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The inland port city of Puerto Maldonado lies at the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata rivers. The capital of the department of Madre de Dios, it is a rough-and-tumble town with 60,000 people and nary a four-wheeled vehicle in sight, but with hundreds of motorized two- and three-wheeled motorbikes jockeying for position on its few paved streets.The city is named for
two explorers who ventured into the region 300 years apart: Spanish conquistador Juan Álvarez de Maldonado passed through in 1566; Peruvian explorer Faustino Maldonado explored the still-wild area in the 1860s, never completing his expedition (he drowned in the Madeira River). Rubber barons founded this youngster of Peruvian cities in 1912, and its history has been a boom-or-bust roller-coaster ride ever since. The collapse of the rubber industry in the 1930s gave way to decades of dormancy that were ended by the discovery of gold in the 1970s and the opening of an airport 10 years later. High prices for gold and steady improvements to the road there—part of a "highway" connecting Peru with Brazil—have brought an influx of settlers in recent years, which has been a scourge for the region's forests and indigenous peoples.
A sultry port town on the Río Amazonas, Iquitos is quite probably the world's largest city that cannot be reached by road. The city has nearly...