Tribes of the Amazon

A glimpse into the world of Bora and Yagua people 

Not that far from modern world, only an hour away by boat from Iquitos in Peru, scattered along the Amazon riverside in the jungle, you will find the tiny villages of the Bora and Yagua tribes . These are people who are in regular contact with “civilised world” yet they have chosen to preserve and maintain a way of life that is fast disappearing.  They hold strong beliefs in the power of nature and spirits and have an extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and the surrounding Amazon rainforest.

Through the centuries, their survival has been in constant threat, due to slavery, exploitation and new diseases. Yet despite all odds these indigenous tribes are still part of the Amazon, living a life in nature that honours their history and ancestors.

My travels in the Amazon Rainforest brought to me some unforgettable experiences.  Jungle treks in search of sloths and prehistoric birds, boat rides down the river surrounded by pink dolphins, giant lilies in their natural environment..yet thinking back, my time with the Yaguas and Boras is the by far the highlight of my trip to the Peruvian rainforest. 

The Yaguas

 

The first thing that strikes you when meeting members of the Yagua tribe is their strong sense of belonging and identity. They live in communities made up of several families, helping each other with everything from fishing and hunting to childcare and handicraft.  Yagua men traditionally wear skirts made of palm grass fibre. Legend has is, they were the reason for the Amazon river name. When Spanish first came to the rainforest and saw from the distance Yaguas with their huge blowguns and grass skirts, they mistook them for women and so the river was named after the Greek Myth of the Amazon women warriors.

In 2018 The Peruvian government declared the northern region of Loreto in the Amazon a protected area that is now known as the Yaguas National Park. The park now helps preserve the rich wildlife and plants there as well as the various tribal settlements in the area.

The Yagua language is one of the few tribal languages of the Amazon, that has survived to this day.  The elder members of the tribe do not speak any other language and when I visited, translation had to be made by the younger generation. 

Their relative proximity to Iquitos allows them to travel to town to buy essentials with the money, earned from handicraft sales. The occasional tourist visits to their villages have been accepted by the Yaguas as a complimentary source of income. They were happy to show us around and explain different customs and ceremonies. 

Maloca building from a distance

Visitors are taken to a large round wooden structure covered by palm leaves, called Maloca. This large hut is typically in the centre of the village and it’s where guests are welcomed. 

Red face paint made from the seeds of annatto plant is often applied to the face as part of their identity.

Annatto plant seeds are used for face paint in Yagua’s culture

A Yagua girl with her sloth pet
Kids are kids wherever you go, regardless of culture, language and location. These Yagua girls were in their own world, playing together and chasing wind swept leaves from the trees.

Yaguas go hunting for birds, small monkeys and other small animals using a large blowgun with darts dipped in poison. They use curare at the tip of the darts, a fast acting poison that doesn’t kill but paralyses the victim. Typically, the tribe’s shaman prepares the curare mixture and that knowledge is passed down generations.

We visited 3 different Yagua settlements along the river. The tribe chief would normally be the first one to come and greet us and then introduce us to the rest of the extended family. Spanish was widely spoken by the younger Yagua members so communication was not a problem. 

 

The Boras

The Bora tribe has a huge settlement in San Andres village not far from Iquitos. It is often visited by tourists and by their own admission the village is there to welcome outsiders and share with them Bora’s customs, music, dance performances and handicrafts. Whole families living there depend on money made from these visits and the  sales made from tribal jewellery and artefacts. So the authenticity of the place can be debated but I was still curious to visit and talk to the families living there. 

 

Similarly to the Yaguas, the centre of the village again is the big round Maloca house.  There were small huts built around it occupied by different Bora families . 

Boras are a semi nomadic tribe, originated in Columbia but with time some of them made their way to the Peruvian part of the Amazon.  They affiliate to clans bearing the name of a plant, animal or other element, linked to a territorial point considered as the clan’s site of origin.  They hold strong beliefs in the power of spirits and nature and as a result have a deeply ingrained respect for local plants and animals and an extensive knowledge of the surrounding Amazon rainforest. 

Bora tribe girl in a traditional Maloca

 

Useful links:

Local organisation supporting tribal rights and art  http://xapiri.com

Survival International – Charity in support of indigenous people rights around the world

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