The Amazon River Basin is an amazing place. It is a vast ecosystem with the most diverse array of plant and animal life found anywhere on the planet. It is also one of those iconic destinations that sparks visions of adventure, with thoughts of Indiana Jones raiding lost temples for golden idols. It was all of these things, and more, that spurred my recent visit to the Peruvian Amazon, seeking a little adventure of my own.
The Amazon River officially begins at the confluence of the Ucayalli and Marañon Rivers in the Maynas Province of Peru. The largest city and capital of that region is Iquitos, which also serves as the gateway to the Amazon headwaters. With a population of nearly 400,000, Iquitos holds the distinction of being the largest city in the world that is not accessible by road. The city sits on the banks of the river, and is encroached on at all sides by the rainforest. Visitors to the city must arrive by plane or boat, and many goods still need to be shipped in via the river.
Iquitos was originally founded as a Jesuit mission around 1750, but it remained relatively small until the 1860’s when it became the seat of government for the region. It remained a modest sized town until the early 20th century, when the rubber industry exploded, and the population of the city followed suit. The remnants of that era can still be found all over the city, with large mansions still in use, and colonial architecture dominating certain districts as well.
Today, tourism has become one of the biggest industries, with adventure travelers making the journey to gain access to both the Amazon River and Jungle. But even with the increased tourist trade, Iquitos is still far off the beaten path for most, as many who go to Peru are there to hike the Inca Trail and pay a visit to Machu Picchu. Indeed, in my time in the city, I saw few people who could easily be identified as tourists at all.
Iquitos is clearly a town steeped in tradition. On Saturday nights the Plaza de Armas, one of the major town squares, is lit up like a carnival, with music playing, bright lights flashing, and food and drink in abundance. On Sunday morning, the same plaza hosts an elaborate flag ceremony, with soldiers and sailors stationed in the city, marching the square, while the flags of Peru, the Maynas Province, and the city are run up the pole to great pomp and circumstance. Locals line the street watching the proceedings, as if they are watching the weekly ceremony for the first time.
Despite the fact that Iquitos is a fairly large city, the people that live there still have a sense of harmony with the Amazon. It may be the largest city in the region, but it is still a jungle town at heart, and that is reflected in the way its inhabitants live. Many of their homes are literally right on the water, and plenty still depend on the jungle in one fashion or another, for their livelihood. The town markets are filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as fish and other meats harvested from the Amazon.
Iquitos is indeed a fascinating and lively place, with a rich history. But its real allure is the huge natural resource that surrounds it, and in upcoming stories, I’ll share my experiences there. It is filled with life, both plant and animal, but also plenty of people as well. And the diversity of all three is amazing to behold.
Next: A Visit to the Market
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