Days: 264-265 (16 March 2015-17 March 2015)
Total distance travelled: 52,363.1 kilometres (32,523.66 miles)
Over the course of two nights, we’d slept in fits and starts, followed by a night spent primarily on the floors of Lima’s airport, but by morning, we’d travelled 2,387 kilometres in the space of just two crazy days.
So here we finally were, in the city of Iquitos, the world’s largest (with over 400,000 people) that cannot be reached by road.
You want to get here, to the gateway to Peru’s part of that might river known as the Amazon, then you’ll need to travel by air… or over water.
The funny thing is, minutes after we strolled out of the airport terminal, I could have sworn we were back in South-East Asia, such was the feel of the place.
It was uncanny the immediate similarities.
The hundreds of Mototaxi’s could just as easily have been Thai Tuk-Tuk’s.
There was the steamy tropical air.
Add the fact that we were on a mighty river (it could have just as easily have been the Mekong) and this proxy, Asian image was complete!
After our driver took us to the wrong address (we’d already booked our lodging in advance), then proceeded to charge us extra for having had to take us further, we were finally ready to get cracking in this city in the jungle, lacking the desire to argue over a mere $5.00 Soles… despite the small matter of principal!
Thankfully there were no such dramas with our pre-booked accommodation, so we dumped our bags and in short time, again found ourselves out on the hot and humid streets beneath a dreary looking grey sky.
Our two immediate points of business (along with just having a general wander) being the acquisition of some food, and locating the local BCP branch so we could try and sort out the counterfeit note their ATM had dispensed the previous day.
The town itself was an eclectic mix of decrepit concrete structures, some areas akin to a shanty town, interspersed with the occasional colonial gem, a reminder of the areas once mighty past when the South American rubber trade monopoly brought ridiculous wealth to the area.
Apparently this all changed when an Englishman smuggled some rubber trees out of the country and to Asia where the cheap colonial labour ruined this once lucrative and exclusive enterprise…
We ultimately lunched on a pasta we made ourselves and increased our vitamin C (and sugar) levels with a juice in the local mercado, after which we felt ready to tackle the bank.
This was an interesting experience and after an attendant helped arrange a phone-call for us to a colleague at their head office, the rapidity with which she spoke (the woman on the end of the line) made it difficult for Sarah to comprehend and nigh on impossible for me!
With that ending in failure, we were lead to a staff member inside who would help us lodge a claim… only we discovered we’d need our passports (which we never roam the streets with), so Sarah ran back whilst I completed the paperwork as it had been on my card that we’d made the withdrawal.
Eventually it was all processed and we were advised we should hear back from them in around 2 weeks… although it could be up to 30 days!
This tale ended in a frustrating manner about a week later when we received an email advising that all of the bills used in their ATM’s are checked thoroughly, so our claim would go no further!
We felt pretty pissed off by the time we’d read that email, as we knew for a fact that the note did indeed come from their bank… but Iquitos was well past us by then, so it’s rather irrelevant for now.
After essentially travelling for two days, with the journey broken up by a night on Lima’s Airport floor, we were feeling pretty rough by this stage, so retired to our dorm to relax for the afternoon, emerging only when it felt time to eat.
For once, this was a decision that in truth was no decision at all.
When Sarah had visited with her mum close to 10 years earlier, one of her fondest memories of Iquitos remains a dish called Patarashca.
So it was this we sought, and with some relief, it was the first item we spied on the menu (we went back to the very same restaurant from a decade ago as well, the Yellow Rose of Texas).
There were apparently a few nerves when we’d both placed our orders, from a personal perspective, Sarah was worried that time may have romanticised the memory somewhat… then there was the fear that I simply wouldn’t like it.
Both worries were shortly proven to be very unfounded, as we indulged in what was a most delicious meal!
River fish, steamed in a leaf along with garlic, onion, tomato and coriander (cilantro), it really was one of the meals of the trip!
All of a sudden, Iquitos seemed wonderful.
The following morning we woke to grey skies, somewhat reminiscent of the day previous, although these clouds actually delivered on the promise of rain.
Given our weariness the day before, we were reluctant to enter into any haggling with the myriad of touts for a tour into the Amazon, so that was our first business for the morning, business that was made much easier thanks to a little Googling in advance.
We’d already identified a couple of possible operators and after a little haggling with the first of these, we’d locked in a tour for the following day!
As that proved far easier than we’d expected, we decided to go for a walk, despite the morning drizzle, to check out the nearby markets of Belen, almost like a suburb (I guess you’d call it) of Iquitos.
Our tip that the best time to explore this place was indeed the morning proved well founded, as this was easily the most interesting market of our trip, if not from all of our travels.
The sheer volume of exotic animals and fruits made it a fascinating place, but also made it an impossibility for me to recount exactly what we saw.
Many of the animals were familiar, but certainly had a touch of the jungle about them, with Armadillo, Crocodile, Turtles and some rather pre-historic looking fish all readily available, despite the supposed protected nature of most, if not all of these animals (I’m not certain about the fish, but if it’s considered extinct, does that make it fair game?).
When it comes to the fruits however, I’d have drawn a blank, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy our meander through the mazy, covered alleyways.
The guidebooks and indeed some tour operators say it isn’t the safest place, petty theft being common, however we didn’t feel on edge, nor did we experience or witness any trouble.
Belen as an area is considered a bit of a slum, and whilst the market itself is on dry land, the poor people of this area, for them, life is actually out on the water.
You see this place, is actually built over the water with boats and boardwalks necessary to get around, and this became the second part of our excursion.
Whilst it’s never an intent to treat a people or a place as a curiosity, that is effectively what we did, using this stroll as a means to look through the window into their lives, as seeing how others live, be they rich or poor, is part of the reason we travel.
It was certainly an interesting place…
Some evening beers over the river made for a lovely end of day excursion, the twilight river views proving lovely.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit we dined on Patarashca a couple more times at least, our rationale being when would we next, if ever be back here… the staff (by now recognising us) quick to arrange a table for us, even if we were simply strolling past.
We did have several days in Iquitos on our return from the Amazon, but those first few days were truly the highlight…
* We flew Avianca from Piura to Lima (as it was as cheap as a bus), before connecting to a morning flight from Lima to Iquitos for €181.71 per person (it was booked through a European site).