In the Footsteps of Paddington Bear

22 February 2008

Mike Kielty goes off the beaten path in search of a mysterious adventure in the Peruvian Amazon


The enigmatic heights of the Peruvian Andes and the twisting labyrinth of the Amazon basin have attracted Western explorers since the time of the Incas. Most modern visitors are given a whirlwind tour of the main sites–the Inca mountain capital of Cuzco, the colourful markets of the nearby Sacred Valley and the famous mountain ruins of Macchu Picchu–which offers them a passing glimpse of the mysterious temples and shrines left by the Incan civilization. Yet the most mysterious relics and customs of this country lie far beyond the well-trodden paths of the tourists. Having lived with locals for three months, my Spanish had become sufficiently passable to ask about the sparsely inhabited rainforest that extended out from the foot of the Andes. It was there that the Incas made their last stand against the Spanish Conquistadores, and it remained a wild part of the country in the intervening centuries. Few Peruvians, let alone foreigners, would ever think of making a journey there. “Muy, muy peligroso”, “very, very dangerous”, said the mother of the small family I lived with. For a gap-year student hungry for adventure, those words were enough of an incentive to reach for the rucksack.

The journey down into the rainforest was not one for those who dislike long road trips. I spent 15 hours on a rickety local bus and then a sleepless night in the back of a pick-up truck which sped along jungle roads until the roads themselves came to an end at the small river village of Ivochote. From here, the only means of progressing was the River Urubamba itself, and so I found a coffee trader called Juan who offered me a place on his motorised canoe for a reasonable price. He led me down to a boat filled with a small group of locals, and we were soon headed for the remote communities in the rainforest further downstream.

We travelled along the River Urubamba┬┤s byways for several hours with the jungle hills rising sharply on either side. I passed the time watching the dense tree-lined banks of the river and the giant butterflies, adorned in wild blues and pinks, fluttering past as the canoe disturbed their riverside homes. The sun was just reaching its zenith as we passed through the last line of hills and came out on to a wide plain. The Andes were behind us now; before us lay the Amazon basin, stretching all the way to the Atlantic.

Before we had continued much further, Juan directed the boat close to the riverbank and shouted something that sounded like the quechua language spoken by the indigenous people of the mountains. “Machiguenga. That’s their language”, one of the other passengers said to me in Spanish. “Now watch.” I turned to look at the riverbank. All I saw at first were the giant ceiba trees, some 50 metres tall or more, with hanging branches that allowed only thin strips of light into the jungle beyond. I turned to look quizzically at the passenger. “Wait”, he said impassively.

Juan directed the canoe to a small beach nearby, and I helped him pull the boat in. When I turned to look again at the jungle, however, several men and boys had appeared. I don’t know what I had expected; some “noble savages” wearing feathers perhaps, just like in an old western. I was nervous at first, because I was probably carrying more money in my pockets than they had seen for a very long time. Yet even though they carried machetes, these men did not look threatening. They wore old, ripped shorts and tattered T-shirts, and looked at me with clear curiosity. One even started poking my white skin with his fingers. Yet they accompanied their curiosity with smiles and pats on the back. I followed them down one of the jungle paths with my confidence partially restored.

Timpia, their small village, lay just a few hundred metres further on into the bush. It was a modest place, a few wooden huts around a patch of sun-browned grass that had been cleared. I tried to say something in Spanish to one of the men who had led me here, and he pointed me towards a teenage lad who was standing in as the commentator for a football match that was going on as I arrived. I was relieved to find that the boy spoke some Spanish and we soon fell into conversation. His name was Mach and we laughed about being around the same age, having similar sounding names and yet living absurdly different lives. Mach had never left the rainforest, and when I explained that I was from Europe, he asked, “Is that near Ivochote?” I knew that oil companies had come this way before, looking to exploit the natural resources of the jungle, so I couldn’t have been the first Westerner these people had seen, but in that conversation with Mach, it was impossible not to feel like an alien presence.

The river was a lifeline for these people, a highway which allowed them to connect small villages that were otherwise surrounded by the impassable bush. I had to return to the boat when the other traders told me they were leaving, but Mach was now firmly attached to me, and he joined us as Juan directed the canoe further downstream.

Eventually, we arrived at an isolated hut perched by the side of the river. Juan left us to wait outside as he was led away by its owner, a barechested man with muscular arms and several long scars down his side. Mach disappeared in the bush for a few minutes before returning to me with the buds of several flowers in his hands. They contained a deep red pigment that he painted in angular lines on his own face and mine. He then placed his palm on my chest and muttered some words in Machiguenga. I asked him several times afterwards what the words had meant. “No te preocupes”, “Don’t worry about it”, was all he would say.

After five minutes or so, the owner returned carrying the spotted skin of a leopard. He asked if I wanted to buy it. I was taken aback and barely managed to convey a refusal with a random combination of hand gestures and broken Spanish. Seeing the wild red paint on my hands and face, the man looked up darkly and muttered something in Machiguenga. He advanced towards me, dropped his shorts and exposed himself. I didn’t know whether to laugh or run. Mach tapped me on the shoulder and indicated that the latter course of action was preferable. Forgetting snakes, spiders and everything except the thought of a hasty retreat, I bounded down the river after him and jumped on the boat with relief.

We spent several more days progressing down the river’s trading routes, but eventually the boat became overloaded with coffee, and Juan indicated that it was time to return. Having waved goodbye to a disappointed Mach, I packed down in the canoe as we motored off towards Ivochote. I looked back for one last glimpse of my friend, but he had already retreated into the bush. Any uninitiated visitor passing by would never have known that behind those trees lay a working village where men and women had to fight for their survival, but also a place of enigmatic customs and beliefs, a lost world that I experienced for a moment and can only dream of returning to.