A Brief History Of Iquitos In 1980

by Captain Bill

A guest post by Frank Perkins

The Iquitos Plaza de Armas in 1980

Iquitos is one of the more out of the way cities of the world and one of the few of its size with absolutely no road access. The only means of reaching it are by Amazon River boat, or by air. By air, it is hardly out of the way at all. It lies on an almost direct path between Lima and Miami. Some scheduled flights land there, offering a chance for a layover, and I seized on this opportunity on a business trip to Lima. The flight passes over miles of impenetrable jungle. Finally a few huts are visible just before the landing. Few outsiders visit Iquitos; when you get there you realize you are in a really isolated area.

I had arrived without a hotel reservation, or without much of an idea of what I was getting into, as my stopover was a last minute idea. I found a helpful cab driver who spoke a little English. He promised to help me locate a room, and we headed for the city. The cab didn’t have a trunk lid, but we loaded my bag anyway and were off. (Apparently there is a rule in Iquitos requiring missing body panels on taxisómy return cab was missing an entire fender.) The second try at a hotel turned up a quite acceptable room near the center of the city, small and not plush, but with the requisite air conditioner.

One thing you notice immediately is that Iquitos is very hot and humid. Once you accept the languid attitude the weather induces, it really isn’t bad, but it is definitely not invigorating. Iquitos was started as a rubber town, and thrived in its day. Now, many of its once-grand buildings are empty or only partially occupied. It is built on a bluff overlooking a huge sweeping curve in the Amazon, a good mile wide here, some 1000 miles from the mouth. Atop this bluff stands a little bar with big open windows overlooking the river and the bustling boat docks. The beer is cold, the atmosphere is relaxed, and the bar has what must be one of the oldest operating juke boxes in the world. I have a delightful photo of the smiling proprietor and the staff, standing in front of a colorful jaguar painted on the back-bar wall.

The Amazon River in front of Iquitos in 1980

The town square of Iquitos is a delight at sunset. It is built in the Spanish style, with a fountain in the center and walks crisscrossing the whole area. Rows of benches are available for the people who turn up to enjoy the relative coolness of the evening. Children play, families stroll, and lovers talk quietly. The low rays of the sun catch the church tower and turn it a beautiful shade of yellow-gold. Over it all the sky is a pale blue, speckled with clouds whose hue changes with the setting sun. Gradually the light fades and eventually you realize that it is dark and that the magic of sunset is over for the day.

Below the faded elegance of the transplanted European city on the bluff lies a completely different world, that of the native quarter on the lowlands by the river. The level of the Amazon River in the area varies by 15 or 20 feet over the course of the year, and the Indians live in the flood plain, in houses perched on stilts. In flood, the area is like a rustic Venice, with boats moored at the doors of the houses. In dry season, as during my visit, the water recedes to a few stagnant canals, and the area reeks of the mud flats and worse. Boats are unloaded over narrow planks laid on the mud, or sometimes by men wading through the soupy mixture. When they have heavy loads, they are guided and supported by helpers as they stagger through the mud. Pigs are unloaded by flinging them into the mud alongside the boat and letting them flounder ashore as best they can.

The port of the village of Belen in 1980

The houses have a curious charm. They are rough and mostly unpainted, but clearly bear a certain pride of ownership. Many have pots of colorful flowers hung on rickety railings; others have faded but attractively painted trim here and there.

Varied activity flows through the area. Children play, chickens scratch busily, and dogs lope along on dog business. On one corner, I watched while a group of men struggled to weigh a trussed and squealing pig on a suspended lever-type scale.
The market areas, on a level slightly above the residential district, have an assortment of fresh vegetables, strange looking fish from the river, and pots of bubbling stews.

I wandered through all this as a camera-toting tourist, trying to be unobtrusive. Of course this was impossible, as I was usually the only Caucasian in sight, but mostly I was granted the happy privilege of being ignored as I watched and photographed. I did not feel threatened, although I was clearly in an area not often frequented by outsiders.

It was incredible to think how quick and easy my physical transition had been from a jet plane plying between two major cities of the world and this place. Just as incredible was the huge distance this transition covered, measured in cultural differences. I suppose this warping of relative distances is one of the major characteristics of the modern world.

A Brief History Of Iquitos In 1980

Guest post by Frank Perkins

Hello, Bill Grimes here, reporting from Iquitos Peru in 2012. Frank emailed me the other day, surprised that the Amazon River was not where he had left it, churning along in front of Iquitos. I emailed him back that “That big muddy river meandered off on another course and let the Itaya River come through in it’s channel, but not before it’s erosion wore off at least two blocks on the waterfront of the city.”

I asked, “Would you consider posting an article in my blog with old photos about the history of Iquitos as you remember it?” This exert is from one of his books. To read more about Frank Perkins travels, click this link to his web site, www.frankperkins.com, and to purchase his ebooks, click this link to Smashwords-About Frank Perkins.

To learn more about the history of Iquitos and the upper Amazon click these links and read on…

The mysterious life and death of Dr. George Mott, in Iquitos, 1927

Follow The Course Of History on the restored Amazon River Boat Calvero, Since 1876

Steamships of the Rubber Boom, Recovering History In The Peruvian Amazon

The Oldest Boat In The Amazon

The Grand Tour, Loreto Peru, October 3rd, 1853

Franciso Orellana At The Confluence Of The Napo And Amazon Rivers

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Angie Stone July 8, 2012 at 12:10 am

My brother, David Campbell, lived in Iquitos during the 80’s. He died there in 1989, supposedly in the street outside a bar. He was buried there as well. Since you were there during those years, and it’s such a small place, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps you knew him?
Thank you for your wonderful blog.

2 Captain Bill July 9, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Hello Angie, Thanks for getting in touch with me. I’m sorry, I did not know your brother, but perhaps I can help. Would you like for me to do a little detective work to try to learn more? If so, can you share any other information that might be helpful our search. Full name, Date of birth, passport number, where was he living in Iquitos, address, area, did he have a wife or girlfriend here, children, I don’t know what? If I can find his grave I will clean it up, put some flowers on it, and take a photo. That is the least I can do.

Best regards,

3 Pat Jablonski June 13, 2016 at 3:23 pm

I am a writer attempting a novel about a couple who win an Amazon River cruise in April of 1983. They disembark in Iquitos and stay for 3 days before flying to Lima and home to Seattle. In that 3 days something amazing happens to them in Belen Market. Would there have been anything approaching a luxury hotel then, or would they have stayed in a small hotel with no A/C? I managed to set a task for myself since there is so little information about this topic from those times. Thanks for anything you can add, and I’m wondering if you ever found Angie’s brother’s grave site.

4 Captain Bill June 14, 2016 at 9:55 am

Hi Pat, 1983 is before my time in Iquitos, but I know there were hotels with air conditioning then. Whether your characters stayed in one probably depends on their budget and life style. Television was rare when I first came here in 1999. Any one that had a TV usually had a crowd outside their window or door, the neighbors watching from the side walk. If it was a soccer game being televised there would be a large, loud crowd. People tended, and still do, to bring their chairs to sit outside their homes on the sidewalk of an evening because it was/is cooler. That is a charming part of this culture, like pre air conditioning and TV in the 1940s and 50s in the small towns of north america when most people sat out on their porches.

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