Elio Geusa

Elio Geusa

Feb 21, 2023

Welcome to Iquitos, capital of the Peruvian Amazon!

What you’ll be learning

In this article, we’ll take you on a short journey through time starting back a few hundred years ago to the city’s humble beginnings and up to the present day. You’ll learn about the diverse nature in and around Iquitos, the city’s climate and weather, as well as things to do while you’re in the city and what to count on if you’re visiting for an ayahuasca retreat in the nearby Amazonian jungle.

Situated in the fertile land of the Amazon River basin, Iquitos is a city of approximately 500,000 people that is built next to the mighty Amazon River. It is relatively new for a city of its size, with people first starting to concentrate in the area around the mid-1700s when Jesuits from Spain colonized the area. Since then it has grown tremendously, been the place of many national and cultural comings and goings, seen fabulous riches, devastating floods, and is home to some of the biggest tourism in the country of Peru.


How It Started

Iquitos Peru in older times showing the first train in the city, in black and white
Old Iquitos’s first train cars, from wikipedia

In the mid-1800s, Peru and Brazil agreed to settle their land disputes in the area and trade freely along the Amazon River, leading to Peru’s construction of a strategic trading port city at Iquitos, which began a process of rapid growth. This growth was further accelerated by the increase in the rubber trade, which exploded in South America as a result of increased demand for the growing number of automobiles around the world. Thousands of people from all over the world were drawn to Iquitos by the promise of riches in the rubber industry, and while these riches never materialized for most of the fortune-seeking migrants, many of the workers ended up staying in and around Iquitos, contributing to the uniquely diverse cultural milieu of the city. Even after the end of the short-lived rubber boom in the Amazon, Iquitos had established itself as an important commercial and industrial city in the region and continued trading in lumber, oil, agriculture, and mining for decades to come.

The Iquitos of today is in many ways the same that it was from years past. The city is still an important trade hub, still moving wood, minerals, oil, and agriculture through the country via the Amazon River. Economically though, the city has seen better times and is not quite as affluent as it was in the days of the rubber boom. However, unlike other cities inside the Amazon Basin, Iquitos has grown relatively well with the times. Along with its traditional industries of trading and transport, Iquitos is also a center of media and finance for the region, largely because it is the biggest and most developed city within hundreds of miles.

To give you an idea of how modern Iquitos is relative to many other cities both in Peru and in surrounding countries, many well-recognized brands have offices in the city, including Honda, Yamaha, Coca-Cola and Western Union to name a few. For many reasons, including its relatively advanced development considering its location, Iquitos is considered the second most expensive city to live in Peru, behind only Cusco in its cost of living metrics.


The Iquitos Cityscape

Many people who have visited Iquitos would agree that the most interesting part of Iquitos’s urban attractions is the considerable number of colonial buildings that still remain. These buildings were mostly constructed during the wealthy days of the rubber industry in the Amazon, around the turn of the 20th century and the next few decades. Thousands of miles away from Europe, Iquitos and many other cities in the Amazon received wealthy investments in architecture using imported materials and using European construction styles, which for many people imparts an unique historical impression.

Famous Matriz de Iquitos church in Iquitos, Peru, seen from the road
The Famous Matriz de Iquitos church in Iquitos, Peru. source: flickr

Culturally Iquitos is a richly diverse city with hundreds of years of people from all over the world coming and going, mixing and sharing their cultural identities and leaving parts of their own heritage behind. Native culture has blended with European and East Asian cultures to form the Iquitos of today. In the same afternoon, a visitor to the city can visit the Iglesia Matriz de Iquitos, one of the city’s landmark buildings from colonial days, then eat a fusion meal with influences of native Peruvian cuisine blended with Chinese and Spain food, visit an open air market full of products that trace from all corners of the globe, and walk through a traditional Peruvian neighborhood of rammed earth and adobe structures.

One of Iquitos’s defining characteristics is its unique placement on the map: it is truly an urban jungle city, one of very few large cities in the world situated firmly and deeply inside a tropical rainforest. Iquitos is well recognized as the largest city on earth that cannot traditionally be accessed by automobile, with boat travel by river historically being the main way to access the city, and more recently by airplane. Of course the city itself is full of vehicles, with thousands of tuktuk motokar taxis, busses, motorcycles, trucks and cars. And while Iquitos does have a considerable amount of automobile traffic inside the city, the fact that the city itself is connected to the rest of the world by rivers and airplanes rather than by roads gives the city a truly indescribable feeling of dynamism and mystique.


What’s the Weather Like in Iquitos?

The area around Iquitos is considered a tropical rainforest, which is typically defined as hot, humid, and wet, with relatively stable weather conditions which do not change drastically over the course of the year.

Sunset over the Amazon River in Iquitos, Peru
Sunset over the Amazon in Iquitos

Iquitos gets about 100 inches, or 250 centimeters of rain per year, with rain falling in every month, which partly accounts for the unbelievably rich and powerful nature that surrounds the area. Plant life is provided with rain all year, combined with lots of sun and warm weather, providing ideal conditions for growth and creating the one-of-a-kind ecosystem found in the Amazon rainforest. Because of its location relative to the rainforest and the Amazon River, Iquitos can also experience microclimate weather, with some parts of the city experiencing different weather conditions as other parts at the same time, within close proximity.

But don’t let the rain turn you off from Iquitos or the Peruvian Amazon: there is plenty of sun all year and when the rain comes, it often comes as short and cooling showers which come and go, balanced by beautiful sunny skies and warm weather.


Nature & Wildlife

A toucan on the ground in Iquitos, Peru
One of the many tropical birds found around and about in Iquitos. source: flickr

The lands in and around Iquitos are truly extraordinary. You will be hard-pressed to find another place with such interesting diversity and character in such a small area. Green dominates the landscape around the city, with hundreds of plant species and dozens of native animal species benefiting from the tropical rainforest environment.

The surrounding area outside of the city is part of a massive region of land in the Amazon Basin known as the Iquitos várzea, a collection of flooded forests that receive great deposits of nutrient-rich flood water from strong seasonal rains beginning in the Andes Mountains. These yearly nutrient deposits have over time created incredibly fertile land in and around Iquitos and contribute to the rich plant and animal biodiversity of the region.

The area in and around Iquitos is home to dozens of species of palm trees, orchids, lilies, and other beautiful jungle plant flora, as well as hundreds and hundreds of species of birds. The nature here in Iquitos, and in the Amazonian jungle, is truly something that you can feel. It is a strong and beautiful force of nature.


Traveling To and Spending Time in Iquitos

Seller stalls Inside Belen Market in Iquitos, Peru
Inside Belen Market in Iquitos. source: flickr

For some visitors to Iquitos, the city itself is a destination, and for good reason! There is much to do, see, and experience in and around the city of Iquitos. Walking the city itself exposes you to a wealth of diversity in architectural styles dating back several hundreds of years with influences from Europe, Asia, and of course native South America. The Belen Market is a massive open-air collection of street vendors and shops selling anything and everything imaginable. The Plaza das Armas is a beautiful part of town built mostly during the rubber-industry days of wealth and luxury in the city. It is well preserved and one of the centers of the city. Visit the floating hotel outside the city, visit the butterfly farm, visit the Amazon Animal Orphanage, or hire a motokar for the day and ask for a full-city tour. You will not be disappointed!

Visitors to Iquitos are also impressed with the city’s art scene. The city is home to many dance troupes, visual artists, musicians, and other forms of creative expression that reflect both Amazonian traditions and the great diversity of modern culture of Peru and of Iquitos itself.

Vines and trees on the banks of the Peruvian Amazon outside Iquitos, Peru
Thick and deep tropical rainforest jungle on the banks of the mighty Amazon, just outside Iquitos. source: flickr

For many other travelers Iquitos is less of a destination unto itself, and more of a jump-off point for their continuing travels into Peru. For this reason Iquitos is known as the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon, because its strategic location provides easy and diverse access to various parts of the Amazonian interior within the country. Travelers come to Iquitos as a starting point to continue their journey inward in search of other adventures, whether that is jungle exploration, ayahuasca retreats, nature watching, or deep hiking through uninhabited wilderness.

River cruises on the Amazon River are a relaxing and enjoyable way to see the tropical surroundings outside of Iquitos without committing to a deep exploration into the jungle. For those who want a closer contact with nature, there are plenty of tours through the jungle of the Peruvian Amazon, and many places to stay inside the jungle. These eco-lodges are generally well arranged and closely controlled to minimize environmental impact, and visitors are encouraged to be mindful of their impact during their stays.

For those who are enthusiastic about exploring in and around of Iquitos, wikitravel is always a good first-hand resource written by experienced travelers.


Iquitos’s New Role as Ayahuasca Retreat Destination City

You may be one of the many visitors to Iquitos for whom the city is a waypoint in their journey to an ayahuasca retreat center. Thousands of visitors to Iquitos pass through the city every year on their way to and from their retreats; it is only natural because of Iquitos’s close proximity to the Shipibo tribe of native Amazonians who are expert practitioners of ayahuasca, ritual songs, vapor baths, and the therapeutic use of other herbs and master plants, which together make up their knowledgebase of holistic natural medicine. Indeed, Iquitos is much more well known to the outside world now because of its proximity to the Peruvian shamans living outside of Iquitos than it has been in any time during the last century, probably since the short-lived rubber boom during the turn of the nineteenth century.

When coming to Iquitos, you will find that getting in and out of the city is quite easy. There are dozens of flights daily, with more than a half dozen to Lima per day. If you like to slow travel and are a bit more adventurous, there are cargo boats and speed boats connecting Iquitos with practically every port city along the Amazon River. Depending on where you are and where you’re going, the trip might take two to four days by slow boat or a half day to a day by speed boat.

If you are coming to Iquitos for an ayahuasca retreat with us here at AYA Healing Retreats, we are happy to help recommend how to spend some time there either before or after your retreat to ensure that you have a good experience in the city that is also in line with your dieta and intentions. We also provide transport to and from our retreat location outside of the city, all included in your retreat experience with AYA Healing Retreats.

We look forward to meeting you in Iquitos and welcoming you to a life-changing experience here in Peru!


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