Over the years since the Amazon Basin has been developed, it has mixed indigenous lore with that of settlers and developed its own rich frontier culture. From a plane window the world´s largest expanse of virgin rainforest looks dark, mysterious and above all, endless - it´s easy to imagine that the people who dwell here have managed to dream up some stories about what goes on in the darkness of the trees. Here are some tales to tell around the fire while you´re chasing adventure in the jungle.
The forest in celebrated Manu National Park is inhabited by the indigenous Matsigenka. The Matsigenka believe that the forest is inhabited and ruled by beings called the sangariite, the Invisible Ones. In their villages in the forest, the Saangariite keep wild animals as pets, which they release into the human world as gifts. The Matsigenka believe that each human has a twin among the sangariite. If you drink the potion ayahuasca, it allows you to enter the spirit world and meet your twin among the Invisible Ones.
Further north, the wider and slower Rio Amazonas teems with river dolphins. The river folk along this river, especially in Brazil, believe in mischievous dolphin-people called "encantados" that can assume human form. Girls in these villages are taught to beware handsome strangers who show up at parties - sometimes if a girl spends a night with such a man, she´ll wake up in the morning to find her suitor gone and his beautiful hat turned into a river turtle or his shoes into fish. The dolphins are said to have an Enchanted City beneath the water, called the Encante. Some shamans claim to be able to go down beneath the river and visit the Enchanted City - sometimes, a shaman will jump into the river, swim off, and reappear three days later!
The creature that jungle-dwellers fear above all others is the Chullachaqui. The Chullachaqui is the lord of all animals and can take any form, even that of a human. The only thing it can´t quite get right is the feet - it always appears with one goat foot and one lizard foot. The Chullachaqui delights in luring humans into the forest. It´ll show up in the guise of your friend and suggest to go for a walk, then once it leads you away from the trail, it will disappear. The only insurance is to check your friend´s feet before you go off alone - if they refuse to take off their shoes, get out of there quick.
Even jungle-dwellers without indigenous descent take this legend seriously. My friend who grew up Puerto Maldonado swears that his brother once met the Chullachaqui. Another friend who grew up in Lima but now does conservation work in the forest says that he was walking once with another guy, an old indigena woman and a dog. They heard a human voice call out somwhere off in the trees.
"Hmmph. You answer," she chuckled darkly.
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But when his friend called out "We´re over here!", the woman went deathly pale. "Now you´ve done it!" she snapped. A few minutes later the dog started going crazy, barking at something near the trail that none of the others could see. Eventually the dog calmed down, though none of them ever saw the source of its distress. "That dog probably just saved our lives," the woman told him.
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Part of the magic of seeing the jungle is knowing that a part of it, however small, is still unconquered and unknown by humans. If you find yourself exploring this huge and rich but often-forgotten part of Peru, remember that in the wild, things aren´t always what they seem.