Wind your way up the Peruvian Amazon, where the jungle hides a wealth of natural remedies, from snake bite cures to herbal contraceptives.

The lively jungle port of Iquitos, Peru, is the world's most inland seaport. Lying 90 minutes' flight from Lima over a limitless green ocean of dense, primeval rainforest, this frontier town is the jumping off point for expeditions into the vast Amazon basin.

The origins of this great waterway begin high in the snow-capped Andes, where tributaries swell and converge to form Earth's largest river, traversing 6,400km (4,000 miles) to the mouth of the Amazon at Belém, Brazil, 3,700km (2,300 miles) downriver from Iquitos.

Rainforest wonders

Tropical rainforests are the oldest and most complex ecosystems on the planet, influencing wind, rainfall, humidity and temperature patterns. Though only covering 6 to 7% of the earth, they house almost half of the world's plant, animal and insect life.

The Amazon basin is the most biodiverse region of all, and a primary gene pool from which foods, medicine and valuable products such as tea, coffee, pepper, spices, rubber and oils are derived.

A quarter of today's pharmaceuticals are derived from tropical rainforest plants, and according to the American National Cancer Institute, 70% of the plants useful in cancer treatment are found in our disappearing rainforests.

The secrets of the Amazon have been used in native cultures for several thousand years. Shamans, or medicine men, pass on their knowledge of natural healing remedies, effective in treating both physical and psychological ailments, and play a crucial role today in helping scientists discover the therapeutic potential of plants.

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Touring the Amazon

A trip into the Amazon is best done with native guides who can share basic survival skills and the secrets of jungle medicine.

One of the main outfitters, Explorama Tours (website:, began in 1964 when anthropologist and archaeologist Peter Jenson left his research in the Peruvian Andes to pursue a new vision of enabling travellers to explore the mysteries of the Amazon jungle.

Explorama Lodge is nestled deep in primary rainforest, 80km (50 miles) down the fast-flowing silt-laden Amazon River from Iquitos. Romantic kerosene torches illuminate palm-thatched houses. Brilliantly-coloured macaws perch on rails nibbling on hands of bananas hung for the guests, and frogs and katydids fill the tropical nights with a constant chorus.

The air is heavy with humidity in this region three degrees south of the equator, which receives an average annual rainfall of 5,330mm (210 inches). Surprisingly, one gets used to the heat, wearing loose-fitting clothing that protects from hungry insects and razor-sharp leaves in the jungle.

Jungle remedies

If you can find a guide with a shaman's knowledge of medicine, you'll begin to understand the astonishingly intricate relationship of all life in the rainforest.

The guides at Explorama are all locals, who often hike deep into remote jungle on their time off ‘just to get away from it all', weaving palm fronds for overnight shelter and living on plants and insects.

Luis is the son of a shaman, and an expert on jungle medicine. He's a genuine ribereño (river person), from a small village several miles away on the banks of the Amazon.

The jungle is alive with birds and insects, but the larger mammals and snakes are illusive. ‘They're watching,' confides Luis. ‘You just can't see them.'

He stops and slices a gash in the dragon's blood tree. The blood-red sap weeps onto his knife blade, and he rubs it on the palm of his hand, turning it into a paste that turns white. This has several uses - a natural balm to heal cuts, and a salve to take the sting out of mosquito bites. Five or six drops mixed in hot water is drunk for five or six days by women straight after childbirth to promote a quick recovery.

The deadly fer-de-lance snake claims many victims in the jungle, but Luis points out the plant of the same name that can save a person's life. The trunk is mashed into a poultice and the juice applied to the snake bite.

A little further on he points to the bright red fruit of the jungle ginger plant. When the stalks are red, they can be scraped and chewed for several days to cure bronchitis.

The mimosa herb is used as a contraceptive, while another herb helps increase fertility. A tea made from the paico plant kills intestinal parasites in adults if drunk for three days. Chewing on several boton de oro flowers for 15 minutes works as a natural anaesthetic before pulling a tooth.

High up in the canopy

An early morning hike through the rainforest from another lodge a further 80km (50 miles) downriver, leads to the Canopy Walkway, one of the longest treetop walkways in the world. Soaring over 30m (100ft) into the cloud forest, the walkway spans 14 platforms, supported by cables and ropes.

Many creatures use the walkway at night as they travel the jungle in their nocturnal forays. Porcupines actually climb up the cables from the rainforest floor like tightrope walkers, and sleep in tree hollows high in the canopy.

Local delicacies

Monkeys are prized by hunters, and a favourite of the native Yagua Indians who use long blowguns to shoot their prey out of the treetops. The tips are sharpened with piranha teeth and dipped in curare, a poison made by crushing poisonous ants and the poison red dart frog. The deadly dart will kill a monkey instantly.

Before leaving the Amazon make sure you go fishing for piranha. The standard rig is a thin tree branch, fishing line and a rusty hook, baited with a piece of beef. While it's not recommended to go swimming around the boat while fishing, it's very satisfying to cook up a mess of piranha and eat them, instead of the other way around!

Photo credits:
All photos © Dayle Fergusson

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