Isolated. Exotic. Intriguing. Peru's Iquitos, the largest town inaccessible by land, has all the makings of adventure. Known as the capital of the Peruvian Amazon, the town dynamically sprawls into the world's most famous river. As an alternative travel destination, you just can't beat it. Wander around neat, grid-lined colonial blocks. Get lost in chaotic market labyrinths. Then drift in awe around the floating shantytown of Belén:
Belén floating market, Iquitos, Peru. Photo credit: uprouted.co.uk
Best known for: Being the largest city that cannot be reached by road, Shamanic healing
Also Known As: Capital of Ayahuasca, Capital of the Peruvian Amazon, Amazonian Island
Population: Roughly 450,000
Weather: Hot and humid year-round
Motto: Carpent tua poma nepotes (Latin for "Your children will harvest your fruits")
Public Transport: Mototaxi or Motocarro
Cuisine: Juane is an important dish of the the Peruvian jungle. It's widely consumed during the Catholic Feast of San Juan and consists of rice, meat, olives, hard-boiled egg and spices wrapped with bijao (macaw-flower) leaves.
The local commercial hub and major tourist attraction, Belén market, is known for serving up rare and endangered animal snacks, from the South American tapir to the yellow-footed tortoise.
-Nicknamed the "Capital of Ayahuasca", many tourists come to Iquitos to participate in the ancient shamanic ways of plant healing and sample this psychedelic brew.
-Being only 3.75 degrees away from the equator, the time difference between the longest day and the shortest day in Iquitos is only 18 minutes.
-The Historical Ships Museum is second only to Belén market on Lonley Planet's top things to do in Iquitos list - entry gets you some real insight into the Amazon's eclectic past, as well as a 30 minute historical boat ride!
Flying to Iquitos(Coronel FAP Francisco Secada Vignetta International Airport - IQT) from Lima (Jorge Chavez International Airport - LIM), Peru's capital, is very straightforward because, well, it has to be; there's little other choice. The airline, LAN, flies between the two cities 4-5 times a day and Peruvian Airlines flies the route twice daily. If you're budget conscious, search Star Perú for cheap flights to Iquitos. A word of advice from personal experience: don't panic if you start to touch down before you've finished your complimentary sandwich. Star Perú Lima-Iquitos flights often stop en route to pick up/ drop off passengers at Tarapoto or Pucallpa airport. Once you get to there, an onslaught of mototaxis (Peruvian Tuk Tuks) will be on hand to whizz you off downtown. Seeing as land journeys are limited, bikes rule the road here:
Motocycles rule the roads in Iquitos. Photo credit: uprouted.co.uk
Iquitos itself is such a unique travel destination that everything you do feels just that little bit alternative. There aren't that many places on earth where you can paddle around floating petrol stations, football pitches and clubs right on the cusp of dense, unexplored Amazon jungle.
Marvelling at the exotic array on offer at Belén market, from curious witch doctor remedies to the live grubs on offer for mid-morning snacks, is an Iquitos must-do. Here's a few tips and tricks to help you make the most of your trip:
Discovering Belén market with some local guidance made unearthing the secrets of its contents a far more fulfilling experience. There's always someone on hand to show you round for few Peruvian soles.
If you see a particularly popular food stall, get in on the action. That's how we discovered the eggy, sugary, frothy, beer-y cocktail of deliciousness called 'ponche'. If everybody else is eating/drinking it, you probably should be, too. Unless you're a picky eater. You might just struggle here.
Don't lecture stall-owners on their environmentally damaging products/livestock. There are plenty of more productive ways you can support eco-causes in Iquitos without insulting someone's livelihood.
Days in Peru naturally start very early so there's every chance you might get something more out of the market by visiting at different times. In the morning, you may get to see unimaginably weird and wonderful river-dwellers. In the afternoon you might catch the rows and rows of mapacho cigarette rollers. The market is so huge and maze-like you're almost guaranteed to see something you didn't the first time around.
Our guide telling us about the mapacho cigarette rollers. Photo credit: uprouted.co.uk
If you fancy being really alternative you can make friends with a local, go with him to his family home inside the amazon jungle and let him teach you how to fish for pirañas.(Alternative Airlines in no way condones the practice of following a machete wielding stranger into the jungle). Or you could sample the endangered species on offer at the market considered a local delicacy.(Alternative Airlines in no way condones the consumption of endangered species).
...you can crack open a bottle of ice cold Cusqueña and enjoy a decent burger at a riverside bar. Or splash out on some sensational fish and awesome atmosphere at the floating restaurant, Frío y Fuego.(Alternative Airlines absolutely encourages eating at Frío y Fuego).
Iquitos is off the beaten path, but still easy and affordable to fly to. With its straightforward flight connections from the Peruvian Capital of Lima, Iquitos is an alternative destination well worth the detour from the traditional Peru tourist trail.
Fishing on the Amazon Rainforest. Photo credit: uprouted.co.uk
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