The humidity outside the airport in Iquitos had already slapped me like I was a newborn when the buzz of the city’s activity hit me like a left-right combination on the receiving end of a boxing match.
After flying in from the drier, laid-back vibe of Lima and into “The Capital of the Amazon,” as Iquitos, Peru, is commonly known, my senses were overwhelmed by a steamy confluence of color and noise. The road leading from the airstrip was clogged with busses and moto-carros (often called tuk-tuks) – motorized rickshaws that raced around this jungle city and turned every street into a wild game of Frogger.
Situated where the Amazon and its tributary, the Itaya River, meet 2,300 miles upstream from the Atlantic, isolated Iquitos is a ragged shell of the city. It was the center of the rubber trade and exported the valuable resource to America and Europe starting in the late 19th century, ramping up the export when the automobile began mass-production. Nowadays, with a population of over 400,000, Iquitos appears as beaten as the backs of the native Indians who slave labored their way through decades of abuse at the hands of their foreign merchants who nearly decimated the Yagua, Witonos, Matses, Boras and Huitoto tribes during that dark period.
The lavish, Spanish-style mansions of the wealthy rubber barons are still there. But time and neglect have reduced most to abandoned rubble. Others have been reinvented as hotels with only remnants of the gilded, mosaic tile walls and ornate palace doorways remaining. Most of the churches where Jesuit missionaries left their stamp still chime on the banks of the Itaya. A wide walkway divides the beauty of what is the natural Amazon with the grim reminder of what The Rubber Boom wrought — including the savage treatment of those indigenous tribes who, in a sense, are still enslaved 100 years after local labor laws were enacted.
Through it all Iquitos has maintained its importance as a major port on the Amazon. Under the dark blue gaze of an abandoned, ten-story former hotel, the city is surrounded by river on one side and green Amazon rain forest on the other three. The only way to get here is either by air or, as most native visitors do, a long, crowded ferry trip.
As I settled into my room at the no-frills Shamana Hotel I was just thankful for the working air conditioner. I purposely scheduled my trip through Peru in May at the tail end of the rainy season (before the student tourists arrive) and was lucky enough to enjoy mostly dry weather throughout the month. But this was the Amazon basin and I now had to contend with sporadic showers and the ever-present humidity which soaked me over my six days here.
From the comfort of my chilled hotel room I looked out my second floor window with its panoramic view of the swampy Itaya and all of the river life that surrounds it. Women scrubbing their clothes outside their wooden shanties, children splashing through the garbage of the murky swill and unintentionally catching glimpses of men using the Itaya like a public bath house. And I do mean public!
The Itaya is an ever-changing being all its own — the terrain is unrecognizable from one season to the next. During the dry season (June-August), the banks of the Itaya recede so much men actually set out goal posts and play soccer right where the large passenger ferries now chart their courses. At the peak of the rainy season water levels may increase by nearly 20 feet flooding the garbage-strewn cliffs where people usually walk.
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