Iquitos, Peru - Belén Mercado

Submitted by Matthew Armbrust on Wed, 10/16/2013 - 9:46am.

I had a brief opportunity to visit a sprawling yet incredible Belén Market with my Iranian friend after a short trip to the jungle in the Peruvian Amazon in Iquitos, Peru. The sixth largest city in Peru, located on the intersection of the Amazon, Nanay, and Itaya Rivers, Iquitos is a jungle hub located in a bastion of ecological diversity in the nearby dense rainforest. The Belén Market, covering multiple city blocks, has a reputation as one of the largest and most diverse markets in Latin America, along with the Saturday Otavalo Market in Otavalo, Ecuador and others in Bolivia and Peru. Before I explain more about my experience in the market, Peru is amazing market-wise and agriculturally, with over 4000 varieties of potatoes and a ridiculous amount of diverse products ranging from table grapes and high grade organic coffee to cotton, alpaca, sheep, and vicuna wool for textiles, amongst many others. Local markets are as much a part of Peruvian culture like fútbol (soccer), pisco sours (a grape brandy cocktail) and ceviche (a citrus cooked seafood medley). Another point of interest for me in Peru is the 10-year moratorium signed into law in 2011 on transgenic/Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) of any kind in Peru and also one of the lowest agricultural subsidy rates in the world, comparable to New Zealand. Peru is one of the largest producers and exporters of organic products in the world with more than $3 billion produced annually and over 40,000 certified producers.

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Anyways, I arrived to the market on a three wheel mototaxi (kind of a hybrid motorcycle rickshaw that is the principal transportation in Iquitos, with the buzzing sound of the motors everywhere) with my Iranian friend in search of mapucho cigars made from the Nicotiana Rustica variety of tobacco from the Solanaceae plant family (same as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant). The mototaxi wove through the narrow corridors of the market dropping us at the foot of the mapucho stand. The variety is different from Nicotiana Tabacum variety used in processed cigarettes and cigars in most places around the world. The cigars and tobacco have been used for millenia by shamans (indigenous healers) in the Amazon River Basin in traditional healing ceremonies and is considered to be medicine. After being delivered to the front of the Mapucho (cigar) stall, and having a great conversation with the woman who rolled the cigars (see attached photo), we ventured around the maze of stalls holding various fresh cut meats, fish, produce, herbs like coca leaves and chamomile, and processed products from cooking oils to herbal medicinal remedies. From speaking with locals, a great amount of the food and consumer products are imported via boat or plane due to the lack of roads connecting the interior to the rest of Peru and the difficulty to grow many products in the dense humid rainforest and because of seasonal flooding, making complete food security a difficult task for the city. In short, I had a great time at the market and with the great people of the city of Iquitos, definitely a unique experience to say the least and a must see market in Latin America and in the world!

More photos from the Belen Mercado and Iquitos via Flickr

More info on Mapucho Tobacco

More info on the City of Iquitos

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Submitted by Matthew Armbrust on Wed, 10/16/2013 - 9:46am.