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Iquitos: City of Magic, Mystery and Sweltering Heat

Visitors stand along the Malecon, a popular Iquitos district overlooking the Amazon and home to many bars and restaurants1 / 2
The sun sets over the Rio Nanay near Iquitos.2 / 2

Note from the writer: After a long hiatus (what has it been, two months?) Roving Reporter is back with new posts. This week, I'll be telling tales of my adventures to the Amazon rain forest and Machu Picchu. Enjoy.

Let me tell you about Iquitos.

Sitting hundreds of miles inland on the banks of the Amazon River and accessible only by boat and plane, it is thought to be the largest continental city in the world not connected by road.

Visitors stand along the Malecon, a popular Iquitos district overlooking the Amazon and home to many bars and restaurants.

It's a place full of legend and superstition, where visitors seeking enlightenment travel thousands of miles to try the vision-inducing hallucinogen ayahuasca, and where vendors deep within a sweltering marketplace sell homemade cures for every conceivable ailment -- headaches, bad luck, the fear of ghosts.

It's a crumbling city filled with the charms of a bygone era, where restaurants and storefronts have overtaken the faded mansions of the rubber barons, the titans of industry who felt that the deep jungle was a perfect place for hallmarks of19th Century civilization like opera houses, gourmet French restaurants and even a tram line.

It's hot.

I was immediately reminded of this upon hitting the tarmac on our plane from Lima. In Iquitos, the heat and humidity become part of you. Locals spend their entire lives knowing nothing but the beads of sweat on their foreheads.

We were met at the airport by Gart Van Gennip, a jungle guide, lodge manager and fount of knowledge of all things Iquitos. Van Gennip is a fixture of the tight-knit expat community here. A native of Holland, he came to Iquitos in 2006 to teach English, assuming he would stay for about a year. Five years later, and he is still here. He manages the San Pedro lodge, a quaint and secluded jungle lodge accessible by an hour-long boat trip on the Rio Nanay. (I'll talk more about San Pedro later).

We had barely spoken with Van Gennip before we were off on a mototaxi, the customized motorcycles that substitute for cars in Iquitos. Only the wealthy and status conscious own cars here, the result of a road network that ends with the city limits. People in Iquitos wishing to visit the outside world will either need to take the weeks-long journey by boat, or an expensive plane trip. Because few here have the means to do either, many have never been anywhere else. The result is a unique and insular culture unlike any other in the modern world.

Van Gennip showed us around the city in several day trips from his lodge. The Casa de Fierro (Iron House) on the main plaza was our first stop. Covered with shiny iron siding that bakes in the midday sun, the house was designed by the French architect Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) and displayed at the 1889 International Exposition of Paris. While the home was in no way intended for use in a hot, tropical climate, the Iquitos rubber baron Anselmo del Aguila noticed it while perusing the exposition and thought it would make a perfect jungle manse, so he had it disassembled, shipped in pieces across the ocean, and reassembled off the main square of Iquitos, where it stands today. Did I mention the rubber barons could do pretty much whatever they wanted?

After the Casa de Fierro, we headed to the Museo Etnografico, a museum of Iquitos history located in the former governor's mansion. The place is noted for its life-sized statues representing native tribes from the area. It also holds ornate meeting rooms where men smoked cigars and made important decisions amid stifling tropical heat. The wood paneling has begun to peel off the walls after decades of sweltering humidity.

On our last day in town, we ate a fine breakfast at the French-inspired Amazon Bistro before heading off to the Belen district, a crowded neighborhood beside the river known for its floating village -- with homes that ride the waves during the wet season -- and its labyrinthine market selling every conceivable thing known to man. A word to the wise: Some vendors in Belen are known to engage in a particularly nasty trade in which they illegally capture a jungle animal (say, a monkey) and display it in brutal confinement at the market. A tourist passing through is then coaxed to "save" the animal by purchasing it. The sale merely perpetuates the trade, however. Couple that with the sights and smells of a thousand different foods and products, and Belen certainly leaves an impression

The sun sets over the Rio Nanay near Iquitos.

Along with the sites, Van Gennip introduced us to a colorful cast of characters who have made Iquitos their home, the most memorable of which was the legendary jungle guide Juan Maldonado. A hardened, chain smoking guide of the old school, Maldonado works out of an old cafe and has been taking tourists on excursions into the rain forest since 1973. The tour he led to the Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island) was worth it just for the harrowing tales of animal attacks and jungle survivalism he told along the way.

So Iquitos was a place unlike any I have been to before, but the trip into the jungle left even more of an impression. I'll have more on that later this week