The market in Belen, Iquitos, is split into two halves – one permanently above the water level and the other floating on the river. About half of the residents of Belen have no access to clean water and sanitation services, leading to an infant mortality rate of nearly 5 per cent.
Iquitos – Been There

Monkey brains, love potions and much more

Photo by Romina del Castillo

Iquitos – Been There Monkey brains, love potions and much more

With Marcel, a local who is taking me around the Peruvian river town of Iquitos, I am headed to Belén, one of Peru’s biggest and most bizarre markets.

Luke Waterson
Luke Waterson Travel Writer

As with everything he does, Marcel wants to do it the interesting way. The market itself falls into two distinct parts: the upper parts, which, except in extreme floods, remain dry and the lower area, which is almost constantly submerged during the high river season from November through May. Most visitors approach the market from Alto (“Above”): a world of paved roads and buildings with foundations. We are coming in from, quite literally, the deep end.

We head into the market, negotiating the drunks that lie on the walkways and the vultures fighting for scraps of leftovers. Entering Belén market has been likened to being sucked up the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner, and one of the most surreal aspects is how a trade can often depend on scraps and fragments that our western eyes might see only as waste, not a source of income.

“Refreshments!” says Marcel’s girlfriend Romi, handing me a plastic bag with a murky-looking liquid inside. “It’s aguajina, the must-try drink of the market,” Marcel says. “The fruit in this is what gives the Iquitos women their curvy shape.” “Very high levels of phytoestrogens,” whispers Romi, “although the men here like it just as much, which could explain a lot.”

If the market products could make a character statement about the people of Loreto, the name of this, Peru’s remotest province, then superstition and sex would be their primary obsessions. A whole swathe of stalls are dedicated to potions, charms, renegade cures and aphrodisiacs. “Now, my friend, you’re ready to explore Belén,” says Marcel.

We make our way through stands of alligator skulls, of monkey brains, of turtles being shelled, of maggots sautéed into a gungy paste called qui, of dried, smoked huangana (peccary, a wild jungle pig), of fattened orange suri (weevil larvae) primed and ready for takeaway snacks, of gawping carachama (black catfish) being boiled in stinking cauldrons for soup. There are stalls of love potions, of good luck potions and of hexing potions.

Mixed with the magic are some herbal cures that, bizarre as they seem, are taken very seriously as genuine over-the-counter medicine hereabouts. Here are carafes of a red liquid called sangre de grado (dragon’s blood). Marcel winks at the stall owner and pours some into my hands, where it congeals into a thick white paste. “You get a bad cut out there,” says Marcel, pointing at the opposite side of the river where thick bush is making a comeback after years of severe deforestation, “and this could be the only thing that saves you. It will stop the bleeding, maybe buy you the day you need to make it to the hospital.”

There are the much-needed mimosa plants, pale purple flowers with ragged leaves that, when chewed, act as contraceptives. There are river snail eggs that, when smeared on the face, prevent acne. Allegedly, of course.

But it’s not for nothing that big pharmaceutical companies are showing interest in the Amazon rainforest’s marketplaces as well as remedy-seeking locals. The American National Cancer Institute says that some 70 percent of ingredients in the world’s cancer treatment drugs originate from plants in the planet’s most threatened rainforests. A high percentage of those were found right here in the Amazon jungle.

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