A pilgrimage site for nature lovers drawn to the most biodiverse ecosystem on Earth and spiritual seekers intent on pushing the limits of consciousness to its very brink, Iquitos, Peru is the last frontier in every sense of the word. Known as La Isla Bonita to locals, this half-million people strong metropolis is in fact the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by car, an island lost in time where the Amazon River and its tributaries, home to pink dolphins and manatees, serve as the only highways into the verdant splendor of the rainforest.
Once the heart of the 19th-century rubber boom, Iquitos centers on a grand waterfront malecón (or boardwalk) lined with restaurants, bars and impressive tile-covered historic mansions, many in various stages of glorious disrepair. Outside of this pedestrian friendly area, the air is filled with the sound of motocarros, hybrid motorcycles with attached carriages that function as taxis, an incredibly cheap if bumpy and noisy way to get around town. Cuisine and nightlife in Iquitos are exuberantly enticing, and the city surroundings offer attractions that simply cannot be found anywhere else on earth.
Ayahuasca: The Vine of Visions
You won’t be in town for more than an hour before you start hearing people recounting their experiences with ayahuasca, as locals claim more than a third of visitors to Iquitos come explicitly to down this potent Amazonian traditional medicine. Used by various rainforest indigenous societies for divination and healing since time immemorial, this thick, bitter and highly psychoactive brew is made from slow cooking a particular jungle vine (B. Caapi) with N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) containing leaves (usually chacruna). Most people refrain from heavy foods, alcohol and sex in the days leading up to a session, as vomiting and intense emotional upheaval often occur.
According to ethnobotanist Dennis McKenna, ayahuasca has an important role to play in changing global environmental consciousness at this very moment. And in fact, psychedelics like ayahuasca have been shown to induce profound experiences of ego-loss where self-centered behavior is revealed as not just irrational in a world that is interconnected but the actual source of our own suffering. To back this up, many clinical studies have now shown ayahuasca to be a potent natural treatment for modern maladies like depression, addiction and PTSD. The visions that ayahuasca induces, iridescent rainbow patterned and often startlingly realistic, are also quite spectacular.
Truth be told, ayahuasca commercialization is causing major social problems in the Iquitos area, with foreign-owned centers charging astronomical prices while locals remain in poverty, and has created a two-tiered system for visitors to navigate as well. But you can still find traditional ceremonies where ayahuasca is ingested among family and friends or administered by a village curendero, if you look around a bit, and a rise in intentional communities made up of people from all over the world, like the Arcoiris Eco-Aldea on the road to Nauta, is filling a needed gap for less touristy and more sincere settings to experience the medicine.
Jungle Gastronomy and Herbal Cocktails: Eat and Drink in Iquitos
The incredible natural abundance of the Amazon Rainforest (actually an ancient permaculture garden) is on full display everywhere you go in Iquitos. From roadside fruit sellers, where agauje and camu camu (the highest natural source of vitamin C in the world) juice must be tried, to ceviche joints where Peru’s most famous dish is based on the tender rich flesh of the giant prehistoric paiche and smooth white doncella (catfish), fresh products from the rainforest are always what’s on the menu. Other must-try dishes include sajino (wild boar), lagarto (alligator) and suri—a fat grub worm that looks like it should be starring in Fear Factor but is as rich, creamy and tasty as grilled butter.
The best places to eat are of course the markets, including the waterfront fish stands at Bellavista and the area surrounding the fantastically chaotic Belen, also home to the famous Witches’ Isle where ayahuasca, coca, love potions and potent herbal aphrodisiacs are hawked by various vendors. For comfort food and the best cappuccino and croissants in town, the Amazon Bistro, housed in a beautifully restored waterfront mansion on the malecón, is old school tropical luxury at its best. Real bombastic Peruvian on par with the best of Lima awaits at Palo Alto, where bands play on the weekends and balcony seating looks out over a quiet residential neighborhood.
At night, Iquitos is as nocturnal as the rainforest that surrounds it. While the malecón stays packed until about midnight most nights of the week, and people watching here is at its best, it’s also worth heading over to the Musmuqui Bar, an Iquitos institution a couple of blocks away. Named after the wide-eyed Amazon monkey that sleeps all day and rages all night, this two-story bar specializes in shots and cocktails made from alcohol that has been macerated in different rainforest herbs, including the blood red aphrodisiac known as chuchuhuasi and the strongly stimulating coca leaf. They also do jungle super fruit variations on the Pisco sour, Peru’s national cocktail, including maracuya (passion fruit) and bright pink camu camu.
For locals, this is just the warm up as on the other side of town huge bands like Explosion de Iquitos rock out cumbia and lambada in a concert-like atmosphere four nights a week. With G-string clad go-go dancers gyrating in front of thousands of grooving Iquiteños, this party goes till the break of dawn and leaves most first timers simply staring in awe. Iquitos also sports several large electronic music clubs, like the cavernous Noa Noa, but for something more chilled out, duck into the waterfront Nikoro Bar, where live DJs, well-appointed hammocks and a ganja smoke-friendly atmosphere also keep the vibe going till the early hours.
Butterflies, Beaches and Brujos: Sights Around Iquitos
Outside of perusing the markets and hanging out on the malecón, Iquitos itself is low on actual tourist attractions and gets downright muggy in the afternoon. For some serious relief just outside of town, head to Quistococha, a white sand beach-lined lagoon. It functions as Iquitos’ own jungle-style Baywatch scene on the weekends, but the beach stays pretty tranquilo the rest of the week. A pleasant leafy zoo, complete with jaguars and anacondas, as well as a botanical garden with hiking trails into the rainforest, are also part of the compound.
A 20-minute boat trip up the Nanay River from the Bellavista market lies the village of Padre Cocha. Home to the Pilpintuwasi butterfly farm and animal rescue, this pleasant town also hosts several natural swimming holes, including the turquoise blue quebrada del amor. Small boats also run trips from Bellavista to floating restaurants like the Bufeo Colorado, where you can swim in the river (piranha bites are rare!) after lunch, and up the Mormon River to visit the serpentarium and native Bora Bora communities, who greet visitors in the semi-nude and perform traditional dances before passing around the donation plate.
Iquitos also offers an amazing array of different ways to get out into the deep Amazon rainforest, everything from luxury river cruises on historic riverboats to full-on wilderness survival courses, but the real don’t-miss here is Pacaya-Samiria National Park. The largest protected area in Peru, and the second largest on the entire continent, this absolute treasure of a nature reserve lies about two hours south of Iquitos at the end of the only road in the area. Book a tour from Diego and his father Alex at Ecological Jungle Trips, located right off the main plaza, or hire a local guide in the sleepy town of Nauta, located just across the muddy-blue Marañon River from the park itself.
At Home in the Amazon: Where to Stay in and Around Iquitos
Iquitos gets a diverse mix of visitors, from packaged tour groups looking for upscale accommodation to hippie-style globetrotters on a shoestring, and it easily accommodates all. In terms of sheer elegance and atmosphere, the city’s pride is Casa Morey, a restored rubber baron’s mansion that fronts Plaza Castilla on the Iquitos waterfront. Casa Chacruna is a pleasant backpackers spot with views out over the palm tree shaded Plaza de Armas, both dorms and private rooms with balconies are available, and the owner, expat Brit Freddie Findlay, is an endless source of information relating to ayahuasca, the rainforest and Peruvian culture in general.
Out in the jungle, a wide variety of places exist to experience nature at its rawest. Most tour companies in town also own and operate a lodge or two where they put up guests on multi-day tours, including the Tahuayo Lodge and Research Center an hour away from Iquitos by fast boat. For something truly spectacular, check out the Tapiche Jungle Reserve, a privately owned 6,000-hectare rainforest preserve and eco-lodge located deep in the jungle a couple hundred miles from Iquitos. It uses the entirety of its income to fund conservation projects in the area.
Ocean Malandra is a writer who divides his time between the Amazon Jungle of South America and the Redwood Forest of Northern California. Photo credits: Ocean Malandra, Jairo Galvis Henao/Flickr and Apollo/Flickr.