

There are many communities scattered along the river banks,” said Juan Carlos, our local guide, pointing at yet another cluster of thatch-roofed huts appearing on the river bank as our old wooden boat motored on towards a stretch of the forest where intended to do a jungle walk. His skin had a deep tan, and he wore a golden tooth which flashed brilliantly every time he laughed at one of his own or our jokes. After working for a few years as a logger deep in the rainforest, he had given it up to become a guide, hoping to show the wonders of his hidden kingdom to foreign visitors.

“Many people from the communities come to this forest, catching and killing the animals. That’s why there are no animals left here.” He explained solemnly, as we followed him in a single file across the damp, mosquito-riddled jungle that day. There was a tinge of regret and shame in his voice as if embarrassed that he couldn’t spot any wildlife during our 2-hours walk that day.

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A walk on the green side, listening attentively to Juan Carlos

We left our jungle lodge after 4 days, have never felt like I was in the real Amazons. Perhaps I had not gone far enough. Or perhaps, the Amazon had left because we were there. Tourism, whether we admit it or not, comes at a high price. Iquitos grows as more and more money is injected into its economy, and the forests recede consequently as more people are drawn to the area.
My lack of Spanish language skills sadly robbed me of the opportunity to ask the locals what they really thought of their rainforest. But that trace of regret in Juan Carlos’ voice made me believe that the locals were well aware of their dilemma; development came at a high price to their surroundings.
On the last day of our tour, Juan Carlos offered to introduce us to his family. We rode the old wooden boat half an hour upriver and spent a few hours playing volleyball and football with the kids there.
“There are many communities living in the forest now,” I remembered him saying. His own family lived in a small community in that very same jungle.

Insider Tips: Help conserve the local wildlife and choose an environmentally responsible accomodation. One of the major threats to the local wildlife is the capture and imprisonment of animals. These animals are then transferred to the so-called animal parks where they are displayed for the benefit of the tourists. Green Track Hostel works closely with organisations and reserves which are against such practices. Make a commitment to see animals in their natural habitat, rather than have your photo taken with imprisoned wildlife.


2 thoughts on “Iquitos; A City Without Roads

  1. I found Iquitos to be absolutely engaging. It is a rough, rather crude river city with some sprinklings of luscious architecture. There is little of the noise of Latin cities (tuk tuks here don’t honk incessently and I never heard overly loud bad music). I know the general opinion is not so generous, but I would go back to Iquitos with no hesitation.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Vellissima,
    Of course we all experience a place differently, and that is partly why reading about a place can never replace seeing it first-hand for yourself.
    My piece seeks to simply convey the way I saw that city, and was perhaps influenced by my emotional state at the time.

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