Iquitos' History

Ancient Botanists Still

The rich and diverse history of this area of South America is largely lost to modern historians. The rainforest takes its toll on records and human structures, while the European colonizers in the 16th Century made no effort to preserve (and often deliberately destroyed) evidence of those civilizations. Much of what we know about the ancient people of the area comes from their descendents.

Near Iquitos there are two small groups of indigenous people. The Bora native community is the best known to tourists who may have seen them dance in traditional, brightly dyed bark clothing.  But many are surprised to learn that they aren't really native to that area. The Boras' native area is north of the Putumayo River in what is now Colombia. They were brought to the Iquitos area by the rubber barons who needed more labor.

An even smaller group, the Yagua, are the true natives of the area. They were the people who gave the Amazon its name. Known for their clothing of grass and their curare-tipped blow guns. (The word "Amazon" meaning a warrior woman came from the misunderstanding of Spanish explorers who fought men in grass skirts.)  They represent the only remaining linguistic group in what was once a large and diverse Peba-Yagua family. Few of the young Yagua are fluent in their language.

Both the Bora and the Yagua have vast stores of knowledge about the plants of the rainforest and their uses. You'll read more about these plants in Jungle Pharmacy. Figure 1A.

Rubber Ruled

Iquitos was organized by European Jesuit missionaries in the 1750s, and the region named Loreto by the Spaniards about a hundred years later. In the 1860s it was a rich center for a rubber trade centered near Manaus, Brazil. You can still see the mansions of the Rubber Barons; among them is the Casa de Fierro or iron house built by Gustave Eiffel for the Paris Exhibition of 1889. Dismantled in Europe and re-assembled here, it sits next to the Iglesia Matriz, a neo-Gothic church.

Iquitos now has a population of over 200,000. Just outside of Iquitos proper is the Belen neighborhood with a population of about 40,000 (left)which can be toured by boat. Floating houses will remind tourists of Venice or of many Asian river cities, while the 3 wheeled motorbikes that provide most of the transportation through city streets won't let you forget that this is a city that largely does without automobiles.


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