Peru: Visiting a Rural Waterfront Market

Fresh river fish, grilled up at the Belen market. Julia Bellan photos.
Fresh river fish, grilled up at the Belen market. Julia Bellan photos.

Belen Market: Venture if You Dare

By Julia Bassal

All sorts of mammals and primates can be found at the Belen market in Peru.
All sorts of mammals and primates can be found at the Belen market in Peru.

As you enter Belen Market in Iquitos, Peru, the first thing that strikes you is the smell, a mix of rotting meat, produce, and sewage, which has been intensifying over the several days without rain, and creates a slippery slime underfoot.

Overhead hover hoards of black vultures, and underfoot, scabby dogs scurry under tables. Passing stalls of stagnating fish from the river next to exotic fruit, colorful spices,  an array of neon colored clothes; in this market, it is possible to find most anything. Poachers 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 venturing to the market it is recommended to consult your hostel front desk for the latest situation.

I was warned not to go in alone, but since I was with my male friend, I should be OK, and if I were to take a photo, to make sure to put my camera straight back into my bag.

Iquitos, Peru.
Iquitos, Peru.

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.

A Flooded Town

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.

Banana leaves for sale in Belen Market.
Banana leaves for sale in Belen Market.

The raw, grittiness of life here maybe be disquieting to some, but it’s authentic, the 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 de-feather it yourself.

Things aren’t thrown away so easy either, there’s a district dedicated solely to seamstresses, cobblers, appliance mechanics.

After leaving the market we are grateful to be able to clear our nostrils and not have to watch our bags every time someone bumps into us, and we know we’ll never be able to see our nice clean supermarkets the same way.

Monkey meat for sale in the market.
Monkey meat for sale in the market.
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