When dreaming of a trip to the Amazon rainforest, many people automatically think of Brazil. Yet Peru offers a fabulous alternative for experiencing the world’s longest river and largest jungle. The city of Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon is a launchpad for discovering its incredible scenery, wildlife and people. In this complete guide we explain everything you need to know about visiting, including things to do in Iquitos, Amazon tours, where to stay, and essential tips on transport and safety.
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About Iquitos: a quick overview
Iquitos is the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, home to some half a million people. It is also one of the world’s most isolated cities, surrounded by dense jungle and only accessible by flight or boat.
The city is a historic port and a hub for river transport, perched on the confluence of the Amazon, Nanay and Itaya rivers. After being inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years it was colonised by Europeans in the 17th century, and finally established as a trading port in the late 19th century.
This blend of history is evident in the way the city looks today. You will find an array of old colonial buildings, but also sprawling river communities and markets built on wooden stilted houses. At the break of day every morning, people from remote indigenous jungle villages dock at the vast Belén Market to sell fresh produce to city dwellers.
This is a truly Peruvian city, but one like no other. The streets of Iquitos are always abuzz with activity and noise, with thousands of colourful tuk-tuks whirring around, placid dogs roaming freely, and families gathering outside their homes in the tropical heat.
How to get to Iquitos
The Peruvian Amazon is not accessible by road, so the best way to get to Iquitos is to fly. Several airlines run daily flights from Lima. We chose the budget airline Star Peru for our trip, paying roughly US $150 each for a return flight. It’s possible to get flights even cheaper, from about $40 each way, if you can be flexible with timing.
Note that some flights (especially with budget airlines) make a stop on the way at Pucallpa or Tarapoto. If/when this happens, don’t worry – you don’t need to get off the plane, just wait in your seat while passengers disembark and embark, much like a train. Occasionally this can cause long delays, so if your time is limited then it may be better to avoid flights with stop-offs.
To find the cheapest available flights, hop over to Skyscanner. Tip: if you don’t have fixed dates for your journey, then you can find the best available prices by selecting ‘whole month’ and then ‘cheapest month’.
Where to stay in Iquitos
Iquitos has a range of accommodation available from budget hostels through to beautiful luxury hotels. We’ve picked out some of the best budget options in our article on hostels in Iquitos. To browse the full range of options for any budget, see booking.com.
Many hostels and hotels offer airport transport services for when you arrive. It’s best to check this before you travel, and it’s a good idea to arrange it if you can. While you might find a ride a bit cheaper on arrival, pre-booking is generally safer and removes any anxieties about getting from the airport to your accommodation.
Tip: when visiting Iquitos, bear in mind that you’re in the middle of the jungle and therefore you can’t expect quite the same level of quality and connectivity as you might in other cities. Be prepared for patchy wifi and unreliable hot water supplies.
Quick travel and safety tips
There are a few important things to know before you arrive in Iquitos. Here are some quick essentials on general travel and safety in the city:
Central Iquitos is safe to walk around during the daytime, but it’s wise to exercise caution as you would in any city. Stay alert, and keep valuables secure and out of sight.
Backpackers and tourists in Iquitos can be targeted for pickpocketing and theft. Be especially cautious if venturing beyond the central city area, and avoid walking around alone at night. (If you must, then don’t carry anything of high value.)
Belén Market, while a great place to see, is the most notorious spot in the city for petty crime. The best and safest time to visit is during the morning, and if possible with a local guide. Avoid straying beyond the market stalls into the villages at the lower end of the market; we were about to do this and were warned against it by a police officer.
It’s hard to avoid mosquitos in Iquitos. After all, you’re in the jungle! Come prepared with a deet repellent, and apply it liberally whenever you go out. The bugs are especially rife in the early morning and evening, and whenever you’re near water. At these times it’s best to wear long sleeves and trousers.
You should always sleep with a mosquito net in Iquitos. Check beforehand if your accommodation has them, and if they don’t then bring your own.
Iquitos is classified as a risk area for malaria, so we would highly recommend taking anti-malaria pills. Ask your doctor for advice on which to get, and be sure to check how long before and after your trip you will need to take them.
The tap water in Iquitos is not safe for drinking, so you will need to buy bottled water. In some shops you can buy big bottles of several litres. You can save a bit of money by getting one of these to keep your smaller bottle topped up.
As mentioned above, the internet in Iquitos is unreliable and typically very slow. Don’t plan to do anything that requires a strong connection, such as uploading photos and videos.
Roaming dogs are a common sight on the streets of Iquitos. Contrary to many assumptions, these are not all stray dogs; while some don’t have a home, many are family animals that are allowed to roam freely.
The dogs of Iquitos are generally unaggressive creatures and you’re extremely unlikely to be attacked. However, as a ‘just in case’ measure for travelling anywhere in Peru, it’s worth getting your rabies jabs done.
The vast majority of visitors to Iquitos do not come to any harm or become crime victims. However, to make sure you are covered if you do happen to get unlucky, it’s prudent to get travel insurance. If you need medical attention in the depths of the jungle or even emergency recovery, it’s not a cost you will want to bear yourself.
We recommend World Nomads for travel insurance in Peru. They specialise in insuring backpackers and are backed up by safe and secure underwriters. Most importantly, their team is an absolute pleasure to deal with, and you can expect quick and helpful support if anything goes wrong.
Best time to visit the Peruvian Amazon
Iquitos has a tropical climate, so you can expect warm weather and plenty of rain whatever time of year you visit. The average temperature remains steady all year round at about 27 degrees celsius. The rainy reason runs from November until May; during these months you can expect upwards of 240mm rainfall.
The driest months of June, July and August are a good time to visit. We visited bang in the middle of this season and the rain wasn’t too bad. If you can time your trip around the 24th of June, you will be in town for the San Juan Festival – a major celebration that takes place throughout the Peruvian Amazon.
What to pack for Iquitos and the Amazon
Because of the tropical climate and Amazonian biodiversity of Iquitos, you will need to pack a few extra things. These are the essentials:
- A good waterproof jacket or raincoat. Shop for options on Amazon here. If you don’t want to carry a full jacket, then at the very least bring a poncho.
- Some good walking boots. If you’re heading on an Amazon jungle tour, some solid footwear will not only keep your feet dry and warm, but also protected from any creepy-crawlies that fancy a nibble. See our article on the best hiking boots for travel for help with choosing a pair.
- Swimwear! On most Amazon tours you will have a chance to dip in the river.
- Sun protection – a hat, glasses and cream.
- Mosquito repellent. For maximum protection bring some insect repellent containing deet.
- A mosquito net. You should sleep in one every night, and it’s best to bring your own in case your accommodation doesn’t have any, or they have holes in them.
- A dry bag. This will be useful for protecting your valuables if you get caught in heavy rain or need to cross a river.
Things to do in Iquitos
Iquitos is a captivating city with plenty to offer besides trips into the jungle. Here are some of the highlights for you to try either side of an Amazon tour.
Visit Belén Market
There is no way more authentic to witness local life in Iquitos than by visiting Belén Market. This gigantic, sprawling market bustles with activity every day from dawn. It is built on the stilted huts of Belén, a shantytown that is home to some 7,000 people.
In the upper (and safest) part of the market, when the river is high, you can take a canoe tour with a local guide. Allow a good couple of hours to shop for fresh local produce while learning about the history and customs.
Hang out on Malecón Tarapaca
Malecón Tarapaca is the main riverfront boulevard in Iquitos. Stroll along and admire the colonial architecture and museums, take your pick of bars and restaurants along the front, or stop by at a viewing point for some gorgeous views across the Itaya river (which feeds into the Amazon a little further down).
Relax with a coffee at Dawn on the Amazon
Step aboard the Ayapua Boat Museum
One of the most educational experiences in Iquitos can be found at the Ayapua Boat Museum. Set on board a century-old steamship on the river, the museum gives a window into the beginnings of Iquitos as a prominent port city, and the rise and fall of the Peruvian Amazon rubber trade. There’s a harrowing insight into the history of biopiracy, and the British man who stole thousands of rubber seeds, devastating the region’s economy.
Peruse the Museum of Indigenous Amazon Cultures
On the opposite end of the riverfront, the Museum of Indigenous Amazon Cultures educates about the region’s traditions and art. The collection of artefacts and statues gave us an introduction to the background and customs of over 40 different local tribes. It’s free to enter, but sometimes you can hire a local guide outside to explain the different contexts and nuances.
See the sights around the Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas is the main square at the heart of Iquitos. Filled with intricate gardens and pools, and surrounded by some of the city’s most impressive buildings, it’s an ideal place to start your city exploration or simply hang out and people watch.
Towering over the main square is one of Iquitos’ most recognisable buildings: Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, a traditional church from the Spanish colonial era. With its cream-white walls, red details and distinctive clock tower, it’s one of the city’s most striking architectural features.
Tip: if the tropical heat gets a bit too much, dive under cover in Ari’s Burger restaurant on the south-east corner of the Plaza de Armas. Order a frozen drink and sit inside in the shade for a while. This sorted us out perfectly just when we needed it.
Behold the Iron House of Iquitos
On the south-west corner of the square is Iquitos’ most famous and mysterious building: Casa de Fierro (Iron House). It is rumoured to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel and delivered to Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon by mistake instead of Quito in Ecuador.
Whatever the truth of its origins, its sturdy iron countenance makes for a great photo. These days you can also enjoy a meal in its second-floor restaurant.
Take a trip to the Manatee Rescue Center
Have you ever heard of a manatee? These cute, docile beasts are among the largest mammals in South America, and are native to the Amazon Basin. Sadly they are also a vulnerable species with a decreasing population.
About 12 kilometres outside Iquitos city centre, the Manatee Rescue Center looks after injured animals and works with nearby nature reserves to release them back into the wild. At the centre you can learn about these beautiful creatures and have the chance to meet and feed them.
A visit to the Manatee Rescue Center is included in some Iquitos Amazon tours, or alternatively you can hop in a tuk-tuk from the city centre.
Try traditional Amazonian food
The traditional cuisine in Iquitos and the Peruvian Amazon is quite different to what you will find elsewhere in the country. Indigenous communities have developed methods over thousands of years using ingredients from the vast jungle.
One of the most popular Amazonian dishes in the region is juane, which consists of rice, chicken and olives wrapped up and boiled inside a large bijao leaf. You will find this anywhere in Iquitos from the stalls of Belén Market to the most expensive restaurants.
Eat dinner on a floating restaurant
Perhaps the most idyllic setting to try a juane is at Al Frio y Al Fuego, a floating restaurant on the Itaya river. It’s not the cheapest – for us this was a real treat for Lisa’s birthday, and well beyond our typical travel budget – but well worth stretching into your pockets for a unique dining experience. The menu includes traditional Peruvian food as well as local Amazonian dishes.
To reach the restaurant you have to take a ride in a small ferry boat, which is all part of the experience. If you time your visit for sunset, you can eat while the sun goes down and then watch the city lights shimmering over the river as you take the boat back.
Have lunch in a set-meal menú
Travelling in Peru you will soon become acquainted with set-lunch menú restaurants. These are a midday institution for locals and can be found in towns and cities all over the country. For a surprisingly small amount of money you can enjoy a two- or three-course meal with a drink.
Menú restaurants are a cheap way to enjoy Peruvian food in Iquitos. You will find them dotted around the city centre streets. They can be a little hit and miss, but we struck gold at a place called Pikanto where we paid 10 soles ($3 US dollars) each for three courses and a drink, including a fish-filled causa as a starter.
Tip: for another budget local food experience in Iquitos, find a café that serves salchipapas. This traditional Peruvian fast food dish of fried potatoes and sausages is sold around the city for as little as 4–5 soles (around $1.50 US dollars).
Take a tuk-tuk ride
The tuk-tuk is the transport mode of choice in Iquitos. These three-wheeled moto taxis fill the city’s streets with noise all hours of the day. They’re a fun and cheap way to get around, and very little bartering is required – we typically paid just 3-4 soles (around $1 US dollar) to ride the 2 kilometres between our hostel and the city centre.
Note that you will need to be very clear about your destination. Language barrier was an issue for us, and we met some tuk-tuk drivers who couldn’t read maps. You may need to point the way, or better still, equip yourself with some Spanish directional phrases (‘izquierda’ = left, ‘derecho’ = right, ‘al frente’ = straight ahead).
See local live music at Complejo CNI
Taking a quick walk near our hostel the evening we arrived in Iquitos, we heard the unmistakable sound of live music flowing along the street. We followed the noise and soon discovered a large open space resembling a miniature festival ground, with a stage occupied by a flamboyantly dressed dancing troupe. Locals crammed in with beers in hand, pulling out their best dancing moves. We had stumbled across Complejo CNI, a popular local venue for live music and dancing.
Complejo CNI is known to get packed out on weekends. This was a Sunday night, and it was still pretty full! The security guards on the gate beckoned us to enter – no payment needed – and so we joined the party. The venue doesn’t have a website or any online listings, so you may need to just turn up and see what’s on. It’s a couple of kilometres (or a short tuk-tuk ride) outside the city centre.
Have a cold beer in a homely local bar
Around the suburbs of Iquitos, among the many brightly coloured houses, it’s not uncommon to see businesses being run from family homes. We saw all sorts of bars, shops and cafés spilled out of people’s living rooms onto the streets.
Stop by at a local bar in the suburbs and you might find yourself sipping the cheapest beer you’ve ever drunk while watching TV with granddad, kids running around.
Experience the Iquitos nightlife
At night, the riverfront boulevard of Malecón Tarapaca transforms into the place to be for a drink and a dance. Arandú Bar and Musmuqui are two of the most popular bars along this stretch. If you want to keep the party going later into the night, then walk a couple of blocks inland from the river to Noa, the city’s most popular nightclub.
Iquitos Amazon tours
No trip to Iquitos would be complete without an excursion into the Peruvian Amazon jungle. The number one question I am asked about Iquitos is “how do you book an Amazon tour”? It’s actually very simple, and you don’t necessarily need to book in advance.
First of all, check if your accommodation offers tour bookings. We booked a two-day, one-night tour via our hostel for a very reasonable price, including a whole host of activities and an overnight stay in a jungle lodge. Read on below for a recap of our experience for an idea of what you can expect.
If your accommodation does offer tour bookings, don’t just choose them by default. First you should ask for the name of the tour company and do some background checks. Read online reviews to make sure you’re not getting a complete dud. If you have any concerns, you can find a variety of tour agencies around the city centre. Most offer packages from day trips up to five nights, and once again, check them up first.
Jungle day trips
If you want to experience the jungle but are short of time or unsure about staying overnight, it’s also possible to book full day trips. One safe and reliable way to do this is to book in advance using GetYourGuide, which works with the best local tour companies and includes free cancellation up to a day before. That means you don’t need to worry if you get struck down with food poisoning or an emergency comes up.
These are the most popular jungle tours from Iquitos with GetYourGuide:
- Amazon river full day guided tour. This includes a trip to Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and the chance to see amazing tropical wildlife such as monkeys, snakes and pink dolphins. It also features a visit to local markets and an indigenous village to meet the people and learn about their way of life.
- 6-hour wonderful wildlife guided tour. This alternative wildlife tour visits a breeding centre for river wildlife that looks after turtles, lizards, piranhas, macaws and many more creatures. Then move on to a beautiful Amazon viewpoint for some downtime, and finally a chance to see the giant legendary lupuna tree.
- Pacaya Samiria National Reserve tour. This tour focuses on the national reserve considered to be the best protected area in Peru. The full day includes a boat ride to see pink and grey dolphins, and a trip to the reserve to see an array of jungle wildlife.
You can browse more Iquitos Amazon tours here.
Our jungle tour: an unforgettable experience
Our own Amazon tour began with a stroke of luck. We happened to be the only English-speaking people to book a tour on that particular day. This meant we had a guide to ourselves – a private tour for the price of a regular one!
Day 1: discovering jungle wildlife
On the morning of the first day we were collected by tuk-tuk, transferred to a minivan and taken to our river departure point. From here we took a two-hour cruise on the Amazon into the jungle.
After arriving at the lodge, our friendly local guide, Jon, led us on a hike into the jungle to seek out vegetation and wildlife. Unlike the group before us we didn’t see any snakes, but a mouth-opening moment came when we stumbled across a nest of bullet ants. These inch-long creatures are notorious for wielding one of the world’s most painful stings.
After lunch we took a boat out to Monkey Island, a sanctuary providing a home to various breeds of monkey and other jungle animals. A devious little monkey called Pancho jumped on Lisa within seconds of our disembarkment, and quickly figured out how to drink the water from her camel pack! After wrestling it back we both took turns to hold the resident anaconda and toucan, and watched the monkeys play-fighting.
Next on the agenda was a dip and swim in the Amazon River. The mud is renowned for having excellent qualities for skin, so we made our own face masks. On the ride back to the lodge, we watched the sun set over the river as pink dolphins leapt all about.
That evening after dinner we went out for another jungle hike, this time in the dark. A giant bullfrog and some tarantulas numbered among the nocturnal life we encountered. Back at the lodge, we got well acquainted with its own resident pet tarantula.
Day 2: meeting indigenous communities
We rose before dawn on the second day to take a boat down the river for sunrise. Unfortunately for us the cloud cover obscured the view, but we did see some jungle birdlife. Black vultures swooped about as we glided over the water.
After breakfast it was time for a spot of fishing. Jon promised that whatever we caught would be cooked for us to have for lunch. It looked like we would be going hungry… between the two of us we managed to catch one tiny little fish! Lisa did hook a sizeable piranha, but reeled it in a little too hastily – it flipped all the way over the boat and splashed back into the water on the other side. Oops.
On our way back to the lodge for lunch we stopped to visit an indigenous Amazonian tribe. After a warm welcome we were taught a local dance, and how to use a hunting blow-pipe. Before leaving we bought some of the tribe’s handmade crafts.
Thankfully our modest fish portion was filled out with plenty of rice, chicken and vegetables. Thoroughly satisfied with our jungle experience, we set off on the two-hour return cruise.
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