It’s a pretty widely held opinion among travelers that Iquitos, the bustling gateway city into Peru’s Amazon, kinda stinks. Coming in, we knew we were supposed to hate Iquitos, or at least dislike it. Most tourists don’t even consider this a “real” stop on their itinerary; they just use it as a passing-through point to get to the Amazon or an Ayahuasca retreat. Honestly, this was our plan too (read about our Amazon River Tour here). So why did we find ourselves having such a soft spot for this unlovable city? Here are a few reasons why we fell for the untamed “Capital of the Amazon,” a.k.a. Iquitos.
One thing that makes this hectic city so cool (in my eyes) is that it’s only accessible by boat or plane, making it relatively difficult to get to. It’s said to be the world’s largest city that cannot be reached by road. This remoteness adds to its intrigue; it felt pretty special to be a part of this isolated community, even just for a few days.
Given that this city can’t be reached by road, there are very few cars here. The main mode of transportation is motorbikes, which were the Peruvian take on the Asian tuk-tuks – a three-wheeled motorcycle that has a bench for passengers in the back. We’ve come to love motorbikes – they’re cheap, take no time at all to fill up on gas, and can squeeze down some pretty narrow
streets alleys. Given the insane density of these vehicles, you will never have a problem catching a ride to wherever you want to go. Plus, you get to feel the wind on your face, which, trust us, is a benefit in the extreme humidity!
Given our pretty mediocre experience with South American food thus far (in Chile and Argentina), we definitely expected this very isolated city to have sub-par food. We were totally shocked and excited to discover Iquitos has some incredible restaurants – for a very reasonable price!
We mainly ate at two restaurants – Karma Cafe and Dawn on the Amazon Cafe. Our favorite items were the chips and salsa (that also came with guacamole) and veggie burger from Karma Cafe, and the acai bowl and fries from Dawn on the Amazon.
This one’s a strange one (and I’ll explain more in a future post), but as I mentioned above, some travelers find themselves passing through Iquitos on their way to an Ayahuasca retreat. This means a good portion of the tourists in Iquitos are there to try out this strong, hallucinogenic plant. You’ll find that many of the town’s restaurants cater to these people by offering a specific “ayahuasca menu,” plus a less-formal (but equally as obvious) super-hippy vibe. I’ll leave it at that for now.
One of these days I’ll publish a post on South American street art. Was Iquitos dirty and unkept? Sure. But it also had gorgeous street art prompting a smile everywhere you turned!
Lingering people who touted their wares but didn’t bother us – they just waited quietly around us outside the restaurant. Yeah, it was a bit weird, but we’d definitely prefer this quiet brigade as opposed to people who bother us incessantly as we try to enjoy our meal.
When we were traveling, Pete and I always seemed to find ourselves in the middle of some sort of outdoor festival. Iquitos was especially lively and, similar to our experience in Cusco, always seemed to have an outdoors party going on. And these weren’t your run-of-the-mill backpacker parties – it seemed more like the entire local community really enjoyed coming together to hang out, celebrate, dance, listen to music, sometimes even march in costume!
Hotel La Casona
This adorable hotel deserves an honorable mention, as it definitely played a big role in our warm feelings toward Iquitos. It has a ton of rooms, but somehow manages to stay homey. The staff is really friendly and helpful. The rooms are clean and perfectly adequate; they all have fans, but for a few extra dollars, I’d suggest splurging on the AC.
Incredibly reasonable! I’m talkin $7-8 for an amazing entree from a very nice restaurant (one that I mentioned above) and nice hotel rooms for $30.
Okay, so there is some bad stuff about this city (as there is in all cities). For example, the exhaust you inhale while on the motorbikes isn’t so pleasant. Also, it rains all year round here, which I’m sure can get a bit tiring – but it’s in the rain forest, what do you expect?!
Truth be told, part of the reason we liked this gritty city so much is that, well, we missed gritty cities. After being in objectively pretty cities like Buenos Aires and Mendoza, we were ready for the excitement and the chaos that Iquitos so generously delivered.
Have you been to Iquitos? Did it win you over, or do you think we’re nuts?