The Museum of Historic Boats is a recent addition to Iquitos's tourist attractions and the culmination of a holistic restoration project, intended to preserve Amazonian history from the early days of exploration and conquest to the present day.
Most importantly, steam boats were at the heart of the Rubber Boom of the late 19th and early 20th Century, playing a vital role in transporting the valuable, collected balls of rubber from remote parts of the Amazon rainforest, along the tributaries of the Amazon River, to thriving cities, such as Iquitos and Manaus in Brazil; and ultimately to feed the demands of emerging, international manufacturing processes, such as in the automotive industry.
Great fortunes were made from the trade, leading to lavish lifestyles and ambitious projects, such as the construction of an Opera House in Manaus or The Iron House - allegedly designed by Gustave Eiffel - in Iquitos.
But there was also a dark side, as the indigenous populations were ruthlessly exploited in the pursuit of this precious raw material. The atmosphere of the era is most notably captured in Werner Herzog's classic film, Fitzcarraldo, which was filmed in Iquitos.
Despite unsavoury aspects, it is important that defining eras in Amazonian history are not lost. And so Peru North is delighted to support this project to restore former steam boats in an authentic manner and enable the public to visit and experience their facilities.
The Ayapua - named after a lake in Brazil's Amazon - is a restored rubber-boom vessel, which is now moored permanently in front of Hotel Casa Morey (which is, itself, another throw-back to this time), a few blocks from Iquitos's main square. Her 10 cabins house the museum's exhibitions, depicting the history of Amazonian navigation, geographers and explorers, along with the life of rubber tappers, rubber barons and indigenous cultures during the period.
She was constructed in 1906 by a German company called R. Holtz, located in the port city of Hamburg. Tied to the side of a larger, ocean-going steamship, the Ayapua was towed from Germany to South America, where she would begin a long career as both a cargo ship and passenger liner.
During her tenure as an Amazon riverboat liner, she operated trade routes along the Purus, Japua, Jura, Putomayo and Yavari Rivers in Brazil and Peru.
In the early 2000s Ayapua was nearly lost when she was abandoned along a lonely stretch of Amazon River. Fortunately, she was rescued and painstakingly restored to her current splendour, creating a unique and atmospheric museum home, as well as an elegant addition to Iquitos' riverbank, in the style of London's HMS Belfast.
As well as this floating museum, aboard the Ayapua, there are a number of other restored, historic steam boats that form a 'living' museum, as they continue to operate tourism and research expeditions in and around the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.
Oldest amongst these is the Clavero, built in 1876 in France. Originally named the Cahuapanas, she was purchased by the Peruvian Navy in 1892 to use in the defense of Peru’s Amazon frontiers, and was involved in a battle with Ecuadorean naval forces on the Napo River in 1903, from which she emerged victorious.
She was then part of an expedition to the Purus River in 1905. In 1911 the ship was used to deliver mail on the Marañon and Ucayali rivers.
In 1933 the ship was sold to the Morey Shipping Company and was used to carry cargo. It was renamed the Clavero after First Lieutenant Manuel Clavero, a Peruvian naval hero who made his name commanding another steam boat, the America, during the successful Battle of La Pedrera versus Colombia in 1911.
Now, only boats belonging to the Peruvian Navy can use names of naval heroes, but the renaming of the Clavero pre-dates this rule!
The last historic steam boat to be restored is the Rio Amazonas. She was built on the Clyde, Scotland, in 1899, as a rubber transport steamship for the Amazon and then commissioned by the firm Miranda & Co. of Belem do Para, which is the city located at the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil.
At the time, the Rio Amazonas was one of the largest riverboats on the Amazon measuring 44 m (148 ft) in length and 9m (30 ft) in width, with three decks.
In 1907 she was bought by Braga Sobrinho & Cie and named Braga Sobrinho.
Adolfo Morey Arias, one of the most successful rubber barons on the upper Amazon, purchased her in 1936, changed her name to Arias, and brought her up to Iquitos, Peru. The Arias was used to navigate the 3,200 km (2,000 mile) route from Iquitos to Belem as a cargo and passenger ship.
In the early 1980s the Arias was converted to a tourist boat and her name was changed to the Rio Amazonas. It was in this guise, in 2002, that I first experienced an Amazon cruise, making the three-day journey from Iquitos to Leticia in Colombia, while working as a tour leader for a British adventure holiday company.
The Rio Amazonas was then purchased by the Museum of Historic Boats and underwent another refit, this time with the purpose of restoring many of her original details, as well as upgrading the facilities.
Luckily, both the Clavero and Rio Amazonas can be enjoyed in the way they were originally intended - cruising the waterways of the Amazon region, allowing travellers to relive the Victorian elegance of Amazon River navigation, on one of the boats that helped to generate the wealth, history and personality of this incredible region.
Even the launches used in conjunction with these riverboats, are restored classics. And while the decor and ambience may be retro, the amenities and service are right up to date, with air-conditioned cabins, all with private bathrooms, as standard. Public areas include a bar, library and dining hall, where excellent meals are served daily.
So ask us about the great-value set departures or chartering these vessels for a unique, personalised voyage.