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The barrio of Belen won’t be on most people’s lists of glamorous places to visit or stay in Iquitos, because you won’t want to stay here and it can be dangerous. The rubber and oil booms that took place in Iquitos filled the city with tremendous wealth, and at its height mansions were being built and luxury ships were cruising around, but those millions of dollars all found their way overseas, and the people of Iquitos got pushed aside. Those who got pushed even further aside ended up in the slums of Belen.
The barrio of Belen is located just on the outskirts of the chaotic market of Iquitos, the largest market in Iquitos and probably the wildest in all of Peru. You can take the stairs down into the barrio and then a boat down the river to explore the area.
It’s not recommended that you just head down the stairs and go walking around the barrio, camera in hand. That is a very good way to get robbed and lose your camera. You’ll be walking around in one of the poorest barrios in Iquitos, so being flashy is the last thing you should aim for. Iquitos does not provide police for the area, which is a whole topic in its own right, so you’ll need to be on your toes.
The best way is to go with a local who knows the area. Belen is not the kind of place where you can go to a travel agency and arrange a tour, but you might be able to find a couple of guides who are willing to show you around. We found a guide in the market, near the section where people are rolling cigarettes. He lives locally, and as well as giving tours he is the volunteer police officer for the barrio, so he knows the area well.
Barrio de Belen, after you make your way down the stairs, opens up into its own market, selling things at slightly cheaper prices than up above. There are hundreds of bananas for sale. During the dry season you’ll be able to walk around the street – be warned, it’s smelly – and see into the first story of the apartments and businesses, mostly selling fruit. During the wet season everything will be submerged undef water – the first stories will be completely under – and people will be getting around and selling their products by boat or from the second story.
To see the rest of the barrio, you’ll need to catch a boat taxi, and you can do this in either the dry or wet season. The little motorized canoe will take you around the river where you’ll find floating houses tied to poles during the wet season and houses on stilts during the dry season. You’ll also find floating metal outhouses from which the waste flows directly into the river. Welcome to Barrio Belen!