On April 12th we landed in Iquitos to blistering heat and a tiny Peruvian man waving a placard saying 'Chris Fuchter', which was quite a surprise as we didn't remember arranging to be picked up. Unfortunately it was not a stretch limo, but a mototaxi - a motorbike with two seats attached to the back of it, sent courtesy of the hotel. We climbed in the back for our first ride of many, feeling every bump and and small crack in the road as we made the short journey to town.
Iquitos is in the northeast of Peru, right in the heart of the Amazon rainforest and on the shores of the river, only accessibile by boat or plane. A road stretches 100km to the south, seemingly to nowhere. There are few cars, though it apparently has more motorbikes per person than anywhere in the world.
We met some Australian friends from our GAP tour for dinner on our first evening in Iquitos, a nice introduction to this completely different world. Less than two weeks previously we had been poring over Machu Picchu and the Andes, and now all we could see was water and trees!
day we met our friends again for a trip to the sprawling Belen market, which covers 100 square blocks, where anything you can imagine is for sale - even monkey carcasses. We were just in the market for hammocks, an accessory we would need for an upcoming journey. The market was huge, perhaps the biggest we had seen in South America. We left the mayhem of the market behind and retreated to a nice bar on the river bank, watching the sun leave the day behind while we debated whether to try a peanut butter smoothie. Our Australian friends cooked for us that evening, a welcome healthy meal of chicken stir-fry.
The next day, after our friends had left for more relaxing pastures, we took a boat tour around the residential area of the Belen district, which because of the season was mostly underwater. The houses are made of a floating wood so they remain dry inside, but it is an area of abject poverty. It was a beautiful day when we went, and it was a fascinating but alien world to us. It was strange to see an entire district - complete with a church, school and bars
- mostly submerged so that only the upstairs of some houses could be used. The trip was humbling: despite the harsh living conditions children were smiling, jumping in to the river in a variety of manners and people waved to us as we passed. Flooded houses make the evening news at home, but in the rainforest it is part of life.
We passed huge ships filled with wood from felled amazon trees, a vivid reminder of the deforestation that continues to ravage this beautiful part of the world. We later learned that for one mahoghany tree a native Peruvian will receive only $30US - a job that takes a year to complete. The buyer would then sell it on for $150US, until it eventually becomes the expensive table on sale in stores around the world. That certainly shocked our western ears.
The trip was an unforgetable experience, offering a window in to lives unseen by most. Be it in the mountains or the jungle, the weather and terrain makes Peruvians hardy characters, having to show strength just to carry on their daily practices.
After the boat trip we walked around Iquitos, past a huge football stadium and
through a parade, the meaning of which remaining a mystery. Lonely Planet recently put Iquitos in the top ten cities in the world (luckily we went at the right time, before it becomes full of tourists), and while it is not a beautiful city we could still see why they had chosen this over other places. Cut off from Peru and the world, it is unlike anywhere you will ever go and it retains its own individual character. Visitors are welcomed with open arms, but that's all they can ever be in this strange and wonderful city.
The following morning we were heading for our first taste of the rainforest, and for the millions of mosquitoes that would be waiting for us...
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