Iquitos throws some good annual festivals. The carnival known as Omagua (local dialect for “lowland swamp”) has grown vigorously over recent years and now involves not only townspeople, but hundreds of Indians as well, with plenty of chanting and dancing. The main thrust of activities is on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and on Monday the town celebrates with the traditional Umisha dance around a sacred tree selected for the purpose. It’s similar to maypole dancing in Britain, though in Iquitos the dancers strike the tree with machetes; when it eventually falls, children dive in to grab their share of the many gifts suspended from it.
Perhaps the best time to visit Iquitos, however, is at the end of June (supposedly June 23–24, but actually spread over three or four days), when the main Fiesta de San Juan takes place. The focus is on the small artesanía market of San Juan (the patron saint of Iquitos), some 4km from the city and quite close to the airport. It’s the traditional time for partying and for eating juanes, delicious little balls of rice and chicken wrapped in jungle leaves; the best place for these is in San Juan itself. June is also the month for Iquitos Week: seven days of celebrations around the Fiesta de San Juan, though tending to spread right across the month.
In October the local tourist board organizes an international rafting competition, which draws enthusiasts from every continent for a five-hour, nineteen-kilometre river race, plus a longer six-day race. At the end of the month there’s the Espiritos de La Selva (Spirits of the Jungle) festival, which coincides with Hallowe’en and All Souls, and involves street processions with costumes depicting mythological figures, plus the usual communal drinking and eating.