To the untrained eye, Iquitos is a shithole. A gateway to the Amazon, yes, but as a place in its own right, a shithole.
To the slightly-more-trained eye… There’s some pretty significant elements of shithole-ness, still. It’s dirty and obviously poor. Most of the buildings are shanty houses – and not just on the city fringe, either: much of the city, apart from a couple of old colonial-style grandiosities, looks on the verge of falling down. Traffic is chaotic and messy, with the roads full of ‘motorcars’ (motorbikes with the back wheel cut off and replaced with two wheels under a partially enclosed bench seat for passengers). And though it seems to be a fairly standard thing in Perú, it’s never encouraging when your hostel apparently sees a need for two substantial security doors at its entrance.
Nor was I much encouraged as to the city’s awesomeness by overhearing a loud conversation between American expats in a café that sounded remarkably like them patting themselves heartily on the back for a few vaguely strong words directed towards the owner of their favourite brothel, when they saw him employing underage girls for some other customers. (I may have entirely misheard the conversation – and for all I know, they weren’t even referring to Iquitos – but my view of the city still wasn’t improved. Especially given the reinforcement that came from the number of old American men walking around with young Peruvian women in tow, and the ‘say no to child sex tourism’ graffiti on a nearby wall.)
But most of those complaints apply to Hanoi and Saigon, too – cities which I loved. Their streets are just as anarchic, and people do even stupider things on them than Peru. Hell, if nothing else, at least having three wheels on the favourite mode of transportation in Iquitos gives you a little more protection than the two you find in south-east Asian cities. The cities in Vietnam are predominantly poor, and it shows just as evidently as in remote Perú. And there are plenty of dipshit expats and tourists all over Vietnam too – and I’m sure just as much sex tourism.
So when it comes down to it, I don’t really know why I had such a negative reaction to Iquitos. It would have helped if it had food like Vietnam’s, I suppose – instead, we ended up eating at the same café day in, day out, just because nowhere else seemed particularly enticing. And a decent coffee wouldn’t have gone astray in putting my mood to rights. But it wasn’t just that. For some reason, I just didn’t enjoy being there. Maybe I was just in bad humour because my camera was broken again.
Given all the above complaints, though, I found it especially interesting just how many conversations we overheard of foreigners gushing about how much they love Iquitos. (No, we weren’t going around Iquitos eavesdropping. But these were the type of foreign journey-makers who aren’t real good at keeping their excitable voices down.)
Apparently, we heard, the Western world is falling apart because it works too hard, and these Peruvians, with their more relaxed lifestyle and their slower pace of life “have always known where it’s at”. Apparently the traditional shamans of the area have found the secrets of enlightenment – although I couldn’t help but notice that this sentiment always seemed to be followed (or sometimes preceded) by a detailed discussion of the wonders of ayahuasca – a psychotropic made from local plants – and always seemed to be expressed by people who so perfectly fit the stereotype of your typical recreational enjoyer of mind-altering substances in the West that, danger of relying solely on stereotypes suitably acknowledged, surely it couldn’t all be coincidence.
Apparently, we heard, the local population is so lucky to be able to live next to and even in the jungle, so close to nature, in their beautiful traditional villages.
This is the point where I would generally stare in wonder at my food, wondering whether it just hadn’t occurred to our noisy neighbours that ‘traditional’ in this context is basically a convenient way to say “what we used to do before we found out there was a better way”. The point where I would struggle with the frankly insulting notion that an American or Brit or Aussie can turn up and marvel at how great the life is here, completely oblivious to the fact that they can enjoy such a great life here precisely because their own societies are so much wealthier than the local one, making everything cheap for the foreigner, making the lack of social security and healthcare a non-issue, making it a trivial exercise to travel widely and experience everything as an exciting adventure rather than as the unchosen difficult reality of impoverished daily life. Ignoring the fact that the ‘great life’ that they’re enjoying is not available to the locals.
So maybe I just didn’t like Iquitos much because I didn’t like so many of the people like me here.
For all that useless reflecting, Iquitos was how we got to our fantastic trip through the Amazon, and so it was definitely worth going through. And the combination butterfly house and animal sanctuary, Pilpintuwasi, was definitely a great visit – seeing not only some beautiful butterflies, but also an ocelot, a jaguar, several sloths, a variety of monkeys, many many birds, and more.
So in remembering Iquitos, maybe I’ll just stick with some of the photos from Pilpintuwasi that I did get from my shittily misbehaving camera, and leave it at that.
Have some pretty pictures: