Photo by Edwin A. Franken
“If you thought the jungle was all about natural remedies, you’re wrong,” my friend Marcel says. “The jungle is about getting laid. And I guess about the fear that you won’t be able to.”
We are in the aphrodisiac section of Belén, the mind-boggling market in the Peruvian river town of Iquitos. Luz, a wizened old lady who supports herself on a stick as she stretches to reach various wares on her shelves is here to explain the best buys. She is “half-wild” as she calls it: half indigenous. Her father was mestizo (mixed race) but her mother was born into the matsés tribe and she grew up almost 200km down the Amazon River near the Brazilian border, 200km and – for the matsés – a lifetime away.
Luz reels off intimate secrets about just what a man or a woman might need to “perform” without batting an eyelid. “In Iquitos, people like to party,” she says. “They use these jungle herbs for aphrodisiacs without thinking what they really are. But for the matsés the relationship with our environment is more intense. For us, aphrodisiacs are not just about sex – they’re about feeling better – about feeling energized, reducing blood pressure, even stopping kidney dysfunction. You get from the plant everything you can. Once you’re feeling better, then…” She claps her hands together. “Well, that’s the secret, you understand?”
The three most popular items in her deadpan guided tour are, in order of their sensual-sounding names: 7 raices (“seven roots,” concocted with roots including the strongly clove-scented clavo huasca, a close and equally potent cousin of the hallucinogenic and far-more famous ayahuasca); rompe calzon (which translates as “panty breaker,” hinting at its power for prospective lovers); and the party favourite SVSS (“siete veces sin sacarla,” or “seven times without pulling out”).
A hotchpotch of rainforest plants are marinated in aguardiente, a homemade Latin American firewater rum, which sets off the stimulating agents. These include cumaceba, which also double as preventatives for arthritis, or tahuari, which can treat anything from gastric ulcers to respiratory disorders. Stranger ingredients include the genitals of the achuni, an animal resembling a cross between a raccoon and a mini anteater, and surprisingly familiar ones such as cashew nuts.
“The more stimulating the plant, the more other healing properties it has,” Luz says. However, the last ingredient she shows me is perhaps the most telling: bottled parts of the bufeo colorado, or pink river dolphin. “It’s like the spirit of the river,” Luz says, “the most sacred creature there is.” But not sacred enough not to bottle? “It’s because it is sacred that it has to be bottled,” she says. “These dolphins can transform into beautiful men who take people, usually young girls away, back into the water with them.”
When I ask where they are taken, she gestures vaguely, somewhere out beyond the wide grey meander of the river, the mottled green of the scrub. “Out there somewhere – where they don’t return. So eating the dolphin means it can’t do that – it means the magic is transferred to the person eating it.”