The city of Iquitos is the gateway to the Amazon Basin in northern Peru. It’s also one of the quirkiest destinations in the country thanks to its isolated location (it’s the largest city in the world not connected by road), a wild west sensibility, Mick Jagger’s bed, plus culture, customs, and cuisine not seen in the rest of Peru. Use our city travel guide, covering what to do, what to eat, and where to sleep, to plan your trip to Iquitos.
Iquitos boomed during the early 1900s as a hub of the rubber trade which made a handful of “rubber barons” very rich while exploiting the labor of many indigenous people who were pretty much treated like slaves. Then someone stole some rubber tree seeds and used them to establish rubber plantations in Asia and the boom in the region, but not before the local rubber barons built elaborate Arte Nouveau-esque mansions for themselves and you’ll notice a few of their distinct tiled facades around town.
Another thing you’ll notice about Iquitos is its size. This city may be remote and isolated from the rest of the country because it’s surrounded by rivers and jungle that make road-building nearly impossible (the word iquitos means “surrounded by water”), but Iquitos is also home to nearly 500,000 people. It’s the 9th most populous city in Peru but no roads connect it to the rest of the country.
Sadly, the city is also home to tens of thousands of three-wheeled vehicles called motokars, similar to the tuk-tuks of Asia, which are the city’s main form of transportation because they’re small enough to bring in by boat and they’re very low cost. A scourge throughout Northern Peru, they are particularly bad in Iquitos where they clog the entire city with traffic, noise, and pollution. Iquitos also has an enormous number of tour companies offering river and land-based trips to explore the flora and fauna of the Amazon around Iquitos. Many also offer ayahuasca retreats which have become big business. These adventure options draw travelers to Iquitos from around the world.
There are also a lot of casinos in Iquitos (maybe they’re popular because they have air conditioning?) and every block seemed to have an electronics shop bursting with televisions, but we struggled to find the basics like a panaderia (bakery) or a simple grocery store.
So, Iquitos may not be a beautiful city, but it does have its charms and more than it’s share of quirks.
What to do in Iquitos, Peru
The Museo Barco Historico presents artifacts from the Amazon Rubber Boom inside a restored boat called the Ayapua which was built in Germany in 1906 and used to transport rubber. The boat now houses the museum (explanations are in English and Spanish), there’s a bar on the top deck, and they play the movie Fitzcarraldo (see below) on a continuous loop. In the wet season, the museum floats from it’s mooring on the river’s edge. In the dry season, the boast sits grounded on the shore.
Actors, crew, and director Werner Herzog descended on the Peruvian Amazon to film the movie Fitzcarraldo, which tells the crazy (and true) tale of rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald who moved a ship over a mountain from one Amazon tributary to another. If you haven’t seen the movie, we recommend that you fix that. It’s amazing. Equally amazing is the documentary about the filming of this jungle epic. Burden of Dreams, includes plots to murder the lead actor, the real-life difficulties in hauling a 320-ton ship over a mountain by hand, and much more true intrigue. To visit the real-life rubber baron’s grave in Iquitos, enter the city cemetery, turn left immediately, walk past a grave that’s been made to look like a barge, and head toward a big white concrete and black tile mausoleum. His grave (marked Carlos F. Fiscarrald) is the simple one on the far side of the mausoleum.
About 20 minutes from the center of town is the Amazon Rescue Center which is a project developed by the Dallas World Aquarium Zoo and the Institute of Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon. Here you can see a range of jungle animals, including birds, cats (we saw an ocelot), and more, that have been rescued from illegal wild animal trade or liberated after being kept as pets.
The main draw at the Amazon Rescue Center, however, are the manatees. After learning why this animal is endangered in the Peruvian Amazon, visitors have the chance to hand-feed young orphaned manatees which the facility raises until they’re old enough to be released into the wild. You’d be surprised how delicate those big bristly lips are.
On the city’s main plaza you’ll find the distinctive Casa de Fierro (Iron House), a two-story structure on the corner with a wrap-around balcony and a facade entirely covered in iron plates. The Peruvian government says the building was designed in 1860 by the Frenchman Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), but others dispute that. The structure was built in Brussels in 1887, exhibited at the Paris International Exposition in 1889, and finally brought to Iquitos where it was reassembled making it one of the first pre-fab structures in Latin Ameria. Other rumors about the building claim that it was meant to be sent to Quito, Ecuador not Iquitos, Peru.
The Belen Market in Iquitos is famous for its sprawl and for its wide range of things for sale–from hammocks to vegetables, to brooms, to wildlife including turtles, caiman, turtle eggs (and turtles), and other illegal “bush meat” along with river fish.
Our visit to the Belen Market was a crowded, chaotic, and filthy experience and it was very difficult to see so many dead wild animals. You also need to be aware of thieves at the market.
At the time of writing, at least part of the Belen Market had been torn down and a large disinfection effort was underway to help stop the spread of COVID-19 which was devastating the Iquitos area.
During high water, it’s also possible (though ethically complicated) to take a boat tour through the Belen neighborhood of the city to see the simple homes and walkways built high on stilts so that they stay above the high watermark. We were in Iquitos during low water, but this type of tour through impoverished areas with no clear benefit to the community makes us queasy so we wouldn’t have done it even in high water.
The Museum of Indigenous Amazonian Cultures, on the waterfront road, displays a large collection of art and artifacts representing dozens of tribes found around the Amazon Basin, not just in Peru, including feather headdresses, clothes, fishing apparatus, pottery, musical instruments, and much more. In one display we learned that there are about 100 voluntarily “uncontacted” tribes in the Amazon Basin and that some tribes are still cannibalistic and head hunters. Descriptions are in English and in Spanish.
Ayahuasca is a natural hallucinogen derived from a jungle plant and it’s been used by spiritual leaders of local tribes for generations. Iquitos has become a top destination for people who want an ayahuasca experience of their own. Tour companies tout multi-day guided experiences. Restaurants, including one called Dawn on the Amazon, cater to the strict pre-ayahuasca diet that participants are told to adhere to. And the lone movie theater in Iquitos is often showing a Spanish language documentary about ayahuasca. We are certainly open to ayahuasca, but we also know that it’s important to wait for the right opportunity and setting to ensure a respectful, safe, and rewarding experience. We’re still waiting.
A small section of the riverfront in Iquitos has been turned into a pedestrian mall that’s pleasant in the evening when the temperature starts to cool down. If you’ve got your heart set on some jungle seed jewelry or a hat woven out of palm fronds, this is where you’ll find and a cadre of semi-permanent Latin hippies ready to sell them to you.
About 20 miles (30 km) up the river from Iquitos is Isla de Los Monos (Island of the Monkeys), a non-profit created in 1997 to rescue monkeys from illegal trade as pets or food or after they were orphaned. The place is located on a 1,235 acre (500 hectare) island which was donated by the Peruvian government then extensively reforested to bring back monkey-friendly species of plants and trees.
When we visited Isla de Los Monos, they had about 200 rescued monkeys, mostly free-range. We saw red howler monkeys, wooly monkeys, a saki monkey, pygmy marmosets, tamarins, and spider monkeys. Upon arrival, the boldest of them approached us and some even climbed onto our shoulders.
While at Isla de Los Monos we also walked along a short trail through the island’s secondary rainforest and the whole experience felt like hanging out in a zoo with no cages. This rescue center is funded entirely by donations, visits, and sales from the small onsite gift shop.
Iquitos is also your jumping-off point for Amazon adventures in the region, including multi-day trips on luxury riverboats. Here’s our full post about our luxury Amazon adventure on the Aria Amazon riverboat.
Eating in Iquitos, Peru
Near the center of town, on Sgto Lores Street, you’ll find El Sitio. Order at the entrance and your fresh and affordable kababs (called brochetas in Spanish) are cooked perfectly over coals and served with grated carrot salad and a bit of yucca.
Amazon Bistro is a stylish place on the waterfront street that serves excellent food all day long. It was our go-to spot for the biggest and best coffee in town and generous and affordable fixed menu lunches. We also bought some legit baguettes here (available after 9:30 am).
Al Frio y Al Fuego is a floating restaurant, bar, and a large pool very close to Iquitos. It’s part mid-river resort and part massive open-air restaurant. Under the thatch roof, the menu focuses on Amazonian specialties like patarashca (a beloved fish and vegetable dish cooked in leaves) and juanes (dense balls of rice or yucca flavored with chicken or fish, spices, olives, and more all cooked in a leaf) as well as international dishes (pasta, beef, etc).
Head to El Musmuqi (The Night Monkey) in central Iquitos, to sample cane alcohol infused with dozens of types of jungle fruits, roots, and flowers. Most are said to have aphrodisiac qualities. Or grab a cold beer at one of the indoor/outdoor bars along the malecon.
Sleeping in Iquitos, Peru
Filming of the movie Fitzcarraldo took years to complete. During production, cast members, including (briefly) Mick Jagger, used a sprawling house on the outskirts of Iquitos as their base.
Today, the executive producer of the movie, Walter Saxer, runs the house as La Casa Fitzcarraldo hotel offering a number of rooms, including the one that Mick Jagger slept in. The house is spacious with parquette floors and mismatched furniture. In the heat, the ceiling fans whirl and the dark wood seems to sweat. There’s also a large peaceful garden and a welcoming pool (non-guests can spend the day at the pool for a fee). And don’t miss the chance to chat with Walter to gain more insights into the making of the movie.
Hospedaje Florentina was the best budget option we found in Iquitos with a central location, very clean (but also very dark) air-conditioned rooms, breakfast, and Wi-Fi.
Casa Morey Hotel is a shining white presence on a privileged riverfront corner. The rooms in this building, which was a rubber baron’s mansion, then a series of government offices before becoming a hotel, are vast and the soaring ceilings make them feel even bigger. Even the massive antique furnishings don’t seem to fill them up. Our room was so big it echoed. All rooms are air-conditioned and five rooms have river views. Wi-Fi and a full buffet breakfast are included and there’s a small but serviceable pool. Pay special attention to the mind-boggling array of tile designs, much of it imported from Portugal when the mansion was built in 1903, and retrofitted antiques like the olde-timey phone that really works and an oil lamp rewired to take a lightbulb.
The riverside building that houses the Epoca Hotel Boutique was built as a rubber baron’s mansion in 1902. It’s been restored, including the facade which is covered in Portuguese tiles, wooden floors, wrought ironwork, and antique furnishings, and is now a 12 room hotel. Staff members are helpful, and the atmosphere is historic, polished, and peaceful. Breakfast is included, all rooms are air-conditioned, and some rooms have kitchenettes. The hotel also organizes tours and has a restaurant on the second floor with river views.
Travel tip: Iquitos is hot and humid year-round, so don’t settle for a room that doesn’t at least have an effective fan.
How to get to Iquitos, Peru
Iquitos is the largest city in the world not connected by road. In 2016, while campaigning for the presidency of Peru, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski made promises to connect Iquitos to the town of Saramiriza which currently requires a nine-day boat ride to reach. He said the project would be done before the end of his term in 2021, but ground has yet to be broken on the project which is logistically, economically, and environmentally fraught.
So, at the time of writing, the only way in or out of Iquitos is in the air or on the river. Our Star Peru flight from Tarapoto to Iquitos was delayed for four hours, but it eventually got us there. When it was time to leave Iquitos, we opted for the water. Here’s our full post about our 4-day Amazon adventure on a cargo and passenger ferry from Iquitos to Yurimaguas.
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