Self-confident and likeable, IQUITOS is for the most part a modern city, built on a wide, flat river plain. Only the heart of the city, around the main plaza, contains older, architecturally interesting buildings, but the river port and market area of Belén boasts rustic wooden huts on stilts – a classic image of Iquitos.
If it weren’t for the abundant stalls and shops selling jungle craft goods it would be hard to know that this place was once dominated by hunter-gatherer tribes like the Iquito, Yaguar, Bora and Witito who initially defended their territory against the early Spanish missionaries and explorers. The townsfolk today, however, are warm and welcoming, wear as little clothing as possible and are out in numbers during the relative cool of the evening.
Though founded in 1757 under the name of San Pablo de los Napeanos, the present centre of Iquitos was established in 1864. By the end of the nineteenth century Iquitos was, along with Manaus in Brazil, one of the great rubber towns. From that era of grandeur a number of structures survive, but during the last century the town veered between prosperity (as far back as 1938, when the area was explored for oil) and the depths of economic depression. However, its strategic position on the Amazon, which makes it accessible to large ocean-going ships from the distant Atlantic, has ensured its continued importance. At present, still buoyed by the export of timber, petroleum, tobacco and Brazil nuts, and dabbling heavily in the trade of wild animals, tropical fish and birds, as well as an insecticide called barbasco, long used by natives as a fish poison, Iquitos is in a period of quite wealthy expansion.
The most memorable part of town – best visited around 7am when it’s most active – Puerto Belén looms out of the main town at a point where the Amazon, until recently, joined the Río Itaya inlet. Consisting almost entirely of wooden huts raised on stilts and, until a few years ago, also floating on rafts, the district has earned fame among travellers as the “Venice of the Peruvian Jungle”. Actually more Far Eastern than European in appearance, with obvious poverty and little glamour, it has changed little over its hundred or so years, remaining a poor shanty settlement trading in basics like bananas, manioc, fish, turtle and crocodile meat. While filming Fitzcarraldo here, Werner Herzog merely had to make sure that no motorized canoes appeared on screen: virtually everything else, including the style of the barriada dwellings, looks exactly the way it did during the nineteenth century.