As I sit here in my apartment this morning under Sunday lockdown in Cusco, I wanted to write about a place that I haven’t visited in a couple of years — the neighborhood of Belen along the Rio Itaya (which flows into the Amazon several kilometers down river).
Belen is perhaps the poorest neighborhood in all of Peru, but is as vibrant and lively community as any place in the world. I’ve made many friends who grew up there and some who still live there. There is a large amount of poverty induced crime, but most residents are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.
Lower Belen floods each year as the Itaya and the Amazon rise from melting snowfall in the Andes as well as the result of the “rainy” season — though it’s always rainy in the rainforest! People either live in homes that float on logs along the river or are built on stilts to keep them above the water part of the year.
It’s a very hard life. If they survive early childhood, people grow up to be very tough and resourceful, but their resources are extremely limited as most are from the poorest of families who came to Iquitos from villages all over the rainforest in the hopes of finding work and earning money. The self-sufficiency of remote villages doesn’t exist and gross overcrowding contributes to a sanitary nightmare. Electricity is a relatively recent thing and is very expensive.
Upper Belen used to consist mostly of Mercado Belen — a jungle market unlike any place you could ever find along he Peruvian Amazon. Covering blocks and blocks, both indoors and out, almost anything was available including live animals, jungle medicines, an amazing variety of fresh fish caught fresh in the surrounding rivers, meats from animals I still don’t recognize, and just about anything you could possibly imagine.
As you can see in the photos below, Mercado Belen was a petri dish for the spread of COVID (and all kinds of other diseases in pre-pandemic times). It has since been torn down and replaced with modern facilities allowing for sanitary protocols in these vastly different times.
Below a gallery (with a video throw in at the end) of photos taken over the years starting in 2005 in which I tried to document life in Belen. Hopefully I’ll be able to return to Iquitos and Belen. Surprisingly, it was reported last week that COVID cases have decreased 80%. I tend to find that a bit optimistic, but still good news for my many, many friends in the city in the rainforest who I miss a lot.
There is no particular order to these photos. As always, remember to click on each individual photo to see a larger version.