How to Eat in Iquitos and the Peruvian Amazon

Introducing Iquitos, the Gateway to the Peruvian Amazon

Iquitos, a Peruvian port city and gateway to further exploration of the Northern Peruvian Amazon
Iquitos, a Peruvian port city and gateway to further exploration of the Northern Peruvian Amazon

Iquitos does not have the sheer number of restaurants as Cusco or Lima, but as the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon (selva), Iquitos offers a number of unique culinary experiences. In this guide, I will focus on Iquitos food as an example of the kinds of food you would find in other parts of the Peruvian Amazon (like Peru, the Peruvian Amazon is huge).

The malecón, the main pedestrian thoroughfare through Iquitos, featuring a river view and colonial buildings
The malecón, the main pedestrian thoroughfare through Iquitos, featuring a river view and colonial buildings

Iquitos is a small, sleepy town, that is often treated as a mere stopover towards an Amazon excursion. However, I think it’s more than worth it to explore Iquitos for a day or two. Wake up early and explore the market. Relax and watch the river scene. Then, during the cooler parts of the day, walk around and see a different way of life.

Jungle survival tips in next week’s post!

Don’t worry you won’t have to fend for yourself in the jungle. Most tours and lodges are all-inclusive and include all meals. If you have a meal or two in Iquitos you should try some of the traditional dishes. And if you can’t do an Amazon excursion, let the Amazon come to you. Check out Belén market and marvel at some of the exotic ingredients from deep inside the Amazon.

Top Food Experiences in the Selva

All part of a day's work-trying Suri, grubworms, for breakfast
All part of a day’s work-trying Suri, grubworms, for breakfast
  • A walk around a jungle market is an eye-opening experience. See how ingredients such as some of the largest freshwater fish in the world, crocodile, giant snails, and edible worms can seem so commonplace.
    • Note: I have a whole post about this market! http://www.projectdinnerparty.com/jungle-market-iquitos-peru/
  • Try traditional dishes and learn how these dishes evolved to help the natives survive in the jungle.
  • Try Amazonian fruits from the market or in juices or gelato.
  • Eat with a view whether it’s enjoying ceviche for lunch, overlooking the river, or taking a boat to Al Frío y Al Fuego, a floating restaurant.
  • People-watch (politely) and see a glimpse into another world. See how food, culture, and environment are interwoven.
  • Try a jungle cocktail. Choose from hundreds of concoctions made with ingredients deep in the jungle ranging from peppers to exotic fruits to snakes.

Ingredients

The Amazon has more than its share of exotic ingredients that can be featured on Bizarre Food, but there are also a whole host of everyday ingredients that are staples local cuisine, which are also becoming incorporated into the the rest of Peruvian cuisine. It’s not all strange insects and giant snails.

Churros, giant snails, are one of the many exotic ingredients you'll find in the selva
Churos, giant snails, are one of the many exotic ingredients you’ll find in the selva

Exotic Ingredients: Please check out my post “A Jaunt Through a Jungle Market” for more photos and info about exotic ingredients in the jungle. In this guide, I’ll be focusing more on ingredients used in typical, everyday dishes, ones that you’ll likely encounter.

Plantains everywhere
Plantains everywhere

Plantains are a staple of the Amazonian diet. Even so, I wonder how they ever use all of the plantains. Every market I visit, every surface is covered with plantains. The most common uses are to mash them up to make tacacho and to grill them alongside fish.

These huge leaves are nature's to-go box
These huge leaves are nature’s to-go box

Bijao leaves are highly resilient and used to wrap a variety of food such as juanes and patarashca.  When cooked with the food, it imparts an aroma to the food.

Chonta, delicate ribbons from the heart of palm, require a lot of painstaking work to harvest
Chonta, delicate ribbons from the heart of palm, require a lot of painstaking work to harvest

Chonta consists of delicate ribbons shredded from heart of palms. I was amazed to see how laborious the process for processing the chonta was. The most common use for chonta is in salad.

Camu camu and a variety of exotic fruits are available in the market and street stalls
Camu camu and a variety of exotic fruits are available in the market and street stalls

Exotic fruits are aplenty in the AmazonBrowsing an open-air market is a great way to marvel at the diversity of Amazonian fruits. Belén Market is the largest and most famous in Iquitos, but there are fruit stalls scattered throughout Iquitos. They are hard to miss. Avoid the supermarket-the produce there is surprisingly poor in quality for being right next to the jungle!

I recommend trying cocona and camu camu. Fruit juices are a great way to sample these fruits (see more below).

Beautiful filets of Paiche, the prize fish of the Amazon
Beautiful filets of Paiche, the prize fish of the Amazon

The fish of the Amazon is renowned throughout Peru not only for their size but also for their flavor and texture. The fish to try in the selva are paiche, doncella, and  dorado. Most restaurants in Iquitos serve at least two out of three of these types of fish.

Don't underestimate these tiny peppers. They are among the spiciest of the Peruvian ajís.
Don’t underestimate these tiny peppers. They are among the spiciest of the Peruvian ajís.

Charapita is the ají (pepper) of choice in the selva. Don’t underestimate the heat in these tiny peppers. They look like tiny tomatoes and come in a variety of colors, ranging from yellow to red. Their acidity and punch make them popular in salsa. The women in Iquitos are also referred to as “charapitas.” I’ll let you make the connection.

Trying your first Suri (grubworm) is less intimidating when they are served with a smile.
Trying your first Suri (grubworm) is less intimidating when they are served with a smile.

Suri-I couldn’t help but to include the most famous and cringe-worthy ingredient of the selva-edible grubworms. Suri don’t have too strong of the taste, but it’s the texture that takes getting used to. As you can see, they are quite plump and succulent.  They are commonly grilled but your guide may try to convince you to eat them alive. They are usually kept alive in a bucket and are prepared to order, heightening the experience of trying them for the first time.

Further Reading

See: churo. One of the many exotic ingredients detailed in ámaZ's glossary
See: churo. One of the many exotic ingredients detailed in ámaZ’s glossary

There’s much, much more. For a glimpse, check out the glossary at ámaZ’s site (I could only find a Spanish version but there are photos for most of the links).

What to Eat in the Selva

Three of the selva's most common dishes on one plate (tacacho, cecina, and chonta salad).
Three of the selva’s most common dishes on one plate (tacacho, cecina, and chonta salad).

Traditional dishes

I love try to regional variation of ceviche wherever I go in Peru.
I love try to regional variation of ceviche wherever I go in Peru.

Ceviche in the selva is a variation of the ceviche found throughout Peru. It incorporates local fish including doncella, dorada, and paiche. It also usually features crab and shrimp. If you order ceviche in the selva, be prepared to pick through shells as shellfish is usually served whole. The shells is for presentation but also adds flavor to the tigre de leche. Yucca is often an additional garnish, helping balance the flavors and serving as a palette cleanser. 


The inside of Juanes
The inside of Juanes

Juanes is a meal in a tidy package. It consists of meat, rice, egg, and olive, wrapped into a tight bundle with a bijao leaf. It evolved as a way of preserving food by keeping the food safe from the humidity and moisture.


Cecina and Tacacho
Cecina and Tacacho

Cecina-is pork that is dried and smoked. The pork is usually flattened to aid drying. Amazonian cecina has a characteristic red color, making it easy to identify. This dish shares its name with a whole variety of smoked meats in Spain (where the name originated) and throughout Lain America.

Cecina is rarely eaten alone; it’s often serviced with rice, plantains, tacacho, or chonta.


Tacacho being made at a market (left). They are a filling snack (right).

Tacacho is a ball formed of smashed plantains, combined with lard and a little bit of salt, and then fried. They traditionally accompany cecina. If not made properly, they can be a bit dry.


Chonta salad
Chonta salad

The typical salad in the Amazon features chonta, delicate white ribbons shredded from heart of palms. Rounding out the salad is fresh avocado, tomatoes, and a light dressing. 


I love trying multiple versions of the same dish: patarashca at 1) The Yellow Rose of Texas, 2) Al Frío y Al Fuego, and 3) Belén Market (left to right)

Patarashca is an Amazonian dish where white fish and aromatics such as onions, tomatoes, and chiles are wrapped in bijao leaves and then grilled over coals. The package is sealed so that the fish can cook in its own fat. The scent of the leaf also infuses itself into the fish, resulting in an incredibly flavorful and aromatic dish.


Fusion

Amazonian fried rice at Chez Paz combines ingredients from the jungle-cecina and plantains, giving the dish a wonderful interplay between salty and sweet.
Amazonian fried rice at Chef Paz combines ingredients from the jungle-cecina and plantains, giving the dish a wonderful interplay between salty and sweet.

Many restaurants catering towards visitors feature fusion and modern versions of traditional dishes. In this case, fusion also mean fusion between different types of Peruvian cuisine. Amazonian fusion ranges from incorporating Amazonian ingredients into dishes such as chaufa to more radical uses of ingredients such as desserts flavored with cecina (smoke-dried meat).

Cecina-flavored dessert is starting to becoming popular (spotted at a booth at Mistura)
Cecina-flavored dessert is starting to becoming popular (spotted at a booth at Mistura)

Juices and Desserts

Camu camu juice
Camu camu juice

Camu Camu juice is bright pink and has a tart taste-a bit like pure cranberry but does not dry your mouth out. Camu camu is a super fruit so in addition to its taste it has nutrition qualities. It has 60 times the amount of vitamin C as an orange! Camu camu also been known to provide a natural energy boost and can be consumed in the place of coffee.


Cocona juice. Often a pitcher is the smallest size you can order. You better share or sit and enjoy the view for a while.
Cocona juice. Often a pitcher is the smallest size you can order. You better share or sit and enjoy the view for a while.

Cocona-Cocona is highly acidic so it’s no surprise that it tastes a bit like lime. However, what many people don’t know is that it it’s in the same family as the tomato and the eggplant. Many people remark that cocona tastes a bit like a tomato. In juice form however, I feel that it takes a bit like orange juice but thicker and creamier.

Ordering tips

Most places sell juices by the jarra (pitcher). You can ask for a smaller size, but usually the jarra is the minimum. However, they’ll gladly pack you some of it to go (it’s interesting to see what sorts of containers they use).

You can ask for less sugar in the juices. While the fruits in the selva are highly nutritious, many restaurants and cafes make their juices super sweet. If you ask for less sugar, many of the restaurants will make it fresh for you!


Ayahuasca Diet

Iquitos is also the gateway for the Ayahuasca experience
Iquitos is also the gateway for the Ayahuasca experience

Iquitos is also the gateway to the Ayahuasca experience. In the weeks leading up to the experience, you are supposed to avoid spicy and fried foods, caffeine, meat, and processed sugar among other things (this is not a complete list). Many restaurants cater to these restriction and offer “Ayahuasca diet” menu options.


Iquitos Food

I also recommend having one or two meals in Iquitos on your own. I was pleasantly surprised at the overall quality of the restaurants in Iquitos. I split my time between local restaurants and ones catered towards extranjeros (foreigners).  One advantage for going off the beaten path is that some of the lesser known places a little further from the malecón, the boulevard that runs along the river, tends to be more economical. Iquitos is fairly small so prices drop pretty rapidly as you walk a couple of blocks away from the tourist area.


Chef Paz, a great place to start sampling Iquitos food
Chef Paz, a great place to start sampling Iquitos food

Chef Paz (Jr. Putumayo 468), owned and run by Chef Gahry Paz, is a favorite by expats living in Iquitos. It is only a few blocks from the main square but offers quality food at significantly lower prices than the restaurants along the malecon. The menu is Peruvian with Amazonian flavors mixed in. If you have the chance, you should chat with Chef Paz.


Picante de Mariscos. This was the entree that was part of the three course lunch special at La Mishquina, totaling to about $3.50.
Picante de Mariscos. This was the entree that was part of the three course lunch special at La Mishquina, totaling to about $3.50.

La Mishquina (Jirón Próspero 507) is a local eatery that offers menú (lunch special) every day. It features local versions of typical dishes. The dishes are more rustic than touristy restaurants, meaning that you’ll find seafood with their shells intact in seafood dishes and meat with bone-in. The prices are economical and portions also tend to be larger.


Ceviche with a view at La Mishquina
Ceviche with a view at La Mishquina

El Bucanero (Carr La Marina 124) is the premiere spot to try ceviche in Iquitos. It is frequently mostly by locals and is a gathering place for family and friends. Ceviche features Amazonian ingredients such as doncella, yucca, and small, river crab. The restaurant is perched over a view of the river, making it a perfect place to spend a lazy Sunday while enjoying ceviche.

 

Mitos y Cubiertos (Jr. Napo 337) is a tidy cafe-restaurant that serves traditional food in a nice environment with splashy artwork. In terms of price, presentation, and portion sizes, it feels like it’s exactly it’s exactly in between a local and touristy place.


A five-minute boat ride is part of the dining experience at Al Frío y Al Fuego
A five-minute boat ride is part of the dining experience at Al Frío y Al Fuego

Al Frio y Al Fuego (Av. La Marina 138)To get to this restaurant, you have to take a five minute boat ride which is part of the experience. The floating restaurant is large and there are my choices of view. The menu features modernized versions of traditional dishes along with fusion food.   


Ikiítu (Jirón Fitzcarrald 456) is exactly the kind of restaurant I was seeking, but it didn’t exist yet when I visited Iquitos. I found it surprisingly hard to find traditional dishes such as juanes in restaurants. The Paz family felt the same way and wanted to bring back traditional Amazonian dishes. The restaurant was not open at the time of my visit to Iquitos, but I was able to sample a couple of the dishes. 


Bars and Cafes

Musmuqi is a jungle bar with an attitude.
Musmuqi is a jungle bar with an attitude.

Musmuqi (Antonio Raimondi 382) is one of those bars that is a total time warp. Named after a mischievous monkey god that comes out at night, they specialize in aphrodisiac and healing elixirs made with ingredients from the jungle. Musmuqi has walls of infusions, with over 90 different kinds of elixirs made from everything from herbs found in the Amazon to fruits to ají peppers. Some of these ingredients can only be found deep in the jungle. 


A Texas-themed bar is not exactly what I had expected to find in the Amazon.
A Texas-themed bar is not exactly what I had expected to find in the Amazon.

Yellow Rose of Texas (Jirón Putumayo 174)-I never thought that I would find a Texas-themed bar in the Peruvian Amazon of all places. It’s worth stopping by for a drink just to admire the decor.

Like their decor that cover every inch of the wall, their menu is packed.  It features both western and traditional dishes. Their specialities include fried alligator nuggets and Patarashca (fish grilled in bijao leaves), and barbecue. Their traditional dishes are authentic though a bit pricey.


Fitzcarraldo, a great place to cool off. Also, an interesting part of Iquito's history.
Fitzcarraldo, a great place to cool off. Also, an interesting part of Iquito’s history.

Fitzcarraldo (Calle Napo 100) named after a Werner Herzog movie, is a well-decorated restaurant and cafe view of the river. It also has a AC room (no extra charge) making it a great place to cool off. It also offers food but at tourist prices.


Iquitos Food Map


Beyond Iquitos

The exciting thing is that Amazonian ingredients is now becoming integrated into everyday Peruvian cuisine. They are still considered trendy and come at a slight premium, but you can see the influence of the influx of ingredients from the selva in Lima, Arequipa, and Cusco.

Lima

Lima, the political and gastronomic capital of Peru, is actually where a lot of the innovation is happening with Amazonian ingredients.

ámaZ  (Av. la Paz 1079, Miraflores, Lima) was one of my favorite dining experiences in all of Peru. I enjoyed their playful manner of introducing you to a whole broad range of Amazonian ingredients. Almost everything on the menu was new to me, but luckily the waiter was very good at explaining and making recommendations.

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Conchas Ganga con Camu Camu (fresh scallops with a beautiful camu camu sauce)
  • Churos Pishpirones (features giant snails stuffed with chorizo and tapioca to complement the snail meat)
  • Pacamoto de camarones tarapotinos (shrimp cooked in a bamboo vessel with sour orange, cocona, and tomatoes).
  • The Pacamoto goes especially well with the Tostones and Pan de Queso (cheese bread) to soak up all of the great flavors.

Finally, the Shapshico cocktail was a great blend of Amazonian liquer and fruits.  I also recommend the cecina ice cream to round out the meal. (I pretty much recommended every dish that we tried; it’s that kind of place). 


Malabar  (Av. Camino Real 101, San Isidro) is another restaurant  by Pedro Miguel Schiaffino that features Amazonian ingredients. I have yet to try it, but it’s on my short list of places to try next time I’m in Lima.


El Bijao (Av. Ignacio Merino 2051, Lince, Lima)-If you are interested in trying traditional Amazonian dishes while in Lima, this is the place to head. You can find juanes, cecina, and patarashca along with fusion options.

I didn’t get a chance to try El Bijao myself, but you can read more about it at Authentic Food Quest.


Food Trucks, Fairs, and Festivals

I had my first taste of food from the Selva from a food truck.
I had my first taste of food from the Selva from a food truck. Skewers with cecina, chorizo, and plantains; tacacho, and Chaufa with Cecina. Plus camu camu juice (not pictured)

You can find food trucks selling Amazonian food in parks and bioferías. Amazonian ingredients such as camu camu and cecina are becoming popular flavors. You can find bottled camu camu juice is stores and cecina is becoming a popular flavor in desserts (yes, smoked pork flavored ice cream).

Mistura, the annual celebration of Peruvian cuisine, is also a good place to try Amazonian food.


Other Gateways to the Amazon

Finally, there are several other towns in the Peruvian Amazon-Port Maldonado and Tarapoto. They are all good jumping off points for explore the Amazon, and I hope to include them in future versions of my guide to Peruvian food.


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32 Comments Add yours

  1. Hayley says:

    What a great guide! Trying a new cuisine can be really intimidating if you don’t know what is in the dishes so this is so helpful. Also, I had no idea how popular ceviche was in Peru.

  2. Melissa says:

    Such a great guide on the food to eat in Iquitos. Its always difficult knowing whats what when you visit a new country so you have done a great job explaining it all.

  3. Josie says:

    What a comprehensive guide! I’ve not heard of any of those local ingredients having never travelled to the region. They all look delicious – except for maybe the sure.

  4. These recommendations are wonderful! I’d love to gorge on some exotic fruit and the Patarashca sounds intriguing as well. I think it’s so interesting that places have special ayahuasca meal plans!

  5. Amazing guide, the food sounds so adventurous! I think the market sounds fascinating but I don’t think I would be brave enough to try a cocktail with snake in it!

  6. Pete says:

    I think I’d photograph most of this stuff, and let someone more adventurous than I consume it. Is there a McDonalds around, at all?

  7. What a fabulous market guide. Not only are there so many different restaurants, there are even more crazy ingredients to cook with. It seems like you could spend your entire vacation eating something new and different every day and still not try it all.

  8. Good to know that Iquitos is more than just a stopover location, and I’d definitely love to explore the Jungle Market – sounds like a true experience. I’d definitely like to try the Cecina, looks really very tasty – in fact I’d love to really experiment with the foods here!

  9. Wow that is quite a roundup of the Peruvian culinary scene. I’ve always been fascinated about the South American cuisine because it ranges from eclectic to bizarre! But I can’t deny that I am dying to dig in to the ones you’ve featured here, especially anything with seafood!

  10. Erica says:

    This food looks delicious! I also love wandering around local markets and trying all the food. Good tip!

  11. Anna Sherchand says:

    Wow I just had dinner and stumbled on your post and now I’m hungry again lol
    Never thought Peru had so many varieties of food. Hope I’ll be there this year sometime and try your recommendation 🙂
    Anna from annasherchand.com

  12. I was in Iquitos a few years ago and I totally agree with you, it’s definitely worth it to stay there and enjoy the unique food and recipes this place has to offer.Reading this brought back a lot of memories, I loved eating the Suri and Churo even though a lot of people wouldn’t find it so appetizing.This article is really well written and it’s great that you provide your readers with such a complete list of restaurants and dishes.I ‘ll have to go eat something now, reading this made me hungry.

  13. It’s truly wonderful reading your articles. I always learn so much about a certain area when reading them, which is awesome. It’s incredible how much unique and delightful types of food are available in Peru and specifically Iquitos. The jungle market looks like an absolutely stunning experience.

  14. Clare says:

    I am currently in Peru for the 4th time, but still haven´t made it to Iquitos. The food in Peru is amazing and the food you have photos of looks great. I will hopefully be there next year though and i can´t wait to try everything you have listed.

  15. Kelly says:

    Love this post. The food looks amazing and fresh. I loved the ceviche in peru and wish I had time to venture into Iquitos because it looks like a total blast!!

  16. I love tasting speciality dishes when travelling to different countries, Iquitos seems like it has many traditional Peruvian dishes! Much of the fruit I’ve never ever heard of, but it does look tasty. Not sure if i would eat the Suri (grubworm) though!
    Happy Travels!

  17. I think my favourite dish here seems to be the chonta salad. It seems to work best for me..I am a vegetarian. I tried some peppers when I was there as well, with the yucca bread…they were awesome. I guess I could handle them well as I am Indian!
    Bon apetit!

  18. Meghan says:

    I went to Iquitos and into the Amazon last year. I totally agree that you should spend time there instead of just making it a stop over! We went to some of the same restaurants you mentioned. We liked the Fitzcarraldo and it’s wifi 🙂

  19. Sourav Aggarwal says:

    Food looks delicious! I love trying all the food. Good Guide!

  20. Louiela says:

    The exotic ones sound intriguing… but I would definitely love to try the exotic foods with eyes close:)

  21. Thanks for introducing the ingredients and local dishes you can find in the Amazon! I’d love to try some exotic fruits, not so much of the crocodile or edible worms though. But I do wonder how that “suri” tastes like or how they cook it!!

  22. Jessica says:

    That’s a really interesting post. I’m not really familiar at all with food in the region so it was really informative. Looks really delicious . It’s interesting to see how similar some of the dishes are to Filipino dishes. It must be the Spanish influence!

  23. Emma says:

    Food is one of my favourite things to discover and experiment with when I travel to a new a place. I’m pretty brave when it comes to trying new things but those grub worms dont look particularly appetising. At least you found some amazing fusion food along the way! It all looks delicious!

  24. Sheena says:

    I didn’t know that Amazonian food could taste so good! Iquitos sure looks like an amazing foodie destination, for me I’d love to try all the exotic foods 🙂

  25. Emma says:

    This is too awesome! SO many amazing foods! I had a few when I was there, but now i want to go back just try a few more!!! Loving your photography skills too!

  26. A trip to the jungle market looks like a must-do! 🙂 And I would love to sample a few jungle cocktails. Plus, I sort of have a weakness for ceviche. 😉

  27. Claire says:

    This is a great list of some amazing looking food. I think food is one of the main reasons I travel. I guess I think with my stomach because reading this has made me want to visit Iquitos

  28. The food in Iquitos looks quirky and somehow appetizing. The exotic ingredients are gems! Chontas was something that i have heard about for the first time. All in all this was a very interesting article.

  29. neha says:

    A wonderful guide to the native food of the region! Those palm ribbons particularly intrigue me. If I ever happen to visit here, I will like to try their recipes. Also, rest of the veg food looks quiet inviting to me.

  30. All of the food looks so tasty and fresh! It’s good to learn that there is so much more to this small town than people think. I’d love to try the food from this area of Peru. I think I’d even try the grub worms!

  31. I’d probably try for a run on the Malecon early morning if it wasn’t super hot, I’d try at least once. To eat I’d try Chef Paz just of the Malecon, I wouldn’t want to pay a premium to eat there. The food truck food you photographed looks delicious!

  32. This post looks insanely delicious. Being a foodie myself I love to try new cuisines. Have never tried Peruvian cuisine though. And looking at the amazing dishes, I have decided to try Peruvian food.

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