IQUITOS, Peru – Iquitos, the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road, is now turning to tourism to regain the wealth it enjoyed at the beginning of the 20th century when the rubber industry made it one of the richest places on earth.
Located in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, five days from the first road accessible by car, Iquitos today is a far cry from its glory days between 1880 and 1914 when the production of rubber generated immense fortunes from land previously lost in the jungle, only to see that industry and the fortunes it created disappear from one day to the next.
In that era, thousands of migrants from around the world came to Iquitos and transformed a tiny jungle village into a thriving city.
“When the rubber boom took off in the mid-1880s, the village became a mini-metropolis based on the rubber economy. It was an essential raw material for the automotive industry, and the rubber shipped from Iquitos was sold to companies like Ford to make tires,” tourist guide Dick Rengifo told EFE.
The home of that industry, which savagely exploited Amazon Indians for the collection and transport of rubber to the Iquitos docks on the river, from where it was shipped directly to Europe and the United States, the jungle city was soon replete with symbols of status and economic power, whose phantoms can be seen there to this day.
Photos of the period show elegant magnates strolling in Parisian suits and hats under the blazing equatorial sun, or enjoying cocktails and coffee at the Hotel Palace, an unusual building for the jungle with its unmistakable traits of Catalan modernism.
“The rubber disappeared because of the abuse of the Indians, the invention of synthetic rubber and the rise of Asian rubber plantations, which made the collection of latex for rubber quicker and easier. Starting in 1914 the elites left the city and by mid-1915 it was again economically and geographically isolated,” Rengifo said.
After several unsuccessful attempts to revive the city, tourism seems to offer a sustainable solution, and now countless travelers come here in search of adventure, wildlife and the mysticism of the Amazon River.
However, just as the rubber industry was known for its criminal exploitation of Indian labor, Iquitos tourism also has its dark side: the sexual exploitation of children.
Despite the authorities’ efforts, the city is one of the world’s leading sexual-tourism destinations, where poverty and social passivity have led to the systematic abuse of hundreds of minors.