Belen, River Itaya


It’s late in the evening and I’m pretty overwhelmed–to the point where it’s difficult even to write from under the burden of the impressions taken in over the experiences of today.

Guillermo. Belen resident and our tour guide

desayuno at la casa de Guillermo, served by his wife and consumed at the same little table in the space beneath their stilted home in Belen

sardina, beans, rice, egg, and plátano. a really, really good breakfast for well under a buck.

When we started out I was under the general understanding that we would be touring Belen and the lower portion of the River Itaya, which is one of the two rivers framing the city of Iquitos. Belen represents most of where the city touches the Itaya and it includes Iquitos’ floating slums, made iconic in the great old Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo–yeah that one with Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale. By midmorning, however, it was clear that this would be no avenue-of-the-stars tour of a movie site but rather a procession of human encounters that would leave me both exhausted and enlightened.

people build their homes to allow them to adjust with changes in the level of the river.

Our guide for the day–pre-arranged by Seth–was Guillermo, a diligent if somewhat laconic man of around fifty who is also a resident of Belen. Guillermo picked us up at the hotel with his motokar (the noisy, chimaeric half-buggy/half-motorcycle that carries everybody everywhere in Iquitos). After getting under way, we asked him to make a stop for breakfast. He took us to his home, which is in the part of Belen that actually becomes dry land during the low water period. As it was three weeks after the peak of high water season and the water was receding fast, we were able to get there easily in Guillermo’s mototaxi. His wife makes a little extra money by cooking a large pot of food and offering sit-down breakfasts at a little table in the space below their home. The meal was simple–rice and beans, an egg, plátanos–your choice of maduros or verdes (the equivalent of Cuban tostones)–and I had a fish known locally as a sardina, which was not the Clupeoform sardine familiar to coastal peoples. Extra flavor comes from the addition of a universally-present criolla, a light salsa made from finely chopped red onions, salt, charapita peppers (a small, round, yellow, and very hot chile), water and lime juice.

it's perfectly normal for a house to have no walls

pequi-pequi boats. all-purpose mid-sized transport throughout the area (and perhaps throughout the Amazon)

As I found later on our visit to the mercado, smaller fish and particularly the Cypriniforms and Characids (?) are typically prepared by making dozens of neatly parallel gashes on each side of the fish, cutting to but not through the vertebrae. This has the effect of allowing the salt to penetrate and flavor the flesh while it also renders the smaller bones that extend laterally from the vertebrae edible once the fish is cooked. The sardine was excellent. I’m planning to dedicate a whole post to the fishes later, so I won’t talk more about them now.

Guillermo said that these larger transports carried workers from Iquitos to pineapple fields in outlying areas

I want to make it clear that this neighborhood where Guillermo and his family and a few thousand others live is seasonally either on the shore of the River Itaya or in the River Itaya, depending on the water level. All houses here are built on stilts, and just three weeks before my arrival the river crested so high that many residents had to retreat, living in the streets until the water receded to the point where they could occupy their homes again. The little nook where we ate breakfast would have been eight feet or more under water.

this particular transport nearly rammed our pequi-pequi!

From Guillermo’s house we walked about 100m to the river just below the market area, where several boatmen jostle to offer riverine taxi rides to locals as well as touristic passages to folks wanting to see more of the floating city. With the latter of these offering an opportunity to make abundantly more than the former, non-Peruvians are descended upon somewhat aggressively as they appear on the scene. Our guide either had pre-arranged to go with Eduardo “el Colorado,” or picked him on the spot–I’m not clear on that part, but in either case we hopped onto his pequi-pequi (as these boats are called locally, named after the noise made by the two-stroke motors they use) and made our way to see the floating part of Belen. Throughout the morning hours there is a steady flow of labor out of Belen on much larger pequi-pequi boats to agricultural jobs, e.g., at pineapple fields on the Amazon, and there’s also a steady flow of produce in. We saw plátanos. Lots of plátanos being carried in and unloaded at the base of the market.

close by to each floating house is a floating outhouse (no es una casita para el perro!)

Just across the river’s main channel is the “floating ghetto,” unlike Guillermo’s neighborhood, this part of Belen never dries out. Houses here are built on balsa wood pontoons that must somehow be moored to the shore or bottom in a way that can withstand the currents during periods of high flow on the River Itaya. Crappers are cute–doghouse-sized outbuildings with a very simple plumbing system–a hole cut into the floor.

the floating homes of Belen are built atop balsawood pontoons (rather than stilts)

to facilitate milling, logs are identified to their kind of wood by the letters painted onto their ends

The River Itaya is obviously far from pristine anywhere close to Belen, but the gross-out element diminishes albeit gradually as you move upstream. The floating houses and their shitters disappear and are replaced by huge rafts of logs that come to the Itaya’s lumber mills–relatively little of it comes from upstream on the River Itaya, which has been heavily exploited and there are not that many marketable trees. Most of the logs come on large rafts that are somehow kept all together as they are floated down from drainages higher on the Amazon and then amazingly pulled/pushed upstream from the mouth of the Itaya by teams of men in tiny pequi-pequi tugs. Some logs also arrive by ship.

lower-density wood floats relatively high in the water

higher-density wood needs to be "helped" in order to stay afloat

Our guide noted that the quality of timber is generally proportional to its density. He pointed out a raft of high-floating logs as “bad wood,” and another raft was “excellent” wood because the logs had to be lashed to balsa logs so they wouldn’t sink. Given that Guiillermo built his home out of local woods in the stilt-born part of Belen, this method of assessing wood quality is understandable for purely practical reasons–you would want the strongest and most rot-resistant material, which is more likely true of dense woods. I wonder if someone from the floating part of the city would have the same criteria for grading timber.

this dude in a blue hat came out of his cane fields to yell at us for disturbing his fruit trees. he was happier with us once he sold us leva and took us on a tour of his property (for a small fee)

The best of the sawn lumber is exported to markets in Europe and Asia, and the rest stays in South America. The scraps that aren’t saleable at all are piled in a huge riverside heap and made available for free to locals needing to build/upgrade/maintain their property. I’m guessing that the need for home repair materials is pretty great around here generally but especially in districts like Belen.

cutting sections of peeled cane for sampling by the tourists. yellow cane was softer and better for fresh eating. black cane was much more fibrous but had richer flavor (and it's also the one he uses for his leva)

this is the press used for converting cane into raw juice, which is then allowed to ferment to become leva

Upstream from the mills is the military installation and a few riverbends beyond that we pulled up to the bank to look for a place that was rumored to produce aguardiente–the locally-distilled trago or hard liquor. It turned out that this colorful toothless dude’s “product” was actually leva–the fermented raw cane juice, pressed on site from sugar cane grown on site. Very sweet, gently carbonated and the color of bilge water, and apart from appearance it was no worse than most lambrusco or white zins that I have had.

the dude sold two versions of leva: a milder, sweeter one (in the blue bucket) and a more alcoholic and more pungent one (in the white bucket)

juanes are made like tamales--wrapped in the leaves of a plant from the Maranthaceae--but with rice. the filling is some kind of meat (this one is chicken) and you can sort of see the olive

A bit farther upstream we visited what I later found to be typical for riverside communities: a location on the river off the main channel where boats can land and goods loaded/unloaded, a square grassy “plaza” large enough to accommodate a regulation soccer field and surrounded by some number of small protestant or pentecostal churches, wide and straight avenues with concrete walkways just wide enough to accommodate motokar traffic with plenty of space on either side for you to get out of the way when such vehicles are coming through.

the Itaya is polluted and overexploited by Iquiteño standards, and yet fishing can still provide an enhancement to the evening's dinner.

government-provided concrete walkways in riverine communities are typically nice and straight

On the way back Eduardo’s motor died and wouldn’t start back up. Guillermo was being a hero by paddling us back towards Iquitos with the boat’s only oar–and he was moving us along at a good clip–when we got an assist from another pequi-pequi the rest of the way back to Belen.

standard watercraft for one or two people is still the dugout canoe, crafted from a single log. the process for hollowing out the canoe involves burning, chipping and scraping with various adzes and hatchets

fish for sale in the market of Belen

some good stuff to take back to the hostel for later: that's a pineapple on the left (Karen's right) and a copazú, which Seth later turned into a lovely frullato

Last adventure of the day was negotiating the market in Belen. I bought some rubber boots. Seth got some copal–the frankincense-and-myrrh-like resin from one of his beloved Protium trees–and some natural honey for Seth’s girlfriend in Michigan. A one point I was stopped by some of the merchants from whom we had made purchases, and they warned me to guard my camera very carefully because they had seen someone watching me with the intent to steal it. They only allowed me to proceed once they saw that the camera was zipped into my pocket.

suri, the grubs that grow in the core of cut aguaje palms. they are sold stewed or grilled, and they taste a bit like the fatty part of pork ribs

Your average Iquiteño has very little material wealth and even the grimiest, shoddily-dressed tourist will make himself a target just for flashing a portable digital camera from Costco. The consensus regarding crime in Peru is that it is nearly exclusively directed against property. Theft is somewhat rampant, but violent crime is rare. That said, you never know if a perp is drugged out, so if you are accosted the only smart thing to do is to hand over the goods and then get the hell out. Possessions can be replaced.

suri on a stick. they really were pretty good, though I think the stewed ones were tastier

By US standards, costs here are very modest. Full breakfast for three in Belen was 6 soles. A juane or a tacacho from a street vendor–either one of these being a very substantial snack or lunch– is 2 soles. At the time of my travel one US dollar exchanges for about 2.75 soles. Do the math.

I think people here are aware that currency exchange rates grossly favoring visitors from most of the rest of the world, your typical tourist–even one from Lima–could easily afford to pay more than what would be a fair price for Iquiteños. Some try to take advantage of this by asking higher prices from tourists. If you’re aware of what locals pay, you can usually negotiate down if you are quoted an inflated price. But let’s face it–if you’re in your first week in Peru, even an avariciously inflated price could seem like a bargain.

This already ridiculously long post could be extended in different directions, but it’s already ridiculously long. Period.

our return to Belen