When deciding on a trip to the Amazon rainforest, many people opt for Manaus in Brazil. However, after consulting Google maps and looking into budget flights, we opted instead for the city of Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon.
Iquitos is a hub for river transport, with its historic port formed by the confluence of the Amazon, Nanay and Itaya rivers. After being inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years it was colonised by Europeans in the 17th century, and finally established as a trading port in the late 19th century. This is evident in the architecture around the city. However, there is no dispute that this is a truly Peruvian city with its thousands of colourful tuk-tuks and endless ‘menú’ cafes.
How to get to Iquitos
The Peruvian Amazon is not accessible by road, so the best way to get there is to fly. We took a flight from Lima with StarPeru at a return cost of GBP 120 per person in June 2017.
Our flight lasted approximately three hours, with a quick stop-off at Pucallpa on the way. (Sometimes the stop is at Tarapoto.) Don’t worry, you don’t need to get off the plane, just wait in your seat while passengers disembark and embark, much like a train. This was the first time we’d ever experienced this with a flight.
Where to stay in Iquitos
Hostelworld currently offers 12 properties in the city of Iquitos. We opted for Amazon House because with it being the first week of our first big trip (and Lisa’s birthday), we wanted to stay in a private room. It was a little bit out of the city centre – a 20-minute walk – but it had good facilities, and was run by a friendly, hospitable family.
In advance of our arrival we organised an airport transfer through our hostel for 25 soles. While it’s possible to find a ride a bit cheaper on arrival, pre-booking removed any anxieties about getting from the airport to our accommodation.
Our first night in Iquitos: local live music!
By the time we made it to the hostel and checked in, the evening had already set in. We decided to take a walk around the area to get our bearings and explore what it had to offer.
A couple of blocks around the corner we heard the unmistakable sound of live music flowing along the street. We followed the noise and soon discovered a large open space resembling a miniature festival ground, with a large stage occupied by a flamboyantly dressed dancing troupe. Locals crammed in with beers in hand, pulling out their best dancing moves. We had stumbled across Complejo CNI, a popular local venue for live music and dancing.
Complejo CNI is known to get packed out on weekends. This was a Sunday night, and it was still pretty full! The security guards on the gate beckoned us to enter – no payment needed – and so we joined the party.
After we’d had our fill of dancing we grabbed some salchipapas (a fast food dish of sliced sausage and potatoes) from a café around the corner and made our way back to the hostel.
How we spent a day in Iquitos city
The next day we set about exploring the city’s most famous spots. There’s plenty of history and culture to absorb in Iquitos, and we found one full day ample enough time to cover the highlights.
Market shopping at dawn
Our first port of call was Belén Market, a gigantic market in a floating shanty-town that is home to thousands of people. It’s best to visit early in the morning when jungle villagers arrive by boat to sell their produce.
When evening falls the market has a reputation for being dangerous, especially for tourists who are obvious theft targets. You’ll also get the freshest purchases before the tropical sun takes its toll on the fruit, veg and meats.
We explored Belén Market by ourselves for an hour or so, and in that time we could barely scratch the surface. It’s possible to take full guided tours by canoe, which would be a great activity in wet season, but with time short we moved on.
Peruvian coffee on the riverfront
A short walk along from Belén we reached the walkway along the front of the Itaya River, one of the scenic highlights of Iquitos. The promenade is lined with colonial architecture, museums, eateries and coffee houses. Looking out over the water, we watched fishing boats come and go, and spotted ageing shipwrecks in the river undergrowth.
After taking in this scenery for a while we took a coffee break at Dawn on the Amazon café. This was a great little spot to enjoy a traditional Peruvian coffee with a river view, if a little pricey. Check out their menu here.
Food tip: for lunch in Iquitos we tried one of the city’s many ‘menú’ restaurants. These eateries can be found all over Peru, and are the cheapest way to enjoy local food, but can be rather hit and miss. This occasion was a hit, as Pikanto in Iquitos was the best of these places we found in the country! For 10 soles each we had three courses and a drink, including a fish-filled causa as a starter. Check out my article on Peru’s menú restaurants here.
Museums of Iquitos: unlocking Peruvian Amazon history
On the riverfront we made another stop at the Museum of Indigenous Amazon Cultures. Outside we befriended a friendly local tour guide who showed us around for just 10 soles. The collection of artefacts and statues gave us an introduction to the background and customs of over 40 different tribes from the region.
Our most educational experience of the day came at the Ayapua Boat Museum. Set on board a century-old steamship on the river, the museum gave us a window into the beginnings of Iquitos as a prominent port city, and the rise and fall of the Peruvian Amazon rubber trade. I wrote more about this experience here, in particular the legend of biopiracy that decimated the local rubber industry.
Quirks and landmarks at the heart of Iquitos
To round off our sight-seeing and learning we made for the central Plaza de Armas. Towering over the main square is Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, a traditional church from the Spanish colonial era. With its cream-white walls, red details and distinctive clock tower, it’s one of the city’s most striking architectural features.
On the corner of the square is Iquitos’ most famous and mysterious building: Casa de Fierro (Iron House). It is rumoured to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel and delivered to Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon by mistake instead of Quito in Ecuador.
Whatever the truth of its origins, its sturdy iron countenance makes for a great photo. These days you can also enjoy a meal in its second-floor restaurant.
Tip for getting around: in Iquitos, the tuk-tuk is the transport mode of choice. We found them a fun and cheap way to get around the city, and very little bartering was required. We typically paid 3–4 soles to travel between our hostel and the centre. Note that you will need to be very clear about your destination – language barrier was an issue for us, and we met some tuk-tuk drivers who couldn’t read maps. You may need to point the way, or better still, equip yourself with some Spanish directional phrases (‘izquierda’ = left, ‘derecho’ = right, ‘al frente’ = straight ahead).
An extra-special dinner treat: floating restaurant on the river
We don’t often do the posh restaurant thing on travels, but as it was Lisa’s birthday we made an exception. We might have done anyhow for Al Frio y Al Fuego, a restaurant like no other we’d experienced before: in the middle of the river! To reach it we had to take a small ferry boat.
We sampled a mixture of traditional Peruvian food and local Amazonian dishes while enjoying the serenity of the river at night. As darkness descended, both the restaurant and the riverfront looked quite spectacular in lighting.
Our final bill came to 365 soles so this was indeed a rare treat, but totally worth it. To find out more, check out the restaurant’s website.
Homely local bars: around the suburbs of Iquitos, among the many brightly coloured houses, we found many examples of businesses being run out of family homes. All sorts of bars, shops and cafés spilled out of people’s living rooms onto the streets. Close to our hostel we enjoyed a couple of drinks at such a place. It was the cheapest beer we had in Peru, and we got to share it with an old guy watching TV and a bunch of kids running around!
Our Peruvian Amazon jungle tour
No trip to Iquitos would be complete without a trip into the Peruvian Amazon jungle. Before visiting we looked into options for pre-booking, but decided to leave it until we were there. This turned out to be the right decision, and saved us quite a bit of money.
There are plenty of agencies in the city offering different tours, so you may want to take time to explore the options. We booked a two-day, one-night tour through our hostel for 440 soles each. This included a whole host of activities and a night’s stay in a jungle lodge. As Lisa and I were the only English-speaking people to book that day, we had our own private tour guide.
Day one: wildlife galore
On the morning of the first day we were collected by tuk-tuk, transferred to a minivan and taken to our river departure point. From here we took a two-hour cruise on the Amazon into the jungle.
After arriving at the lodge, our local guide, Jon, led us on a hike into the jungle to seek out vegetation and wildlife. We didn’t see any snakes, but a mouth-opening moment came when we stumbled across a nest of bullet ants. These inch-long creatures are notorious for wielding one of the world’s most painful stings.
After lunch we took a boat out to Monkey Island, a sanctuary providing a home to various breeds of monkey and other jungle animals. A devious little monkey called Pancho jumped on Lisa within seconds of our disembarkment, and quickly figured out how to drink the water from her camel pack! After wrestling it back we both took turns to hold the resident anaconda and toucan, and watched the monkeys play-fighting.
Next on the agenda was a dip and swim in the Amazon River. The mud is renowned for having excellent qualities for skin, so we made our own face masks. On the ride back to the lodge, we watched the sun set over the river as pink dolphins leapt all about.
That evening after dinner we went out for another jungle hike, this time in the dark. A giant bullfrog and some tarantulas numbered among the nocturnal life we encountered. Back at the lodge, we got well acquainted with its own resident pet tarantula.
Day two: embracing jungle life
We rose before dawn on the second day to take a boat down the river for sunrise. Unfortunately for us the cloud cover obscured the view, but we did see some jungle birdlife. Black vultures swooped about as we glided over the water.
After breakfast it was time for a spot of fishing. Jon promised that whatever we caught would be cooked for us to have for lunch. It looked like we would be going hungry. Between the two of us we managed to catch one tiny little fish! Lisa did hook a sizeable piranha, but reeled it in a little too hastily – it flipped all the way over the boat and splashed back into the water on the other side. Oh dear.
On our way back to the lodge for lunch we stopped to visit an indigenous Amazonian tribe. After a warm welcome we were taught a local dance, and how to use a hunting blow-pipe. Before leaving we bought some of the tribe’s handmade crafts.
Thankfully our modest fish portion was filled out with plenty of rice, chicken and vegetables. Thoroughly satisfied with our jungle experience, we set off on the two-hour return cruise.
Tips for jungle preparation: the first rule of venturing into the jungle is to prepare for mosquitos. It’s near impossible to avoid being bitten entirely, but take repellent, and make use of mosquito nets provided. In the Peruvian Amazon it’s also advisable to take malaria tablets, as there is a risk. Bring your all-weather gear too – it will rain! Lisa wrote a handy little guide for surviving the Amazon: you can read it here.
Leave a comment below if there is something you want to know about visiting the Peruvian Amazon that hasn’t been mentioned in this article. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Have you visited Iquitos? Feel free to post any extra advice.