Background image of Colorful canoes rest on the waterfront at Ivochote.


Traveling the network of indigenous knowledge

This post first appeared on National Geographic’s Explorers Journal. On each expedition on The Healing JourneyJon Waterhouse uses canoes to travel along rivers, recording traditional knowledge from local people, and detailed scientific readings of water conditions and quality using cutting-edge technology. Now he’s working with indigenous leaders in South America to kick off a new project: The Network of Indigenous Knowledge.

By Jon Waterhouse

As many of you know, I recently journeyed to a remote region of the Peruvian Amazon near the foothills of the Andes along with my wife, partner, and photographer Mary Marshall. The purpose of this trip was to visit our friends, the Machiguenga Tribe.

Our global effort, and the focus of this particularly important trip to Peru, is to introduce and connect indigenous people from cultures around the world, while also helping them incorporate modern scientific water-monitoring capabilities into their culture.

As development worldwide continues to encroach on lands inhabited by minimal-contact tribes, we realize the value in helping native people create baselines of scientific data pertaining to their water. With the assistance of friends who are scientists and documentarians, we train tribal members in collecting data and in “monitorization” practices which will assist them in the preservation of their water and environmental health. With regard to connecting with people outside of their realm, we provide the ability for them to digitally record whatever aspects of their culture they would like to share with the world.

On this visit we officially began introductions between the native people of the Amazonian Basin with those who live within the Yukon River Watershed of Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory, putting in place the first phase of the Network of Indigenous Knowledge.

Before departing for Peru, we had been asked to write about our journey in a few segments, so once we were back in Lima and on our way home, over a candlelit dinner at a little place called Momma Lola’s in the Miraflores District, we sat down and attempted to list the numerous highlights of our days in the Amazon, in the order that they occurred. This got a bit comical, since a few events were truly hysterical and/or surreal:

  • A large jungle mouse fell through the thatched roof of our accommodations one night which resulted in a nameless member of our team (all 6′+ of him) jumping onto a table and screaming like my little sister.
  • Another odd moment occurred when just as we pulled our canoes onto the bank of the Urubamba River, out of the jungle emerged 4 unusually white humans – a British film crew. Seriously. Turns out they are producing a reality show for the BBC called, “I Bought a Rainforest”, which one of them actually had.
  • During one of our classes, we were introduced to one of 34 species of ‘worm’, this one roughly the size and shape of a Brazil nut, which ended up being a dietary staple and a delicacy for Machiguengan friends.
  • And when a Hawk Wasp paid us a visit one day, we learned that this giant flyer paralyzes tarantulas then lays its eggs inside them.

The list got long and crazy and as I re-read it, I thought you guys might get a kick out of our pseudo travel journal. We’ll begin with our trek to get to our destination. Here’s how things unfolded. Or close, anyway.

The Arrival

After a few days of gathering supplies in Lima, we rose at 4am to temperatures hovering around freezing. We Alaskans, Todd Hardesty, Ryan Toohey, Dacho Alexander, Mary, and myself, departed our cozy hostel quarters to catch our 6am flight from Lima to Cuzco. Our friend and team member, Guillermo Knell, met us as we checked in at the Star Peru counter. Another friend and member of our team, National Geographic Fellow Chris Rainier, arrived from the States literally just in time to meet us at our gate and hop on the plane. Awesome! We knew we’d be cutting this one close with regard to Chris’s flight, so once we saw his smiling face, our cat herder (me) could relax a bit.

The altitude in Cuzco, around 3350 meters (11,000 feet) can really mess with your well-being so vendors are set up throughout the baggage area of the Cuzco Airport giving out small bundles of coca leaves. Chewing these leaves alleviates queasiness for arriving passengers experiencing altitude sickness. After each of us grabbed a bundle of these wondrous medicinal leaves we proceeded outside to find our van and driver, Cleto. We loaded our mass of Pelican cases and duffels, camera bags and tripods, water-quality test kits, etc., then stuffed ourselves into what is for sure a large vehicle by South American standards.

The Van

Our van could seat 15, but our gear easily took up more space inside and on the roof than we did. Plus, aside from Mary and I, our team members are all over 6′ tall (an amusement to the Machiguenga who are typically around 5′) so we knew additional legroom would be appreciated. Because roads are very narrow most vehicles used in this area of the world are small mini-vans, yet that fact does not prevent local travelers from piling into them 15-deep. We witnessed this event firsthand when after a head-on collision (in which we participated), we watched over a dozen people pour out from the van that hit us! More about that later…

Because in rural Peru there is NEVER toilet paper or paper towels in any toilet you’ll find (Western or otherwise), we keep rolls of TP and a bottle of hand sanitizer close. As usual, our first stop was to equip ourselves with those essentials, plus bottled water, snacks, more coca leaves (just in case), etc. Once this task was completed, we began our all-day drive through a very small portion of the longest mountain range in the world, the Andes.

Ancient Ruins, Timeless Mountains, Overturned Vehicles

During the first part of our road trip, a paved road took us over farmlands with wide vistas of the incredible peaks surrounding us. We passed ancient stone dwellings set within long lengths of low stone walls high up on open hillsides, their steep pastures spilling down to us on the road. Horses and alpaca speckled the slopes. At one point we came upon a site of Inca ruins. The spectacular scenery is literally breathtaking. We got a kick out of seeing our fellow travelers marveling at the epic grandeur.

We climbed gradually up the mountainside road which switches back on itself periodically at such impossible angles that often large trucks can’t do it.

We came upon one such semi on a hairpin turn, tipped-over and blocking the entire road. As a dense white mist engulfed the scene, our visibility was reduced considerably which added to the eerie and surreal image of the large trailer lying on its side. Our view forward was through a window of fog, the rock cliff on our left, the long trailer spanning the road directly before us, and the sharp drop into the misty unknown on the right.

Cleto inched our van off the asphalt and onto the narrow, rocky space between the rock face and the semi’s trailer. We could see the sheared twist of metal where the trailer had previously attached to the truck itself, and inside, the dejected driver was seated in his still-upright cab–waiting for a source of help much greater than any we might provide. That would be the first of a few encounters we had with road blockages.

The Lay of the Land

When the paved road ended about halfway through our day, the open pastures within their mountainous bowl fast became dark overgrown canyons. In some spots, our path seemed to be more of a muddy slash through wet foliage than a main route of travel. As in most jungle mountain regions, a road is nothing more than a skinny little ledge on the side of a steep mountainside, the severity of its precarious position camouflaged in the most literal sense. A vine-covered rock wall on one side gives way to the road–nothing more than a narrow flat spot–and a steep, steep, seemingly endless drop into a lush, green abyss on the other.

Periodically we would spy a snaking river in the valleys far below, allowing us to know how incredibly high in the Andes we were. Repeatedly, some of us freaked out a little at the mere idea of where we were on this treacherous road in South America where guardrails and access to 911 do not exist. Others of us have traveled these roads a few times and laughed while recalling our own first white-knuckle experiences here.

No Rest for the Weary

At 6pm on this first day, beyond exhausted from a full day of hair-raising stunt riding, we arrived in our first overnight stop, Quillabamba. This town, the largest on our route, was built around a large central market where you can purchase everything from food and clothes to jars of thick, green hallucinogenic concoctions and machetes. As we lugged our gear into the lobby of our hostel across from the market, we were halted by the owner and the bearer of utterly deflating news: a region-wide strike against the gas corporation loomed, and was scheduled to begin at midnight. She added that the strike would ensure the closure of the bridge so if we wanted to avoid being stranded on the wrong side indefinitely, we’d need to leave Quillabamba by 9pm that very night.

Bummed, we rolled none the less. We picked up our Machiguengan friend, Dolores, and had a nice meal at a favorite cafe in Quillabamba, Don Carlos’s. Dolores would ride with us in the van to the end of the road then join us in the boat to Timpia, her home and our final destination. After dinner, though we craved only showers and sleep, we reluctantly re-boarded the van and drove deeper into the jungle in the very dark of night–something not recommended by locals or anyone remotely familiar with the area. We made the bridge crossing before the start of the strike and pressed on.

When we arrived in a small hamlet called Kiteny sometime after 1am, there was a surprisingly heavy military and police presence. Armed cops and soldiers strolled the darkened sidewalks and stood chatting in groups, all intently eyeing our van as we crept by them sometime in the wee hours. Pretty surreal. We guessed that a van-load of North Americans traveling in this region in the night was a rare sight. They stopped us, questioning us as they evaluated with their intense flashlights our weary faces and our cargo. They instructed us to park on the street, already tight with dozens of large trucks and converted dirt bikes, then left us to find our way.

Friends in High Places

We discovered that Dolores has friends in this tiny community and had arranged sleeping quarters for us there, so we set off in different directions to locate our beds. The street was sparsely lit and the train of unwieldy cargo carriers lining both sides created a patchwork of bright light, extreme darkness and shadows.

Stray dogs are a harsh reality in Peru and are most noticeable in the smaller communities. As Mary and I made our way up the street, we stepped over several sleeping strays on the sidewalks.

Our spot was a few doors away from the group in a small building which we guessed typically boasts a “No Vacancy” status thanks to exhausted and dust-covered truckers. The place would likely be snubbed by any American hotel ratings system but the owners got up in the middle of the night to prepare for and welcome us. For that, we give it five stars. They were kind and hospitable, the bathrooms were freshly cleaned, and we were grateful for a place to finally lay our bobbing heads. They could only provide us separate rooms–each with a twin bed, so we chose the room with the window, cranked up the floor fan, piled into one skinny bed and happily passed out, unconcerned that we might be surrounded by who knows what DNA, biohazards, and crawlers.

Room With a View of a Room

We woke a few hours later at 6am to discover in the dim inklings of daylight that from our window, we had a direct view into a modest home standing like an afterthought behind our building.

The dwelling was more of a stall, really, with a roof made of a corrugated metal sheet held down by large rocks, three mud brick walls and an open side which faced our window about 12 feet away. There was a large faded bed-sheet spanning the open wall. Obviously intended for privacy, the sheet was permanently pulled back (as indicated by its patterned dusting of red clay), affording us a brief, albeit unexpected look into the world of a small Peruvian family. No furniture, no kitchen or bath, no flooring, paint or doors. Just a shelter from the elements which one might call his or her own. (Concrete outhouses are more common in rural Peru than indoor plumbing so most homes have one with an outdoor sink and shower.)

A hammock, a pad with a couple of blankets on the floor, and a few pieces of hand-made art on the walls completed this humble abode.

We gathered our detritus, met up with the gang and ate a breakfast of fresh papaya juice, eggs, rice, plantains, and hot chiles at a riverside cafe open on one side to the outdoors. We then loaded up and took off, continuing our long drive to Ivochote where we’d catch our boat to Timpia.

Along the way we came upon the first of several road closures and detours which would force us onto smaller, even less traveled roads, scaring the hell out of some of us and seriously messing with our schedule. The reward was experiencing the untouched beauty which surrounded us, the sights and sounds of the lush rainforest–including the calls of toucans, parrots, and macaws perched in dense and sporadically colorful foliage.

Unsettling, Either Way

After many hours of creeping along the muddy road in our large van, we arrived in the infamous Ivochote.

The last time we came through this rough and tumble outpost in the Andean jungle, it was quite unsettling. Major drug cartels dominate this region so law enforcement is ever-present and battles between the two forces are ongoing. Pairs of Russian helicopters (MI-17s) came and went that day, periodically hovering about over our heads in the several hours we waited for clearance to load our pile of gear into boats and proceed on to Timpia. Even more awesome to take in were the dozens of heavily armed soldiers in camouflage, posted along each rooftop lining the dusty dirt main street and the river bank. We’re talking arms such as assault rifles–some with attached grenade-launchers, SAWS, hand grenades, etc. The presence of such epic weaponry reminded us of a video game, with the really crazy twist that we were actually present in this one, and without the living room guarantee of a safe, happy outcome.

This time, however, there were no signs of authority or that familiar military force anywhere–which was equally unsettling. Inquisitive stares from men of unknown and/or questionable character and intent abounded. Our polite attitude and confident approach in any community we visit may be why we don’t run into trouble, yet perhaps a little denial of how vulnerable we might actually be is effective, too. We loaded the boat and hit the river for Timpia.

Land of Inca Kong

The highlight of the boat trip from Ivochote to Timpia is unquestionably the canyon known as the Pongo de Mainique. This tiny place, incomparable in its beauty, is listed as one of the most bio-diverse areas on the planet and has shown us poison dart frogs, parades of leaf-cutter ants, macaws, and parrots, stunning orchids, clouds of butterflies, and monkeys swinging from vines. It was crossed by the ancient Inca Bridge, part of the secret entrance to Machu Picchu. This lush canyon is where the waters of the Urubamba River–the same waters which pass far below Macchu Picchu–funnel down and eventually shoot through its towering rock walls, ceremoniously marking the end of the Andes.

Inside the Pongo, spectacular waterfalls cascade from high jungle forests over giant moss-covered boulders on each side. When the waters are high and fast, there are few opportunities to linger. A massive whirlpool stands between the canyon and the flat terrain which spills forth dramatically from within the epic mountain range. The whirlpool signals the shift to slightly smoother waters and a different kind of magic. To the Machiguenga, the Pongo de Mainique’s whirlpool is sacred. It is where their creation story unfolds. Once past the powerful swirl, as you drift out of the Pongo and look back, you half expect to hear King Kong roar an echoing warning to trespassers from somewhere beyond the limits of what you can see.

An Amazonian Shangri-la

Just before dark we arrived at Sabeti, a large and primitive stilted guesthouse built years ago by the Machiguenga for boat travelers of the 450 mile-long Urubamba. The people of the region saw the need for a place to house weary voyagers and met that need, but the standards of the jungle don’t adhere to any star rating system, so while charming and beautiful, Sabeti is not for any faint-of-heart U.S. urbanite. The windows boast no glass (only screen) and the roof is thatched. Electricity is available intermittently via an old generator, providing you’ve packed in some fuel. Wooden stairs wrap up around the curved cliff from the river bank and are well hidden amid palms and vines.

These steps, covered by a thatched awning in spots, are a perfect habitat for certain insects and arachnids so quick assessment prior to each hand placement on the railing is paramount. Permanently damp or wet, the structure requires continual attention and reinforcement. Inside the building, tarantula nests are visible between the posts and thatched ceilings overhead, and holes in the screens which separate the indoors from the out are often large enough for a small child to pass.

Yet for an Adventurous Spirit, someone with a genuine appreciation for nature, the wild, and the ways of other cultures, Sabeti is a jewel. When viewed from the river, the building’s silhouette is almost camouflaged by the jungle surrounding it. There are 10 guest rooms lining one side of a very long hall–perhaps 60′ or more in length. The other side of this hallway is open to the outside with only the old screens preventing access by whatever curious creature might want in. Closest to the cliff overlooking the river, there is a large room where meals and gatherings take place. Off of that central area there is a short open breezeway to a small attached kitchen and another breezeway to a small attached bath area with three-sink/shower closets and three-sink/toilet closets. From above, the building would look similar to a capital F.

Sabeti sits empty while there are no guests, which is a major portion of the time, and the jungle makes a concerted effort to reclaim it when it is vacant. When we made a brief visit there last Spring, it was evident that bats take over when it’s neglected. In the great room or dining hall, the tarantula nests previously mentioned are 15′ and 20′ over our heads and though our hosts from the tribe assure us the nests are abandoned, we still find ourselves looking up often. Regardless, Sabeti’s location high on the banks of the Urubamba is perfect and all the characteristics that contribute to its wild feel only add to its untamed enchantment.

Sights and Sounds of the Wild

From Sabeti, looking upriver you can see the start of the Andes and the opening which is the Pongo. The land around the front of the building has been cleared so viewing the billions of stars in the night sky is breathtaking. Hearing the waters of the powerful Urubamba below adds to the mesmerizing effect. In the mornings, squawking parrots pass on their way to the nearest salt lick, wherever that may be. Then before dark they pass again, seemingly headed home from a hard day’s work. They fill the air with noise and are a thrill to watch go by. Lightning bugs as big as giant beetles float through the air at night, staying lit for seconds at a time. Bamboo rats loudly call to one another from the trees, sounding remarkably like someone hammering a 2×4.

Just outside Sabeti’s main entrance there are two large palm trees, one of which is home to a Pink-toed Tarantula. Even though Mary has long considered herself an arachnophobic, she found this tarantula to be both beautiful and fascinating to watch. At the base of the other tree is a Bullet Ant nest–also fascinating, albeit a bit unnerving to observe, mostly because its residents bite and sting. We are told the pain delivered by either lasts for around 24 hours and is almost unbearable. The ant is over an inch in length and is hard and shiny black with pinchers that closely resemble ice block tongs. Some slept a bit uneasy that first night knowing we were among the ultimate crawlers of the ultimate jungle, but being there was incredible just the same.

We all awoke the next morning full of awe and inspiration at where we were, and at the idea of bringing helpful technology to the Machiguengan people, who since time immemorial have been environmental stewards and the guardians of the wondrous land surrounding us.

This was going to be good.

Tune in next month for details of our time at Sabeti and Timpia, as well as our return to Lima…

Read All Posts by Jon Waterhouse

Jon Waterhouse is the executive director of the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council and a 2012 honoree for the Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award.