Treasure Hunting: Exploring the Markets of the Peruvian Amazon

Along the Amazon River, the markets in Iquitos, Peru offer many rare Amazon fruits, including aguaje and camu camu.

| Spring 2016

Situated overlooking a tributary of the Amazon River, Iquitos, Peru, is a bedraggled yet beautiful city, considered to be the gateway to the jungle. It is here, in this mysterious and conflicted outpost, that the most rare and exotic Amazon fruits can be found.

A city of intense juxtaposition, ornate European mansions line the main esplanade amid a sultry haze of dirt bike exhaust and intense humidity; these crumbling vestiges of European invasion are in a constant battle with nature. Aggressive vines ensnare wrought iron gates, while lush foliage and mature trees fill entire abandoned mansions; only a shell of intricately painted tile mosaic remains.

To understand this strange environment of contradictions, one must delve into the history of the city. Iquitos is located in Northeastern Peru on the great plains of the Amazon River basin. It was first officially established in the 16th century as an Indian settlement by Jesuit Missionaries; most occupants were members of the Iquitos tribe. By the 1860s a port was built, establishing the city as an outlet for the transport of precious and rare products from the deepest reaches of the Amazon jungle. Iquitos remains the furthest inland deep water port in the world. Cargo ships haul exclusive jungle goods from this remote outpost to the convergence of the Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean, a 2,300 mile journey.

The city was thrust into a period of rapid expansion and brutal colonialism toward the turn of the 19th century. It was at this time that the sap of rubber trees, which are native to the Amazon, were discovered as a wildly lucrative natural product to make rubber. The explosion of the automobile industry created an insatiable demand for rubber to make tires, and European business moguls flocked to Iquitos to capitalize on the rubber boom. These moguls, or Rubber Barons, constructed opulent mansions along the city’s waterfront,overlooking the bountiful Amazon jungle. Meanwhile, local indigenous tribes people worked in slave conditions to tap the precious latex. Thanks to a sobering expose on the harsh treatment of natives and the establishment of rubber plantations in Southern and Southeast Asia, this period of savage extravagance was relatively short lived (about 30 years). Dilapidated mansions are all that remain of this dark chapter in Iquitos’ history.

There are no roads leading to this obscure outpost; the city can only be accessed by boat or air. Indigenous Amazon farmers collect tons of produce from deep in the jungle and deliver by boat to the burgeoning Iquitos markets. These markets are a treasure trove, where the most coveted Amazonian fruits can be found: everything from exceptionally delicious varieties of our favorite jungle fruits, like pineapples, coconuts, and bananas, to more arcane delicacies like charichuelo, a hard-to-find local favorite.

The Belen market is a complex maze of tarp-covered alleyways and side streets. A dazzling array of jungle fruits and vegetables can be found in this vibrant, but sometimes suffocating, venue. Locals arrive at the market by 5 a.m. to greet boatloads of freshly caught Amazon fish, still breathing, to purchase choice cuts of meat or to choose the best jungle fruits, often picked the very same morning. Many of the fruits found at these markets are endemic to the Amazon and cannot be found outside of the jungle.

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