As you enter Belen Market in Iquitos, Peru, you’re first hit by the smell, a mix of rotting meat, produce, and sewage, which has been intensifying over the several days without rain, creates a slippery slime underfoot. Overhead hover hoards of black vultures, and underfoot, scabby dogs scurry under tables. In this market it is possible to buy most anything, poacher’s don’t face much opposition in the lawless heart of Belen. You can find monkeys, turtles, guinea pigs, alligator, parrots, your choice alive or dead. Before entering our hotel front desk warned me to not go in alone, and if I were to take a photo, make sure to put my camera right back into my bag.
After wandering the market, we eventually reached the water, since we were in Iquitos during the rainy season, the river was high, as opposed to if we went during the dry season, which would have created a completely different landscape. With the entire town flooded we needed to rent a boat driver to taxi us around. What we saw was a dirty, impoverished version of Venice, a community that had to cohabit with the water, villagers were seen transporting goods back and forth to the market, or selling snacks to the boat drivers, children bathing and playing in the water that probably also worked as the sewage system.
The dirtiness is part of the attraction to Belen. As elites enjoyed tours of impoverished parts of town, like Harlem or districts of India, there’s a certain draw to seeing how the other half live. The raw, grittiness of life here maybe be disquieting to some, but it’s authentic, reality isn’t hidden under a gleam of nicely kept storefronts and picture perfect ads; you want chicken for dinner, you buy it live from the coup, and chop it’s head off and defeather it yourself. Things aren’t thrown away so easy either, there’s a district dedicated solely to seamstresses, cobblers, appliance mechanics. It’s amazing to see how, even in the conditions that these people live, they are still appear to be such carefree, joyful people and how ungrateful we are for the spoilt lives we life.