Iquitos: The Amphibian City
Other than locating the province of San Martin on a map and reading a bit of general wiki-type information about the region, I didn’t know very much about the geographic region until arriving here. In Peru the selva (jungle) is divided into selva alta and selva baja. Selva baja means the lower jungle, in reference to the altitude above sea level. This is the type of selva I am most familiar with, from my experiences in Colombia and Brazil. Here in San Martin, we’re in the selva alta, which starts around 400-500mnsm (1000+ feet) on up and is quite mountainous. The selva alta is quite a bit more dry than the lower jungle and it doesn’t rain as much and doesn’t flood completely like the lower jungle does. It’s also a little bit cooler here in la selva alta, although I hesitate to use any version of the word ‘cool’ in reference to the climate here. But in all fairness, it is quite a bit cooler than it is in Iquitos and from what I remember of the lower Amazon I’ve previously explored.
The city of Iquitos is in la selva baja and it was time to check it out. Despite warnings of extreme heat, this city in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon has interested me for a long time. Together with Manaus, Brazil, Iquitos played an important part in South American history during the Rubber Boom (or Rubber Rush) in the late 1800s and early 1900s. What sparked my interest is that this city maintains a population of about a half million, yet can only be accessed via the river or by air. There is only one road that leads out of Iquitos, and it only goes for about an hour to the town of Nauta, where the Amazon River begins and where I disembarked from the Gilmer IV. How and why does this population continue to survive, and thrive, in a place so isolated and disconnected? Back in 2007 when I was in Leticia, Colombia, I had contemplated taking a 10 hour fast boat up the river to Iquitos to check it out. But it was in the opposite direction of where we were trying to get to and we had a very important date to keep with Carnaval! This time around, it was high on my list of priorities for my stint in la selva!
During the Rubber Boom, people made copious fortunes and in Iquitos many chose to flaunt their wealth through architecture. There are beautiful mansions made from tiles and European-looking palaces. There is also the famous Casa de Fierro, built by Gustav Eiffel (as in, the Eiffel Tower dude), on one of the corners of the main plaza that was built with large sheets of metal that had to be carried through the jungle by man. All of the tiles and materials that were brought across the ocean and up the mightiest of rivers, create a very foreign feel that reminded me of my first glance of the elegant opera house of Manaus. Wealth creates strange habits and desires, I guess.
Iquitos is kind of an island, flanked by three rivers; the Itaya, the Nanay and the Amazon. The main boulevard in the historic downtown area is wide and makes for great strolling along the peaceful Itaya. In this area it is easy to see a stark difference from Tarapoto. While both are tourist destinations, Iquitos receives more international visitors whereas Tarapoto sees more Peruvian tourists. Along this boulevard were restaurants clearly catering to foreign tastes with crepes and macchiatos and English menus.
Tourists come for the many natural reserves and hidden jungle lodgings and tours that abound here. With just a small sparkle of luck a visitor can see a huge variety of interesting, and sometimes strange, flora and fauna. There are also many native tribes in the area that preserve some of their culture and traditions, creating an interesting blend of languages, religious beliefs and cuisine.
Like most of the selva baja, Iquitos and the populated area around have a wet season that really means wet! Water levels rises 12+ feet each year for 3-4 months of year. A large portion of the city and all of the scattered communities build their homes in anticipation for this. Many homes are actually built on rafts and during the rainy season just sit in the mud but as the water levels rise, so do the raft homes, raft bathrooms, raft restaurants, raft gas stations, etc. The alternative is building on stilts. One neighborhood where this can be seen is Belen. We went to Belen to both check out their interesting market and also to see the neighborhood during a dry spell. Along all of the permanent buildings you can easily see the water mark of how high the water levels reach and in most cases, the entire first floor of the buildings spend a few months under water. During the dry season these spaces are used for storage and hammocks but not much else. During the rainy season, everything either moves up to the second level, if there is one, or the inhabitants have to spend a few months relocated to higher ground. The rains are beginning now and by late January most of the area should be floating. It would be interesting to return one day during the wet season to see the change.
The Amazon region are the lungs of the Earth, and that would make Iquitos its beating heart, or at least one of its hearts. Thanks Iquitos. Hope to make it back for round 2.