Does the last frontier still exist? Yes. Where? In the Amazon. Will you encounter it? Yes. How? Living with the Matsés at the limits of the known jungle.
Thinking of a trip that is original, different and unique, but that is also within anybody’s reach is not easy in a place such as the Amazon jungle. The options on offer are wide but also very repetitive, mainly involving boat trips on the Amazon River or its tributaries. These are also combined with short excursions that follow paths where thousands of people have gone before you. Accommodation tends to be on the boat itself or in lodges that offer, according to your budget, varying degrees of comfort, although they are all equipped against the hardships of the Amazonian climate. Some lodgings are even located at the tops of the tallest, biggest and most majestic trees in the jungle.
In contrast, this trip is destined for those who want to come into personal contact with the jungle, have a tête-à-tête with its unique, wild and vital ecosystem; and for those who wish to connect with its indigenous people, who live in perfect communion with nature. But what’s more, a pleasant surprise awaits you on your trip.
How so? Isn’t the last frontier the ocean floor or the polar ice caps? No, in reality it is the Amazon jungle. It still contains areas that are completely unexplored and where our civilization and satellite technology have yet to arrive. Why? Because of the jungle’s foliage, which is impenetrable from on high, the tops of these huge trees prevent satellites from taking photographs of the ground; thus it appears as an infinite green blotch. Furthermore, the Amazonian tribes, which are concentrated in small family groups, deforest only small areas. They have a negligible effect on the Amazon jungle. This means that the existence of “uncontacted” tribes is a reality, as was demonstrated in May 2014 on the border between Peru and Brazil.
At the end of our trip, we will arrive in the village of Buen Perú, which is located 185 miles from the river’s source. These 185 miles are unknown territory, one of the Amazon’s last frontiers where “uncontacted” tribes could very well reside; indeed, this is what the Matsés believe. Even in the 21st century, you are at mankind’s last frontier on Earth.
In fact, the natives believe that the ‘devil’ lives there, an anthropomorphic, vague figure that is, according to them, completely covered in hair. I personally listened to some of their stories of sporadic encounters with these “creatures.” If they lied, they have their own reasons for doing so, although I don’t know what those would be.
To undertake this journey, we have the invaluable help of Héctor Vezirian, guide and director at Amazon Explorer. His profound knowledge of the jungle world and his personal contacts with the Matsés tribes make him indispensable for this adventure. The purpose of your journey will be to visit and live amongst the Matsés (also known as the Mayoruna in Brazil). They are located in the river basin of the Javary, a tributary of the Amazon that is on the border of Peru and Brazil. This is where the Matsés National Reserve can be found. During the 15 days that you ascend the Javary, you visit and settle in at the homes of the Matsés themselves.
There you learn about their culture, traditions and way of life, all while you carry out different activities alongside them in one of the planet’s best-preserved jungles. Alligators, anacondas, harpy eagles, tarantulas, jaguars and tapirs will be your traveling companions during the excursion, although in reality it is very hard to spot them. You’ll take trips into the jungle, and sleep there in simple campsites. You won’t feel afraid at seeing, a few scant feet away, the paw print of America’s biggest cat; or, because you didn’t follow your friends’ advice, when you find that your backpack has changed into the color of black ants. At night you’ll walk through the jungle with only your dim lights for company in search of “colpas” (clay deposits containing minerals). Just a few feet away, in the profound silence and darkness you’ll make out the glowing eyes of a tapir, while a sound gives away the swarms of bats above your head.
The Matsés see with the eyes of a predator. They obtain the meat they consume from the jungle, and see things where we don’t see anything. They respect the jaguar but are not afraid of him. They only feel this emotion when the incandescent look of a venomous snake greets them during the night. The jungle is a trying habitat; the heat and humidity do not help, although you gradually get used to it. There are also fewer mosquitoes than you might think. You’ll eat your own provisions, along with the fish that your companions, who are excellent fishermen, provide from the great river.
Living with them, you’ll experience the nobility, friendliness and simplicity of your friends. If you understand Spanish, you’ll be lucky enough to communicate with the majority of them. They live in small villages, in squalid huts called “malokas.” These huts on stilts separate them from the constantly damp jungle floor and barely contain anything, except for a simple fireplace. Their economy is one of survival, which is only enough for food. Their diet is based on shifting cultivation on plantations known as “Chacras,” where the main crops are yucca, banana, corn and papaya. It is accompanied by abundant quantities of fish and, whenever possible, small game. This is washed down with “chapo,” a warm, sweet and low-calorie plantain-based drink.
The Matsés population stands at around 3,000 people, located on the border between Peru and Brazil. They still maintain some of their traditions, such as the toad ceremony. Known as “acate,” these animals secrete a fluid that the Matsés use to improve their sensation of clarity, strength and resistance for the hunt. The effects can last several days. To accomplish this they have to suffer a little. First, they pierce their skin with a small but sharp twig that has previously been burnt. Then, the toad’s fluid is applied to the piercings. Shortly after, nausea and vomiting prevails, as a young Matsés could attest to as he was initiated in this rite and continuously repeated, “never again, never again.”
Matsés men also blow tobacco, or “nënë” snuff up their noses to give them strength and energy.
The jungle is their tradition and from it they learn to combat their “native” illnesses. For them, animals and plants have spirits, just like humans, and can damage or cure our health. The Shaman is responsible for talking to the spirits that live in the medicinal plants and asking for their healing properties. Unfortunately, they can do little for some imported diseases like hepatitis. Contact has been detrimental to them. Regrettably, the Peruvian government does very little to help them.
“Matsés” means “people” in their native language. They formerly lived in communal “malokas” with all of the tribe’s members. They were polygamous (which they still are in some cases) and a woman generally married her male cousin on her mother’s side. Until recently, the Matsés kidnapped and assimilated women and girls from other tribes. This often involved bloodshed. I met some of these girls, now grown women. One of our guides was even a grandson of one of the most famous “kidnappers,” someone who, by the way, had a reputation for being vicious.
Currently, the villages are made up of various family homes. Intruding in their everyday lives allows you to understand and partake in some of their traditions, such as accompanying them on fishing trips, gathering food in the “Chacras,” identifying plants and animals or, if you wish, going on a hunt.
After living alongside them, I can sum up my opinion of these people in one word: respect. Respect for their way of being, for their way of living; respect for their success and survival in one of the most complicated ecosystems on the planet. In reality, while the appealing habitat, teeming with life, is on display, it is certainly not handed to you. Survival in the jungle is complicated, and they have succeeded. I imagine trying to do the same thing and I realize how complicated it would be.
This trip’s dose of adventure arrives at the end of this experience. You arrive in Angamos from Iquitos by way of a small plane that flies over the jungle. This flight can be delayed by the Amazon’s ever-varying weather conditions. You can encounter the same problem on the return journey if you arrive in Angamos. This fills the trip with too many uncertainties. To reduce the potential loss of too many days, in theory you will not descend via the Javary river to Angamos, but will instead go upstream on a tributary of the Galvez, the Lobo river, which is already inside of the Matsés national reserve. This marathon boat ride lasts almost ten hours. The fatigue and rain overcome you as the river becomes ever-narrower. The jungle’s giant trees have one last trick to preserve the jungle’s impenetrability: falling time and again over the channel of the tributary, blocking your way. Unfortunately for them, you’ll be armed with machetes and, despite the torrential rain, the thick trunks won’t be able to stop you.
You’ll spend the night in a shelter in the jungle and the next day you’ll undertake a marathon 23-miles trek through one of the world’s best preserved jungles before reaching the town of Requena. We are on the border of unknown territory which ascends to the basin located almost 185 miles away. Walking in the jungle has the advantage of being fairly level, although the humidity and heat are formidable. But the worst are the ravines and small gorges, and the innumerable steps needed to cross them. Tree trunks are used as rudimentary bridges, but they are extremely slippery. Meanwhile, the scarce areas of moss (normally avoided as they are also very slippery) are like islands of glue. In some areas there is so much water that it overflows, flooding everything. If you are already soaked up to the knees, do not worry: here the water can reach your waist or even higher. You’ll want the 330-foot stretch to be over as soon as possible so that you can get back on dry land and stop thinking about anacondas or venomous snakes. We are not defenseless against this uncertainty.
You also realize the capacity that the Matsés men, women and children have for walking in and adapting to the jungle environment. I was walking with a backpack that weighed little more than 11 pounds; theirs weighed more than 44. They cross the tree trunk bridges with surprising speed and confidence, despite wearing rain boots! I did not even see them break a sweat until the last few miles. Their feet are small and wide, more similar to a hobbit’s feet than to a human being’s. The itinerary is designed to last two or three days. The Matsés finish it in one. Men and women. I do not know if this was the reason for trying to do it in one day. After 16 hours of walking I arrived in Requena, more dead than alive. A feat achieved only by a pair of young Russians. I had not undergone any special physical preparation and am not accustomed to long-distance walking. I think that it is better to take it easy and make the most of enjoying your time in the Amazon.
Keywords: adventure escapes. Adventure travel. Guide book