It's pitch-black and I'm scared as hell. I'm blindly following a man named Llacko into the Amazonian jungle: Stray branches sway and scratch my back, bats zip past my ears in loud swooshes, and cannonball fruits crack like fireworks into thin air. But in my search to learn more about the Amazonian diet, I follow this man—who is half my height—deeper and deeper into the endless canopied expanse, with the comfort of his machete serving as our only protection against jaguars, anacondas, poisonous dart frogs…
It's my first time to the Amazon, and I think it may be my last.
Using his torch light, Llacko sees past my poker face. "Michaela, why are you scared?" he asks. "The city is more dangerous than the jungle." I'm not sure if that's true, but I am certain of something: The Amazon is believed to hold many of the cures for the earth's diseases, and that's why, step for step, I continue to follow Llacko into the black night.
Missing the tip of his right pointer finger due to a piranha accident, Llacko has grown up in the Amazon his entire life. He leads tours for Samiria Ecolodge as his regular gig, but he also moonlights as a survival expert, taking ex-military and hopeful adventurers through the jungle for multi-day survival courses in the world's most immense rainforest.
"I used white clay from the river to heal my finger," Llacko says, in regards to his piranha incident. "I lost my hook inside the piranha. I thought it was dead, so I stuck my finger in its mouth." Llacko soon realized the piranha was still alive: "I threw the head on the floor and stepped on it!"
This is just one example of the Amazon's curative powers, Llacko tells me. If you happen to come down with malaria, there's a widely believed treatment for that. The bark of the cedar plant mixed with pygmy marmoset blood is thought to do the trick. Llacko attests to this remedy serving as an anti-vaccine that not only eliminates malaria, but yellow fever as well.
As our jungle walk progresses, I begin to notice a pattern in Llacko's alleged cures: Just like the famous ayahuasca, most come in the form of drinkable teas. Llacko points out every single plant we pass. According to local healing traditions, he knows which hold remedies and which harbor poison. When a set of leaves form in a point at the end of a branch, that means they're poisonous, but you can use them as a natural insecticide. Once made into tea, yerba santa is said to aid in digestion, cordoncillo works like aspirin to cure headaches, the liquid from forest grass is used like Visine, and the juice from the psychotria elata (lady lips flower) cures almost any bodily fungus. And if your injury is more serious, there's bismia sap for that, which works like iodine for open wounds.
Like the leaves, Llacko claims Amazonian fruits also have health benefits. Camu camu, a tiny red and green fruit that looks like a wild gooseberry, grows everywhere in the Amazon. It's thought to contain 30 percent more vitamin B12 than oranges, turning pink once it's boiled into a juice. Camu camu, along with the popular aguaje fruit, is the Amazon's answer to America's entire beauty aisle at the pharmacy. With such a high concentration of B12, the effects on skin are astounding. Even more, it's believed to serve as a natural defense against mosquitos. Locals also use the aguaje tree to supposedly cure another ailment. On the search for worms that form in the tree, locals cut holes in the base, waiting for the yellow creatures to form. Known as suri, the worms are extracted and eaten straight from the trunk, or later fried and eaten during meals. They are said to cure asthma within one month of digestion.
The next morning, Llacko and I trek back into the jungle. He spots the sanango tree, which is an extreme hallucinogen that shamans use after they've mastered the art of ayahuasca. Shamans shave the bark of the root to create a juice, boiling it for two hours while the bark's essential properties are extracted. "We only drink this at night," Llacko says. "We do this because, even though it's dark, we can see everything in the jungle like it's daylight."
Llacko smiles as he describes the plant to me, fondly recalling his hallucinogenic memories of the process. "The effect starts with chills around your lips, then it's like you go 90 miles-per-hour to a different place and separate from the aura of your body," Llacko says. "It's like TV for us. We use it like entertainment to have more fun in life, just like you do with motion pictures."
During my last day with Llacko, we collect leaves from the huasaí tree. He shows me how to make baskets from the stems: "We weave baskets so we can transfer big bananas from the jungle," Llacko says. The baskets are also used as fishing traps. Locals put yucca or banana in the baskets, then pull up abruptly once fish congregate around the bait.
What I feared during my initial foray into the forest, now seems trivial: I know this won't be my last time in the Amazon. I ask Llacko if sadness is common here, as depression accounts for a significant number of prescriptions in the States. He's confused by my question. "Why would we be sad? People only get sad here if they move to the city and don't find a job," Llacko says. "I prefer the jungle. The city is too complicated. Music, television, motorcycles.... I prefer to stay here. I feel happiest here."