Iquitos: Humidity, Energy, and the Jungle

After the long road back to Santiago, a day of rest, and another flight to Iquitos, Peru, I arrived in the jungle. Or, a city of almost 400,000 in the middle of the jungle. When I stepped off the plane, it was as if I immediately walked underwater because it was actually. That. Humid.

Most foreigners come here to try Ayahuasca, the powerful and apparently healing drug that’s legal in Peru. Or people come to experience the jungle. To see the animals, the Amazon, and go as deep into it as they can.

And me? I wasn’t really sure why the hell I was here. I chose Iquitos simply because it was only accessible by plane or boat. The road didn’t reach the next biggest city, and it’s surrounded by the Amazon, Nanay, and Itaya rivers. I flew into the city and hopped in a mototaxi (first experience!) to stay in a home on the edge of town with a young family and their six year old daughter.

This photo represents Iquitos for me in a lot of ways. Iquitos is a city that is alive in nearly every way you can imagine that word. Every sense is stimulated. The heat. My sweat. The exhaust from all of the motos. Coming an arms length away on a busy road from another person, one of the public buses, or even, although more rare, a car. The markets, with freshly cooked fish, fruits which only exist in the jungle, and my first experience with bugs for food: grilled larvae.

Digression: Not gross. If we all switched from beef to bugs, we’d have a chance at saving the world.

And despite being a slightly disorganized and messy city, people were always doing something. Construction workers were making progress on every corner, while women waited on the sides of the road during their breaks to sell them refrescos made from fruits of the jungle like camu camu or maracuya. People are running to the open air markets, waiting in lines to outside banks or post offices, jumping onto motos–helmetless and weaving in between traffic.

I’ve never been to a place quite like Iquitos.

27_street scenes from a mototaxi all a blur
The Blur // Iquitos, Peru

I found these knick knacks and fabrics while strolling through Iquitos in a string of shops. Despite the fact I didn’t have the space or the budget to buy anything, I can’t resist wandering through and seeing what unique (and not-unique-but-still-pretty) things I can find. The butterflies and the fabrics were fantastic. Fabrics like these are common across all the places  I’ve been in South America, but this particular style and pattern seemed specific to this part of Peru.

If you visit Iquitos, this is called the Centro Artesanal Turistico Anaconda, which sits on stilted structures over the river nearby Plaza de Armas.

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Mariposas en Botellas // Iquitos
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Fabrics Seemingly Inspired by Ayahuasca // Iquitos

I took a boat ride to see the rivers surrounding Iquitos, including the Amazon. I saw several pink freshwater dolphins, but I couldn’t get a photo. Instead, I captured this photo of the guide’s hand pointing at the dolphins in the distance. If I had to guess what  happened, I would guess he broke his finger in moto accident.

In the background, you can see two different colors of water where the Amazon and Nanay rivers meet. Below is another photo which shows it more clearly.

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Pointing at Pink River Dolphins // Iquitos

The Nanay River on the right side is black in color, while the Amazon River is a light muddy brown. The stark difference is because of the different sediments in the water, as well as the different densities of the water. The confluence is so clear, it surprised me.

23_where two rivers meet
Where the Nanay River Meets the Amazon River // Iquitos

I captured this little buddy on camera on Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island), where injured or sick monkeys are rehabilitated and free to integrate back into the jungle. They usually stay near the coast, where there are humans because they know they are guaranteed food. Since they are used to humans, they crawl right up onto your legs and over your shoulders.

There are two Monkey Islands in Iquitos. One which is apparently focused on profit where the monkeys are kept in cages, and this one, which is a rehabilitation site. Considering I did absolutely no research, I got lucky that I ended up at the better one. For me, it still felt a little touristy, but at least these babies seemed healthy and well fed and were not in cages–like in the horror stories I read online.

If you’re traveling to Iquitos and want more information on that distinction, here is another travel blogger’s take and the Trip Advisor page for the one that I went to.

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Monkeys’ Island // Iquitos

Piranhas in action as fish food pellets are thrown in a pond full of them.

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Piranhas Feed // Iquitos

My only way to leave Iquitos was either plane or boat, and I was set on taking the three night boat journey from Iquitos to Yurimaguas, the port city from where I took a car to Tarapoto and then a bus to my next destination.

Since I was on this boat for three nights, I had long days of reading, writing, napping, and waiting for the next meal. Below these few photos is a journal entry from my first day.

 

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Tangle of Hammocks // Leaving Iquitos

The first evening on the boat on the Marañón River.

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Plantains and a Sunset // Leaving Iquitos, en Route to Yurimaguas

Another sunset on the boat. The wooden planks lying on the decks are the ones I wrote about above.

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Overlooking the Sunset Nearly at Yurimaguas // Iquitos

I am on a giant ferry, what’s called la lancha in Spanish.

Beatrice, Zoe, and Gloria (people from the family I stayed with) accompanied me to the port, which was muddy and dull and grey but full of life, overwhelming life, happening in
front of me. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. There were people rushing everywhere. Families rushing to get on the boat, men practically sprinting with several kilograms of god knows what on their back to load into the boat, mototaxis and motos streaming in to drop off said people, families, passengers, a handful of gringos, and la gente de Loreto–the people of Loreto, the province I was in. 

If you thought Chinatown buses between east coast cities were dynamic, you. Have. No. Idea.

We got onto the boat by walking up a piece of plywood leaning against the back of the boat, which probably wasn’t wider than one foot. Parallels was another set of plywood, where men were running up the unstable piece of wood with… again, only god knows what thrown over their shoulders.

We entered the passenger area and I immediately smiled. Who knows why, though, I think I’m crazy. Here I am about to sleep on this overcrowded boat with hundreds of strangers right next to me on a hammock. 

Anyways, the passenger area. Imagine Staten Island Ferry with the inside and outside connected. No way to close yourself off from the breeze of the water. All the benches and places to sit on the inside are gone, except one long bench lining the circumference of the boat. Now, hanging from the ceilings are a couple of hundred hammocks of all colors and heights. Lining the bars which the hammocks hang from are hundreds of orange life vests. On the floor, you can immediately tell at the types of people traveling. There are all of them by the way. From the lone duffle bag or giant traveler backpacks, there’s a traveler maybe.  Piles of dozens of bags, duffles, mochilas, those giant plaid looking bags that I saw in West Africa, underneath hammocks. A family seems to literally be moving out of Iquitos–which sounds liked a nightmare, possibly worse than New York
City apartment hopping.

I pick an empty looking spot to hang up my hammock. There are three makeshift rows more or less and two of them are full. Across the way, Beatrice points out other gringos traveling. God, they stick out. Do I stick out like that? Maybe I’ll talk to them at some point over the next three days.

I thought my empty spot was a good idea, but actually the empty side just became a walkway for the next hour before the boat left. Throwing my hammock over their heads, people gushed back and forth selling food, toilet paper, Tupperware, water, soda, and anything else people might need for the journey.

I was particularly overwhelmed, but Beatrice and Gloria kept pushing me to buy toilet paper, buy water, buy Tupperware, and so on. I needed to sit and observe for a moment. Set up my hammock, situate my things. Everyone else was doing the same, but they knew what to do and had seen this before.

What would I have done without Martin’s family telling me I need Tupperware to eat the food they provide on board? Or water is expensive and they don’t have much on the boat, as that’s not included with the meals? Or that I needed toilet paper for the bathrooms? I should’ve guessed the latter.

Despite the most terrifying bathrooms and showers I have ever been in, screaming children, one little boy running around with a toy gun screaming POW POW POW POW, strange old men staring at me which I don’t know how to feel about, checking my stuff to see if someone has taken something every five minutes, being nervous to take a nap, and washing my hands with what I believe is brown river water pulled up from below the boat…The sunset was, obviously breathtaking.

Of course this story ends with a sunset. Pinks  and purples reflected off the muddy, clay colored river, as ripples from the boat make the river come to life. It looked like a 3D pastel painting in “actual size” form. Plantains stacked in the corner reminded me how far I was from home. A young, pregnant woman with a purple tank top and zebra leggings staring into the sunset reminded me I’m in 2016. My expensive, large Canon camera–stark in contrast to the rest of my surroundings, reminded me that I’m just an observer here. 

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