Tarapoto Peru

In May, 2000 I went to Tarapoto, Peru. Tarapoto is in a valley between two mountain ranges on the back side of the Andes in the Amazon region. (See map) The higher altitude and resulting cooler weather was a welcome relief from the heat in Pucallpa. It is a small city of about 10,000 in population and previous stronghold of drug cartels. Much of the civil unrest and terrorism of 7 to 10 years past was rooted in the area. Now it is much more tranquil, but new money and new industries to replace the old drug money and trade has been slow in coming.

I stayed in the best hotel in Tarapoto. It even had a T.V. and came complete with your own lizard to eat the mosquitos that happened to find their way in the open windows. I was on the 4th floor (with no elevator) but hey... it had lots of hot water!! Again, this area has no tourist trade so there were no hotels or restaurants which catered to the higher level comforts of American and European tourists, but I'm happy if I got some hot water (obviously!). And like Pucallpa, it seems like I was the first white American women who had ever been there, and got the normal curious looks, open-mouthed stares, finger-pointing exclamations and many many many questions.

The rolling hills up into the mountains are called the high jungle and the Tarapoto region is called "the land of waterfalls". The mountains on either side of Tarapoto rise to an average of 8000 feet above sea level and quite quickly too. Almost everyday at mid morning, huge cloud banks would roll in and stick at the base of the mountains, sometimes enveloping and hiding the mountain range completely. I saw many waterfalls during my travels up and over the mountains and they were spectacular (however some were hard to climb up)!

The purpose of my trip to Tarapoto was to meet with another small company which had an approved land management and extraction plan in the low jungle several days (by car, then boat, then foot) from Tarapoto as well as a new cultivation program in the high jungle for several medicinal plants that my company was helping with. Since it was still rainy season, the low jungle track of land was inaccessible. Well, I could have gotten there in about 3-4 days with a lot of work but it was just too dangerous. It was the end of rainy season which meant that the water was receding but the roads were still washed out (turning a normal 8 hour jeep ride into about 18 hours if at all). Then, with the water receding, I would have been faced with two days hiking in knee to waist deep water where a very healthy population of large anacondas and other poisonous snakes were a large problem. It's really hard to see those suckers in the water! Even a canoe would have been a problem with the lower water levels. So I opted to stay in the high jungle checking out the cultivation program and to return at the end of July during dry season when I could hike in to the low jungle land with less trouble and danger and in less time. Hey, I'm brave but not stupid!
So, after a good night's sleep and my last hot shower for a while again, I dumped half my stuff from my backpack to lighten the load, and we headed off to a small mountain village called Pamashto. Although it was less than about 100 kilometers, it took several hours by car because the dirt and clay roads were full of huge craters, potholes, and washouts from the daily rains.
I was saddened to see the many miles of rolling hills which had been converted from rainforest to farms, ranches, and plantations. As far as the eye could see to the mountains, there were little squares of cultivated plots where forest had once stood. The rainforest destruction in the area was quite extensive.

When I arrived in Pamashto (a remote highland village of about 300 people), I caused quite a stir being once again the first "gringa" anyone had seen. The kids in the village had great fun checking me out, asking tons of questions (in a language that included both Spanish and Quechua, the old language of the highlands), rummaging thru my backpack of goodies and getting their pictures taken. The children quickly nicknamed me "Magic Woman" because most everything I had they had never seen before... high tech miniature flashlights, a pink hair brush, toothbrush and paste, swiss army knife, bug spray, bic lighters, a digital watch that lit up in the dark, even my sun block which they thought was real funny. The first Quechua phrase I learned was "pressame" which meant, "I borrow?" Soon, where ever I went, most of my stuff was quickly out of my backpack and pressame-d by the children and even the adults who were facinated to try something new and useful. As usual, I left behind things along my journey thru the highlands visiting each farm (called chakras) and families. Good thing I come prepared and with atleast two of everything!

From Pamashto we were to set out to visit the farms up in the mountains which were growing Jergon Sasha, a plant which I needed and which was very hard to wildharvest sustainably since the root was harvested. The whole area once was a major coca growing area. This mountainous area was hard to reach except by foot over hard to climb trails which poor farmers scattered in the hills and mountains farmed and cultivated. When DEA and the Peruvian government cleaned out the drug cartels and middlemen in Tarapoto who picked up the coca from the farmers who had to bring them down from the mountain farms into little villages like Pamashto, it put the farmers out of business as well since their main cash crop no longer had a market. Most replanted in coffee but prices for coffee beans have been depressed for several years and the farmers became poorer. The idea was to give these farmers a new cash crop to relace the coca they used to grow with medicinal plants like Jergon Sacha and others. It worked for them because they could use their existing garden areas to intersperse with medicinal plants and it worked for my company since the plants we were having them grow couldn't be wild harvested sustainably.

Being a horse-back riding Texan from way back, I opted for a horse for the long journey up into the mountains. Being unaccustomed to the altitude, as well as having a heart problem which sends all the blood pumping to my legs when I climb (leaving my lungs without much blood and then out of breath) I figured a horse was just the ticket. So this was the horse I "rented" in Pamashto for the journey. My traveling companions were convinced that a horse was too dangerous on the mountainous trails and opted to walk on their own two feet (in knee high waders due to the way muddy trails).

I quickly found out that Andean horses are quite small and not all that sure footed. But to be honest, some of the trails we traversed even a Texas mountain goat would have a hard time negotiating. I've been riding horses all my life but in a week of riding the highlands in Peru, I fell or exited (quickly and any way I could) from the horse more times than I have in 30 years of riding. At least when the horse fell on top of me (twice), it was small enough not to squish me too badly (the soft mud was a help too). As it still was rainy season, I stayed wet (and muddy) most of the time. Andean saddles are indescribable. A bone affair stitched with rawhide and only about 2 inches wide in the center where you sat. Of course... no padding, just a burlap gunny sack thrown over the top. I mostly rode barefooted since the stirrups were so small I couldn't get my tennis shoes into them. Going down a straight down incline (and needing to stand up in the stirrups to keep from going over the top of the horse) standing on three toes, tippy toe style was quite an experience. Sheesh!

This was the main "road" out of Pamashto. I soon found out that this was the best trail I would be on for a week, even though my horse got stuck in the mud twice on it. Judging the depth of the mud became a real skill when leading the horse up and down the trails. Some of the mud holes were as high as the horse's belly.
In no time at all, we were up into the high jungle where the clouds would hang in the trees.
Oftentimes we were climbing up waterfalls and trails slick with mud and algae-covered rocks
and boulders and running water from the daily rain running off the mountains.

My traveling companions for the journey were; Artemio, owner of the small Tarapoto company my company was working with, Professor Valles, a botany and agroforestry professor at the University of San Martin who was helping with the cultivation program and three of his students who were doing research and helping with the documentation of the cultivation process and methods as part of their thesis, Jose, Edgar and Ceciy. The students were aged 18 to 21, full of energy and questions and were a lot of fun. I was happy to see that one of the students was a girl. Agroforestry in general is considered a male profession. As we moved from farm to farm, they cataloged and measured the Jergon sacha plants and roots to help determine which growing methods were working best.

Here are two of the students taking measurements and notes in one of the lower chakras.

In the high jungle, farm lands are generally on the sides of the mountain which can be quite steep. Very little terracing of dirt is used - rather they just fell the larger trees in the right direction when they are clearing the land for planting. You can see the steepness of this garden plot in these pictures where the jergon sacha is growing among the standard coffee, corn, bananas, sugar cane and beans of the average gardens.

Here's professor Valles showing me his secret bug repellent plant. He would crush the leaves of this shrubby small tree (Jacaranda macrocarpa) to release the oils and then rub it over his skin to repel the mosquitos. While it worked okay for the mosquitos, it didn't phase the zancudos. Zancudos are a nasty biting bug that look like a large black gnat. They raise a big welt on the skin and itch for weeks. They mostly hang out where the people and animals are (with lots of fresh blood!), so even the good doctor was "pressame-ing" my deet bugspray when we stopped for the night at one of the farmer's huts where the zancudos sometimes hung like thick black clouds inside the huts.

Living and farming the highland jungle is a hard life. Houses are small simple affairs built with wood and thatch collected from the forest. Our first host was Ronal Salas Salas, his wife, three children, and brother-in-law. With his 6 family members and our traveling party of 6 people, it was a tight squeeze for his small hut and 12 people. They were wonderful hosts however and freely shared what they had, and slaughtered a pig for our arrival. Unfortunately, it was chechwa country. Chechwa is a traditional drink made with corn or yucca root. It is chewed up and spit into a large pot, then mixed with water and sugar cane and left to ferment. It's slightly alcoholic from the fermentation process and a bit slimy with peices of the yucca or corn floating in it. A huge bowl of it is immediately served to guests upon their arrival. I downed quite a lot of it during the trip.

Life in the highlands

Ronal's house where all 12 of us slept

Ronal's family inside the house.

The average highland latrine

The incredible view from just outside Ronal's house
Relaxing inside after a hard day's (muddy) work.
This was the main water source for Ronal's family. A artesian well sort of affair which redirected a stream from about 200 yards away. This was the bath area as well as the drinking water source for the house.It had to have been spring-fed. Geeze, was it ever a cold bath!

Another farmstead stop

And yet another
Making our way down to the next farm
Another farmstead stop. The clouds would roll in and bump into the mountaintop behind the house and stick around almost all day.
No matter how sad, small or poor most of these farms were, the views they woke up to every morning were absolutely incredible
Along the trail between farms

How would you like to go down this "trail" on a horse?

Another view of the land between farms. Most of the land you see is cultivated coffee beans.

Still under construction.....

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