Posts Tagged ‘rainforest’

Teachers Connect to the Amazon and Bring the Experience Home

Project Amazonas’ inaugural teacher institute, Hands-on Amazon for Educators, was held in Iquitos, Perú and at the Santa Cruz field site on the Mazan River in July 2012.  The enthusiastic teachers from five states hooked up in the Upper Amazon to embrace the opportunity to bring the rainforest and its people back home to their science, social studies and English classrooms.  Course leaders were tropical biologist Devon Graham, Ph.D. and science teacher Don Dean.

Miscellaneous jungle meat, here, mostly yellow-footed turtle parts

Houses showing water line

The experience began and ended in Iquitos, Perú, a fascinating place: founded by Jesuits in 1750, the most inland port in the world with access to the sea (3600 km from the Atlantic); the largest city unreachable by road; shaped by the rise and fall a rubber boon.  The rapidly-growing city reveals its unusual history in a mix of modern conveniences and deeply-rooted jungle folklore and culture.  Iquitos lies on the flood plain of the Itaya River near its junction with the Amazon.  The remnants of the rubber boon at the turn of the 20th Century are evident along the Melecón: former houses of rubber magnates and social clubs on the riverside boulevard, many with their 100-year old porcelain tiles still intact.  Juxtaposed is the sprawling district of Belen, where more than a hundred thousand people live hand-to-mouth.

In a morning visit to the Belen Market, the group was introduced to this strange juxtaposition of rich and poor, rainforest foods and tradition, cheap imported fabric and plastic.  A walk through the sprawling alleys is an assault on the senses.  In 2009, a survey of the market (Paredes and Mejía) counted 89 types of fruits, 56 types of fish, and 60 types of “bush meat” from animals (including turtle parts, armadillo, woodpecker, monkey, peccary, tapir and sloth) extracted from the neighboring forests.  Add to this a huge variety of medical plants, concoctions and a healthy dose of superstition.  The consumption of bush meat, as well as an increasing tourist desire for souvenirs (blowguns adorned with scarlet macaw feathers, monkey skulls, etc.) has taken a significant toll on the wildlife.  The teachers descended the short distance to the flood plain where families live alongside the squalor, plastic waste and riverlets of fecal-contaminated gray water – adults and children playing soccer and volleyball (very popular and played quite skillfully), little ones running and playing.  Surprisingly, one does not notice a degradation of health despite the unsanitary conditions.  In the dry season from May to October, the alluvial fields support beans, squash, watermelon, rice, cucumber, local maize and other crops.  Some of the houses are built on logs that rise with the water, but most are plugged into the mud, and life in the rainy season is a daily matter of laying out planks and moving possessions and sleeping quarters higher and higher, like a swimming dog trying to rid itself of fleas.

Home remedies and folklore.

Before leaving the city for the field station, the teachers visited Pilpantuwasi, an animal sanctuary and butterfly “farm”, and well as the manatee rehabilitation center of IIAP (Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana), two champions of research and preservation.  Expat Austrian Gudrun Sperer spent seven years researching neotropical butterflies and parleyed her passion into a large reserve and education center, meticulously cultivating the specialized plants needed for each species of butterfly.  At IIAP, the gorgeous plump animals take water lettuce from the hand.

The trip to the wild begins at the small port of Bellavista on the Nanay River where it meets the main branch of the Amazon.  The Nanay is a blackwater river, low in nutrient and high in tannin, while the Amazon is a whitewater river, muddy brown in appearance due to suspended sediment.  The commercial ports are closer to town; Bellavista serves more for personal transport and day trips, and is a great place to grab some fresh grilled fish.  Fresh, as in caught within the hour.  It’s a 40-minute speedboat trip down the Amazon to an isthmus that leads to another small port on the Mazan River.  Upon arrival, the group is descended upon by a dozen or so “porteros” – men and boys clamoring to haul your stuff to their motocarros, motorcycles with a cab seating three and basic multi-purpose transport vehicle.  On the bank are all types of miscellaneous people and things to be transported one way or the other, heaps of bananas and plantains, a reluctant, squealing pig.  A ten-minute motocarro ride along a narrow scenic road brings the group to the Mazan River, where, after stocking up on water and last minute provisions (which might include adult beverages), they board the boat for the field station, another 40 minutes up the Mazan River. 

The evidence of pervasive logging, legal or otherwise is obvious: lumber mills spewing sawdust into the river, plastic tents and families atop log rafts floating downstream.  Legacy trees are felled to supply the needs of Iquitos as well as for export as raw timber for building material, furniture, pulp or veneer.  The teacher keep a watchful eye for pink dolphins and river otters.  Along the river, families tap the land with slash and burn subsistence farming and live in “tumbos” constructed of palms and other local materials.  Despite the appearance of civilization, less than a kilometer behind their homesteads lies the primary rainforest.   Another twenty minutes to the field site.

Always willing to take one for the group, Devon demonstrates how ants protect their nests.

The 600+-acre tract is owned and managed by Project Amazonas and bounds another large area of untouched rainforest.  The site is frequented by rainforest enthusiasts of all types: herpetologists, tropical fish collectors, bird watchers and researchers.  Joining the teachers on the course at the field station were two medical students from England and a post-graduate sociology collegiate from Tulane University.    Toward the end of the four-day visit, Dr. Marty Condon of Cornell College, whose team was researching interactions between insects and wild cucumber flowers set up shop at the field station.  Food at the field station was prepared by Iquitos’ own Danillo, master chef.

At the field station, the group explored the rainforest on guided walks led by Dr. Devon Graham.  Devon is accustomed to probing nests of social insects, tarantula holes, grabbing snakes, whatever – his knowledge of the rainforest is long and deep, so he’s not afraid to make a point for the purpose of education or entertainment.  None of the bites have been life threatening, so far, although the area is known for its venomous bushmasters.   Devon has a profound knowledge of plant families, although he would say that his expertise lies in birds and fish.  Although the area has among the highest diversity of plants and animals in the world, the best viewing comes with a little patience and stealth rather than noisily trudging through the forest, machete in hand.  Rest for a while near the clusters of heliconia in bloom and the hummingbirds and other friends return.  Nighttime hikes are the most productive.

A blue and gold macaw startles Sherry.

Butterflies are specialized for niche plants.

In keeping with the spirit of the mission of Project Amazonas to preserve and protect the rainforest and its people, the course participants eagerly planted seedlings of high-quality woods and fruit trees: kapok (Ceiba spp.), marupa (Simarouba amara), wild Amazon grape (Pourouma cecropiaefolia) and passion fruit among many others.  Coconut palm and coffee were also planted; although not native, they are mainstays of the tropics and part of another initiative to make the area completely self-sufficient.

When teachers and children meet, foreign cultures don’t matter, there is no language barrier; all boundaries dissolve.  In addition to exploring the jungle flora and fauna, the time spent with youngsters was precious. Our visit to the school in Santa Cruz happened on Peru’s Independence Day and the children were dressed for the festivities.   The teachers from the institute (who just showed up without invitation) were welcomed by the mayor and town elders, who offered the traditional masato toast (fermented yuca, an acquired taste, or not!).  The village of about 100 families sports a school for kindergarten through high school for students, whose daily commute can be up to an hour by boat, no public transport available.  Despite the Spartan furnishings, the similarities between their classrooms and their American counterparts are stunning: posters on the environment and systems of the human body, alphabets illustrated with animal pictures, classroom rules.

Village school – not so different

While waiting for our return boat at the school, Donnamarie Polak, a fifth grade teacher from Ohio, urged the children to bring her one of their school books.  The children were spellbound listening to the gringa read to them.  Although the pronunciation was unique, they hung on every word.

No language barrier: Santa Cruz family enjoys a picture puzzle with British medical student Eleanor and Donnamarie.

Sherry, the lone English teacher and who had been coerced by her science teacher colleague to join the trip, inspired everyone in evening sessions of “Jungle Haiku.”  After the course, most of the teachers took advantage of the travel opportunity and headed to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, just two of the many, many gems in Perú.

So, the experience left the teachers richer and excited to bring to bring the lessons home.  The rainforest is under attack, shrinking in size and diversity at an alarming rate.  Now is the time to apply the lessons in our classrooms.  It’s not certain will benefit more: the teachers, the local children or the investment at home in the diversity and future stewardship of the rainforest and its people.

The next teacher institute is scheduled for July 17-24, 2013.  The course carries four semester undergraduate or graduate credits.  If you’ve got a sense of adventure or know someone who wants to bring the rainforest and its culture to the classroom, please visit         or contact

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: