Jun 12

I Left My Heart in Puerto Belen

by in South America

My heart started fluttering like mad when the tiny plane to Iquitos began its descent over the Amazon. Cheap international flights can now get you there via Lima, so if you have an opportunity, just go. The gargantuan river can best be described as a huge anaconda, snaking its way through the lush green jungles. Sounds like a cliché, but the thing about clichés is that they originate in truth. Spectacular and awe-inspiring does not cover it.

What passes as an “airport” in Iquitos is simply a rickety building in the middle of a smallish grassy field, surrounded by the jungle on all sides. The air here was full of humidity and devoid of all familiar city smells. Famously, you can’t get to Iquitos by land; water or air are your only options. Iquitos itself is a tiny jungle town, a centre for produce to arrive from across the Amazon to be then distributed to the rest of the country.

Surprising Animals of Peru

I stayed in a hostel which reminded me of an old mansion, where my room was rather grand with a huge bed and its own bathroom (cold water only). The hostel had a resident huge blue and gold macaw, a black kitten and a small monkey – the last two usually rolling in a ball on the floor for their own and the guests’ entertainment. The naughty monkey would also jump on guests’ faces when they were sleeping, just for fun! While feeding cornflakes to the macaw, I made friendly chit chat, speaking to it in Polish (my native tongue) – when it spoke back, mimicking my language perfectly but with its own questioning inflection, my jaw

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firmly dropped to the floor…

Notable sights in Iquitos itself

There is a central plaza with the historic and frankly, weird looking Casa de Fierro, or Iron House, designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel. Imagine a traditional, Southern style home covered from top to bottom with sheets of iron, like an old, battered jewellery box. Along the plaza, I loved the warehouse style curio shop with anything you can imagine, from feather earrings to carvings, bowls, beadwork and everything in between.

In the morning I went for a walk along the river and made it all the way to Puerto Belen (considered a completely separate town by the Iquitans) on foot, and it was love at first sight, instantly, always and forever. I have always wanted to come here, ever since I saw Werner Herzog’s 1982 movie, Fitzcarraldo. The town still celebrates its background presence in the film and there is a posh (or what passes as posh in the jungle) restaurant by the same name along the river.

The Amazon tends to rise up by about nine metres during the rainy season, so all the houses here are constructed on rickety stilts. All of Puerto Belen seems to be rickety and eternal at the same time. It looks as it always has, and the languid pace of life flows here just like the river that supports it. Except for the fact that the Indios now have access to email…

Riding the Amazon

When I saw the canoe – basically a hollowed out tree trunk – that my instant guide was asking me to step into for a leisurely ride across the river, my first thought (expressed out loud) was: ‘we are so going to drown’. He just laughed. The canoes are made from special, floaty wood and it takes the village (everybody helps) about 3 days to complete one. And then a tourist comes along and gets to support the family for a while, by doing a two hour trip on the river. In the river you can spot pink bottle-nosed dolphins playing in the bubbles where the different-coloured currents of the Amazon meet, like white coffee mixed with Guinness.

Support the Locals

While here, support the local businesses, shop, go to the butterfly and wildlife sanctuaries, and on jungle tours, or better yet – stay in the jungle for a few nights and experience all the sounds, smells and movements that it offers. Meet the local indigenous tribes and make sure to take a small amount of money and buy a handcrafted item. Pretty much all of them would be a no no to bring home to Australia (as they feature anaconda skin, grasses, seeds, etc.), but you can always give them away later to tourists from countries with less strict quarantine policies. It is an unforgettable experience and the atmosphere of the place just has to be taken in, words don’t cut it.

Puerto Belen also has wondrous markets on, where you’ll see fruits you likely didn’t know existed, get to tackle monkeys of all sizes, encounter foods that you wouldn’t dream of eating, but might brave it anyway, and generally feel an enormous privilege of just being here and gratitude for the fact that this place still exists on our planet.

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