The first inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest were small tribes living along the various rivers and streams who arrived possibly as early as 20,000 years ago. With the arrival of the Spaniards, accounts of the region were publicized by missionaries, explorers, and adventurers. The “discovery” of the Amazon River by outsiders was first narrated by Francisco de Orellana on the 12th of February, 1542. This excited the imagination of many who followed, looking for “El Dorado” or city of gold. The Jesuits and Franciscans founded many settlements and opened paths into the interior in the interest of religion.
The first village was officially founded under the name of San Pablo de los Napeanos in 1757 by Jesuits; later it was named El Pueblo de Iquitos for the preponderance of Iquitos natives. Soon, the pace of expansion accelerated until on November 9, 1840, Iquitos was declared the capitol of the Department of Loreto. During much of the 19th century, the region of Loreto remained separate from the rest of the country, isolated by tremendous distance from the capitol in Lima. At the height of the rubber boom, considered to have been between the years 1880 to 1912, the Department of Loreto finally received greater attention. In 1870 the population of Iquitos exploded from 1,700 to over 20,000 in the 1880s, converting it into a modern city of great commercial importance. Due to the fantastic wealth of the notorious rubber barons, extravagant and opulent constructions sprouted up in the city using materials imported from Europe and the Far East. Gustave Eiffel designed a building which was brought in through the jungles in metal sheets on the backs of slaves, later assembled on the central plaza known as the “Iron House.” Other houses had glazed tiles, friezes, and neo-classical elements incorporated into their façades for all in the city to admire.
The rubber boom started to collapse in 1914 with the establishment of rubber plantations in Malaya which could be operated at a fraction of the costs required in Peru. Iquitos suffered until the 1970s when petroleum was discovered in the region and along with logging, took on an importance that stimulated the local economy and still does today along with an increasing ecotourism industry.
The Department of Loreto today covers 30 percent of the national territory of Peru in the northwestern corner of the country and is the largest region in Peru with the smallest population. In the center of the Department of Loreto is the city of Iquitos, the point of arrival for our Amazon cruise. Iquitos lies 104 metres (341 feet) above sea-level and 3,360 km (2,088 mi) from the Atlantic Ocean. The city is surrounded by rivers: to the east is the Amazon River, on the north and western side lies the Nanay River and on the south side is the Itaya River. There are no bridges crossing over any of these rivers and still no road connects the city to the rest of the country. Access to the city is by water or by air for the almost half-million residents. One of the most memorable aspects about travel within the city are the 30,000 or so “moto-carros” that jam the streets and zoom about on their daily business. Iquitos is a noisy, vibrant city at the crossroads of ancient Amazonian and westernized cultures.
The inhabitants of Iquitos today are an ethnically diverse group of primarily riverine peoples and from tribes in the area with a mixture of mestizo descendents of Spanish ancestry and has a warm, humid climate with a maximum temperature of around 33ºC (91ºF) and low around 21ºC (70ºF). Of more import is the annual variation in river level, the low being the months of July through November, and the high from December through July.
Affected tremendously by the extremes of river levels is the city of Belén on the edges of Iquitos. Begining in the early 20th century, it is made up of houses built on a base of balsa logs which float on water, in the traditional style of the river peoples. With time, building styles have changed and two-storied houses on pillars set into the earth have been added to the others. In times of low river levels, both floors can be used, in times of high river levels only the upper floor is used. When the river is high, transportation takes place by canoe and rafts giving the name “The Venice of the Amazon” to the city. Over the years, the channel of the Amazon River has changed also; today, it is the Itaya River which crosses in front of the city of Iquitos and can be seen from waterfront promenade. The Amazon now touches Iquitos only on the far northeastern end of the city where the Nanay River, Itaya River and Amazon River all meet to form an important economic port for the residents of the area.
The city of Nauta was founded on April 30, 1830 by a native chief Manuel Pacaya Irarica (Pacaya-Samiria) and lies 115 km upriver from Iquitos. It was the earliest settlement and first river port in the region of Loreto. Due to its strategic location at the junction of the Marañón and Ucayali Rivers, in 1853 it received boats and ships from Brazil and Europe and became the center for commerce and communications in the Amazon.
In 1999, a dirt road was opened joining the city of Iquitos with the city of Nauta on the Marañón River which required 12 hours to traverse. In 2005 it was asphalted, and now to travel between the two cities on the highway takes only 1.75 hours.
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