Deep selva: Iquitos and Amazonas

Deep selva: Iquitos and Amazonas

The deep jungle covers a substantial part of Perú. Loreto, the province which contains much of it, is around 370 thousand square kilometres, and is estimated to have under a million inhabitants. Much of it is without any formal settlement, and communications are either by river or by air. Iquitos is the largest settlement in what is, in many ways, one of the least understood areas on the surface of the planet.

The Amazon

The Amazonas river runs 6750 km to the Atlantic ocean, delivering around 250 million tonnes of water every minute. A given water molecule is thought to be evaporated and re-precipitated as rain between ten and twenty times on its way to the ocean. Between two and three metres of rain fall annually in the Amazon basin, chiefly focused between January and April, but distributed fairly evenly throughout the year. As the river passes Iquitos, it is only around a hundred metres above sea level, but has over three thousand kilometres to flow to reach the ocean - a drop of perhaps one metre per 30 km of run. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it reacts to increased flows by backing up. Iquitos floods twice annually: once as a result of rains in Ecuador, the other from rains in Perú. The maximum width of the river varies from 1.6-10 kilometres in the dry season to anything up to 48 Km in the wet season. Altogether, the system is thought to hold a third of all of the fresh water on Earth.

The Spanish were quick to try explore Loreto, seeking el dorado, the city of gold. Pizarro's brother, Gonzalo, entered in 1542 and got as far as the Napo river. He sent one Francisco de Orellana ahead, who found a huge body of water where he was attacked by ferocious women. Knowing his classics, he associated these with the Greek Amazons and hence gave the river its name - de la Amazonas.

The Amazon itself forms relatively late in Perú, being the union of four main flows and innumerable smaller ones. From South to North, these are:

All of these rivers are navigable and support a considerable flow of river traffic. It is, for example, easy to take a ride from Pucallpa on the Ucayali to Iquitos, and to fly back to the coast from there. A trip will stop at Requeña and Nauta. Fast travel uses deslizadores express launches, which will take around 16 hours for the trip. Slower chatas take more people and freight, stop more frequently and will take several days. It is also possible to get to Iquitos from the Huallaga via Yurimaguas, using the same sort of facility. However, such trips are less frequent. There are frequent boats which pass down the Amazonas to Brazil, with people freight and floating cargoes of wood.

Iquitos and the Amazon, as seen from space. The green arcs are formed as the rivers change their course and vegetation establishes itself on what used to be river banks or sand bars.

A considerable part of the Peruvian Amazon basin has been designated as national parks - such as the 2.08 million hectares of the Pacaya Samiria park, 1.5% of the total land area of Perú - or as land reserved for the indigenous people.


The regional capital was a long-established settlement that grew explosively during the rubber boom of the 1880s. The port was founded by Jesuits in 1757 under the name of San Pablo de los Nepenanos. However, rubber changed this cluster of missions out of all recognition. Subsequently, oil and timber gave a further impetus as rubber faded from importance, but the chief trade of the city is now civil and military administration, and managing the river traffic with Brazil. There is a large naval base close to the town. This is a hot and humid place, with the daytime temperature averaging 27°C. It has around 300,000 inhabitants.

Click here to see a series of images Iquitos runs right to the Amazon, and is sandwiched the Río Itaya on its South side and the Marona lagoon on its West. The port - Puerto Belén - exists where the Amazon and Itaya join, and is backed by a large military complex. The airport has been built right into the town, and services both light aircraft - which flit about the selva on demand - and scheduled flights to most places of size in Perú. There are many hotels, to up to four star standards, and all facilities.

The town is laid out on a grid, and consists of largely low-rise buildings with corrugated iron roofs set in ample space. Many date to the 1880-1920 period, with relatively few modern buildings. Trees and flowering plants are everywhere. The town's patronal is San Juan Bautista on 24th June, celebrated with dancing and other events. The focus is very much on water as the key to the region, and this may involve quite a lot of it being thrown around.

The rubber boom saw some strange developments in Iquitos. Gustave Eiffel obviously had effective salesmen in Perú at the time, as his buildings are scattered across the country. The Casa de Fierro was designed by Eiffel in 1889 for a Brussels trade show, as an ideal double-veranda prefabricated colonial residence. It was bought by a Peruvian visitor and shipped out in parts. As the name suggests, it is made from cast iron, not an ideal material for the humid tropics. It is located on Calle Próspero. Malecón Tarapacá has the Art Nouveaux Hotel Palace, with ironwork from Hamburg and tiles from Seville.

Other sites of interest in the town are:

The main market, which offers a tropical twist on the typical farmers' market. The volume and quality of the fish is astounding: pirañas by the bucketful.

The medicine market, which has an astounding mixture of dried reptiles, decoctions of herbs, pickled fish, dried bats and other oddments. The quina quina tree gave us quinine. What else might lurk in these hundreds of hanging bundles, jars, plastic bags and heaps of powder?

Tarapacá promenade, which was once again a product of the rubber boom, but which gives a pleasant view over the river. It is located close to the port, on the Itaya river.

Belén port, which is situated where the Itaya and Amazonas rivers meet. The port itself is a hive of activity and well worth a visit, but the houses are amongst the oldest in the town and these contrast with the rather dull nineteenth century dwellings from which the rest of the town is constructed. Many are raised on pilings to escape the seasonal floods - if you visit during the rains, they stand completely surrounded by water. The inhabitants are chiefly fisher people and, in the floods, may be seen puttering between these dwellings in the omnipresent peque-peque and canoa craft.

The Municipal Museum is tucked away on the third floor of the city hall. It focuses on handicrafts and local wildlife, largely stuffed. The Museo de Amazonas is on the Tarapacá promenade, as above. It holds memorabilia of the city, plus large modern sculptures representing the various indigenous tribes around Iquitos.

The San Juan Bautista crafts market offers many kinds of handicraft, including textiles, carvings and pottery.

Iquitos has a well-developed tourist industry. Local agencies offer trips to local villages, eco-tourism, fishing and mucking about in boats. There is also a flourishing trade in spiritual tourism - with or without quotes - which involve the use of ayahuasca.

Click here to see a series of images Lodges in the area cater for all tastes. Some have created walkways through the forest, so that you can wander about amongst the branches. Many agencies offer cruises of up to eight days, stopping off at various points for more or less arduous walks, bird watching from the deck or fishing. You tend to get what you pay for with these, and the low cost options are not a lot different from the nineteenth century practice of working your passage. Some are extremely luxurious, and correspondingly costly

Beyond Iquitos

Quistococha is a complex designed around a lagoon of the same name specifically for tourism and local weekend use. It covers about 370 hectares and has a beach, aquarium, museum and a zoo. There are also restaurants and sports facilities, boat rental and children's facilities. It is short drive from the town.

In contrast to this, the chief resort for Iquitos is Santo Tomás. This is a settlement that is located on a branch of the Río Nanay, about 15 Km from Iquitos. It is used for swimming, water skiing and pottering about in canoes and powered boats. Closer to Iquitos, but on the same route, is Santa Clara. This is less developed but has white sandy beaches. Bellavista can be reached by Moto in quarter of an hour, and it rents the boats that let you get to these places. It is also the place from which tours to the tourist-focused native communities of Padrecocha and San Andrés set out. Rumococha lake is favoured for fishing and is a short drive from the town. Zungarococha lagoon is a little further and probably more scenic.

The local forest people
Click here to see a series of images The region has been inhabited for around 7000 years. The Yameo and Iquito peoples lived on the site before the modern town was built, and they still inhabit the area around it. Other communities coexist, such as the Cocama-Cocamilla and Huitoto-Murruy. Those close to the rivers and to Iquitos are becoming more or less assimilated, whilst more remote groups are either behind an "airlock" often managed by missionaries - who control air transport to these landing fields - or in voluntary retreat. There are many sources of friction as traditional lands are eroded. Lumbering and oil exploration disturb established hunting grounds and as disease spreads into isolated groups. The billeting of large numbers of troops from the coast and sierra has been a further source of friction.

As mentioned earlier, there are significant areas which are designated as nature reserves - for wildlife - and communal reserves - for native peoples. Loreto currently has two such communal reserves - the Napo-Curaray, which straddles the Napo and Curaray rivers to the North of Iquitos, and the Tanshiyacu-Tahuayo, which is to the South. Travel agencies offer access to some of these villages. Listen carefully to what they tell you about dress, behaviour and general demeanour and act on this advice if you want these to be happy experiences. Unhappy villagers melt into the woods and your trip is then a wasted one.

The Pacaya-Samiria reserve

The major nature reserve is the Reserva Nacional de Pacaya-Samiria. This is upriver from Iquitos, located in the triangle where the Marañón and Ucayali rivers join. This is also where the provinces of Requeña and Loreto come together. The North is bounded by a range of low hillocks, the last gasp of the Andes. It is Perú's largest nature reserve.

Visiting the reserve requires some planning, as the facilities are extremely limited. You must acquire a permit from INRENA in Iquitos before you set out, as you cannot buy one locally or enter without it. You must present your pass at one of the access points, each of which has a control point.

Guides - and the full tourist service - are found in Iquitos. Amongst the best informed is a cooperative that has been established by the indigenous community in Pacaya-Samiria, which is called ASIENDES. They can advise you on the options that are open to you, on how you may choose to live in the park, what kinds of food to bring and what kinds to buy locally, on health issues and the medicines that you should bring. In general, they will provide a magic carpet and they will keep you safe and informed. If you are going to stay in a local community, they will pave the way for this. The local communities are chiefly organised around San Martín De Tipishca, and it is here that the basic infrastructure for tourism has been developed. (This is not the only possibility, and some Iquitos agencies have made other arrangements, from camping in the open to sleeping on a boat. This is a huge park.)

Click here to see a series of images Useful equipment includes a hammock, binoculars, a golfing umbrella and whatever specialist equipment you feel you need, but never forgetting binoculars. You must be prepped for malaria if you visit Loreto, let alone this reserve. You must have both insect repellent and a mosquito net.

The area is hot, and you will need clothing that can cope with both this and the insects which abound in it. The ideal time to choose is May to October, and the heavy rains of December to March make this period impractical. It takes about four hours to get to Nauta, the chief settlement in the area, if one takes a fast speedboat. traveling up the Marañón and into the Pacaya river by a slower local boat takes a further 4-6 hours. (It is also possible to charter a seaplane in Iquitos, but at some cost.) Conventional river boats take 15 hours just to get to Nauta. Most would expect to stay 3-6 days in the region to get the best out of it. You present your pass on arriving at one of the many entrances to the park.

Pacaya Samiria contains several large rivers and 85 lakes. The park authorities have registered 1039 plant species, 443 birds, 259 fish, 97 mammals and 55 amphibians. The Lupana tree grows to 50m, making it amongst the tallest in the Southern hemisphere.

The mammals include jaguars (Panthera onca), ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), kinkajous (Potos flavus), capybaras (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari) and tapirs (Tapirus terrestris). There are also manatees (Trichechus inunguis), pink and gray dolphins (Inia geoffrensis - the pink - and Sotalia fluviatilis, the gray). There are twelve species of monkey.

There are black cocodillos - caimans (Melanosuchus niger) - anacondas (Eunectes murinus) and side-neck turtles (Podocnemis unifilis). There are red, blue and yellow parrots, huge snails and butterflies bigger than your hand. The insects are unnumbered, and it is likely that the count greatly understates what is there. Some of the park consists of heavy woodland that is almost permanently flooded - bosques de aguaje whilst others are open palm groves. Local words such as pungales and renacales are used to describe other unique ecosystems.

The Yanquillo is known for its pink and gray species of fresh water dolphin. The Huiuri lagoon has fine alligators - cocodrilos - and it is a popular place to camp (if not bathe.) The Yanayacu river leads to Chingana, noted for its monkeys: as many as five species in a single small area.

Towards Brazil, and technical note.

Caballococha is the capital of Mariscal Ramón Castilla province, which is the beak that points into Brazil along the Amazonas, flanked by Colombia. It is six hours by fast launch from Iquitos, and can also be visited by light aircraft. The chief reason to visit - unless heading in or out of the country - is to see the full width of the Amazon. This depends on the season, but can reach nearly 50 Km at this point.

The flooded forests, known as várzea, are much more fertile than corresponding land which is not flooded because of the silt which is deposited. Indeed, some areas that are not flooded are deeply nutrient deficient, making them both vulnerable to disturbance and the home of many specialised species which have learned to cope. As the rivers wander about - maps drawn a few decades ago are no longer entirely valid - so areas of differing soil types are laid down in remnants of oxbow lakes, levees, meander swales and point bars. From this comes some of the extraordinary biodiversity in the area.

The forest develops dynamically in response to conditions. Newly exposed areas are colonised first by grasses such as Gynerium sagittatum, Paspalum repens and Echinocloa polystachya. Scrub inserts itself, as Adenaria floribunda, Alchornea castanaefolia and Salix martiana. The first trees to arrive are Annona hypoglauca, Astrocaryum jauari and Cecropia latiloba. Full forest has genera such as Chorisia, Eschweilera, Hura, Spondias and Virola. Iquitos is particularly surrounded by stands of Parkia inundabilis, Septotheca tessmannii, Coumarouna micrantha, Ceiba burchellii. The buriti palm (Mauritia flexuosa) is a characteristic companion to the camu-camu shrub (Myrciaria dubia). Heliconias and gingers make up the the understory with spiny palms and ferns.