Unique experiences in Iquitos: The Amazon of PeruWritten by Molly Krifka
As your plane circles around the green canopy that hugs the jungle city of Iquitos in Northern Peru, nestled between The Amazon River tributaries Nanay and Itaya, you feel distantly aware of the mysticism and magical beings that tread not so lightly amongst humans here. Although you do not yet know their names or their purpose. El Chuyachaqui, a trickster shape-shifting spirit that guards the jungle with a devoted fervor, may appear to you and lead you astray as someone or something comforting. Las sirenas (mermaids) could call to you in a haunting lilt whilst your canoe glides through the coffee-colored water. Perhaps un bufeo colorado (a pink river dolphin), and also shape-shifting demon, awaits outside the home of the prettiest maiden. He transforms into a handsome young bachelor to lure her from her human life; he also dons a top hat to conveniently cover his blow-hole. Such legends dictate the lives of many Iquitos residents who, although on the surface lead very urban, bustling lives, respect jungle law and understand that we are mere mortals in a non-dual world where nature and culture are unified by unexplained magic and mystery crafting unique experiences.
1) Centro de Recaste Amazónico - CREA
Unlike los bufeos colorados, which are untouched by hunters in Peru due to popular lore and legend, river manatees are often the targets of poaching. Poachers capture the manatees to be both sold as pets and also as meat; and with the numbers of these river herbivores declining, the river ecosystem suffers as a result.
Along the one and only highway in Iquitos leading to the village of Nauta, Km 4.5 to be exact, lies the Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Center CREA sponsored by the Institute for the Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP). The center houses many orphaned and injured manatees, nurses them, and finally releases them back into their river habitat in a responsible fashion. While there, you also have the opportunity of interacting with the young and playful manatees who have a few years yet before they are released. Devoted staff members give very informative tours of the center in both Spanish and English and the center is open from 9:30am-12:30pm and then in the afternoon from 2-4pm. Admission is five soles and a motokar will take you there for about fifteen.
2) Pilpintuwasi - Butterfly Sanctuary and Amazon Animal Orphanage
Austrian Biologist Gudrun Sperrer has channeled her love and devotion to animals into what is now one of, if not the most, coveted animal sanctuaries in Iquitos. Located about twenty minutes outside of the city in the village of Padre Cocha, here you can witness the incredible transformation and complete lifecycle of many endangered Amazonian butterfly species. You can also meet the many jungle animal species, from monkeys to jaguars, that have been fortunate enough to escape the cruel reality of illegal pet trafficking. This is the preferred and ethically responsible animal-watching alternative to visiting poorly maintained zoos that typically keep their animals in small enclosures with no hope of reintroduction into their natural habitat. To get to Pilpintuwasi you must take a boat (either shared for about two soles or private for about twenty) from Nanay port to Padre Cocha.
3) Señor Santiago’s Fish Farm and Animal Haven - Arapaima Giga
Visiting the Arapaima Giga Fish Farm, owned by the larger than life Señor Santiago Alves Silva and family, is a lunch experience that will leave you tranquil and blissfully satisfied. The Farm and restaurant is situated on Km 1 along the highway, and a motokar will get you there for at least ten soles. When you arrive, you will first see the large man-made lake that holds plenty of paiche, gamitana, doncella and many other species. The architecture of the restaurant allows for a cool breeze to flow freely as a server brings you a cool pitcher of fresh-squeezed tangerine juice from tangerines grown on the property. Then, you will have your option of many fish varieties, caught and prepared for you that very day. This is a very ethical option for trying paiche, aka arapaima giga, seeing as Señor Santiago’s fish are raised in captivity as opposed to being caught wild from the rivers, something that endangers the species more and more each day.
After lunch, all the guests are free to roam the property that is filled with four species of citrus trees. The farm is also home to thousands of ducks, two-hundred Capybara (the largest rodent in the world), and one very sociable sachavaca (tapir) named Dorita.
4) Al Frio y Al Fuego Restaurant
Another must dining experience would be Al Frio y Al Fuego restaurant, also known as “The floating restaurant.” Delicately placed atop the Itaya River, this marvel of a building can only be accessed by boat of course, and to get to those boats you should take a motokar to “El Huequito” dock. After a five-minute canoe ride free of charge, you walk onto the floating masterpiece as the aromas of smoked pork, grilled plantains, citrus and fresh fish, marinated filet mignon, and yuca gnocchi with a Pisco finish gently waft past you from the open kitchen. For lunch or dinner this is the ultimate culinary destination Iquitos has to offer and must not be missed. To be noted: the restaurant is closed dinnertime on Sundays and lunchtime on Mondays.
5) La Casa Fitzcarraldo
If you are a film buff, you would definitely be interested in visiting and even staying a night in the home base of Werner Herzog’s eccentric journey during the filmmaking of “Fitzcarraldo.” The film crew made what is now a magnificent B&B, bar and restaurant their home from 1977-1982. Micaela Helvecia Saxer Gonzales Sandoval, daughter of the film’s executive producer Walter Saxer, now owns the hotel with her husband David. They have created an oasis in the heart of the chaotic Iquitos energy and welcome anyone who desires to escape from the smoke and motors into a fairy-jungle land, if only for a day. A tree house three stories tall offers a panoramic view of Iquitos and overlooks a crystalline pool and natural jungle flora that Micaela and David have encouraged to grow freely in the heart of the city. You can dine in one of the poolside huts and enjoy the only Argentine and American steaks in Iquitos or many regional dishes on the menu such as ceviche, cecina (smoked pork reminiscent of bacon), or lagarto (alligator). By motokar it should only cost you two soles from the plaza de armas (main square) and from there a ten soles entrance fee to enjoy the pool and other relaxing accommodations.
6) Ethical Ayahuasca Retreat Option - Paititi Institute “Dedicated to Mother Earth and The Infinite Human Potential”
Taking the hallucinogenic medicine Ayahuasca is a spiritual tradition not to be taken lightly. However, with the growing interest from abroad, Iquitos has become epicenter for many individuals posing as Shamans (traditional medicinal healers) to take advantage of a growing industry: mystical tourism. You must be extremely careful when meeting and choosing a Shaman with whom to embark on your journey to self-enlightenment and to a deeper connection with the natural world.
The Paititi Institute is a very trustworthy organization that functions to unite a global and intercultural community by implementing the three following aspects in all of their retreats and workshops: consciousness, healing and stewardship. They have two main centers in Peru, one in the mountains (condor) and the other in the jungle (serpent). Their center “Serpent” covers 100 acres between Iquitos and the village of Nauta and the center includes permaculture restoration and reforestation projects, a living library of medicinal plants, a department for indigenous studies and traditional Amazonian healing center, and also an alternative environmental school for local Peruvian children.
7) Nanay and Belen Markets
The two most frequented and mesmerizing open-air markets in Iquitos would have to be The Nanay Market and The Belen Market. The former is also the main port to the Amazon River, from which both public and private boats embark. Nanay offers a plethora of “I-dare-you-to” foods such as grilled lagarto (alligator), suri kebabs (skewered beetle larvae), and giant jungle snails. This market also peddles the freshest river fish the city has to offer including paiche (arapaima giga - a river giant reaching 2.75 meters in length and weighing 180 kilograms), doncella (tiger shovel nose catfish), and three different types of piranha.
The Belen Market on the other hand, is the largest open-air market in Iquitos. Belen offers similar treasures to Nanay as well as classic jungle tragos (alcoholic beverages) which are sworn by many as aphrodisiacs, as the double-entendre names would suggest, and mapacho, which is an extremely potent Peruvian tobacco essential to Shamanic practices. Both tragos and mapacho you can find in “Pasaje Paquito,” a small passageway nestled between chicken and fruit vendors.
Lastly, both markets sell a plethora of Amazon fruits from the familiar such as: papaya, mango, avocado, tangerines, oranges, plantains, to the less familiar: cocona, aguaje, camu camu, cashew fruit, acaí, and countless more!
8) Pacaya Samiria and Sierra del Divisor National Reserves
Many people who visit Iquitos book a tour of the famed Amazonian reserve Pacaya Samiria. However very recently, Peru has made the Sierra del Divisor Reserve a National Park and one that presents an equally attractive alternative to Pacaya Samiria.
Once you arrive in Iquitos, you will take note of many travel agencies offering the three possible tourist routes to visit Pacaya Samiria. Pacaya Samiria, the largest national reserve in Peru, covers 2,080,000 acres in the department of Loreto. The reserve ultimately functions to protect el paiche from further endangerment and possible extinction as well as other local flora and fauna; for instance, this is a favored vantage point for bearing witness to the elusive bufeo colorado.
On the other hand, Sierra del Divisor presents a new and exciting alternative to Pacaya Samiria. The new national park is now the third largest reserve in Peru covering 1,354,485 acres and houses some of the most threatened ecosystems in the Peruvian jungle. Its name comes from the unique mountains that tower over the otherwise flat jungle canopy at upwards of 700 meters. Due to this unique feature, Sierra del Divisor is now considered home to the most concentrated and diverse primate populations, as well as over 1,000 plant species, six of which have been only recently discovered.
Your options for both reserves as a tourist include multi-day survival camps to luxury cruises, which range anywhere from 400 to 2,000 soles, although seeking out the former is not only a more economical option, but also a more ecologically responsible one.
While standing on the famed boulevard of Iquitos which looks out onto River Itaya and the jungle beyond, the buzzing of various motorized bikes fades into the background. The ornately tiled buildings of the plaza de armas call back to an era of rubber money and industrial promise, an era that built the city of Iquitos, but this also fades. What is left from this magnificent view is the notion that we humans are not the only ones who dictate how life moves around us. The seemingly endless ocean of trees tells us another story, a story where nature invites you to get back in touch with her and have a unique experience.
Author’s Bio: Molly Krifka is a freelance writer, English teacher and singer songwriter based in Cusco, Peru. After graduating from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, she embarked on a different kind of Peruvian adventure as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in the Amazon jungle city of Iquitos. Molly hopes to share her love of this part of the world with as many curious and willing travelers as possible.
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