Belén Market can be found along Ramirez Hurtado and its surrounding streets, less than ten minutes walk from Plaza de Armas. It’s crowded, it’s colourful, it’s noisy and it can be total chaos. It truly is an assault on the senses.
An exhilarating assault, at that, yet it doesn’t have the same garbage and pickpocket-filled reputation as its watery counterpart on the muddy riverbank below.
One of the many grilled chicken vendors at Belén Market.
Lipstick fruit, or annatto/urucum, which is used as face paint, dye, lipstick and mosquito repellant by the locals.
Nuts and the ever-present camu camu – which contains more vitamin C than any known food on the planet.
More than 150 native communities from upriver descend upon Belén almost every day to sell their wares. Exotic fruits, herbs and spices join wild game that comes straight from the Amazon jungle.
There are the more common offerings like plantain, coconut, onions and mango, but it’s the produce you’ve probably not seen before that makes this market so fascinating.
Locally grown mapacho tobacco can be seen throughout the labyrinthine streets, much of it hand rolled into cigarettes or cigars and sold for next to nothing.
Sold either plain or sprinkled with cane liquor after drying, it’s used as a tool for shamanic ceremonies – something that’s big business in these parts. Local healers blow the smoke over clients’ wounds so that they heal faster, or over bodies to rid them of evil spirits.
Pasaje Paquito lays toward the centre of the market, and you know you’ve found it when you see an entire laneway filled with vendors piled high with bunches of fresh and dried herbs, rows of home-brewed cane liquor, tonics and other fascinating concoctions.
The dried heads and oil of caiman and coiled snakes, balms, love potions and aphrodisiacs also fill the stands. This is where many people, including tourists, come for the hallucinogenic ayahuasca – a potion made from the caapi vine. It alters the state of consciousness, purges the body of negative energy and emotions and helps people discover the spiritual world through visions. Effectively, you vomit repeatedly and endure diarrhea ahead of six or so hours of being well and truly off your tits. Or so I’ve read.
A number of people have died from its use, as well.
Many of the plants are medicinal and are used to treat or cure a number of ailments and illnesses. From mosquito bites and headaches to tumors, ulcers and strengthening the immune system. Even diabetes.
Dried strips of paiche, an endangered Amazonian fish that can reach up to 3 metres in length.
As much as Belén Market is a fascinating place to explore, it can be equally confronting. There’s the usual butchered meat and fish, which is very much the norm at any market, but when you start spotting lagarto (alligator) tails, live or skewered suri grubs and jaguar pelts, you know you’re not at your everyday market.
Indigenous communities are allowed to hunt and eat wild game, but selling it is a different story. Not that it’s policed at Belén Market. The locals have their own ways of intimidating the authorities.
Animals that are listed as being vulnerable, like the motelo, or yellow-footed tortoise, the catfish-like paiche and the soft-shelled eggs of the taricaya river turtle are sold in abundance. And then there’s the illicit trade of live and endangered monkeys, marmosets and parrots.
Churro, large Amazonian snails and pleco, a common catfish of the Amazon.
Amazonian chorizo, a rustic pork sausage spiced with nutmeg and cumin.
Juanes – a local specialty found all over Iquitos.
There’s plenty of food cooking on grills throughout the market, so you’d never go hungry as you walk its many aisles and alleys. Local chorizo can be bought fresh or fried, plumes of smoke from grilled chicken, whole fish on bijao leaves and plantain fill the walkways and, if you’re game, you can chomp into a skewer of grilled suri grubs. Tastes just like chicken!
Visitors to Iquitos would have already seen juanes sold from many street vendors, or kids roaming the street with a bucket of these parcels wrapped in bijao leaves from the jungle.
It’s a type of pottage made using rice, chicken, eggs, olives, herbs and spices, bundled in leaves and sold for next to nothing on the streets or at the market.