Iquitos, Peru: Gateway To The Amazon

A border town that you can only reach by plane or riverboat, Iquitos is the gateway to Peru's Amazonian wilderness and/or the gateway to the outside world, depending on which way you're traveling. Once a jungle backwater, it is now a city of half a million people, drawn from the Amazon and from the far corners of the globe. Many who came from the interior live in houses built on rafts tied to the river banks. They work as laborers, and some sell elixers to tourists who come here seeking physical and spiritual rejuvenation.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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The city of Iquitos in Peru stands at the entrance to the immense Amazonian wilderness. For those coming out of the jungle, Iquitos is the gateway to civilization. It's a place where heat and chaos rub up against glass and tarmac. Reporter Annie Murphy traveled to Iquitos and sent this postcard.

ANNIE MURPHY: Big, old riverboats, most sagging and rusting, filled with passengers and cargo in the misuzu(ph) port of Iquitos, Peru. In a rainy mist, porters bend and strain under loads of boxes while passengers wait for their long journeys to begin.

It feels like a throwback to the era of Mark Twain, but riverboat is how much of the world still moves in the Amazon rainforest, and especially if you enter or leave Iquitos, a city of almost half a million that can be reached only by boat or plane.

Once a jungle backwater like any other, Iquitos' boom was rubber tapping into the early 20th century, then oil in the 1970s. Since then, it's steadily grown into a jungle metropolis.

Ms. ROSA SANTA MARIA(ph): (Spanish spoken)

MURPHY: When Rosa Santa Maria was a child, she came here from a village far up river. Now, she's 60 with wavy silver hair. She sells medicinal herbs and slender bottles of homemade perfume at the market in Belen. Belen is Iquitos' migrant neighborhood where the city's poorest citizens build houses at the river's edge atop rafts that rise and fall with the level of the water.

(Soundbite of banging)

MURPHY: Nearby, women in electric blue eye shadow beat enormous bowls of whipped cream by hand. Other sellers hawk fish, tropical fruit or even fried worm, a local delicacy.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: A customer comes to Rosa's stall asking for some tree bark to help with his rheumatism. He's headed into the jungle to his farm and is loading up on the necessities - a machete, a rubber bucket and the special bark.

Ms. SANTA MARIA: (Through translator) People come here to try the elixirs, the herbs, and ask about the medicinal potatoes, about the baths made from flowers, how to clean the body. They come to ask and I explain it all to them.

MURPHY: That also includes plenty of gringos who passed around rainforest tours or looking for natural treatments for all sorts of physical and spiritual ills - like New Yorker Steve Witty(ph) who's training to be a shaman, something he dreamed of doing since he was a kid.

Mr. STEVE WITTY: Of course, you get wrapped up in your life and you're thinking about what you should do - you got to get a job and you got to get a house and, you know, you should get married and, you know, I've been married twice. So, you know, I tried to do all the right things but I was never really, like, following my heart and pursuing something that I had enthusiasm for and gave me joy.

MURPHY: Then he got laid off at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and came to Peru.

Mr. WITTY: This is a kind of a crazy little strange city like New York on a mini-third world scale. I was surprised that it was so hodgepodge. You know, (unintelligible), different, like odd paintings. There's not many zoning laws around here.

MURPHY: In a few months, Steve will go back to the states where he hopes to begin practicing Shamanism. But some outsiders come to Iquitos and stay much longer, like Walter Saxer, who came here in the '70s as a producer for the German film, "Fitzcarraldo," a take on the true story of an ambitious rubber baron, who, in the film, decides to build an opera house in Iquitos.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fitzcarraldo")

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Back then, Swiss-born Walter was traveling all over the world. But he fell in love with Iquitos. He decided to set up a hotel in the house where the cast of "Fitzcarraldo" bunked during filming. He may have the only place in town, or in the Amazon, where you can drink a pot of Italian espresso at the top of a four-story tree house.

Mr. WALTER SAXER (Producer, "Fitzcarraldo"): Iquitos, when I first came to Iquitos, Iquitos was a charming little sleeping town. There was no noise. There was no motorcars. There was no motorcycles.

MURPHY: A lot of that has changed. These days, the frenetic city is home to 30,000 motorcycle taxis, the main form of transportation. But Walter still loves the jungle. Most of all, he loves the stories it seems to nurture.

Mr. SAXER: Out in the jungle, six o'clock at night, you know, it gets dark and the mosquitoes are all over and then you sit together. And maybe you don't have any beer, you don't have any, nothing to drink, whatever, and people start talking. And they start telling where they came from and how they grew up and what happened in their lives. And this was - for me, is still, one of the best parts in my life.

MURPHY: So, even with the din of the motorcycles, Walter plans on staying.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Iquitos, Peru.

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