At the “island” city of Iquitos, by far the largest and most exciting of Peru’s jungle towns, there are few sights as magnificent as the Río Amazonas. Its tributaries start well up in the Andes, and when they join together several hours upstream from the town, the river is already several kilometres wide. The town’s location, only 104m above sea level yet thousands of miles from the ocean and surrounded in all directions by brilliant green forest and hemmed in by the maze of rivers, streams and lagoons, makes for a stunning entry to the NORTHERN SELVA.
Much of Iquitos’s appeal derives from its being the starting point for excursions into the rainforest, but the town is an interesting place in its own right, if only for the lively local people and magnificent architecture. It’s a buzzing, cosmopolitan tourist town, connected to the rest of the world by river and air only: the kind of place that lives up to all your expectations of a jungle town, from its elegant reminders of the rubber-boom years to the atmospheric shantytown suburb of Puerto Belén, one of Werner Herzog’s main locations for his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, where you can buy almost anything, from fuel to ayahuasca medicines.
The town has a friendly café and club scene, interesting museums and beautiful, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings, and the surrounding region has some great island and lagoon beaches, a range of easy excursions into the rainforest and the possibility of continuing down the Amazon into Colombia or Brazil. The area has also become something of a spiritual focus, particularly for gringos seeking a visionary experience with one of the many local shamans who use the sacred and powerful hallucinogenic ayahuasca vine in their psycho-healing sessions.
Unlike most of the Peruvian selva, the climate here is little affected by the Andean topography, so there is no rainy season as such; instead, the year is divided into “high water” (December–May) and “low water” (June–November) seasons. The upshot is that the weather is always hot and humid, with temperatures averaging 23–30°C (74–86°F) and with an annual rainfall of about 2600mm. Most visitors come between May and August, but the high-water months are perhaps the best time for seeing wildlife, because the animals are crowded into smaller areas of dry land.