Linked to the outside world by air and by river, Iquitos is the world’s largest city that cannot be reached by road. It has a unique personality: friendly, noisy, sassy and slightly manic. Travelers come here for an excursion into the rainforest or a river trip along the Amazon, but they often stay a few days to relish this remote jungle capital of the huge department of Loreto.
Iquitos was founded in the 1750s as a Jesuit mission, fending off attacks from indigenous tribes who didn’t want to be converted. The tiny settlement survived and grew slowly until, by the 1870s, it had 1500 inhabitants. Then came the great rubber boom, and by the 1880s the population had increased 16-fold. For the next 30 years, Iquitos was at once the scene of ostentatious wealth and abject poverty. The rubber barons became fabulously rich, and the rubber tappers (mainly local tribespeople and poor mestizos) suffered virtual enslavement and sometimes death from disease or harsh treatment. Signs of the opulence of those days are seen in some of the mansions and tiled walls of Iquitos.
By WWI, the bottom fell out of the rubber boom as suddenly as it had begun. A British entrepreneur smuggled some rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil, and plantations were seeded in the Malay Peninsula. It was much cheaper and easier to collect the rubber from orderly rows of rubber trees in the plantations than from wild trees scattered in the Amazon Basin.
Iquitos suffered economic decline during the decades after WWI, supporting itself as best it could by a combination of logging, agriculture (Brazil nuts, tobacco, bananas and barbasco – a poisonous vine used by indigenous peoples to hunt fish and now exported for use in insecticides) and the export of wild animals to zoos. Then, in the 1960s, a second boom revitalized the area. This time the resource was oil, and its discovery made Iquitos a prosperous modern town. In recent years tourism has also played an important part in the economy of the area.
Last updated: Feb 17, 2009
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