Belen is a quarter in the south of Iquitos. It is famous for being buit on wooden sticks over the waters, but not all Belen is a floating neighborhood and not always: only when the river waters rise. It is a colourful touristic place, though very poor and (for me) a little depressive, as you see people living in really extreme conditions.
There is an interesting market here that covers many many blocks and you can find here nearly everything: Shops are divided in sections and there is mainly food and clothes.
You can reach Belen by public bus (any going south from Plaza de Armas), taxi, or boat by the river. There are touristic tours too, but more expensive than coming here on your own and hiring a boat at the shore to wander around.
Of course, the main reason to come here, not only the river but also the jungle around. There are boats for passengers that go up and down the river, if you just wanna ride along it while staying in Iquitos. But most of the people go out of Iquitos to appreciate a more virgin and wild jungle. If you do so, you will have a 3-4 hours canoe ride along the Amazon till you reach your lodge, so you will have enough river then, don't worry!
Sunsets over the Amazon are really outstanding BTW...
One of the main activities here are the jungle tours. There are many types, from individual tours with personal guides and tents (true adventure) to group tours to "luxury" lodges, with organized excursions to see animals and so. There is a golden rule in any: the further from Iquitos, the more animals you see.
You can book them via internet in advance or just there when you arrive. There are many agencies around the Plaza de Armas, or, if you take a moto taxi, just ask the driver; he will take you to a relative of him who organizes "wonderful trips to the jungle".
Depends on your budget of course, but reserve a minimum of 3-4 days for this activity, maybe more if you wanna go far from Iquitos.
If you have been reading in your guide about the "famous Eiffel Iron House", you will be somehow disappointed. It is a nice building, but not really an architectural prodigy, and it is not open to the public, so you just can enjoy it from the outside.
It was built in Paris and brought piece by piece by boat to rebuild it here. It was designed to house the most exclusive social club in Iquitos at the city'd Golden Age, but now is just a private building.
This is the main square here and the center of Iquitos' life. Is located by the river and here is the Cathedral, a few hotels and restaurants and the famous Iron House. Some tourist agencies offering jungle tours are around here too...
Ok, So if your reading info about Iquitos, you must be going to the Amazon then. If not, you should! Iquitos city in itself is big, dirty and pretty bland.
There are plenty of choices of different lodges in the Amazon you can choose from. (check out my tip on our lodge, Jacamar Lodge) Some are close to the city, some remote access by motorboat 4 hours plus away.
You can fish for exotic fish and especially pirahna. Have a chance to swim with pink, freshwater dolphins, hike in the middle of the Amazon jungles, relax on a hammock at the lodge, do a night tour looking for cayman, jaguars and nocturnal animals,...
There is just so much adventure you can do.
Supersize tip: If you wish to get bit by a pirahna, word of advise: Yes they bite and bite ferociously. They have powerful jaws, and try to get bitten on your non dominant hand, preferably one side of the bite is a fingernail so there won't be a chunk of your flesh missing! Seriously! But its worth it. To say you, and got the scar to prove you got bitten by a pirahna in the Amazon.
It was a thrill just to be in the Amazon river.
Worth going if you are in Iquitos. You get to see different birds, animals and fauna.
The lodge we went to had genuine dug out canoes to try. And had opportunities to hike deep in the jungle.
Supersize tip: If you decide to go fishing or want to go fishing. It is best to bring your own equiptment. Just the basics. Also, if you catch a catfish, watch out, their pectoral and dorsal fins spine is poisonous. It's won't do anything if you touch it but if you get poked by one of the spine, the wound and the immediate area will sting a lot and be numb for a few days. Won't kill you. At least I hope not.
This isn't in all the guidebooks, but outside Iquitos is the Pilpintuwasi butterfly farm, where an Austrian lady breeds a large variety of butterflies. It's pretty neat - a big greenhouse sized enclosure full of the brilliant butterflies of the jungle, each with its specific plant, caterpillar and cocoon. Some of them are quite friendly, and will actually climb onto your finger if you prod them. More Pictures
Along with the butterflies, there are also a number of monkeys, a jaguar, tapir, parrots, and other animals around Pilpintuwasi. An interesting afternoon visit, to say the least. Talk to the director of the Texas Rose restaurant for specific information if you want to go there inexpensively.
This island, about a half-hour from Iquitos along the river, is a frequent stopping off point on the way to the lodges. If you like monkeys, and always wanted to have one or two clamber all over you, this is the place to go. There are a number of different kinds of monkeys, some provided for by the caretaker there. More Pictures
Set up for tourists? Absolutely. Still pretty cool? Yup.
Pirahna fishing in the Amazon is pretty awesome. There were so many fish I totally thought the lodge planted them there. But no, it's just that cool. Sneaky lil' things they are, though. They kept stealing the meat on our hooks and swimming away.
Later, the lodge cooked up our catch for lunch. Kinda like sardines.
Hint: don't wear black. I attracted so many mosquitos my friends had to swat me every 2 seconds like a cow's tail.
We saw a giant Ceiba tree, termites, a catepillar and something called a "Jungle Rat" in a tree. I don't know if that's actually what it was called as our guide didn't speak much English and had a habit of describing all animals by putting the word "Jungle" in front of it ("Look. Jungle Ants!")
The floating shanty town of Belen is a must see while visiting Iquitos. There are huts and houses of all sizes built on floating rafts which rise and fall with the tides. It is easy enough to have a local take you for a guided tour by canoe around the huts and the locals are friendly eoungh. A word of warning though, be alert for pick pockets in the market areas. They are very skillful.
Wildlife is all around you in the Amazon. There was a tarantula on the roof of the cabin-tent next door. A group (flock? family?) of monkeys swung into the tree above us while we were fishing for pirahna. A flying fish jumped into our boat while we were birdwatching. And that's when we weren't even looking.
You could not make a better decision than to go with Gerson Pizango - a man with integrity, knowledge, and intelligence who lives in the Amazon and knows it as his backyard. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is awesome!!
Iquitos is the place to book various jungle lodges, which will allow you to stay in the Amazon and see the jungle close up. There are various lodges to choose from. The more luxury choices are the Explorama lodges, which have the canopy tour and I think one of them even has a water slide. We went with the Muyuna Lodge mainly because its office was across the street from where we were drinking (right next to the main square -- most the other lodge offices are in a different part of town), and because one of the locals we were drinking with said it was pretty good. I got the feeling that Muyuna was a more... granola... lodge than others, what with the kumbaya guitars in the "lobby" cabin, the optional vegetarian fare and the big group of hippies on an ayahuasca trip. The location is excellent -- all the cabins are on a raised platform and the river comes up over the ground in the high season. No electricity, FYI -- the place is lit by lanterns an candles, and good luck keeping secrets as are the walls are basically mosquito nets. Fun fact -- I'm pretty sure that dude from Travel Sick went to the Muyuna lodge as when I saw the Peru episode I was totally like "I know that blue chair!!" My only beef was the main guide didn't really give us much information on what to do (He assumed we knew how to dress for the jungle and how to put on mud boots, etc. Then, when us city kids were all like "huh?" he went off with the two more experienced lodgers because we were too slow).
There are lots of other options, as you will see when you get to the airport as people will try to steer you toward different lodges. The further away you get, the more untouched the jungle is and the more wildlife you will see.
The lodges run about $100 a day, which is pricey, but the jungle is so awesome. Included in the price is a guide, meals and 2-3 activities a day like pirahna fishing, visiting a village, a walk through the jungle and evening wildelife spotting on the river.