Set on the confluence of the Nanay and Itaya Rivers, and of course the Amazon River, the city of Iquitos is only accessible by air. Or if you’re adventurous – a boat trip that can take up to a week.
For those that don’t know, this city in the far flung northeast of Peru is the most isolated port city in the world. Something to do with the Amazon Jungle, I think, and it couldn’t be more different to any other city or town we’ve visited in Peru. Even the Spanish has a different twang.
Founded in 1754 by Jesuit missionaries, this rainforest city hit its initial peak in the 1860s and 1870s during the rubber trade, with oil, logging and shipping keeping it afloat after it slumped in the early 1900s. Today it’s very much about tourism and the stepping stone it provides to Amazonian adventures.
Casa de Fierro.
The streets are dotted with a mix of low-rise concrete and brick buildings, with grand old mansions clad in stunning Portuguese azulejos along its riverfront. Many of them beautifully restored into hotels or occupied by the military, or simply dilapidated and uncared for.
One building of interest is Casa de Fierro, a metal-clad building designed by Gustave Eiffel in the late 19th century. It was shipped upriver in prefabricated parts, and whilst it was destined for Bolivia, the ship’s captain dumped the load in Iquitos as it would take another six months of jungle navigation to get to its intended destination. Or so the story goes.
Plaza de Armas sits in the town centre one block back from the river, the streets around it a mayhem of noisy motocarros and motorbikes zipping around in waves which, only in the early hours of darkness, run quiet from their incessant buzzing.
The plaza itself is a simply designed public space with empty fountains where you can enjoy an ice cream, fresh coconut or juanes and sweat profusely in the tropical humidity slumped over the land like a drenched and well-heated blanket.
Juanes – a pottage of rice, chicken, eggs, olives, herbs and spices.
One of the city’s popular attractions would have to be Bélen Market. Having said that, it’s far from a market for tourists. This is a market that’s local through and through, and you won’t find a single item geared for the out-of-towner.
It’s a captivating place that’s a riot of people milling about, buying and selling wild meats, seafood and fresh produce grown in the rich land and vast jungle that surrounds the city.
Read more about Bélen Market and see more of my pics here.
Head to Karma Cafe to immerse yourself in what could be the city’s ultimate gringo hang out. Eat Thai and Indian, burgers, buffalo wings, breakfast and sip on cooling juices.
They even have an Ayahuasca menu, where all dishes are free of salt, black pepper and other spices that compromise the effects of what many folk come to Iquitos for – altering their state of consciousness for 6 hours with the entheogenic brew made from the banisteriopsis caapi vine.
Karma Café, Napo 138
Head down to the Malecón during the day and you find a sleepy waterfront promenade lined with colonial buildings that are home to restaurants, bars and a couple of hotels. If you peer over the edge at the top of the Malecón you look over a cluster of traditional houses perched precariously on flimsy stilts on the muddy riverbank.
There’s even a crumbling passenger ship marooned on the riverbank where, if you’re up for it, you can jump aboard and explore its many rooms.
The Malecón comes alive in the later afternoon when the temperature drops and becomes a little more comfortable.
Local families emerge and enjoy the lively atmosphere, young teens dress up and come to be seen and many food stalls set up their offerings of ceviche, grilled meats and fairy floss. You can pick up a new phone case, helium balloon or try on some bespoke jewellery from one of the hippies sitting on the pavement.
Finding a drink in this town isn’t the greatest of tasks, especially if you head to the Malecón in the late afternoon and take a seat at one of the resto-bars. Or do what the locals do and go to one of the convenience stores on Antonio Raimondi and drink there. You can’t get cheaper than that.
Our pick (on the Malecón) was Fitzcarraldo where you can relax at an outdoor table and watch the people parade, inside beneath strings of lights or tucked away in their blissfully air-conditioned smoke-free dining room.
Aside from the usual gamut of drinks, there are regional plates, thin crust pizza and international dishes. The Patarashca Firzcarraldo (30) – above pic – is a nod to the more rustic grilled fish on bijao leaf you can see at the markets.
Here it’s pan-fried and topped with tomato salsa and served with yuca fries and mound of chonta – delicate ribbons shaved by hand from the heart of a palm tree. It has the texture of mushrooms and is seriously addictive!
Fitzcarraldo, Napo 100
Past the Malecón and right by some local stilt houses is Ajarys, also perched on stilts above the riverbank. Here you can chow on local fare and sip on drinks whilst watching boats on Río Itaya.
Aside from the loud music and an obnoxious waitress that behaved like a chomping dog on heat towards me, it’s the most beautiful location for a bar and restaurant. And girlfriend ought to be tied to the bar as to not offend any male customers.
Ajarys, Pevas 132
When afternoon drinks need to transform into something more solid, you can easily find somewhere to grab a bite. Iquitos can be an expensive town for food and drinks, due to its isolation and high tourist population, but you can still do it on the cheap.
For some no-fuss edibles you can seek out the small strip of pop-up restaurants that appear in the evenings on Nauta, just off the top of the Malecón. They’re quite literally on the street, decked with plastic tables and chairs with a cart where everything is cooked.
We chose a young lady that cooked up a burger and pollo broaster (7) – lightly battered chicken, fried and served with shredded cabbage, rice and some fries. There’s a variety of squeeze-bottle condiments, but my favourite was the green one – a runny spiced mayo.
Peru’s love of rotisserie chicken speaks loudly at Kikiriki, a restaurant that can be found in a few locations about town. The main one’s one block from Plaza de Armas.
Sit in the spacious dining room and sweat it out in the Amazonian humidity, and at the same time soak in the never-ending roar from the motocarros outside.
These guys pump out their juicy charcoal roasted chicken in enormous quantities (17 pesos for ¼ chicken with plantain chips and salad), so you’d be mad to bypass it. They even deliver.
Try the anticucho (12), if you like your grilled cow heart, which is impossibly juicy and absolutely packed with favour.
Kikiriki, corner Napo & Condamine
If it’s a gringo breakfast you’re after and you don’t mind paying a little more for it, then seek out Amazon Bistro inside one of the stunning azulejos-clad buildings along the waterfront. I’d say to head there just to see the beautiful fit-out, but you may as well linger for a coffee or hot chocolate.
A warm and flakey croissant & coffee (10) if you’re feeling a little French, or pancakes (22) with a whopping fruit salad on the side for a little more substance.
Amazon Bistro, Malecón Tarapaca 268
We both had mixed feelings about this eating institution that’s teeming with locals – namely of the 15 sole almuerzo, or set lunch, they put on.
A choice of salad or chupe (soup) as a starter led me to the most divine chupe de mariscos y pesca. Fish, octopus, pasta, chunks of fried fish and a stunning soup base. I was in love.
All went downhill with our next choice of pescado en salsa de ají dulce, or fish with sweet pepper sauce. The actual fish was fine, as was the rice, but that combination of gloopy maize-based ‘porridge’ and a thickened, flavourless red pepper sauce was like a preview of how my meals may appear if I lose my teeth in my senior years.
Huasaí, Jirón Fitzcarrald 131
If you’re wanting to sample local specialties without having to risk it with gastro from eating at a street food vendor, then look no further than Ikíitu.
You can start off with drinking some chicha (fermented maize drink), masato (Amazonian fermented yuca), chapo (boiled sweet plantain liquified with sugar) or an exotic Amazonian fruit juice – which they’re happy to provide samples for.
Food-wise, we sampled the tacacho mixto (25), which is a typical dish of Iquitos that features Amazonian chorizo, smoked pork and majado – a plantain ball loaded with bits of pork and other goodies.
Juanes are seen all over Iquitos, wrapped in leaves and sold from stands, at the market or from roving vendors. Here at Ikíitu the juane is served unwrapped, perhaps because they use kitchen paper rather than bijao leaves. A pity because the theatrics of unwrapping a leaf parcel comes with the territory. Still, the firm mass of rice, chicken and spices is pretty tasty – and enormous.
Ikíitú, Jirón Fitzcarrald 456