Before we begin, a disclaimer: In Iquitos, Peru, your correspondent did not consume the shamanic hallucinogen ayahuasca. This is despite having seen candy-colored motorcycle-pulled carriages, Volkswagen-size sinkholes, the lost jungle Eiffel Tower, the gentleman pushing a life-size red-and-gold merry-go-round horse up a lime neon-lit edge of an avenue and the woman stopping traffic at midnight with a pompom routine, and heard the tinny soundtrack of cuckoo-clock church bells straight out of the Twilight Zone marking every quarter-hour.
The surreal is simply real in Iquitos, the proud "Capital of the Amazon."
I stumbled into town after seven days floating up the Amazon and its tributaries, hiking the jungle, meeting tarantulas and anacondas, watching pink dolphins frolic in the brown swill of the great river, and guzzling cocktails of the supposedly aphrodisiac herbal jungle brandy called 21 Raices. Iquitos seemed more urbane at that moment than it might have fresh off a plane from New York.
At the swampy confluence of the Amazon, Nanay and Itaya Rivers, Iquitos is the port city located farthest inland in the world, some 2,000 miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean. Surrounded by water, accessible only by air or boat, the conveyance of choice is the motorcycle, attached like a pony to a covered carriage for two. The relentless green of the jungle cracks open about five miles from the town center to reveal a dusty, churning maze of concrete and dirt roads, and cinder block and concrete buildings painted shades of faded red, lime, teal and brown. Here one finds all the trappings of civilization from the graceful, Moorish architecture of Spain with arched porticoes on low-rise cement buildings to 18th-century churches, modern casinos, cracked concrete streets and barges heavy with lumber and other jungle resources, including oil and gold, extracted for the outside world.
In Lima, before I left for the Amazon and its jungle, I lunched with a Peruvian political leader who warned me that Iquitos is "kind of a hellhole," but I found it rather charming. It is the perfect destination, in fact, for those who like their steamy romantic hideaways with a little mayhem.
I was captivated within minutes of arriving, when I walked out onto the Malecón, the elegantly dilapidated boardwalk with a grand panorama of swampy Amazon in semi-flood stage. In the sort of humid noonday heat that favors only the supine, I was jerked to attention by shouts and a flurry of bodies hurling themselves through the dangling piranha jaws and basketry above the doorway of a nearby souvenir stall. A woman with one flip-flop in her hand and the other on a foot was chasing a handsome swain down the street, followed by a gaggle of other women, some with infants at breast. Errant lover or thief, I wondered lazily.
Something about the scene suggested the former.
If you like your Florida Keys circa 1930, with Hemingway and the gunrunners, or if you are simply on the run from a bad divorce, the I.R.S. or felony charges, Iquitos is the place for you. You will find kindred spirits here, plus you can pick up some jungle Viagra (helpfully labeled Levanta Lázaro) and a toucan or pet squirrel monkey at the market for less than it costs to take a crosstown Manhattan taxi at rush hour. A seasoned traveler can dip in here for a few days and emerge with an unforgettable memory of civilization's jungle edge. Iquitos is also becoming the destination of choice for tourists seeking jungle hallucinogens.
I started my three-day visit in town with a lunch of ceviche and a pisco sour (the Peruvian national cocktail, a grappa-like liquor with sour mix) at the upscale floating restaurant called Al Frio y Al Fuego, which can be reached only by skiff. From a seat by the swimming pool on this barge, one can appreciate Iquitos's quirky, jagged skyline, particularly a giant blue structure that dwarfs the ships in port. That would be a never-completed, unoccupied structure about 10 stories high that, depending on who tells it, is either an unfinished hotel built by drug lords or a building meant to house government workers' offices.
A cellphone tower perched on top of it completes the spectacle. Jungle vines sprout from the bones of windows that would have been.
Back on land, I followed my tourist map to the town's main points of interest, strolling along cracked pavement as motorcycles whizzed by in muggy afternoon heat. The city sprawls outward from the central Plaza de Armas for miles, and the most interesting section is the town center, with its Gilded Age mansions, monuments left by the brutal jungle millionaires of an earlier time. Here I found the so-called Iron Building, a structure designed by Gustave Eiffel and sent up the river intended for the capital of Bolivia in the late 19th century. The building was erected in Iquitos, according to lore, only after the boat captain, realizing the trip up the Amazon would take another six months of strenuous jungle navigation, simply dumped the load in Iquitos. It has variously been a hotel and a club, and is now broken up into shuttered storefronts and a few bars.
Besides the Iron Building, Iquitos contains several dozen mansions around the Plaza de Armas and along the Malecón, in the town center, many now inhabited by the Peruvian military, a few turned into hotels and others simply unoccupied and in varying degrees of disrepair. Incongruously covered with imported Portuguese tile and filled with fine French furniture, the houses are all that remain of the era of the rubber barons who grew fantastically rich until 1911, when someone took rubber tree seeds to Indonesia and figured out how to cultivate them in plantations, putting the jungle barons out of business.
The story of the rubber barons mesmerized the German film director Werner Herzog, whose 1982 movie, "Fitzcarraldo," embellished the true story of a jungle capitalist named Fitzcarrald (also referred to as Fitzgerald) who had a steamboat delivered over the jungle from Lima, piece by piece. In Herzog's allegory about man dominating nature, the title character forces Indians to drag a whole steamship over mud, mountains and jungle into Iquitos.
Directing the movie, which starred Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale, Herzog infamously made his actors haul a real steamboat through the jungle, a feat so painful and outrageous that a documentary has since been made about the making of the film.
The Casa Fitzcarraldo, a homage to the movie, is an idyllic hotel compound behind a wide brown wooden door on a paved road in the industrial, port section of town, roaring with motorcycle traffic on the edge of Iquitos. The proprietor, Walter Saxer, a reed-thin, white-mustachioed Swiss expat and Herzog's lifelong producer, bought the property in the 1980s to house the actors.
Iquitos's typical visitors are occasional tourists en route to or from the jungle, mining roughnecks, oil company engineers or pilots working for various Amazon resource-extraction concerns. In recent years, a new sort of tourist has been tripping into town: inner-peace seekers from Europe and the United States, attracted to the town's growing reputation as a center for shamans who brew up ayahuasca, a jungle plant whose roots, sometimes mixed with other plants, produce a dual effect as a purgative and hallucinogen.
The way it works with ayahuasca is this: After a bout of vomiting and diarrhea, users experience a six-hour hallucination during which, according to legend, the patient meets "the mother" in the plant, in the form of a snake, who answers the supplicants' questions about the meaning of life.
Dosed on Pepto Bismol for Quetzal's Revenge after a week in the jungle, I didn't think a purgative was necessary, nor, in the unreal surroundings, a hallucination. But I couldn't leave town without visiting a shaman. I hired a local guide named Carol who agreed to lead me to one of the healers. Carol, a 46-year-old mother of five, said she herself was considering a spiritual cleansing with the drug, to gain insights into how to escape her bad marriage.
Ayahuasca tourists usually meet their shamanic hosts at the Karma Kafe, a coffee shop in the center of town, nestled in one of the six-story concrete and marble 19th-century buildings that make up the business district. They then are taken by skiff to one of various jungle outposts, signing on to dosing regimens that last from a few nights to a few weeks. Carol and I hailed a moto-carriage to the edge of town, and picked our way on foot down a trash-choked mudslide into Belén, home to 15,000 souls living in thatched wooden huts on stilts planted in a stew of sewage, waterlilies and Amazon water.
Our shaman's office was perilously reached by means of a slippery board laid across 100 yards of deep mud and slime. We climbed a rough-hewed ladder into his hut and found ourselves in a long, bare room where the shaman waited, barefoot, in handmade trousers and a sleeveless undershirt. His spouse sat on the floor nearby, sewing a red velvet clown collar onto a bright turquoise shirt.
The shaman, a short, black-haired man in his late 50s named Alfredo Cairuna, instructed us to sit against the wall for a preconsultation of sorts. He knelt in front of us, chanting in an Indian dialect. He then took a mouthful of a liquid substance from a bottle (it turned out to be herbal flower water) and dribbled it over our heads. He asked us to share with him our romantic problems, which Carol did readily. Carol said she was leaning toward taking the spirit drug under his care soon, hoping it would help her figure out what to do about her philandering husband. Divorce, apparently, was not an option.
Back in the town center, we stopped for a cold drink at an expat watering hole called the Yellow Rose of Texas. The proprietor, Gerald Mayeaux, a ruddy, stout retired Texas oil company engineer, has lived in the heart of the jungle since the mid-'90s. Mr. Mayeaux's establishment is a multilevel American-themed bar and restaurant, one part fun house and nine parts crazed O.C.D. attic. A forest of curious objects dangle from the ceiling -- dried piranha, fake shrunken heads, N.F.L. footballs, animal skulls, snakeskins, nude store-window mannequins, giant turtle shells and horse tack. The bar stools are saddles, the waitresses wear orange University of Texas Longhorn cheerleader uniforms.
On one wall I came face to face with Alfredo Cairuna and his wife -- in the turquoise blouse, no less -- on a poster advertising "Nature's Hospital." He had not explained that he was famous.
Like all the expatriates I encountered in Iquitos, Mr. Mayeaux was not merely friendly, but desperado-level talkative, as one might expect of jungle dwellers whose encounters with civilization are rare. He swears he's not lonely or homesick. "It's healthy. Good oxygen. The food's not injected, the water table is not polluted. Everything's organic."
Mr. Mayeux appreciates the tourism ayahuasca brings to town, but he's skeptical of its effects. "I'm not going to pay people to vomit and have diarrhea." he said. He advised me to visit another expatriate American, Alan Shoemaker, to learn more about the spirit drug.
I hopped a moto-carriage and headed to his small compound. Mr. Shoemaker, a lean, leathery native of Harkin, Ky., moved to the jungle 20 years ago, for reasons he attributes to mystical forces. The self-styled Timothy Leary of ayahuasca, he's been the drug's international booster and has taken it himself, he reckons, 2,000 times. His book, called "Ayahuasca Medicine: The Shamanic World of Amazonian Sacred Plant Healing," will be published next year. For the last nine years, Mr. Shoemaker has organized the International Amazonian Shamanism Conference in Iquitos, a gathering of hundreds of shamans from all over the world. He hopes to organize shamans into a union to professionalize the practice.
Mr. Shoemaker, who doesn't practice in Peru out of deference to indigenous Indian shamans, said the influx of tourists has spawned a corresponding surge of charlatans. Four people have died in Peru under the influence in recent years, he said. "Girls get raped."
Bidding adios to the blanco curandero, I took a moto-carriage downtown. I bypassed the ubiquitous "chifa" joints, Chinese-Peruvian restaurants with names like Nueva Yingbing that serve pollo con egg rolls and chose a tiny restaurant that advertised "Pizza y Vino." As I waited for my food, I perused a copy of Iquitos Times, the "What to Do in Iquitos " travel guide for Anglophones. The newspaper's lead headline: "8 Year Old Boy Survives Snake Attack." The real estate ads included a jungle cane rum distillery for sale for $800,000 U.S., replete with a Yamaha skiff.
In bed that night, I woke up to mysterious tinny chimes. At first I thought I was dreaming, but then realized that in the still of the night, one could hear the town's toylike church bell marking the quarter-hour.
The next morning brought kind of a return to reality when Carol and I set off to visit the Belén market. The giant jungle souk is best visited early in the morning and with a guide, to fend off pickpockets and to explain the strange. Some of the produce is recognizable: strawberries and the myriad Peruvian potatoes. More is mysterious: dozens of jungle fruits and vegetables never seen north of the Panama Canal, like the pine-cone-shaped sweet pink aguaje (whose effects, residents believe, have caused the local women to give birth to girls seven times more often than boys). Giant catfish and other Amazon delicacies slopped in buckets amid scrofulous dogs by the dozen begging for scraps. For a few dollars, one could buy a whole turtle for dinner, from a horrid stack piled high, scraped out of shells tossed in a heap beneath the table. Live toucans and spider monkeys sold for 50 soles or so, the equivalent of $20.
Several alleys stocked medicinal jungle plants for every conceivable human malady, from rheumatoid arthritis to malaria and cancer, sold dried, or green, or in brown liquid compounds. Literal snake oil -- boa grassa -- a white substance in a bottle -- was supposed to cure back pain and strengthen muscle. Tiny slabs of dried green snail eggs are sold for acne, dolphin sperm for attracting love.
Eventually we came to the edge of the market and walked downhill to the banks of the Itaya River, where our skiff driver and guide, Lito, charged 30 soles, or about 11 dollars at 2.67 soles to the dollar, to navigate the canals of what he called -- in all seriousness -- "the Peruvian Venice." We were clearly entering a giant open sewer, as the people who live in the houses of the Belén slum along the waterway use it as a toilet. Dolphins frolicked by barges piled high with Amazonian lumber on its way downriver to Brazil and the distant ocean.
Visitors who have had their fill of the town's zaniness can visit one of the nearby animal sanctuaries. I hired a moto-carriage to a manatee rescue center north of town, to feel the mammalian love of hand-feeding an ugly-cute rubbery, black, toothless orphaned manatee. The center rescues babies whose mothers have been killed, often for food.
I rather sadly bid goodbye to the Capital of the Amazon only three days after arrival. My moto-carriage to the airport barreled around sinkholes as a technicolor jungle sunset stained vermilion and periwinkle streaked across the sky. I may never pass that way again, but I know I will savor the strange dream of Iquitos for many moons.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
If you're looking for eccentric luxury (and the occasional hipster filmmaker) within Iquitos's city limits, plus maybe the very room Mick Jagger slept in when he worked briefly with Werner Herzog in the 1970s, a night at the Casa Fitzcarraldo (Avenida la Marina 2153; 51-65-601136; casafitzcarraldo.com) can be had for 280 soles, about $105 at 2.7 soles to the dollar.
For travelers looking for jungle luxury, various nearby compounds have hotel guides who will arrange day trips on the river and the Belén market. One of them, the Amazon Reise Eco Lodge (Calle Nauta 262; 51-65-797219) costs 750 soles a night; there are often discounts.
Unless you lost your wallet at the airport, there is no reason to test out the extremely low end of Iquitos lodging, but for the sake of curiosity you might sniff out the Flying Dog Hostel (Malecón Tarepaca 592; 51-65-223755), which costs only 75 soles a night.
I stayed at the midrange Marañón Hotel (Fitzcarrald/Nauta 289; 51-65-242673; hotelmaranon.com), conveniently situated near the Malecón and the rubber baron houses, antiseptically clean; with a tiny pool. One night is 166 soles.
WHERE TO EAT
Yellow Rose of Texas (Putumayo Street 180; (51-65-23-1353). In the center of the old town, great for a cool beer and some streetside people-watching from sidewalk pine tables. Several dining rooms inside serve up moderately priced Tex-Mex, Peruvian and Italian food, plus all-American standard bar food.The owner, Gerald Mayeaux, will supplement your dinner with his favorite cocktail, a camu-camu margarita, made from the sour cranberry-like pink jungle fruit.
Al Frio y Al Fuego (Avenida La Marina 18; 51-65-96560-7474). An upscale floating restaurant with a fantastic view, a pool and poolside bar, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner for 25 to 65 soles. Peruvian specialties on the menu include seven types of ceviche, and fish wrapped in palm leaf. A skiff ferries diners to and from shore, five minutes away.
Nina Burleigh writes The Bombshell column at The New York Observer. Her latest book is "The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italian Trials of Amanda Knox."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.