Located in the Amazon region of northern Peru, Iquitos is the country’s largest city not reachable by road. Its nearly 500,000 residents are menaced by more than 40,000 motos, a particularly noisy and polluting form of three-wheeled transportation. The whole place simmers under a faded patina of wealth left behind by the rubber boom that made rubber, or robber, barons out of a few and slaves out of many. Until, that is, someone stole rubber tree seeds, and rubber plantations sprung up in Asia, leaving bitter financial ruin behind in Iquitos.
Today, Iquitos is the base camp for explorations of Peru’s northern Amazon region, and you will likely get stuck in Iquitos for a night or two before or after your Amazon adventures. Here’s how to get into the weird while you’re there.
Get on board: The Ayapua is a German-built wooden boat that dates back to 1906. It transported rubber during the rubber boom. Now restored, it houses a museum with vivid installations—explained in English and Spanish—that bring the rubber boom to life. There’s a bar on the top deck and they play the movie Fitzcarraldo (see below) on a continuous loop. In the wet season, the museum floats before being grounded again in the dry season. Entrance fee: 10 soles (US$3).
Feed a sea cow: Visit the Amazonian Manatee Rescue Center a few miles outside of town to learn why this animal is endangered in the Peruvian Amazon. You’ll meet and hand-feed orphaned manatees, which the facility raises until they’re old enough to be released into the wild. Entrance fee: 5 soles (US$1.50).
Drink jungle hooch: Head to El Musmuqi (The Night Monkey) in central Iquitos, grab a seat, and order from the dozen or so concoctions made with cane sugar hooch infused with jungle plants, roots, flowers, and herbs. FYI: Most are said to have aphrodisiac qualities.
Brave Belen: The sprawling Belen market covers dozens of blocks and attract hundreds of vendors and shoppers. Among the everyday staples (hammocks, vegetables, toilet paper) you will also find medicinal plants and wild animal game meat for sale.
Sleep in Mick Jagger’s bed: Actors, crew, and director Werner Herzog descended on the Peruvian Amazon to film the movie Fitzcarraldo, which tells the crazy (and true) tale of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald who moved a ship over a mountain from one Amazon tributary to another. Shooting in the jungle took years. Cast members, including Mick Jagger, came and went. Somehow, the movie was made (if you haven’t seen it, you should). Through it all, cast and crew used a sprawling house in Iquitos as their base. Today, the executive producer of the movie, Walter Saxer, runs the house as La Casa Fitzcarraldo hotel offering a number of rooms, including the one that Mick Jagger slept in. Don’t miss the chance to chat with Walter to gain more insights into the making of the movie.