An Introduction to Common Fruits in the Upper Amazon

The fruit diversity project is managed by Project Amazonas, Inc., a Peruvian-American non-profit organization that focuses on humanitarian, educational, research and conservation work in the Peruvian Amazon.  The goal of this initiative is to cultivate a nursery of the widest possible variety of Amazon tropical fruits in a single location, as well as to return forests to their natural balance by reintroducing native trees in areas that have been degraded by logging and slash and burn farming.  The site is near the village of Santa Cruz on the Mazan River, just upstream from its junction with the Napo River.


Teachers and college students can assist in the project and get a hands-on introduction to the Amazon to bring home and to their classroom while earning undergraduate or graduate credit: Hands-on Amazon for Educators.  Volunteers are also invited.

Unlike papaya, coconut and other commonly-known tropical fruits, most local fruits in the Amazon basin don’t have the shelf life, durability, consistent supply, or the financial viability to attain worldwide distribution and are relegated to local enjoyment.   Only a handful of the most common fruits are mentioned in this article; dozens more can be found in the surrounding rainforest.

Why the variety of tropical fruits?  The intense competition of tropical ecosystems, as well as poor soil, variable rains and often months-long inundation have driven plants to creative measures of survival and propagation.   Among the adaptations necessary for the survival of the species is a method of seed dispersal, giving rise to an enormous variety of edible fruits.  A seed with an appetizer that will be picked up by a fish or mammal without destroying its viability is advantageous to its survival.  As an example, the cashew has a fleshy, appealing “apple”, while the nut is protected against predation with inflammatory and cyanogenic compounds; it succeeds due to this clever combination of pleasure and poison.  The nut must be processed to remove the toxic chemicals before it makes it to the store shelf.   It follows that this symbiotic relationship with animals has engendered fruits high in nutrients beneficial to the animals that disperse them, especially proteins, oils, carbohydrates, vitamins, and other phytochemicals yet to be appreciated.

Local fruits are dietary staples on homesteads, as well as ubiquitous in the form of juice drinks and ice cream in Iquitos.  In their raw form, many tropical fruits are high in both sugar and citric acid, making them at once sweet and bitter.   Cane sugar (also grown locally) is usually added in their preparations; especially needy are starfruit, cocona, camu camu, arazá and a few others.

Ice creams at the Giornato heladería on the Plaza de Armas, Iquitos

Some of the most common fruits are described briefly below.  Several of them have been imported and widely distributed throughout the tropics but most are of Amazon origin.  Since local names vary, often referring to more than one fruit, or to different fruits in different areas of the Amazon basin, scientific names are included.

AGUAJE (Mauritia flexuosa) – The deep red, lumpy, egg-shaped fruit is the most common of all the fruits in Iquitos, found on almost every street corner. Yellow-orange when peeled, tasty, but there’s very little to eat (big seed and little meat). The large palm that provides it is impressive.  To get the taste of the fruit, stick with the ice cream or buy them fresh, as the fruit available on the street suffers a questionable sanitary standard.

ANONA (Rollinia mucosa) A strange looking thing with green-yellow knobs.  When it’s ripe (soft to the touch), it’s best to cut it in half and use a spoon to scoop it out – taste of vanilla custard.  An overlooked gem, not to be confused with noni!)  It’s a random find, sometimes available at roadside stands on the highway.

Fruit-laden aguaje palm and ripe anona

ARAZÁ (Eugenia stipitata), also known as guayaba brasilera.  Yellow, highly variable from golf ball- to softball-sized.  Soft skin and texture of a ripe peach, a good fruit to munch on, and extremely versatile, useful from marmalade to wine, and of course, juice.  A bit acidic.  The native Peruvian version (guayaba) produces smaller fruits and is more susceptible to insect predation, but can be made into an excellent marmalade.

CAMU CAMU  (Myrciaria dubia) has the highest  concentration of Vitamin C of any known fruit in the world.   There is also significant and promising research indicating that the phytochemicals in the fruit are effective in treating a variety of medical maladies.

LUCUMA (Pouteria spp.) – an incredibly unique taste!  It’s dense and sticky, not something eaten by itself, but it’s so unusual that it can be found in many forms including chocolate-covered drops.


Left: arazá and camu camu.  Right: lucuma

MARACUYÁ (Passiflora edulis) – a mid-sized yellow passion fruit, teardrop shaped, common in the Belen market.  Very similar to GRANADILLA (Passiflora ligularis), another passion fruit.  The myriad seeds are covered with a sweet gel that doesn’t make for the easiest eating fruit, but a common fruit juice in season and a frequent beverage in local eateries.

UVILLA (Pourouma cecropiaefolia) Amazon grapes, similar to purple grapes but with a much larger seed.  Frequently found in smaller markets in season.


Left: Granadilla. Right: uvilla.

TUMBO (Passiflora quadrangularis) – a giant passion fruit, frequently trained on a home garden trellis.  Taste similar to cantaloupe.


Tumbo in the market and on home trellis.

CARAMBOLA / star fruit (Averrhoa carambola) – one of those sweet and sour fruits that needs a little sugar.  Widely cultivated, it’s an import, probably from the East Indies.

COCONA (Solanum sessiliflorum)– a native tomato.  In the wild, they’re often covered with coarse fuzz.  They can be eaten raw but the skin is thick.  It’s sweetened to make a drink commonly served in local restaurants.


Left: carombola on the tree; Right: cocona on the bush

CACAO (Theobroma cacao) Like copoasú, the pulp around the seed is consumed and the seed is discarded except in commercial operations for making chocolate.  Fruit grows directly from the trunk, not unusual in tropical fruits

COPOASÚ (Theobroma grandiflorum) The soft pulp around the seeds is the tasty part, redolent of rum.  The hull is nearly as thick and tough as a coconut.


Left: copoasú in its tortoise shell; Right: cacao ripening on the tree

MACAMBO (Theobroma bicolor) – resembles a green football brain.  More likely to see the grilled tasty seeds than the actual fruit.

NONI (Morinda citrofolia) nicknamed cheesefruit for good reason.  It’s respected by the locals for medicinal uses, and can be eaten as a survival food.  There’s a type of Danish cheese that has a similar malodorous property – I’m told it’s good if you can just get it past the lips, but you can’t wash the smell off your fingers.


Left: macambo with its ant sentinels; Center: grilled macambo seeds; Right: noni (cheese fruit)

MARAÑON / CASHEW (Anacardium occidentale).  Grouped with cacao here because many people don’t know that the best part – the cashew nut, is discarded.  The “apple” part is eaten, similar to mamey, but the nut is protected by two layers of deterrent; don’t eat it raw unless you want to get poison-ivy like blisters,  – the seeds have to be commercially processed to be edible.

TAPERIBA (Spondias dulcis)  Common in drinks, ice cream, even pastries.  Eaten raw when in season, the somewhat tenuous flesh sticks to a stringy pit, but it has much more meat than aguaje.

Left: cashew apple and nuts.  Right: taperiba

GUAYÁBANA (Annona muricata) Easy to identify by its deep green color and spiny skin, it is dense, solid, yet amorphous.

SINAMILLO (Oenocarpus mapora) and UNGURAHUI (Oenocarpus bataua) with clusters of small hanging fruits, these are more typical of palm fruit than is the familiar coconut. Sinamillo is mashed into a cocoa-colored drink.  Ungurahui fruit is extremely nutritious, high in good-quality protein and oil.

Left: guayábana.  Center: child plucking sinamillo.  Right: sapote vendor.

SAPOTE (Matisia cordata).  Attractive olive skin, and rich peach-orange color inside, taste of a great melon but more meaty.

HUITO (Genipa americana), the size of a large fist, gets sickeningly sweetly pungent when ripe.  These are well represented in the medicinal plants row in the Belen market, and the young fruit produces an indelible ink and body paint.

PIFUAYO (Bactris gasipaes) Clusters of egg-sized fruit can be green, yellow, or orange, from a tall, spiny palm tree.  They can be eaten raw, but are more commonly boiled, peeled and salted.

GUABA (Inga edulis) Sometimes called ice cream bean, it is not related to the vanilla bean.  The long pods are twisted to reveal a dozen or so nuts wrapped in a moist, cottony, pleasant tasting snack.

Huito, pifuayo and guava.

SACHA MANGO (Grias peruviana) Generally, “sacha” can be translated as “wild”, “pseudo”, or the like.  It is not at all related to mango.  It has a huge seed, and the edible part around it has the color, texture and taste of carrot.



CAIMITO (Chrysophyllum caimito ) the trees produce a huge crop seasonally and can be found most of the year.  Quite tasty, but the skin releases latex when broken, making for sticky lips unless it’s peeled first.

Boy with caimito

Some fruit trees have been heavily planted in and around Iquitos primarily for their ornamental value.   Mamey, breadfruit, huasai (and some other palms) are the most common.  Pictures will follow in a later post.

BREADFRUIT  /  Pan del arbol (Artocarpus altilis)  The seeds are boiled with a peanut-like flavor, and the pulp is high in starch.  An import, the fruit was brought to attention by the fascinating story of the voyage of the Bounty.  Breadfruit trees are a common sight along the banks of riverine settlements.

HUASAÍ (Euterpe spp.), A sister of the Brazilian acai berry, which enjoyed a brief explosion in popularity in the States as a weight loss scheme.  The tree has a slim, elegant look and are a favorite municipal planting, notably along the Nauta highway and at the airport.

MAMEY / poma rosa (Syzygium malaccense Merr&Perry) with dark green foliation, the tree is easily trimmed to a nice shape, and drops a fruit closely resembling an apple both in taste and appearance, except for its large pit.  The texture is softer, too, more like a ripe pear.  The apple is eaten raw and doesn’t make its way into drinks or ice cream. There are several of these trees on the Plaza de Armas in Iquitos, in bloom in August with magenta flowers.

CIDRA – this is a common, inexpensive fruit, a green-colored orange wanna-be.  Stringy and as bitter as lemon.  Because of the variability of local citrus, these can appear similar to sweeter oranges.  They are shown in the first picture in this blog, posing as limes.

COCO / CACAO / COCA – for the casual tourist, it’s important to differentiate amongst the similar-sounding things.  They are not at all related.  COCO is coconut, a nice treat when you’re thirsty at fruit stands on the highway chilled, opened with a machete and served with a straw.

CACAO is mentioned above, the fruit that produces the seeds that are processed into chocolate.

COCA is the leaf that can be processed to produce cocaine.  The dried leaves are boiled for tea (mate de coca) as a general stimulant and to combat altitude sickness (soroche).

BANANA – very briefly, there are several types that can be called plátano. Plátano maduro is very firm, served grilled or sliced and deep fried.  Sweeter and softer bananas are eaten raw or sliced lengthwise and gently pan fried.

Don Dean

Last update: December 2012.  Credits:  All photos taken on site in Iquitos, Mazan or Santa Cruz, Loreto, Perú.

You may link freely to this site, but all photos and text are copyrighted by the author.  I am keenly interested in developing the fruit diversity project with more fruits, as well as adding good quality native woods and palms.  Comments and questions are very welcome:

2012 – Year of the Reptile


At Home in Loreto, Perú

Building a Cornucopia Amazonica

Building A Cornucopia Amazonica: A Trip To The Frontera In Search Of Fruit


The rapido leaves early from a small pier called Heuquito.   By 5:30 a.m., the Peruvian DEA dogs have already sniffed your luggage and you have settled into a personal claustrophobia for the next nine hours.   Vendors, many of them young children, board the boat with last- minute provisions: water, fruit, bread, sweets – everything at twice or more the street price.  You might think you’d experience National Geographic scenery, splitting schools of pink dolphins and flocks of scarlet macaws.  Not.  It’s more like driving through Pennsylvania; it gets old fast.  Hours of trying to find new ways to stretch.   After a while, the guilt dogs you until it’s no longer socially acceptable to ignore your neighbor despite the desire to withdraw and sleep; you have to make the reluctant embrace, however clumsy the language.   Now you’re stuck with it – chit chat or whatever in a language and culture that’s not in your comfort zone, becoming ever so more richly rewarding.  ‘Nuf said.

Immediately upon arrival at Santa Rosa, you’re checked out of the country and officially become a citizen of nowhere.  Fare payable in three currencies, colectivos ferry you across the river to Tabitinga, Brazil, or to Leticia, Colombia, where you need to check in and become legal again.

So why make the trip?  For anyone, it’s worth the while just to admire the differences among the three cultures.  Leticia is a tidy little city with a good infrastructure (mostly reliable water and electricity), while the smaller Portuguese-speaking Brazilian town of Tabatinga hasn’t gotten there yet.   Santa Rosa, on the Peruvian side, is simply a way station – the end of the line, bleak.   Many rugged travelers use the tri-border to exchange travel comfort and time for the expense of air flights.  In my case, it’s all about fruit.

My “plaything” is a nursery of tropical fruits, aspiring for the most diverse representation of native and other tropical fruits in a single place, anywhere.  The site is “Parcela 52”, in the village of Santa Cruz, upriver from the port of Mazan on the Napo River.  The 20-hectare parcel is co-managed with Project Amazonas, a Peruvian-American non-profit organization that focuses on humanitarian, educational, research and conservation work in the Peruvian Amazon.  The nursery is on the riverine half of the lot, land that had formerly been cleared and used as a homestead, while the upper portion is primary rainforest, and which adjoins a large reserve owned and maintained by Project Amazonas.  Having exhausted the fruits available in the titillating Belen market (GO THERE!), it was time to expand the search.

For the most part, the fruits in Iquitos are similar to those available on the tri-border, however, as with many fruits, they are extremely varied, even within the same species – not surprising to see the same mature fruit from marble- to softball-sized, for example.   Of course, the markets in both Leticia and Tabatinga abound with fresh victuals, not surprisingly, local fish and fruits on all sides of the border.  Practicality and civility impose a basic order in developing-world markets, yet the atmosphere remains electric.

Leticia fruit market

The border area features star fruit (carambola) and maracuyá (a sweet, yellow passion fruit) in higher proportions than found in Iquitos; also, copoasú, similar to cocoa but with a coconut shell and a rummy taste, was more available.   Perhaps it has to do with local preferences, or possibly different harvest times.  One of the prevalent myths held by Northerners is that “if it’s summer here, then it’s winter down there”, not taking into account that this only pertains to a small percentage of the world’s population, and that the Amazon is not actually “down there.”  The tropics do indeed have seasons, more importantly marked by rainfall than by temperature, and this has a significant effect on the fruiting cycle.

Two fruits new to me were naranjilla (Solanum quitoense), a tomato-like thing that tastes like an orange, and borojó (Borojoa sorbilis / Rubiaceae), a cousin of huito, with a chocolate-brown pulp and not quite as sickeningly sweetly pungent.  I carefully dried all the seeds, and, expecting the usual customs form on the return trip “are you carrying any fruits, seeds, or animal products?”, tucked them away in discreet crevices in my suitcase.  After finding a hatchet to open the copoasú (later learned to simply drop it from a height), I passed on bringing back the seeds – I had never tried to clean them before, gummy stuff with a pleasant taste redolent of rum but the seeds just won’t give up their stringy pulp – probably they are adapted to germinate better after having passed through the intestinal tract of a large mammal?  I chose not to prove it.

Return trip started at 2:30 a.m., walking the planks to the dock at Tabatinga in a downpour, best to hire surer-footed portero who carries stuff for a living, and then waiting forty minutes for enough passengers to justify a ride across the black Amazon.  Generators on the Peruvian side are off for the night.  With the fifth passenger, a well-seasoned fellow captains a small covered boat across in the dark, using a searchlight to look for debris, destination, or others in the blind.  Good to be out of the rain.

Gringos have to walk to the national police office and bang on the door to wake up the officer.  If you’ve properly stamped yourself in and out of Colombia or Brazil, you fill out the immigration form in the light of a single candle and get back on the boat.  If your passport is not properly stamped, that’s another story – been there.  No customs inspection at Santa Rosa; that happens two hours later in Chimbote.   There, still dark and raining, the corpulent customs officer has absolutely no interest in the inconvenience, nor the facility to climb the roof and slither under the plastic cover to look at luggage.   The sneakiness was in vain.

Back to the nursery.  Before this project, there was already a good variety of mature and producing indigenous fruit trees, although it will be several years before the new trees come to fruition, so to speak.   The families of the caretakers, on a monthly rotating schedule, send their young boys to scale the trees for caimito, uvilla, arazá, cacao, macambo, shimbira, charichuelo, and others.

The idea is to make the place available for serious research, serious pleasure, or anything in-between.   Project Amazonas ( collaborates with universities to provide opportunities for research and travel with college credit (, as well as adventure and pleasure trips, anything from searching for undocumented species, reforestation, catching tropical fish, or just bringing the Amazon experience home.

Iquitos is a treasure, the most accessible gateway to the Amazon. Coming soon Part 2 – a guide to some common fruits of the Upper Amazon.

Building A Cornucopia Amazonica: A Trip To The Frontera In Search Of Fruit
August 2012
Don Dean