Things to Do in Iquitos
The mighty Amazon River and its enormous, thickly forested basin are the heart of South America, the lungs of the world and the guardian of one fifth of the Earth’s fresh water. This river is the reason for Iquitos’ very existence and though it flows past the northern tip of the city, a bit beyond the river walk, the Rio Itaya, its influence is felt by everyone.
While its origins are much contested—any of the big river’s innumerable tributaries has a legitimate claim to the title—the “Birthplace of the Amazon” can be said to lie at the confluence of the Ucayali and Maranon Rivers, accessible from the Port of Nauta, 90km (56mi) from Iquitos on the newish paved highway. It is the quintessential daytrip, allowing travelers to ascend a 30m (100ft) observation tower that offers the region’s iconic photo op. There are several ways to experience the Amazon and its unparalleled biodiversity, all of them beginning with a boat trip.
Peru’s largest and most important protected area is the massive Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria, a vast 2.08 million hectare (8,030 square miles; roughly the size of New Jersey or El Salvador) swath of pristine rainforest threaded with endless waterways. The two most important, forming the borders of the roughly triangular reserve, are Maranon and Ucayali Rivers.
Where Pacaya Samiria narrows to a point, at their celebrated confluence, the official birthplace of the mighty Amazon. Climb the viewing tower for the iconic photo. Visitors to the reserve must come with a guided tour. The Pacaya Samiria begins about 183km (114mi) south of Iquitos, a trip that can be done entirely on the water, or more quickly (if less scenically) by driving along the 90km (56mi) Iquitos–Nauta Highway, to the Port of Nauta. Scores of different tours are on offer, following the Maranon, Ucayali, and other assorted waterways through the thick vegetation and canyons.
This Peruvian Amazon establishment is a haven for orphaned and injured manatees. Established in 2007 and run by the Institute for the Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) in partnership with the Dallas Aquarium, the Manatee Rescue Center educates visitors and allows for interaction with these endangered animals.
Visitors can see rescued adult and baby manatees in natural pools and witness their rehabilitation. It is also possible to volunteer with the center and even bottle feed a baby manatee. The staff members take great care to teach about the importance of preserving the species and the present dangers to their habitat, as many local manatees are poached and babies captured to be sold as sold as pets, often with a high mortality rate. Tours are conducted in both English and Spanish.
The Rio Nanay undulates along the northern border of the city, a slow and interesting tributary of the Amazon that plays hosts several interesting cruises from Iquitos. The almost sensual curves of the river create beautiful white-sand beaches when the water is low, and crystal clear. These are popular day-trips for locals during dry season, though most travelers head further upriver, into the wilderness, often visiting small Yagua, Bora and Mestizo communities, such as Santo Tomás, Padre Cocha and Santa Clara, along the way. While most Nanay tours are day trips, there are a handful of lodges scattered around the rainforest, offering adventurous travelers the opportunity to stay in remote villages and really get a feel for life on the Amazon. Or, travelers could continue on to the region’s newest conservation area, Reserva Nacional Alpahuayo Mishana. The 57,600-hectare (222-square mile) reserve, created in 2008, is located about 23km (14mi) south of Iquitos.
The city of Iquitos is arguably an island (particularly during the rainy season), bound on three sides by massive rivers. To the northeast is the mighty Amazon, accessible by Puerto Masusa. The northwestern border of town is caressed by the curvaceous course of slow and winding Rio Nanay. Finally, forming the eastern border of the town, with the most convenient boat access is the Rio Itaya.
Most of the city’s main attractions are within a few blocks of the riverfront, home to the popular Tarapaca River Walk. The neighborhood of Belen, just south of the city center, famously floats right atop the Itaya. While the Plaza de las Armas and most of the city’s most important buildings lie one block inland, several hotels, restaurants, bars and fine old buildings, such as the Museo Etnografico and neighboring Gobernacion Regional, overlook the water.
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