Hello and good day!
My dad has always described going out to campo where we buy cacao in northern Peru as being like going back in time 100 years in the United States.
The more I think about it, I think it might actually be more like going back 150 or 200 years. At least it was like that for a very long time.
Now that the Chinchipe river has a bridge over it and there are cell phones, things are a bit more modern. Lots of folks still have outhouses though and you still see tons of people washing their clothes in the river and cooking over wood stoves.
What is so interesting about this region where we buy cacao is that it wasn't homesteaded until the 1960s. I've mentioned it many times before, but I still find it to be a very fascinating fact.
People were homesteading virgin land in Peru in the 1960s. And the children and grandchildren of those modern day pioneers are the folks who sell cacao to us.
The most striking element of this whole thing, to me at least, is that the entire community had to cross a very intimidating river in order to settle on their land. When the people first showed up, there weren't any boats, or canoes, or anything.
The homesteaders had to fashion crude rafts out of sticks and logs that they foraged and then try to row across the river. When it rains a lot, which is much of the year, the Chinchipe is wild.
It is very strong and wide and you see whirlpools forming in many places along the river. The pioneers would have had to wait for the river to die down to make their crossing. Then once on the other side, they would be trapped for all intents and purposes until the river died down again.
All trans-river commerce was conducted on these crude rafts for at least 15 years. One of the very first farmers to sell cacao to us, Don Regulo Vargas, lives in a little village called Catahuas.
Catahuas is named after a tree that grows abundantly in that part of the jungle. Don Regulo was a child when his family moved out to the district of Huarango and formed their own little village.
His family along with half a dozen other families who moved out to the same section of the jungle with them, were dismayed to find out that Catahuas is a weak wood, terrible for building houses.
Every time it rained hard, the wood split or collapsed. It was awful. They people had to keep re-building their houses over and over again. And they were too poor, just getting started in farming, to have surpluses to trade for better wood.
Plus, there were no roads yet, so bringing over wood from other areas would have been challenging even if another village felt charitable enough to gift some good wood. Anyhow, the people were going back and forth, crossing the Chinchipe on rafts in the 1970s.
Think about that. Led Zeplin. The Rolling Stones. The Jackson 5. Fleetwood Mac.
And Peruvian homesteaders floating back and forth across the Chinchipe.
One day, the people who lived near the river saw a tree floating along in the water that they'd never seen in the river before. They decided to reel it in and try to build a canoe out of it. They'd tried to fashion canoes out of every other tree they knew of, but the wood was always too heavy.
But this tree was perfect. It made an excellent canoe that floated perfectly. It was a Catahuas tree.
Finally the folks of Catahuas had an exportable commodity that they could trade for good wood to build good houses. Around this time, a salesman selling outboard motors also came out to the district of Huarango and the residents found that the Catahuas canoes could support an outboard motor.
This revolutionized how the people got across the river. It was a tremendous boon. That was the late 1970s.
Shortly thereafter, the local government strung some metal cables across the river and hooked a floating square barge to the cables to float heavier loads across the river. Catahuas canoes and floating barges were the only way to cross the river for the next 35 years until 2017 when the national government finally built a bridge.
The condition of the river has always been a centerpiece of conversation in the district of Huarango. You needn't discuss the weather for 9 months a year. It is always the same. Extreme heat and heavy rain.
Frequently though, if the rain was especially heavy, the river became very unruly and nobody could cross. We almost missed several boats departing to Europe from Lima, Peru, because we couldn't get across the river.
That was happening less than 10 years ago!
No point to this whole thing really. Actually, maybe there is a point. Those folks out in campo are some the bravest, toughest, smartest, most stoic, most resourceful people you will ever meet.
They have great cacao out there too :).
Here is an interesting video of the Chinchipe that a friend of ours shot from the balcony of a house I was renting. https://vimeo.com/691517174
The video is of donkey rescue in the Chinchipe. The people in the video are using a typical Catahuas raft with an outboard motor.
I hope at you have a truly blessed day!