Cusco vs Iquitos

By Adrian Walker


Cusco and Iquitos are two of Peru's prime tourist destinations yet Cusco draws far more people than its northern cousin. Cusco receives more tourists in one week than Iquitos does in one year! Having spent time in both cities I'd like to propose 10 good reasons to visit Iquitos in preference to Cusco and cheerfully invite comment from irate Cusco civic and tourist leaders.

1. The air in Cusco is so oxygen deficient that even the lamas have trouble breathing. It's definitely no accident that Peruvian lamas and Tibetan llamas are pronounced the same way. The word derives from the gasping attempts at respiration newcomers make! Anywhere in excess of 3000M in altitude is going to strain your lungs to breaking point and Cusco is well over that height. Altitude sickness is characterised by headaches, nausea and occasionally death. Iquitos is close to sea level!

2. Water. Where's the Amazon in Cusco? About 12,000 feet below it, i.e. too far to skydive.

The Amazon River

3. Pink Dolphins and associated wildlife. You can walk all over Cusco (remember to take an oxygen tank) and have absolutely zero chance of seeing a Pink Dolphin, a Caiman or an Anaconda. These and other archetypal Peruvian animals have enough sense to live at lower altitudes and thus prefer Iquitos and surrounds as should all sensible tourists.

Pink Dolphin Toucan Jaguar Blue Morpho

4. Architecture. Cusco missed the Portuguese rubber boom of the early 20th century and so lacks entirely the wonderfully distinctive buildings with their fine mosaic tiling that are dotted across Iquitos. These buildings define the city and tell an enthralling tale of the history of the city. Cusco has plenty of fast food outlets and assorted plastic takeaways but no such fine structures.

Sacred valley Machupichu The iron House Casa Morey

5. McDonalds etc. Iquitos has no foreign owned franchise fast food shops, just honest Peruvian and western food prepared by trained chefs and administered by locally dwelling owners who work at keeping their customers happy. I know where I'd rather eat.

A selection of Amazon cuisine including grilled palm grubs and fish (top left).

6. Tropical fruit. Try finding a locally grown banana, mango, papaya etc., in Cusco. You can't as all of these delicious fruits only grow in frost free areas at lower altitudes. Chances are the papaya you bought in Cusco was picked in Iquitos a week ago and shipped in. The many markets of Iquitos are a treasure trove for the fruit lover.

Amazon fruits

7. Motorkaros. Just as Iquitos' distinctive architecture defines the history of the city, the Motorkaro illustrates its present day status as a unique city, proud of its isolation and inventive enough to create something which no other city on Earth of similar size has. Every visitor to Iquitos rides in one at some stage and all recall the experience. They're cheaper than taxis, go places where ordinary sedans couldn't and simply ooze character. Cusco has none!


8. The Real Peru. Cusco is a cheap plastic imitation of a South American city, totally dependent upon tourism and geared accordingly with polystyrene smiles, high prices, sharp hustlers and carefully structured experiences to please senor and senorita whilst emptying their pockets. Iquitos remains a frontier town where stray dogs roam everywhere, poverty rules across most of the city and the people accept their lot cheerfully, knowing no other lifestyle and aspiring to maybe one day having a tin roof. This is sad in one aspect but does represent the reality of Peru. Take a peque peque float down river or even the Lancha where the only cabin belongs to the captain and contains a steering wheel leaving hammock space only and the visitor will be carried into a different, more confronting world. Cusco strives for creature comfort at the expense of reality and suffers an acute loss of Peruana as a result.

Peque peque

9. The expat community. Iquitos has a small expat community of less than 200 and most of them get along most of the time, primarily through sheer necessity, despite nearly all of them being close to certifiably insane. It's a survival mechanism yet the gringos all reach out to help a visitor with good advice, assistance when needed and asked for, all at no charge. Cusco’s expats are there for the holy dollar and they make no secret of that fact.

10. Ayahuasca. Many visitors to Iquitos come to sample this vine and its hallucinogenic effects, thought by its proponents to be medicinal. Healing or otherwise, the potion does invariably result in much puking etc. Try throwing up when you're having serious trouble breathing and you'll immediately realise why Cusco has no ayahuasca lodges.

Shamanic ceremony

There are of course many other valid reasons to choose Iquitos ahead of Cusco, piranhas nibbling your toes being one, the amazing Juan Maldonado another, but when all is wrapped up, there can really be no contest as to which city offers more, excites more, delights more.

Juan Maldonado

Viva Iquitos!!!!
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