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Peru Navidad

Sunday Star-Times

26 Jan 2020

Marden was ashen, it was obvious that the poison was starting to take effect. I knew what would happen next – the toxins making their way into his bloodstream, then his glands and finally hitting his central nervous system. With a small first aid kit there was nothing I could do. Not that he wanted me to.

Marden, my Peruvian guide, has just taken kambo, a ritualistic poisoning sourced from the secretions of a spreadeagled giant monkey frog. Moments before, the village apo (chief) Julio had mixed the dried poison on a tamshi stick before applying it to two spots he had burnt into Marden’s shoulder. Kambo is renowned amongst the Matses tribe for giving a man more energy, greater strength and sexual stamina. The only thing rising right now though was Marden’s lunch as he began to violently vomit. Julio, his two wives and seven children looked on.

I was deep in the Peruvian Amazon in a sleepy fishing village not far from the Brazilian border. I had come to spend time with the indigenous Matses (pron. ma-sez), who had only made permanent contact with the outside world in 1969. Since then spears and beads had been replaced with iPhones and adidas, but there were still some elders who followed the traditional ways.

Passe,” beckoned Julio, inviting me to the back of his house. Stabbed into the thatched roof were several piercing arrows which he used to hunt wild boar. As he drew his bow to demonstrate his hunting prowess, I could see a glint of pride in his eyes.

Julio belonged to the last generation to have the mark of the Matses – a geometrical pattern tattooed from ear to ear. Now faded across his weathered face, his father had inked him half a century ago when he was 10 years old. It was the same marking shared by his wives, said to be done so a Matses ‘never gets lost’ amongst others.

It was the same marking shared by his wives, said to be done so a Matses ‘never gets lost’ amongst others.

Two of his children joined us. Beads criss-crossed their breasts and stripes of face paint represented the blood of their ancestors. One tried to hold her younger brother in place as he fidgeted with a palm headpiece. The Matses are known as the ‘jaguar people’ and older women insert whiskers of thin bamboo shoots into their noses to represent their feline association.

A groan came from Marden as he supported himself against a pole. He didn’t look well.

Cheers erupted outside. It was Navidad and the first fútbol match of the day was being played on a concrete court (due to the usual pitch being under the rain-swollen Rio Galvez). All the big names were here – Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar – although somewhat shorter in stature. A sharp midfield cross, a lunging header, GOOAALLL! A 7-year old crossed himself and pointed to the sky, frowning when his celebrations were cut short by the village loudspeaker crackling into life.

Atencion, atencion!” Before the words had even finished the boys started running, shoving and pushing each other towards the community hall, knowing what lay in wait. There they joined the village’s other children, holding out plastic mugs for Christmas cocoa and waiting for a slice of panettone cake that had come all the way from Iquitos.

Ahh, humid, wet, noisy Iquitos. The biggest city in the world inaccessible by road was my starting point for the Amazon, or to be precise, a Peruvian Air Force base. Grupo Aero 42 operated the Twin Otter seaplane that was going to get me and another dodgy looking turista into the jungle. There were strict weight limits for the flight so onto the scales with my luggage I went.

Doce soles por favor senior”. Hmmmm, maybe one too many helpings of rice the night before. Handing over the 12 soles, soon we were onboard, powering forward until our wake on the Rio Morona was no more. Once landed in the provincial capital of Colonia Angamos it was then a 7-hour boat trip to the village which would become my home for a week.

Julio helped Marden to his feet as colour returned to his pocked cheeks. We ambled back to where we were staying; there was no need to rush. Weaning dogs snoozed on broken footpaths as chickens lazily got out of the way. The slow creak of swaying hammocks filled darkened doorways and in the distance children laughed and splashed.

Our house was typical of the Matses. Built on stilts with the family name painted on the door, the main room was for relaxing and eating. The kitchen area off to the side had an open fire (there was no electricity or running water) and behind us mosquito nets marked out sleeping areas. I climbed into mine, too exhausted to care about the oppressive heat.

The slow creak of swaying hammocks filled darkened doorways and in the distance children laughed and splashed.

The next day began before dawn as our host Sebastian had offered to take us hunting. Gliding his peka-peka boat over the glassy surface we drifted silently through the parting mist. A family of spider monkeys rustled from tree to tree, disturbing a pair of Blue and Yellow Macaws as they were eying the activity below.

Once on land my newly acquired gumboots were proving their $11 worth, testing rotten logs and untangling twisted vines. Sebastian, gun in hand, stopped to point out a recent hoof-print of a majoz – a favourite edible rodent. Squinting at the undergrowth ahead he stealthily moved forward while we held back. Minutes later Sebastian returned and said something softly in Matses.

“It was too fast amigo!” laughed Marden with a bounce in his step. At last, the kambo energy was beginning to kick in.


  • Where: Village of Buen Peru, Loreta region, Peru

  • Getting there: Fly from Auckland to Lima, Peru via Santiago, Chile, and then on to Iquitos. Take a military seaplane from Iquitos to Colonia Angamos. From there it’s a 7-8 hour motorised canoe trip to the village.

  • Staying there: You’ll be hosted in local houses in the jungle but spoil yourself and check into the Hilton Iquitos on the way back.

  • Eating there: Local food includes fish heads, turtle soup, pacarodents, green bananas and yuca (jungle potatoes). Only drink bottled water though.

  • Currency: 1 Peruvian sol (S./) = $0.45. It is best to take small notes such as 10 and 20 soles and expect to tip your guide and porter at the end of the trip.

  • Travel tips: You are going to get hot and wet so take breathable Gore-Tex and merino. Double the amount of mosquito repellent you were thinking of taking.

Original publication: Sunday Star-Times

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