The Inca Trail to the Amazonian Castañas
By RICHARD VIGNOLA
When you tell people you’re going to Peru, the first thing everyone says is to be aware of the altitude. Like most flat-landers, when I first landed in Cusco I felt very light-headed and short of breath, and had to spend the next couple of days getting acclimatized to living at 11,300 feet!
After some practice walking much slower and drinking lots of water, I began my journey down the Sacred Valley towards Macchu Picchu, visiting numerous Incan ruins along the way. The ancient city of Macchu Picchu was even more stunning than I had expected.
I spent several hours walking around this wonderful site and took many great pictures. You can view some of these here
After this fascinating glimpse into Peru’s Incan history, I am ready and eager to start my real quest and the main reason for this trip: a journey into the Amazon rainforest to witness the Brazil nut harvest. In Peru, Brazil nuts are more accurately called Amazonian nuts, or castañas (pronounced “casta-niez”). The castañas tree is native to the vast Amazon rainforest, and I am here to see the unique harvesting methods and meet the people involved.
From Cusco it’s a short 30-minute flight to reach the rainforest, and I land on a rainy afternoon in Puerto Maldonado. The air is noticeably warmer and more humid, and it’s obvious that I am now in tropical rainforest territory. After a quick shower and change of clothes at my modest family hotel, I am met by Lupe Vizcarra from Candela Peru, the nut-processing company that sells us our wonderful organic Brazil nuts. Lupe, a bright and vibrant woman who, thankfully, speaks English, is the wife and business partner of Candela Peru’s president, Gaston Vizcarra. As we walk out under a drizzly night sky for a late dinner in town, Lupe tells me about the various community development programs Candela Peru is involved with in this area. We arrive at a lovely local eatery, and over a delicious Peruvian seafood stew, Lupe explains Candela Peru’s relationship with the castañaros (nut harvesters) and their families. Lupe has cultivated a lifelong passion for community work, as she was raised the daughter of a prominent Peruvian social activist. Founded in 1989, Candela Peru has been a pioneer in developing fair trade practices in the region, improving the lives of the people involved in the Amazonian nut industry.
Into the rainforest. Early the next morning I am taken to Puerto Arturo on the Rio Madre de Dios. There I am handed a small tent and sleeping pad before boarding a small boat heading upriver to Candela Peru’s Pariamarca forest camp, a journey that takes most of the day.
Upon arriving I am met by Candela Peru’s regional foreman, Cirilo Sanchez Cruz. Cirilo, along with everyone else I am to meet over the next few days, only speaks Spanish, but is very kind and helpful. Between organizing and giving instructions to his men, Cirilo explains how the castañas are harvested from different concessions (areas given by the local government to the castañaros to harvest) and brought back to the camps each night, each sack tagged with identification showing the nuts’ precise origin.
I spend some time walking around the Pariamarca camp, taking photos and talking with the many curious children and residents. Pariamarca is home to about 15 castañaros and their families, who live in simple camp dwellings for the three harvest months from January to April. After the harvest, most castañaros return to Puerto Maldonado for the remainder of the year. Some find other work in town, but most rely on the nut harvest as their sole income.
With Cirilo as my guide, we continue our journey upriver, passing numerous boats along the way. Many are loaded with sacks of castañas, lumber, produce or people heading back down to Puerto Maldonado’s markets and processing plants.
Rainforest camping. Night has fallen, and it’s raining hard as we near our destination, situated at the junction of Rio Pariamanu and Rio Ashipal. Almost everything in our small boat is soaking wet, but I manage to keep my camera and duffle bags partially covered under my rain poncho. Navigating in almost total darkness, I dig into my bag and find my reading light to shine ahead and help our driver Victor avoid floating logs and debris. As we round a corner we finally see Camp Ashipal. Generators provide power for light throughout the camp, and some castañaros are making their way to the shore to greet us and help us unload our soggy cargo.
Like camp Pariamarca, Ashipal consists of open wooden structures that each have two or three small bedrooms and larger open areas where sacks of castañas can be stacked under the thatched roofs. Here, beside stacks of freshly harvested nuts, I put up my small tent and dig through my bag for drier clothing to wear. After hanging everything else to dry in the night breeze, I join my travel companions for a late dinner of thin rice stew with pieces of what tastes like chicken. I dare not ask, but nonetheless enjoy the flavour! I stay up for a while with Cirilo, Victor and a few castañaros, quietly talking over cocoña juice, a drink made by mashing the cocoña (also called peach tomato) fruit. I just love the refreshing and somewhat peachy taste of this drink. I tell my hosts about the people in Canada, how they enjoy eating the delicious castañas grown and harvested here. They enjoy hearing about Canada, and are especially fascinated by my description of the Yukon and its climate: the 24-hour darkness of midwinter and the 24-hour daylight of midsummer. After a whole day of river travel, my limited Spanish begins to fade and I finally give up, bid everyone “buenas noches” and head to my tent. That night I fall into a deep sleep, despite the cacophony of unfamiliar screeches and noises coming from the surrounding forest.
Continuing upriver. I awake early the next day to the sound of men loading huge 80-kilogram bags of nuts onto each others’ backs and carrying them down the slippery river bank for transport back to Puerto Maldonado. I get up and join them for a quick breakfast of rice and meat with a cup of sweet warm milk. Afterwards, Cirilo, Victor and I hop in our boat and motor up the smaller Rio Ashipal to visit one of Candela Peru’s castañas concessions. This river is much narrower than the waterways we travelled on yesterday, and Victor has to be extra vigilant to avoid the shallow sandy shoals that would get us stranded. Along the way we see several small forest camps where women and children wave to us as we pass. Some of these camps are nut concessions and some are small logging camps where stacks of huge hardwood planks lie cut, awaiting transport back to town.
After over an hour negotiating the narrow Rio Ashipal, we reach our destination: the Flores concession harvest camp. Castañaro Hernan Chavez receives us with a jovial toothless grin and introduces us to his family and the people who help run the camp. We are offered the usual welcoming drink, which is most often either Coca-Cola or Inca Kola (the Peruvian version of pop, a yellowish, sweet, fizzy drink). However, after I tell them how much I loved the cocoña juice I had the night before, to my delight they produce a jug of the natural sweet nectar for me to enjoy.
The majestic castañas tree. Hernan grabs his harvest equipment: a simple woven reed basket with shoulder straps and his pod picker, a bamboo stick split four ways and flared at one end for gathering the castañas pods from the forest floor. I am handed a plastic hard hat as we get up and follow Hernan down the path. Although Candela Peru provides hard hats for all the castañaros, no one wears them - however, I for one do not want to have one of these castañas pods fall on my head! A one-kilogram pod dropping from 100 feet or more can definitely be lethal. On the way, Hernan points to the many fruit trees he has planted around the place: papaya, pineapple and cocoña trees dot the landscape. There is also a corn patch, a vegetable garden and even a small rice paddy Hernan has established in a naturally wet marshy area. This far from civilization, it makes sense for the families to grow as much food as they can. Although the camp is primitive and is occupied only three months of the year, it is definitely a well-thought-out operation.
As we walk deeper into the forest, the vegetation grows increasingly dense, and our voices become muted in the surrounding foliage. Suddenly Hernan bids us follow him down a barely visible path to our left. Making our way over fallen trees and other obstacles, we stop in front of a very large tree, perhaps a metre in diameter, with a uniform, tight bark; I am meeting my very first castañas tree! Gazing up, it is difficult to see the canopy as it towers above the surrounding trees.
Cirilo points to the ground, which is littered with dark seed pods, each about six inches in diameter. Hernan gets busy picking them up with the flared end of his bamboo picker and flicking them into his basket as I walk around marvelling at this giant tree and taking photos of its fallen seeds. After a short while, Cirilo points up to the sky and then to his head, reminding me that this is not a good place to linger. Perhaps because of their reluctance to wear head protection, castañaros are always aware of the possibility of falling castañas pods – if you happen to be standing in the wrong spot it’s lights out for you!
Castañeros community. We head back to Camp Flores, and after some photos with the family, Cirilo, Victor and I take to our boat and travel back downstream to Camp Ashipal. There we eat a small lunch, pack our things and travel back to Cirilo’s headquarters at Camp Pariamarca where I will spend my second night. Travelling downriver is of course much faster, and by midafternoon we arrive at Camp Pariamarca in about half the time it took us to get to Camp Ashipal yesterday.
Everyone is busy putting the finishing touches to a large, covered wooden floor, hanging decorations and strings of lights. I ask what all the fuss is about, and the young people excitedly tell me that there will be a fiesta here this coming Sunday to celebrate the harvest. Later, Cirilo explains that, as Candela Peru’s main regional headquarters, Camp Pariamarca puts on this event each year to further the community spirit, inviting all the forest workers in the area to celebrate the harvest in music and friendship. I’m sad to be missing this festive event, as I will be leaving the next day.
Life on the river. Early the following morning I say “adios” to Cirilo and his castañaros as Victor and I head to our boat bound for Puerto Maldonado, where I will be visiting Candela Peru’s nut-processing plant. As we travel down the river, we pass boats loaded with people, supplies, animals and even small motorcycles, making their way to the different camps along these beautiful rivers. I snap photos, wave and smile at them, and feel a kind of connection from my new-found knowledge of the way these folks live. We spot a family on land waving us to stop, and Victor pulls us alongside the shore. We meet an older couple and a young man who ask Victor if they may be taken aboard with their cargo of bananas bound for Puerto Maldonado. We help load the bananas onto our small boat and take on our three new passengers. We have a nice visit as we continue our journey, sharing food and laughter, and by midday arrive in Puerto Maldonado under a very hot Amazonian sun.
While I am tired, bug-eaten and sunburnt, I also feel elated and privileged to have had this experience. Sharing in the lives of the castañaros and their families, if only for a couple of days, has given me a deep appreciation for these wonderful, hard-working people. From this day on, eating a Brazil nut will have a whole new meaning for me, and I hope for you too! These beautiful castañas will nourish our bodies and also our souls all the more through this human connection we now share.