Taste the word: Iquitos. Sounds crisp and tribal.
I was attracted to this place from the first time I saw the city on my map, deep inside the Peruvian Amazon jungle. I quickly learned that it was the largest city on our planet, without road connections to the outside world. Half a million souls live on the shores of the Amazon River, 3700km upstream from its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean. They have an airport, but the vast majority of people and goods arrive here with boats.
I knew I had to go there. I didn’t know why. Iquitos had a mythical status in my universe, a place I wanted to visit for reasons I didn’t really know other than the fact that is was remote and I liked the name. Like Vladivostock in the far-east of Russia, I really want to visit that city also. Or Alice Springs, Australia. Or Fairbanks, Alaska. Or…
After 800km on the Napo River, we are approaching a large river settlement called Mazan. We have a fairly easy time landing our raft in Mazan and from here we can get some alternative river transport the remaining 30km upstream the Amazon to arrive in Iquitos. We can’t go to Iquitos in our own raft, as it can’t go upstream.
It was the first time I saw the Amazon River, in the speedboat that took us from Mazan to Iquitos. Indeed a monster of a river, I could hardly see the other shore. It was full of debris: huge amount of water hyacinth flowing silently down the river, mingling with large floating treetrunks. The speedboat arrives in the port of Iquitos and we make our way through the chaos of boats, passengers, stalls, smells and noises and unto the street. We have 5 Peruvian Soles left and spend them on a little motor-taxi that takes us to the center. Misha have lived here and knows a little cheap hostal near the central plaza. We dump our things in our shared room and I take a look at myself in a large floor-to-ceiling mirror. Haven’t seen a mirror in a long, long time. My skin is tanned, my hair is pale and bleached by the sun, I have a beard and my clothes are smothered with dirt. I am sure that I smell, but can’t sense it myself. I look around at my two explorer-companions and they are in similar decay. “I need to take a shower and get my clothes washed, I can’t hardly walk around town like this”. The washing of my clothes takes half a day and I wander through Iquitos in my bum-uniform, like a symbol of my transition from rough isolation to comfortable civilization.
I loved Iquitos. 9 out of 10 vehicles is a “mototaxi” as they call it, a three-wheeled large scooter, similar to what you find in India, Thailand and in many other developing areas of the world. People complain that they are noise, but they are much more quite than the honking, noisy cars and trucks throughout the rest of South America. They are cheap to use, so it’s the standard way of transport for all the locals. They are all taxis, so there is no parking problems as people don’t haul their own vehicles around town. They are much smaller than cars, which means that the road-capacity is dramatically increased. It has a trunk in the back, where people can carry their belongings.
Imagine that, a city with 500.000 inhabitants that doesn’t have parking problems and, practically speaking, no traffic jams. Maybe the mototaxi could be deployed with great success as a fast, green and cheap alternative to taxis in many cities throughout the world.
I have visited many markets in South America but rarely find them very interesting. The markets of Asia are more smelly, cracy, chaotic, wild and busy and thus far more funny to visit. But Iquitos have a market that is worthy of comparison to even the vivid markets of Indonesia or Kyrgyzstan. The Belen Market. From crocodiles and armadillos to screwdrivers, t-shirts, pets and paint, Belen Market has it all. Luckily, we had to buy many things in Iquitos, so I had plenty of excuses to go there. Getting lost between cacao sellers and tobacco traders.
We have another mission in Iquitos: To upgrade of raft. We want to buy an engine and a solar panel. It is far cheaper here in Peru than in Ecuador so we have patiently waited with these purchases. Roaming around town, negotiating prices and discussing specifications. At the age of 32, I became the owner of my first engine: Honda Aqua, 390cc, 13 horse power. It is a “peque-engine” as the locals call it and it is by far the most common type of engine you’ll see on the Amazonian Rivers. Outboard engines are only operated by speedboats, the Peque-type is what everyone has so we can easily get spareparts further down the river. It is a really nice piece of mechanic, our engine.
We also purchased a solar panel. 100W panel with necessary inverters, regulators and 160Ah of battery capacity. We now have the comfort of electricity: to charge our cameras, have light in the evening and listen to music. Electricity is a pleasure of modern society that I strongly appreciate, I have to admit.
Iquitos was like a giant village. I am happy that I got the chance to visit this remote and huge settlement.