Iquitos in the Region of Loreto is the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon with almost half a million inhabitants. It’s the largest city in the world not accessible by road – only via plane and boat. Located on the left bank of the Amazon River in northeastern Peru, it is a city with bag loads of culture, charm and character. Whether it be the organized chaos of the moto-taxis careering through the streets, or the exciting hustle and bustle of Belen Market, it cannot be denied that Iquitos is a city like no other. But how did Iquitos come to be what it is; what exactly sculpted it this way?
Iquitos started in the 1750s as a Jesuit mission with the stated goal of aiding the indigenous people of the area. Iquitos grew steadily from this time and, a century later, Loreto Region was officially delineated.
However, it was not until the period known as The Rubber Boom that the population of Iquitos really took off, growing from around 1,500 in the 1870s, to around 20,000 by the 1880s.
In 1844, Charles Goodyear had invented the process known as Vulcanization, whereby sulphur is added to natural rubber to make a durable, commercially useful latex; and this put the demand for rubber through the roof. This high demand made some of the Iquitos international rubber barons extremely wealthy. It led to some fantastic architecture being constructed in the city, almost exclusively with materials shipped in from Europe, some of which can still be seen to this day.
Jose de Jesus Reategui built many of the city’s interesting buildings and features during these boom years, including the Iglesia Matriz de Iquitos. At this time, iron was considered to be an unfashionable material, but in 1890, Gustave Eiffel, the creator of the Eiffel Tower, built the Casa de Fierro (Iron House) which became a big attraction in the city, and remains so to this day.
Around 90 of the buildings standing in Iquitos today have been declared part of the Heritage of Loreto. The rubber boom brought with it, however, many downsides, most especially the treatment of the local indigenous people by many of the rubber barons and their henchmen. Natives were given the task of locating the trees and tapping the rubber, all whilst working in appalling conditions, sometimes akin to slavery.
Steamboats were the workhorses of the period, used to transport cargo and people from far ends of the Amazon river and beyond. They were absolutely crucial to the development of new Amazon communities, delivering imported goods, food, medicine, tools, and supplies and of course, moving the precious cargo of natural rubber.
Not only were they used for exploration and transportation, but served other purposes, such as hotels, and even brothels! Not surprisingly, the steamboats were highly-prized possessions and often were extravagantly beautiful and luxurious.
The rubber boom however was not long after followed by a rubber bust. British entrepreneurs managed to smuggle rubber tree seeds out of the area, and set up commercial plantations in Malaysia. These new plantations allowed them to produce rubber more economically and more competitively than ever before, and from around 1912, almost overnight, the city of Iquitos was being deserted by the very people who had created it. Many of the steamboats of the time were abandoned, sold, or destroyed. Very few still remain.
Amazingly a couple of the steamboats are still in existence in Iquitos, one of which can be found just off the malecón opposite the Casa Morey. Now a museum, the beautiful Ayapua riverboat, is a fascinating restored relic of this period, and vital in preserving this history for modern generations.
With the rubber barons all gone, and with two thirds of modern rubber being synthetic, tourism is an important part of a more diverse economy in Iquitos, with many flocking every year to catch a glimpse of the wonders of the Amazon, and generating much needed income for the region.
Iquitos truly is a place like no other, with a fascinating history, incredible architecture, and some of the friendliest people you will encounter anywhere in South America. If you haven’t experienced it yet, we have just one question for you; what are you waiting for?
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