May is usually the dry season in the mountains north of Lima, but the locals said that over the past few years the seasons have been getting increasingly unpredictable. Although May is technically towards the end of autumn down here, because I’m in the tropics there’s really only an alternating wet and dry season. The weather forecast for the Cordillera Blanca, the next locale on my trekking wishlist, showed an abundance of pretty awful storms coming my way. It took about 15 seconds to decide to find something else to do for my last week in South America.
My hotel in Huaraz was by the market, away from the main “tourist” area. Since leaving Argentina for the comparatively impoverished Bolivia and Peru I’ve been opting for my own room in locally owned hotels, which often run from $3 to $15 a night. Cheaper than a bunk in a hostel in Patagonia! I’ve consequently had very little contact with anybody who’s not from here. I’d gotten a lot of my travel advice from other backpackers in hostels, so without this source I perused my Lonely Planet Peru guidebook and the Google Flights site.
Flying in Peru is dirt cheap by American standards, and my guidebook’s description of Iquitos in the Amazon kept rising to the back of my mind, so I was excited to find $120 round-trip tickets to there from Lima.
With a population of half a million, Iquitos is the largest continental city with no access to the outside world by road. The only ways to get there are by plane or boat, with river access on the massive Amazon. It’s a popular stopover for backpackers taking weeks or months to traverse the continent from the Andes to the Atlantic, spending days at a time in hammocks on large riverboats plying the Amazon.
From the comfort of my fairly luxurious $15 hotel room in Huaraz I was able to arrange and pay for everything on my smartphone. I booked a ticket on Cruz del Sur (means Southern Cross, and there are so many bus companies named this on the western side of the Andes), which is the nicest of the gringo-class buses. Large seats, two bathrooms on board, and no stopping every 10 minutes to load and unload goats in Andean villages. Definitely worth the extra $12 for the 9 hour ride to Lima, the last 2.5 hours of which were just spent in the sprawling capital’s traffic.
The flight to Iquitos took only 90 minutes, and it was nice not to have to deal with border controls on this national flight. I picked up my bag in the tiny airport and headed outside, where I was swarmed by taxi drivers. They were all charging $3 for the 6 mile (10km) ride downtown, which is the rate that signs in the airport advised.
As Iquitos has no roads to the outside world, there are virtually no cars. Instead, everyone rides a motorcycle or takes a rickshaw (motorcycle with a cart attached) around town. Just sticking out my hand I never had to wait more than 10 seconds for a rickshaw to pull over. Even at the gringo rate the rides were cheap, and I always took the first price. It usually came out to around 30 cents a kilometer.
I took a rickshaw ($1.50) to the north end of town on the banks of the Amazon, where I caught a boat ($1) 15 minutes to Padre Cocha. Multiple villages are linked to Iquitos by boats, and the transport to Padre Cocha departed about every 15 minutes in each direction.
It was a 15 minute walk from the village to an endangered animal rescue run by a kindly Austrian woman, who with the help of western volunteers was nursing ocelots, jaguars, pocket monkeys (adorable little things that fit in your hand), and the like back to health.
It would get oppressively hot around noon, but thankfully there were numerous ice cream shops all over town with strange flavors. The fruits available in the jungle were totally different from what I was used to, and the ice cream shops took full advantage of this. I definitely ate a lot of scoops of the camu camu flavor.
Four and a half days in Iquitos was plenty, and by the end I was looking forward to getting out of the humidity. But it was definitely worth a visit! I don’t think I could ever deal with the incredible heat of a trans-Amazon journey.