Friday, July 19, 2013

Peru - Part 3!


Iquitos is home to half a million people, the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by road.  You have to either fly in or come by boat, which is a long, difficult journey.  It grew into a thriving urban center during the rubber boom (1880-1914).  Today, Iquitos is the hub where the food, culture, customs, worldview, and historical landmarks of the Loreto Region of Peru meet.  And as the rainforest becomes more accessible and popular, a magnet for tourists.

We stayed in the Casa Morey, a 1913 Victorian villa built by the rubber baron, Luis Morey.  It overlooks a lovely park on the banks of the Itaya River and was recently restored to serve as a high-end hotel.  High end is a relative term.  Yes, high end for Iquitos, but not quite 4 or 5-star in the world of international hotels.

The building is impressive.  A national monument, historic, reminiscent of the grandeur associated with an earlier time.  Spacious, very high ceilings, open areas, clean.  Yet, I found staying at the Casa Morey a bizarre experience.  We had a huge bedroom, toilet and entry room, but very few furnishings, little light and minimum amenities.  The management and service left much to be desired.  Almost no one spoke English, so basic communication was difficult.  The staff was friendly and well-meaning, but inexperienced and untrained.  However, our expectations were not high, so staying there for two nights was not a problem.  Just bizarre.

A few blocks from the hotel, alongside the river, were several restaurants that catered to foreigners.  We went to one we were told was good, were able to get a table upstairs overlooking the promenade, and had a very pleasant dinner.  I tried an alligator entrée that was OK.  Our Pisco Sours (now a staple when we sat down to eat) were OK.  Much to our surprise, on the walk back to the Casa Morey we ran into the Italian women from the Delfin.  They had also stayed in Iquitos for a day.  They greeted us like long lost cousins, not at all like their demeanor on the boat.  Go figure. 

The next morning we took a walk to the center of town.  The main square was underwhelming.  There was a lot of construction of what promised to be new, ugly buildings.  The streets were crowded and noisy.  Overall, we weren’t too impressed.

We were to have a more interesting view of Iquitos under Luis’ tutorage.  He came by mid-morning as promised and we went with him first to the main outdoor local market and then on a small boat to see Belen, Iquitos’ floating city.  The market is huge.  Vendors from 150 local communities come together to sell everything imaginable to eat, drink, cook with, or wear.  One area features medicine, literally thousands of local remedies for whatever may ail you.  The work of indigenous craftspeople is everywhere.  The sights, sounds, aromas and energy generated by hundreds of people jammed into a small area make a visit to this market unforgettable.

What stands out for me most during our day in Iquitos was the walk from the market to the river where we began our boat trip through the floating city.  The waters, which were at their peak in April and flooded low-lying areas of the city, had receded.  What was left behind was the garbage and debris that weren’t so visible when the waters were high.  Huge piles of stinking refuse were everywhere.  To their credit, whatever city agency is responsible for removing this stuff was doing its job, which is to gather it together and haul it away.  But the job was a long way from being finished.  The people who live in this area are, of course, the poorest residents of Iquitos, so they are the ones that have to deal with the flooding and then the follow-on issues.  It was a very ugly and dispiriting scene.

I’m not a great fan of boats under any circumstances.  The one we boarded to see the floating city was small and in my view unstable.  So I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of floating around the Amazon in this thing.  I was assured it was safe and so off we went.  The floating city is just that – houses and shops that are in the water, anchored I assume in a way that keeps them in one place.  Clearly, the people living here are poor, and we were told that most visitors are shocked by the conditions in which they live.  But for us, a slum is a slum, whether floating or on dry ground.  And we’ve seen dozens of slums around the world.  We were not, therefore, surprised at what we saw.

Perhaps the signal event that says it all was when a little boy in a little boat came up next to us and was playing in the water with what we were told is the largest rodent in the world, a capybara.  He then lifted it up into his boat and was petting it.  I thought the thing would bite him, but apparently they are friends and no damage was done.  So, no shock associated with the floating city.  A lot of shock associated with the little boy and the huge rat.

For the rest of the day we did nothing, relaxed and had a quiet dinner.  The next day we would make a dramatic environmental change – from the Amazon to the Andes.  We flew from Iquitos to Lima and connected to a plane to Cusco.  All the logistics were smooth and our flights were on time.  We checked into our hotel, the Monasterio, at about 2 in the afternoon.


Post a Comment

<< Home