Iquitos, Peru is, without a doubt, a unique city. Its colonial heritage can be seen at every turn, and its jungle roots can still be felt, despite the fact that modern conveniences have become a part of everyday life. No where is this contrasting lifestyle more evident then in the Belen district, home to a sprawling market that is loud, colorful, and hot.
The Belen Market is by far the largest in Iquitos, and people come from all over the city, and the surrounding jungle, to buy and sell their goods there. it can be approached by land or boat, and many of the merchants sell their goods from floating platforms and their own boats as well. When I visited Belen, it was Palm Sunday, and very crowded, so we elected to stroll through on foot rather than approach from the river.
The narrow streets are lined with stalls, and the crowds jam in tightly, examining the merchandise and haggling over prices. Thick plastic tarps are used to create makeshift awnings, and they prove their worth on the 270 days a year that it rains in the Amazon. While I was there, however, it was sunny, and hot, and those colorful tarps just trapped in the heat and cast an eerie blue or red glow over the entire place.
If the colors and heat don’t overwhelm you, the sounds just might. As you walk past the hundreds of tables, well stocked with a variety of goods, the merchants shout out prices and beckon for you to come nearer. The shoppers tend to shout right back with counter offers, which are met with a variety of reactions ranging from jubilation to outright disdain.. Some of the stalls have an old radio which contributes to the cacophony of the market, blaring out the unmistakable sounds of Latin music. The occasional scooter or motorbike adds to the din, puttering up the crowded streets, leaving exhaust in their wake.
The real draw to this colorful market is the amazing array of things for sale. There are colorful fruits of all shapes and sizes, locally grown tobacco in a number of forms, unique meats, like monkey, turtle, and caiman, and of course, dozens of varieties of fish as well. The Amazon is the home for hundreds of species of fish, and most of them find their way into the market in a variety of sizes. Piranha were in abundance of course, as were Paiche, a species that can grow several meters in length.
One of the more interesting, and out of the way, sections of the Belen Market was a narrow alley where the merchants were selling home remedies and other concoctions. The stall that I stopped at had all kinds of odd looking elixirs poured into old coke bottles and a variety of jars. Most of them didn’t look appetizing in the least, but the young woman behind the table assured me that they could cure baldness, heal a variety of ailments, or serve as a powerful aphrodesiac. Each was made with planets and fruits gathered from the rainforest, and created from a formula that is passed down from one generation to the next verbally, and is committed to memory.
If you visit Belen, be sure to go early. I spent the morning there taking in the sights and marveling at the endless variety of things to purchase, but by late morning many of the shops were closing up, as they were either already out of their wares, or they were endanger of spoiling. This was especially the case for the meats and fish. The warm afternoon sun would make them go bad quickly, so if there was any hope of preserving them, they have to be removed quickly.
Visiting an open air market in a foreign country has always an interesting experience for me, and Belen continued that tradition. You get to see a “slice of life” from the place you are visiting, and a sense of how the locals life. You also learn about the local quisine as well, and if you’re luck, you might even get to sample some. In Belen, you can easily see the still very strong connections between the people of Iquitos and the Amazon.
Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE