In 1992 I went on a journey from Cusco to Brazil to see some friends. My first stop over was the Peruvian Amazonian jungle metropolis of Iquitos, once one of the wealthiest places in South America due to the rubber boom at the turn of the 19th century.
Iquitos boasts a building constructed by Eiffel on the main square and has a beautiful river promenade framed by early 20th century mansions with bluetiled facades (the tiles were mostly imported from Andalusia). Strolling on the laid back ‘Malecon’ one can just imagine how in former times the sounds of pianos imported from Italy were sounding from the high ceiled buildings, the instruments being played by the daughters of well-to-do families of European descent whilst their parents were entertaining their guests pouring tea into the their exquisite imported China porcellain cups…
Some of the mansions are now in an utter state of disrepair if not mere skeletons with plenty of weeds growing behind the impressive fassades. We saw some of these ruins in prime location on offer for half a million dollars or more… An enterprising Britisher had bought the property where scenes from ‘Pantaleón y las visitadoras’ were filmed in the year 2000 on the ‘Malecón (river promenade), the acclaimed Peruvian movie based on the entertaining Vargas Llosa novel ‘Captain Pantoja and the special services’. On this spot he constructed what surely must be the most delightful vacation rentals in town affording spectacular views of the Amazon river. On our recent visit we spent hours ‘at home’ just enjoying watching the play of light over the river, especially at dawn and dusk.
But back in 1992 this was more or less the spot where the the old port was, and the atmosphere there was just like one out of Werner Herzog’s famous film ‘Fitzcarraldo’. Steamer boats docked here and cargo boats were being unloaded. Big bunches of bananas, sacks full of manioc roots and papayas were sent from here to the markets. It was a place full of buzzing activity. In the late afternoon I went to one of the wooden open air bars surrounded by chamaeleon laden trees and watched the activities with fascination, enjoying a cold beer or two.
I am not really sure whether this was a wise place to hang out as a female solo traveler, but if it wasn’t I certainly had protection as it there where I first met the iconic Iquitos artist Pipi Vela, and a true gentleman he was indeed! I never forgot his name (which he had wisely repeated to me a number of times) nor the incident.
So I was very excited when we met up with him in July this year. (I had found him on Facebook and made contact). Although I had not seen him for over 27 years and doubted that he would even remember our last meeting it was just like meeting an old friend. We shared a lunch on the promenade serenaded by Pipi’s wonderful music.
Another day we were honored to be invited to Pipi’s ‘desolate mansion’ as he himself fondly calls his humble home at the outskirts of Iquitos, where he fed us coconut water and home made jungle liquors made out of macerated plants. We had already purchased a copy of his interesting book, ‘Los profetas nacen en el Amazonas’ (‘Prophets are born in the Amazon’), full of memoirs, local history, philosophy and poetry.
But now we were shown his treasured paintings one by one. What a great talent this kind and sweet-natured gypsy soul is harboring!
To us Pipi Vela encapsules the spirit of Iquitos of the olden days and it is time that the local authorities there recognize the treasure they have in him. In Nauta there is a statue in his honor as one of his most popular compositions was dedicated to this town.
It saddened us to see that this great passionate artist with such an outstanding talent, a celebrity known as the ‘prince of the Amazonas’, is now living almost forgotten by the world. His monumental poetic compositions haunt me. Pipi still has the same spirit of a wandering minstrel and gypsy traveler of his youth and can be found roaming the Iquitos river promenade or the square of Nauta with his guitar over his shoulder, only too eager to delight visitors and local residents with a serenade. We hope that our humble YouTube presentations will help this magnificent bard to broaden his audience in the present cyber age. He definitely deserves to be heard just as his paintings deserve to be exhibited! You may listen to his beautiful music below: