Ana Caspi

ac1Near a place called Tamshiyacu, I visited with Pablo del Aguila, boat builder and master of all things wood floating in the upper Amazon.

I wanted to find out about the kinds of woods I should use in a future boat. Approaching Pablo’s home I saw three hulls in various stages of construction and sharing space with a herd of grazing water buffalo. I introduced myself to Sr. del Aguila and he in turn introduced me to his son who was managing a crew building one of the hulls.

We walked into the hull and I was surprised by the size of the construction. Huge cetaceous ribs towered over me. This construction was more barn than boat. I’d never seen hand-construction at this size.
One thing was familiar, though, the pale yellow tint of the big ribs—It had to be ana caspi that workhorse wood found in these regions. Sr. del Aguila confirmed my guess. It was ana caspi, Apuelia leiocarpa. I’ve used ana caspi before and it’s wonderful. It’s hard and tough, resistant to all that slimes and crawls, and its interlocking fibers will hold a steel spike with a thousand gripping fingers. And Pablo del Aguila was building entire boats with the stuff. I asked him where he found that amount of ana caspi and he only smiled and said it’s around (He earns his name Paul the Eagle).

Pablo knows ana caspi has long disappeared from the banks of the Amazon. To find this wood one waits for the high water season, travels miles up small creeks, then walks miles more in hundred-degree heat and to a small stand of ana caspi. All the while carrying provisions, fuel, and chainsaws. Mother Nature and Charles Darwin have conspired to design an annoyingly efficient seed dispersal system with ana caspi—you never find large stands of the wood, but scattered in small groves. If you’re lucky the wished for tree is found, dropped, and the chainsaw man, a motoserrista, mounts the trunk and slices the giant into planks. Walking on the trunk he maneuvers the chainsaw into ever deepening grooves which free up the boards. Amazingly, a motoserrista with a good eye can slice lumber to a fraction of an inch. With the boards cut, a crew from a nearby village carries the lumber back to the boat then down the creek to the Amazon and Pablo’s boatyard. There expert hands the finish the lumber and ready it for the boat under construction.

Although ana caspi is disappearing from along the big rivers it not considered an endangered species and remains off the CITES list. I use ana caspi in my boats, but I’m always reluctant to go into the jungle find a good tree and cut it out. First of all the question of identifying ana caspi. Trees here are hard to identify. Unlike the maple leaf on the Canadian flag, or the familiar lobes of oak leaves, in Rainforest Peru the trees have—well, leaves that are green, oval, are on trees that are huge, and that have smooth gray bark, but maybe not.
Apuelia leiocarpa roughly translates as smooth, bottle-like fruit. You get the idea from the above photo from Kew Gardens. If I’m luckly enough to find the fruit from ana caspi on the ground I might identify the tree, otherwise I go to a sawmill and hope for the best.

Another question is who owns the tree that falls in the forest? Is it the government, a private owner, a village, or some guy that says it’s his tree? Again, it’s back to the sawmill. Or use the expert advice of a good man like Pablo del Aguila.


Native people here in the upper Amazon have relied on the panera to carry heavy items long distances. Paneras, were originally thought of as bread baskets, but today have morphed into general baskets that can carry anything from fish to kids. With a good head strap, a pretina, one can get serious about carrying stuff. We usually think that heavy items are best carried with shoulder straps such as with a backpack. But here the head strap wins out. You can bend over and redistribute some of the weight on your back, but still the neck muscles seem to do most of the work.

I’ve seen men using head straps carrying motorcycles and engine blocks up the banks from the Amazon River.

Impossible weights aside, most panera are woven baskets as in the photos. For the basket material people use the tamshi plant Heteropsis, jenmannii to supply a rawhide-tough fiber for the basket.
The pretina strap is usually made from chambira, Astrocaryum chambira. Today, I see more and more pretinas made from nylon that’s easer on the forehead and will outlast chambira.

I found this panera on a tributary of the Amazon. Motorista Salustino Apuela is hefting a basket of banana tree starts. Even with the skilled use of a panera, carrying this weight over hillocks in jungle heat to a planting site is a back (or neck) breaking job.

I find these paneras from time to time and can export them for displays. I look for paneras that are made with tamshi and well-worn with some character. And I’ll look for head straps made from chambira not nylon. I can’t ship live plants like the banana starts, but must rely on the creativity of the display designer to fill the basket.

If you need more information about paneras, drop me a note at

Jury Rig

Peque-Peque motors look like weedeaters on steroids—big motor, long shaft, little prop on the end. Those outboard motors may look strange but they’re perfect for moving around creeks and swamps here in eastern Peru. I’ve pushed through muck only inches deep with a peque-peque on a canoe—the prop only half in the water and still getting enough push to get through.
But on the open water like the Amazon River, peque-peques are another story. By the way they’re built, the mysteries of prop thrust wants to raise the prop out of the water. Motoristas (guys who run boats) overcome this prop rise by lifting on the tiller on the front of the motor. That keeps the prop in the water but on the long hauls the constant lifting and vibration, wears out the strongest motorista. To get around this, motoristas tie a cord to the tiller and the other end to the roof of the boat keeping the tiller up and the prop in the water. That is until you hit a log. Then the shaft goes up over the log the tiller on the other end pulls down, snaps the cord and the motorista sizes up the situation, saves the day, and reties the cord to the roof. All this more or less works until you size the cord wrong. That happened to me the other day.

Luis Beltran, Gemma Mozombite, and I were making our way back to Iquitos, Peru on the Amazon River. After a couple of hours hefting the tiller Luis felt it was time to tie it to the boat roof. I looked around for some string or cord and not finding any decided on a piece of woven pretina strap—the kind of stuff they lift cargo into ships with. Luis looked at me with suspicion, but we tied the pretina strap to the tiller and to the ridge pole on the roof then sat back for a pleasant morning cruise up the river. I was up front on the prowl, Luis back at the motor. It was a great morning everything was going fine until I saw something long and dark the water. Of course it was the inevitable log crossways of the boat and heading for us. I started yelling “palo palo,” Gemma waved her arms, while Luis was trying to untie the strap from the tiller. I felt the log dance along the entire eleven meter bottom of the boat. But it was too late. The log cleared the stern of the boat then an instant later nailed the prop shaft. The shaft lifted over the log, the tiller in front wanted to come down, but the thick strap wouldn’t snap so all hell broke loose. The motor tore out of its mount. The motor mount itself tore free from the boat and went to the fishes. The motor, now free was lying on its side running wide open and like some Jurassic throwback desperately trying to return to the river and only kept so by the pretina strap which caused all the problems in the first place.

Well, Luis and I managed to find the ignition switch, shut off the motor and drag the thing out of the water and back into the boat. The motor seemed ok. At least it was running. But the motor mount was gone. After collecting ourselves, we tore out a couple of planks from the floor and along with a piece of 2×2 made something resembling a motor mount. With a screwdriver we chopped a hole through the boards to take the motor swivel pin and tied the whole thing to the boat with the evil pretina cord.
It seemed to work. In fact it seemed to work better than the original metal mount. The heavy planks along with the woven strap seemed to dampen out the vibrations that had always plagued that motor. Back in Iquitos, we tore apart the rig, put the planks back in the floor. Now as I walk over the boat floor and see the holes from the jury rig, it reminds me to always size the tiller cord right.


At first I thought they were canoes or some kind of animal feeding trough but native people here in eastern Peru use these coshos as giant mixing bowls to prepare mazatto, their fermented brew. We talked about mazatto in earlier blogs and how a half-dozen eats and drinks come from the ubiquitous yuca plant, manihot esculenta, sometime called manioc or cassava in other parts of the tropics.
If you want to make mazatto for an entire village then you’ll need something the size of a cosho to mix the stuff. Tradition has it that the brewer must spit into the mix to get the fermentation going. The resulting brew is white, kind of sour. And has the faint whiff of some juice goin’ bad. Alcohol content is low. You’ll need to drink gallons of mazatto to get a decent buzz. But people here in Peru love their mazatto and I’ve spent many pleasant evenings drinking gourds full of the stuff and listening to endless stories of great fish catches that somehow got away.

The cosho in the photo I stepped off at about 16 feet. I didn’t heft it but it’s going to be heaver than a dugout canoe. It would package in the same kind of crate and I could ship a cosho to the states for a rainforest display. As usual one would need a few items besides the cosho to make a good display—maybe a big maso for crushing the yuca, a couple of big wooden ladles and maybe even a basket of dried yuca nearby.

I need to find out more about these coshos—the kind of wood used, who makes them, and does the design vary from tribe to tribe. Also any thoughts on how to build a display with a cosho would be helpful.



“What do you use the pilon for,” I asked the lady of the house.
“I grind my rice, corn and beans,” She said “and my husband grinds his coca leaves.” she added sheepishly.

Coca plants aside, the pilon is an important kitchen tool found in homes along the Amazon River in eastern Peru. Resembling a huge mortar and pestle, at least one pilon can be found in every small village. It’s traded from home to home for the grinding of grain or the dehusking of rice. With rice, the pilon is filled with grain, the operator works the grain until the hulls are loosened. Finally, the operator places the mix into a shallow basket called a cedaso. The rice is tossed into the air where a breeze carries away the husks.

The specifics may vary, but most pilons consists of a stump-like mortar, round, half-meter or so tall, with the inside hollowed out into a bowl arrangement in which the grain is placed. The other half of the pilon is the pestle part which is a large pole or club with which the operator will crush the material in the mortar. It’s important that both halves of the pilon be constructed from the hardest and heaviest of wood.

I’ve seen pilons made from palisangre, Brosimum rubescens, that beautiful blood wood prized for artwork in the neotropics. Aside from it’s beauty Brosimum is as hard as granite. Indeed, it contains large amounts of silica enough to dull a farmer’s fine machete into a butter knife or even devour a village’s prized chainsaw. Don’t expect to see a pilon finished to a polished piece of artwork. Pilons are serious tools, practical as the people who use them.


Here’s a pilon I found for a museum in the US. Estephen Mozombite stands next to it so we can get a feel the pilon’s size. That chunk of wood comprising the base was too heavy to travel by parcel post overseas, but resided in a crated consignment on an ocean freighter.

Can we use pilons in a rainforest display? I think so, but they best be integrated into displays representing a typical jungle home, perhaps with the tuspa hearth, a collection of wooden implements, and maybe some sun-baked pottery. As I travel the river and find tools for around the home, I’ll take photos and post them here.


A photo from an ancient National Geographic Magazine showed rain forest Indians standing around a long woven tube-like structure.

The tubes are called tipitis (tee-pee-tees) and are used by native people here in eastern Peru to squeeze the cyanide-laden sap from the yuca root.

YucabasketA couple of weeks ago my friend Alcides Apuela and I traveled a tributary of the Amazon River looking for dugout canoes. In the afternoon we stopped by a village and made a call at the house of Senora Elsa who had the inside track on the village canoes. The canoe talk went ok, but then I saw a woven article coiled in a burlap bag. It was a tipiti. Elsa was kind enough to unroll the tipiti and I saw it was similar to the one from the old magazine. It was a foot or so wide and about six-feet long with unwoven fibers at each end. This tipiti was woven from the bark of the balsa tree Ochroma pyramidale.

The root of the yuca plant is crushed, mixed with water and folded into the length of the tipiti. Tightly bound, the tipiti is suspended from a rafter by the end fibers and twisted until the cyanide laden sap is squeezed out.

Yuca PlantsThe yuca plant, Manihot esculenta, also called cassava, or manioc is a staple in the tropics worldwide. Unfortunately, some older varieties of yuca (appropriately called bitter yuca) contain large amounts of hydrogen cyanide–thus the use of the tipiti for removing the poison.

Today, villagers have new “sweet yuca” that is low in cyanide. I see yuca everywhere in the markets and no one seems to worry much about the poison. But travel back into the jungle where tribes grow the old bitter yuca and you’ll still see the odd tipiti in use.

I read somewhere that bitter yuca contains cyanide up to 800 parts per million. That’s about three shot glasses in a barrel and we’re talking cyanide here–the stuff they use for rat poison. So you can see why the tipiti comes into play.

That afternoon at Elsa’s house after some hard negotiating I was able to purchase her tipiti. I wish I could say we toasted the transaction over a cup of traditional maszato made from yuca. Unfortunately, we closed the deal over a warm bottle of Incakola that Elsa sold to me with a handsome markup.

Tipiti2Back in Iquitos I discovered I hadn’t taken a picture of my prized tipiti. I needed a model, so my old carpenter friend Esteven Mozombite stood in for Elsa.

I’ll probably sell my tipiti, but I hope it doesn’t end up in a singles bar or sport club. It needs to find a home in a good museum display or held by a serious collector proud of its heritage.

If you know about tipitis, share your information with us so we can all understand the history of these interesting tools.

Dugout Canoe Paddles

The collector looked at my dugout canoe paddles. “Those are too new,” he said, “I want the real stuff–-old paddles that have been repaired along the river.”

I dug thorough my collection and found just what he wanted, an ancient tulip-shaped paddle that someone had repaired with the split open case of a flashlight battery.

“I’ll take it,” he said, “and that one over there with the mud on it.”

This collector knew his business; he was looking for more than something just to hang on his wall. He was looking for a paddle that told a story—how a paddle was jammed into the river bank to moor a canoe or how a fisherman made a quick repair to get on with the day’s work.

I search along the creeks in eastern Peru for dugout canoe paddles. I look for paddles that are fairly broad and shaved thin. I also look for a few busted ones for collectors

Legend has it that dugout out canoe paddles have a tulip shape to better sweep out water in a swamped canoe. I’ve tried it, but cupped hands seem to do just as well.

I find very little differences in paddle designs as I visit different villages. Most design differences are due to the whims of the craftsmen. The tulip-shaped design seems to be universal throughout the jungle and indeed through out the world. Maybe it’s a hydrodynamic question that speaks to the greatest amount of thrust for the least amount of turbulence. Turbulence makes noise that scares away fish.

I do know that native people treat paddle sizes like gear ratios. They use small paddles when they want to paddle fast and broad paddles when they want slow, strong strokes—a little like gears on a bicycle.

The wood of choice for paddles is remo caspi (paddle wood) Aspidosperma excelsum. Common wisdom says the craftsmen cut the paddles from the buttress roots of the tree. I see plenty of A. excelsum in the sawmills around Iquitos, but none large enough to cut a paddle from. A. excelsum is also used for building beams and has the unique look of muscles and sinew of an arm. With A. excelsum disappearing, paddle craftsmen use any wood available. I’ve even seen paddles made from caoba the fine Amazonian Mahogany, Swietenia macrophylla, but most settle for planks of catahua, Hura crepitans or even cumala, Virola calophylla. The latter is a poor-quality wood lasting only a few months before the jungle has it’s way with it.

I can ship paddles by parcel post from here in Peru as long as they are under 5 feet long. Anything longer must go into a crate then by freighter to Houston. If you are interested in dugout canoe paddles visit my website at for pricing and shipping information.


Irapay Roofs


Olimpio Petit works hard. All through the night he docks his river boat, the Rey San Pedro, at tiny villages along the Amazon River and takes on rice, pigs, people, and more often than not scores if not hundreds of large palm mats.

At daybreak I make my way by plank to the shore and look back at the Rey and see those mats piled high on the roof. The Rey is looking less like a cargo boat and more like a beast of burden

The palm mats that Senor Petit transports are call crisnejas. Woven from a thatch palm the crisnejas are the basic building unit for countless roofs in the Amazon Basin.

Besides keeping out the rain a thatch roof can provide insulation from the tropical sun far better than sheet metal.

Also, I’ve noticed a crisnejas roof is a lively ecosystem of rats, bats, birds, and bugs all intent on crapping on my sleeping hammock. I’ve heard stories of kids handy with blowguns lying in their hammocks and taking rats making their way through the thatch.

Aside from the menagerie, another downside is that a crisnejas roof will only last about 5 years. Repairing is difficult so the whole roof is torn off and replaced.

Women in the small villages construct the crisnejas starting with a 3-meter backbone of pona palm, Socratea exorrhiza, a tough, flexible wood providing everything from flooring to hunting bows.

The women weave leaves from the irapay palm onto the pona backbone. The irapay palm, Lepidocaryum tessmannii, is a head-high palm with ordinary oval leaves that are perfect for thatch roofs.

The result is a row of irapay leaves interwoven and hanging flag-like by their stems. A good crisnejas will have nearly a hundred leaves hanging from its slat. Unscrupulous types try to pass off thatch with half that amount—junk hardly good for a chicken coup.

With a good crisnejas the stems are interwoven each holding its neighbors fast and the odd leaves overlapping the even giving a delightful woven effect.

This is not easy work. With stems from the irapay palm green and tough, a lifetime of twisting them onto pona slats makes fingers like cable.

No manner how good the crisnejas they must be expertly placed on the roof. Builders prefer a steep roof, the peak meeting at a right angle–roofers 12-12 pitch. Anything flatter will invite leaks, besides the high peak will aid in cooling.

With rafters in place, the crisnejas are put on like shingles the world over—the first course is put on at the bottom and subsequent courses then overlap the proceeding. Here in eastern Peru the crisnejas are fastened to the rafters with a vine. Probably “Huambe”, Philodendron solimoesense.

The crisnejas must overlap well, and that’s easy to check. From the inside one should see no more than 6 inches between the pona slats. That will insure enough overlap to keep out the rain. If the odd leak happens, it’s is often fixed by a jab with a stick to the troublesome area. With a little luck the leaves will rearrange and the leak will stop.

If you’re planning a zoological display you might consider using crisnejas for thatching or general background motif. I can ship up crisnejas through New Orleans. I’ll probably need fumigation papers to get through US Customs, but I usually need those anyway for plant materials.

John Waymire