Medicine Hunter

The Apus Boat: Providing free dentistry for Amazonian natives

A child is treated on the Apus Boat.

A child is treated on the Apus Boat.

Two years ago, while I was in the Peruvian Amazon city of Pucallpa, I sat with Sergio Cam, whose company Chakarunas Trading Company sells Peruvian botanicals to companies around the world. He told me of an idea that I found audacious.

“I want to build a big boat, and I want to bring free dentistry to people all up and down the Ucayali River” Sergio told me. The Ucayali is one of the largest rivers in the Amazon, running south to north between Peru’s two major river cities, Pucallpa and Iquitos. “If we can do that,” he said, “we can help so many people. It would be great.” At the time, I loved the idea.

Now, the Apus Boat, carrying a dental chair, dental supplies and a dentist, cruises the Ucaylai River just as Sergio envisioned, providing dental care at no charge to people in native villages. The boat is named after the Apus, spirits of the Andes Mountains, who are believed by the people there to watch over them and protect them.

To be clear, there is no catch to the services offered. Native people pay absolutely nothing, and they don’t have to do anything other than show up, get on the boat when it’s anchored at their village, and get the care they need. The project has absolutely no commercial dimensions. It’s a service – pure and simple.

In many parts of Amazonia, people of different tribal groups live in villages along the many rivers in this vast area. For the most part, there is little medical care and virtually no dental care. Most children do not own toothbrushes, and most people lack the economic resources to get the care they need. Thus the Apus Boat can make a real difference.

Recently I headed down to Pucallpa and boarded the Apus Boat with Sergio and his crew, to bring dental services to a small village about three hours south of Pucallpa. On board were the captain, a mechanic, a cook, a mechanic’s helper, and an armed security guard, as pirates work those waters every day. The Apus Boat is large – over 88 feet – and can carry over 15 tons of cargo, or lots of people.

“I want people to be attracted to the boat,” Sergio told me. “If they come with us and pay to have the experience of going around with us, they will see what good we are doing, and that will also help with finances.”

After motoring along the Ucayali for part of the day, we arrived at a Shipibo village. The Shipibo are a native group found all over Loreto province, where the Ucayali River runs. We tied up along the shore and waited. “You’ll see what happens.” Sergio pointed out. “Soon they will all come to find out what is going on.” Sure enough, within 20 minutes a large group of children – and a few adults – approached the boat. Sergio and a couple of members of the crew spoke to some of them, and they started to board.

Once one child sat in the dental chair, got his teeth cleaned, and realized that it did not hurt, then all the children wanted to be treated. The dentist, a young woman named Sandra, had her work cut out for her. The first day she cleaned and examined the teeth of 25 children. The next day, she saw a dozen more. Every child liked it, and every child received a free toothbrush.

Sometimes, the most straightforward ideas, however fantastic they may seem, turn into beautiful reality. Sergio’s somewhat outlandish dream has come to pass. Now native people who previously had no dental care finally have professional care delivered right to their villages at no cost. Inexpensive is good, but free is way better when people live on meager incomes.

After being on the Apus Boat for a few days, I was smitten. I felt such pure happiness watching the children being cared for by the dentist. When you consider how much difficult or just plain bad news is broadcast every day, it’s wonderful to hear some good news as well. Like all free services, the Apus Boat depends on donations. I’m sure those donations will come in ever larger amounts, as the work is honest and worthy.

One donor, The Naturex Foundation, has made a short video on the Apus Boat.

For purposes of full disclosure, Naturex is a client of mine, but The Naturex Foundation is a non-profit, and they are one of what I hope will be a great many funding entities for the Apus Boat. If you want more information, you can also use the contact form on my web site. If you’re a dentist and want to donate your time, just let me know.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide, and is the author of fifteen books. Read more at