Iquitos – Long Read
Battling with the Amazon in deepest Peru
Hello Peru, where the Amazon River has brought a colorful cast of characters to the town of Iquitos, the world's largest city not connected by road to the outside. Here, market traders, rubber barons and movie directors have long battled with the waters of this mighty river – and found their lives profoundly changed as a result.
“This is the real Iquitos,” Marcel shouts back to me above the roar of the motor as our boat beats against the current, navigating through an obstacle course of stilted houses and ramshackle vessels at an alarming speed.
I am in the steamy Bajo (“Below”) area of Iquitos – the largest city of the Peruvian Amazon. Bajo is less a district than the name given to the ramshackle buildings strung along the steep, stinking and silty banks of the Río Itaya. This is where the original inhabitants first settled to fish. Later came missionaries and then the Europeans seeking quick riches in the lucrative rubber trade of the 1890s and 1900s who first started to build the tiled colonial buildings that Iquitos is now known for, high above these muddy, mosquito-plagued reaches of the river.
It is easy to see why. At the mercy of river level fluctuations of up to ten meters, water-born disease and currents that have been known to carry away entire communities, the citizens of Bajo live in a state of flux: extremely erratic flux. But there is no denying that, despite the risks involved, Bajo is the center of everything that matters most here. Iquitos is the largest city in the world not connected by road, so everything that happens happens through the river, and therefore through Bajo.
We are headed to one of Peru’s biggest and most bizarre markets, Belén, and Marcel wants, as with everything he does, to do it the interesting way. The market itself falls into two distinct parts: the upper parts which, except in extreme floods, remain dry and the lower area, almost constantly submerged during the high river season from November through May. Most visitors approach the market from Alto (“Above”): a world of paved roads and buildings with foundations. We are coming in from, quite literally, the deep end.
Peru’s muddy and chaotic version of Venice
This is Peru’s muddy and chaotic version of Venice, where the streets are sludge-heavy waterways flanked by wooden huts perched on precarious-looking tree trunks. It is a community built on rickety stilts and, further out, anchored floating platforms where houses, school and church rise and fall at the whim of the Itaya. There is even a strip of floating gay discos where I am told, when one started sinking because of overcrowding, the party carried on in the rising water. Families in dug-out canoes who have made the epic trek from remote jungle tributaries – as much as a day’s boat journey away – frantically try to sell heaps of bananas to riverboats. The captains haggle over which – green, yellow or brown – will best serve their needs, while everything from screeching parakeets and black-market gasoline to river dolphin carcasses and hallucinogenic jungle vines are being offloaded or dumped in the already-scorching 8am heat.
Iquitos might be low-lying but from down here it appears a far-distant mountain of colonial towers, verandahs and elaborate tilework, much further than just 20 meters above us. “The other year, Bajo rose up so far in the April floods it almost met Alto smack in the face,” Marcel says. “It was a bit of a shock for them, us being on the same level. They need us, but they like to keep their distance.”
Bajo and Alto are not solely separated by elevation, of course, but also by class. The cocaine trade in the early 21st century, just like the rubber boom in the early 20th, and the exotic animal-smuggling and oil businesses in between, has made Iquitos a city of the very rich as well as the very poor. The airs and graces, the plush bars on the malecón riverside promenade and the opulent mansions of the wealthy part of town contrast poignantly with the hustle, bustle, grime and reputation for crime in the desperately poor districts below.
Marcel knows a few things about going with the flow. He recently opened the town’s first (and only) floating hostel, the Camiri. He has had his fair share of problems as a result - middle-of- the-night boat raids and flood destruction – but the pros outweigh the cons. “It’s more genuine, living down here,” he says. “It might seem like chaos but there’s method to the madness: everyone knows each other, and looks out for each other. We are so isolated in Iquitos we might as well be an island, and we have that island mentality. And all these goods, every last one of them, goes up there.” He points with his cigarette up the steps hewn into the riverbank mud. “You want to try the fish that come off this river? You want love potions? You want to try jungle drugs? Everyone knows where and when to go, whether to sell or to buy. It’s big, bloody chaos, but Baja is the engine of this city.”
Aguajina, the must-try drink of the market
We head into the market proper, negotiating the drunks that lie on the walkways and the vultures fighting for scraps of leftovers. Entering Belén market has been likened to being sucked up the nozzle of a vaccuum cleaner and one of the most surreal aspects is how a trade can often depend on scraps and fragments that our western eyes might see only as waste, not a source of income.
“Refreshments!” says Marcel’s girlfriend Romi, handing me a plastic bag with a murky-looking liquid inside. “It’s aguajina, the must-try drink of the market,” Marcel says. “The fruit in this is what gives the Iquitos women their curvy shape.” “Very high levels of phytoestrogens,” whispers Romi, “although the men here like it just as much, which could explain a lot.” If the market products could make a character statement about the people of Loreto, the name of this, Peru’s remotest province, then superstition and sex would be their primary obsessions. A whole swathe of stalls are dedicated to potions, charms, renegade cures and aphrodisiacs. “Now, my friend, you’re ready to explore Belén,” says Marcel.
We make our way through stands of alligator skulls, of monkey brains, of turtles being shelled, of maggots sautéed into a gungy paste called qui, of dried, smoked huangana (peccary, a wild jungle pig), of fattened orange suri (weevil larvae) primed and ready for takeaway snacks, of gawping carachama (black catfish) being boiled in stinking cauldrons for soup. There are stalls of love potions, of good luck potions and of hexing potions.
Mixed with the magic are some herbal cures that, bizarre as they seem, are taken very seriously as genuine over-the-counter medicine hereabouts. Here are carafes of a red liquid called sangre de grado (dragon’s blood). Marcel winks at the stall owner and pours some into my hands, where it congeals into a thick white paste. “You get a bad cut out there,” says Marcel, pointing at the opposite side of the river where thick bush is making a comeback after years of severe deforestation, “and this could be the only thing that saves you. It will stop the bleeding, maybe buy you the day you need to make it to the hospital.”
The jungle is about getting laid
There are the much-needed mimosa plants, pale purple flowers with ragged leaves that, when chewed, act as contraceptives. There are river snail eggs that, when smeared on the face, prevent acne. Allegedly, of course. But it’s not for nothing that big pharmaceutical companies are showing interest in the Amazon rainforest’s marketplaces as well as remedy-seeking locals. The American National Cancer Institute says that some 70 per cent of ingredients in the world’s cancer treatment drugs originate from plants in the planet’s most threatened rainforests. A high percentage of those were found right here in the Amazon jungle.
Cures of different kind are on the agenda today. “If you thought the jungle was all about natural remedies, you’re wrong,” Marcel says, stopping at a stall laden with vibrantly-decorated pisco and beer bottles that brim with different liquids. “The jungle is about getting laid. And I guess about the fear that you won’t be able to.”
We are, of course, in the aphrodisiac section and Luz, a wizened old lady who supports herself on a stick as she stretches to reach various wares on her shelves is here to explain the best buys. She is “half-wild” as she calls it: half indigenous. Her father was mestizo (mixed race) but her mother was born into the matsés tribe and she grew up almost 200km down the Amazon River near the Brazilian border, 200km and, for the matsés, a lifetime away.
Luz reels off intimate secrets about just what a man or a woman might need to “perform” without batting an eyelid. “In Iquitos, people like to party,” she says. “They use these jungle herbs for aphrodisiacs without thinking what they really are. But for the matsés the relationship with our environment is more intense. For us aphrodisiacs are not just about sex – they’re about feeling better – about feeling energized, reducing blood pressure, even stopping kidney dysfunction. You get from the plant everything you can. Once you’re feeling better, then…” She claps her hands together. “Well, that’s the secret, you understand?”
Seven times without pulling out
The three most popular items in her deadpan guided tour are, in order of their sensual-sounding names: 7 raices (“seven roots”, concocted with roots including the strongly clove-scented clavo huasca, a close and equally potent cousin of the hallucinogenic and far-more famous ayahuasca); rompe calzon (which translates as “panty breaker”, hinting at its power for prospective lovers); and the party favourite SVSS (“siete veces sin sacarla”, or “seven times without pulling out”).
A hotchpotch of rainforest plants are marinated in aguardiente, a homemade Latin American firewater rum, which sets off the stimulating agents. These include cumaceba, which also double as preventatives for arthritis, or tahuari, which can treat anything from gastric ulcers to respiratory disorders. Stranger ingredients include the genitals of the achuni, an animal resembling a cross between a raccoon and a mini anteater, and surprisingly familiar ones such as cashew nuts.
“The more stimulating the plant, the more other healing properties it has,” Luz says. However, the last ingredient she shows me is perhaps the most telling: bottled parts of the bufeo colorado, or pink river dolphin. “It’s like the spirit of the river,” Luz says, “the most sacred creature there is.” But not sacred enough not to bottle? “It’s because it is sacred that it has to be bottled,” she says. “These dolphins can transform into beautiful men who take people, usually young girls away, back into the water with them.”
When I ask where they are taken, she gestures vaguely, somewhere out beyond the wide grey meander of the river, the mottled green of the scrub. “Out there somewhere – where they don’t return. So eating the dolphin means it can’t do that – it means the magic is transferred to the person eating it.”
Afterwards, apparently, that person can assume special powers, with the ultimate – bestowed only after consuming the dolphin genitals – being the ability to make anyone fall in love with you. “It’s the river, my friend!” Marcel slaps me on the back. “It throws up the strangest shit!”
My life is the river
“I guess I’m typical Iquiteño,” says Marcel later, back aboard his houseboat. Having lived in the US for many years, Marcel was drawn home to do something positive for the city he loves. “My life is the river. Back in the day, remember, it was only fishermen settled here. The drug barons, or the oil barons… they think a lot of themselves, but they would be nothing without the river. Look around you, my friend. If you can’t beat it, join it. You’re closer to nature here – closer to life.”
The bright white moon is rising, never more beautiful then when mirrored by its reflection in the Itaya right beneath our feet. The boat rises and falls with the current’s gentle motion. The frenzy the river generates by day seems counter-balanced now by the peace of the night. Perhaps Marcel is right: the river is closer to life.
If the three rivers around Iquitos do dictate life here, then never did they do so more infamously than in Fitzcarraldo, German director Werner Herzog’s film about the life of aspiring rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, played by Klaus Kinski. Drawn by an abundance of rubber in a zone of the Amazon thought inaccessible due to rapids, Fitzgerald’s solution is to avoid the hazard by hauling a 360-tonne steamboat over a steep isthmus. Of course, things go wrong. Having achieved the seemingly impossible by dragging the boat to within reach of the lucrative rubber trees, during the crew’s drunken celebration party local tribes cut the mooring ropes and the boat careens back downriver to destruction. The river ends up getting its way.
Walter Saxer, executive producer of the film, the shooting of which is still more legendary than the storyline, lives on in Iquitos’ Avenida La Marina: a wide boulevard juxtaposing manic river-port industry with lavish 19th-century mansions. “I’ve got a surprise for you,” he says over a coffee in the leafy garden of his house, where the entire cast and film crew stayed between 1977 and 1982 during filming on the nearby Río Nanay. “Enrique’s here.”
Herzog wanted to film reality
If you know Fitzcarraldo the movie as I do, you would be just as excited about meeting Enrique. He plays the role of the drunken cook in the film who, as one of the mismatched cast of characters thrown together on the doomed boat, puts in a performance that steals the limelight even from the larger-than-life Kinski himself. “The problem was that Herzog wanted to film reality,” Walter says. “He didn’t just want to make a film about cheating a river and dragging a boat over a mountain, he wanted to cheat the river and drag the boat over the mountain.
“Why did the filming take so long? Well, why wouldn’t it? Jason Robards was first choice lead; he got ill, Mick Jagger replaced him then had to leave for a tour; we were a year plus into production and we had to start over. Then we were filming in the worst drought this area had seen in decades. We had to film in under a meter of water sometimes. The boat we used got stuck on a sandbank, water levels were that low. Imagine that: wanting to film rapids and being in the middle of the Amazon’s worst drought since the 1920s!
“Dragging that boat over took four weeks. The irony was, the film was based on a true story but the real Fitzcarrald took a 30-tonne boat over the mountain, having disassembled it first. We brought a 360-tonne ship over intact.”
Enrique, his face remarkably unchanged since Fitzcarraldo’s release in 1982, and if anything more mischievous, recalls other aspects to the filming. “It’s been well documented: the tensions during the shoot: Herzog and Walter, Walter and Kinski,” he says. “But what I remember was the glamour. There I was, a local guy who had never seen the world, who knew nothing but Iquitos and its rivers. Suddenly, I was getting out, attending glamorous premiere events in the US, in Europe. I’d never have done that. Most people in Iquitos will never get the chance to do that. This is a very cut-off place.”
Some things are best left buried
A cut-off place, but one that has brought in many other interesting characters on the current. One such is Richard Bodner, who has spent the last few years restoring some of the classic 19th-and early 20th-century steamboats that used to ply the waters around Iquitos. One of these, the Ayapua, has even been renovated using parts salvaged from the vessel originally used during filming.
How does Walter feel about this, the recreation of the Fitzcarraldo ship, once again sailing Iquitos’ waterways after 30 years? “Some things are best left buried,” he says. “I don’t think there was one of us on that film who didn’t think it was one of the things that had the most profound effect on our lives: and not necessarily in a good way. We were filming with matsiguenka tribes - people who had never seen Europeans before. We were dealing with disease, with terrible luck. It was one of the most exhausting things I have ever done. But the film put Iquitos on the map – or off the map. It’s great that part of the past is being preserved.”
Walter does not want to talk about tensions between himself and Herzog during the protracted filming, nor about the claims the director makes about such incidents as the matsiguenka offering to murder Kinski. Except, that is, to say many of these claims are total fabrications. “It was a film about madness that backfires,” he says. “And the film-making was a madness that backfired. But at the time we just went along with it.”
Perhaps going with the flow is the only thing you can do in the Amazon, a region where the surreal seems normal.