Peru’s famed “Gateway to the Amazon” was once just a humble Jesuit outpost in the jungle, until the Industrial Age. With that revolution—particularly after the widespread adoption of the automobile—international demand for rubber exploded. Harvested from the Amazon wilderness and sold here in Iquitos for a fraction of its worth on the global market, the sticky sap gave rise to impossibly wealthy rubber barons who indulged in extravagant architectural marvels, still scattered throughout Iquitos like gemstones.
Today, Iquitos is once again thriving thanks to tourism and oil, but remains quite isolated, as the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by road. Hot, humid and replete with the rainforest's intense biodiversity, it is entirely different from Peru’s windswept deserts and Andean highlands. Dress accordingly and give yourself time to acclimate to the heat. Expect rain throughout the year, particularly February through May, when rising waters make for more interesting riverboat excursions, but difficult hiking.
Day 1: Explore the City
Get started early with a canoe tour of Belen, Iquitos’ famous floating barrio. The early morning hours are when this neighborhood is at its freshest and its famous market is at its busiest. After popping into the amazing maze of stalls selling herbs, tinctures, unusual fruits and even weirder fish, enjoy lunch at one of several floating seafood restaurants.
Back in the city proper, you’ll find dozens of impressive buildings, the finest around the Plaza de Armas and long the Itaya River. The colorfully Gothic Iglesia Matriz and gleaming Casa de Hierro are among the most famous, but there are many more. If Museums are your game, check out the Museo Etnografico, with exhibits about local indigenous culture, or the Natural Science Museum, with information about local flora and fauna. Otherwise, just stroll the Tarapaca River Walk for soothing views, souvenir shopping at the Mercado San Juan, and perhaps an adult beverage in the breeze.
Day 2: The Birth of a River
Book a trip to the beginning of the Amazon, at the confluence of Maranon and Ucayali Rivers, about 183km (114mi) southwest of Iquitos. This is also the gateway to Peru’s largest, most biodiverse protected area, Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria. The vast and perpetually flooded rainforest is home to all manner of wildlife, including the region’s famed pink dolphins and more than 500 species of bird. You could make a day of it or arrange to stay overnight in one of several jungle lodges.
Day 3: Enjoy All the Amazon Has to Offer
This is the largest, most biodiverse rainforest in the world, but chances are that the wildlife wasn’t quite as easy to spot as implied. No problem! Head out to amazing Quistacocha Zoological park, a sprawling 425-hectare (1050-acre) park just 6.5km (4mi) from Iquitos, where you’ll find tapirs, big cats, capybaras, manatees, monkeys, anteaters and all sorts of exotic birds in ample displays amidst the rainforest. There’s even a lake with a petite beach, and kayaks. Other excellent wildlife displays include Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm and Animal Orphanage, Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island) and Fundo Pedrito Caiman Sanctuary.
Or, if you’ve been out on the river for far too long and find yourself aching for some civilization, head to the Amazon Golf Course, an nine-hole oasis where “it's not so much birdies and eagles; more like boas in the rough, caimans sunning in the sand traps, and piranhas lurking in the water holes.” It claims to be the only course in the world where golfers are issued a machete to carry in their golf bag.