On the bosom of the mighty Amazon river, our correspondent Kristen Cashman stumbled upon a peculiar Peru secret – a village where banks and churches float.
At the end of a three-month trip through Latin America, I found myself with an afternoon to spend in Iquitos, Peru. Perched on the banks of the Amazon River, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and the largest city in the world not accessible by road but only by plane and boat, Iquitos is the country’s jumping-off point for trips upriver to remote jungle lodges.
After weeks of solo travel, I was feeling a bit lonely, so I sought out an American Cafe for lunch: The Yellow Rose of Texas. Gerald, the boisterous Texan who ran the place, introduced himself as soon as I sat down and was happy to oblige when I asked him for advice on how to spend the afternoon. “Walk down to the riverfront,” he said, “and hire a boatman to take you on a tour of the floating village of Belen.”
Following the map that Gerald had sketched for me on a napkin, I passed through the Belen Marketplace, a sprawling bazaar where vendors sold fruit and veg, fish, meat, and eggs, as well as sundry supplies and trinkets.
Beyond the market I emerged onto the banks of the river, where my eyes drank in a crowded riverscape of thatched huts floating on the water. Several young men sat by their boats, eager to take visitors on a tour of their village. I negotiated a price with a pair of teenagers who approached me — one lanky and gaunt-faced, in a faded black T-shirt that said “Kool,” and the other compact and muscled, with the deep-set eyes and wide, prominent cheekbones common among the locals. Soon I was seated in their skinny wooden boat gliding along the river.
Churches, petrol stations, restaurants, and hundreds of family homes — all were essentially large rafts, tethered to pilings, accessible only by boat. I was surprised to see utility poles with streetlights and electrical wires punctuating the primary thoroughfares.
A lovely young woman sat on a dock, shampooing her hair in the river. An old man stood waist-high in the water, brushing his teeth. Groups of children jumped off a dock and wrestled in the opaque brown water. A woman in fetal position napped on a front porch. A group of men in a pub waved and called to me through a window as we passed. Boats zipped by in all directions, some loaded down with passengers, others piloted by only a child or two.
The still water reflected the bright blue sky and puffy clouds above, except where thickets of emerald green aquatic plants pierced the surface from below. My guides pointed out notable buildings to me but otherwise were quiet, our communication limited by my rudimentary Spanish. Every so often, to cool himself off, the lanky one dipped his hat in the river and then placed it back on his head, rivulets streaming down his face. For about an hour they navigated the dug-out canoe through crowded central canals, then skirted the edge of the settlement, then returned me to the launch where they had picked me up.
Until that day, when I had imagined Amazonian culture, I pictured shamans and tribes people in remote jungles, untouched by modern culture. The people of Belen, on the other hand, lived and breathed the river, without solid ground beneath their feet, yet they were part of a greater, twenty first-century urban culture. They straddled two worlds — the traditional and the contemporary, the aquatic and the terrestrial — in a way I hadn’t known was possible.
Stepping from the boat back onto the cement, I effusively thanked my guides, and said a silent thank you to Gerald for tipping me off to this other face of Iquitos.
The Story was first published in Travel Secrets Magazine's March-April 2014 issue.