On the most favored corner of the riverfront promenade in the Peruvian city of Iquitos, the Amazon Explorers Club stands as a gathering spot and lighthouse for explorers, travelers, botanists, authors and wildlife preservationists – all of whom toil in the forest and on the rivers to preserve the world's most biodiverse ecosystem, its people and its wildlife.
Some members of the Amazon Explorers Club reappear out of the forest after spending months with the Matse, Yagua, Shipibo and other tribal groups, having worked in rough conditions without amenities or comforts. Grizzled and sunburned, they look like characters out of a Joseph Conrad novel. Some are outright ragged, having spent their health and looks in the pursuit of medicinal discovery, native preservation and wildlife protection. Former special ops soldiers drift in too, telling vague tales, leaving out details, changing the subject during conversations. Many carry old scars and cast faraway looks. Expats who have shed their previous citizenships like old skin, and whose accounts are often shrouded in mystery, populate the club too – having made Iquitos the last stop on a long journey.
Presiding over the Amazon Explorers Club, much like a Victorian-era gentleman, is Captain Bill Grimes, formerly of the U.S. Midwest. Grimes provides both a meeting point and resting spot for the seemingly endless parade of colorful and hard-bitten jungle researchers and adventurers who avail themselves of the camaraderie of their peers and refresh themselves with a cold beverage and wholesome food at the club’s cafe. There, in the dusk of a settling Amazon day, you can hear bits of conversation about an especially potent plant-derived arrow poison, the fight between a native tribe and encroaching narco-traffickers or the rescue of a live jaguar from poachers.
The Amazon Explorers Club is a place where travelers can share tips, pass along news, relate a current issue, find help for problems or obtain a cheap place to stay. Grimes serves and aids them all, passing along messages and introducing explorers to new contacts. Authors from diverse origins drift in for good material and feedback on manuscripts; TV crews from all countries beat a path to the door of the club. If you want to find a good shaman, obtain the toxic residue of the sapo frog, find out about available real estate for a research center or hire a boat, porter or guide, the Amazon Explorers Club is an essential stop.
Many of the world’s great botanists hold court at the club, getting leads on discoveries for quests that have been going on for hundreds of years. Many carry in their hearts the hope that the discovery of valuable medicines on tribal lands may help native people gain sufficient economic power, in order to fend off advances from the petroleum, mineral and timber companies who want their land. Their struggles are tense, the conditions harsh.
The club, modest by any standard, lacks the grandeur of august institutions like Britain’s Royal Geographic Society. You could walk right by the place and easily miss it. There is no marble statuary, no brass plaque identifying its presence. No flags trumpet the location. And like all places in the Amazon, the facilities are constantly under siege by the ceaseless humidity and rot that are inevitable facts of life in the world’s greatest rainforest. You will find no wood-paneled drawing rooms, but instead all-season patio furniture that can withstand the everyday tortures of the climate. Nonetheless, activity there is ceaseless. There is a constant hum to the place. It is a magnet, pulling people in like iron filings. And those who receive patches of membership hold fast to them like fine jewels. It's an honor and a source of pride to be a member.
The fight to protect and preserve the Amazon occurs mostly away from the public eye. Those explorers who devote themselves to this task often do so because they believe there is no other choice. Most of us who work there assume that deep in the variegated green shades of the forest, the cures for AIDS, Alzheimer's and many forms of cancer may be found. These could alleviate the suffering of millions. Furthermore, fighting to protect and preserve native cultures and all forms of wildlife contributes to a more diverse and healthy society – and a more biodiverse natural world.
For all those who work in these ways, from the energized to the weary, The Amazon Explorers Club provides the opportunity to meet with peers, refresh, renew and garner valuable information and get fortified before returning to the forest and its rivers. Humble though it may be, the club contributes immensely to the flow of exploratory work in that region, and looms large in the hearts and minds of its proud members.
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 MedicineHunter.com.