It's as far from well-trodden Machu Picchu as you can get: Iquitos, deep in the Peruvian Amazon and 3,000km from the river's mouth. Fancy roast parrot, anyone? Believe me, that's tame…
We race through the streets in a trundling convoy of multi-coloured tuk-tuk-style vehicles manned by chilled-out drivers. Their devil-may-care attitude is infectious as we hurtle, laughing, around the city corners and my adrenaline is sent racing. Finally, we come to a halt in the centre of Iquitos – the largest and most populous city in the Peruvian rainforest, some 3,000km upstream from the mouth of the Amazon.
Legs wobbling slightly but blood still pumping, I decide to try some of the more unusual fare on offer for lunch. Iquitos is a place where anything that moves is considered edible, and during my stay in this land-locked Amazonian jungle city, I try – among other things – parrot, peccary, piranha and alligator. My first meal begins with the more sedate option of a palm-stem salad (chonta) followed by paiche – a giant, shining slab of a prehistoric fish, whose scales are each the size of my ear. It is served with fried bananas and a refreshing jug of sweet, pink camu-camu juice.
During my stay in the jungle, I also drink masato (a fermented yuca drink), eat from cacao pods and guava branches pulled straight from the tree, and am offered the local delicacy – a monkey arm. Bruce Parry, eat your (monkey) heart out.
As the sun blazes brightly overhead, my brain scrambles to gain a sense of direction as we amble around the chaotic, labyrinthine alleyways of the Belen Market. Dodging winking women carrying trays piled high with watermelon and yuca on their heads, we come upon the hidden gem of the Pasaje Paquito, a colourful canopied alley of stalls selling plant medicines and jungle cures for (supposedly) everything from stomach ache to AIDs, cancer and even a broken heart.
With a rejuvenated taste for adventure, I try everything I am offered and escape with nothing more than a burning throat and slightly fuzzy head. A vista opens up over a sprawling maze of balsa huts, stretching to the river’s edge in the hazy distance. We descend further down some steps into the streets of Puerto Belen, where barefoot children happily play volleyball and greet me with friendly calls and waves. Their mothers are playing serious games of bingo on benches in the shade of their raised houses. These homes on stilts float when the river floods, giving the area the nickname "the Venice of the Amazon".
As the heat of the day begins to let up, and the vicious zancudos (mosquitoes) come out to play, I relish the faint breeze as we wander along the boulevard with smiling couples holding hands. We sit at a street café overlooking the river and sip ice-cold Iquiteñas as snatches of raucous laughter drift over from the fun-loving locals crowding around street comedians as they perform their slapstick routines on the Malecon.
We are just in time to see the sun’s final rays glinting off the Amazon, which snakes its way, brown and smooth, through the tangled jungle towards the rosy horizon. After sunset, we duck into a quiet side-street where there is an unobtrusive-looking doorway. Once inside, the noise and heat swells as lively locals throng the tiny bar and we down the "medicinal" root drinks – made with cane alcohol – that are the speciality of the region.
While my friend picks a beverage called "Seven Times A Night", I spot a murky concoction called "Anti-dengue", which is said to be strong enough to combat any jungle disease. I down it in one (better to be safe than sorry). We spend the nights at fiestas, dancing to cumbia music which sounds like the boisterous, seductive love-child of salsa and reggae. It is played by two live local bands, Kaliente and Explosion. Girls writhe around the stage in shimmering bikinis, and the crowd is at ease in the open air. Children run between the legs of grey-haired old women who are winking and shrieking with laughter as they dance with young, flirty men under the stars.
Where to stay
Desarrollo Amazonico (www.desarrolloamazonicoperu.org) offers five-day jungle homestays with weekends in Iquitos – a cheap and ethical way to experience real Amazonian life.
Worth a visit
Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm Marvel at giant, shimmering Blue Morphos, feed tapirs and play with monkeys. Take a colectivo from Bellavista to the village of Padrecocha, and follow the signs.
Quistacocha Zoo Hold a giant snake, try suris (skewered baked grubs) or just relax on the beach by the lake. The zoo is on the Iquitos-Nauta Road; take a motocar.
Boras and Yaguas Dance, shoot darts and be painted by these local jungle tribes. Negotiate a half-day trip with one of the boatmen at Bellavista, and stop off at the animal collection on the way.
Tribal Museum Located on the Malecon Blvd, this tiny museum houses dozens of lifesize sculptures cataloguing the area’s various tribal groups. Eerie but interesting.
Make sure you bring spare bottles of 50 per cent DEET insect repellent. The pharmacies in Iquitos stock only citronella cream which is, I can testify, worse than useless.
Stock up on pure alcohol, iodine and tins of Derma on your arrival, bought from Belen Market. They will do wonders for your bites – and if you get dizzy from the heat as you acclimatise, a sniff of the alcohol will sort you right out.
The best internet café (fastest connection, cheapest rates) is located in the Plaza de Armas, across from the famous Iron House and the main square’s iconic church. Incidentally, Ari’s Burger nearby is awesome for a hangover cure.
Don’t get caught with all the expats in the Yellow Rose of Texas (which is, however, a delicious cure for homesickness). Instead, join the locals in one of the many cafés spilling out into the street for a feast of skewered meats, rice with chicken or fish cooked in banana leaves, together with roasted platanos washed down with a healthy dose of aguardiente or chicha.