When I first heard about el sapo I thought, “What kind of crazy person would try that?” Now I know, me. Sapo is a medicine used by the Matses tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. It supposedly sharpens the senses and increase stamina making the Matses people who use it better hunters. Sapo is the sweat of the giant monkey tree frog, which the Matses people collect by catching a frog, tying its legs to four posts, making it nervous, and then scraping off its sweat before releasing the unharmed, but no doubt petrified, animal (unfortunately, I did not get to see this part as my guide had a pre-collected sample available on a stick).* I wanted to try sapo because I thought that it would help me “see” the animals in the jungle better.
The morning of my introduction to sapo, I was terrified. I had been forewarned by my guide that sapo was “Fuerte, muy fuerte. Pero pasa después de 30-40 minutos,” (“strong, very strong. But it passes after 30, 40 minutes”). What was I doing here? Here I was, a vegetarian from Virginia, being inducted into an age-old medicine used by Amazonian hunters for centuries. What was I expected to do, become the frog? I sat anxiously in the kitchen watching my guide eat breakfast (I wasn’t allowed to eat anything as sapo would mostly likely force me to throw it up) and whittle a stick with a machete. I grew more nervous watching his father walk around me with a smoldering log, while my guide “prepared” the sapo (he spat on the stick and then vigorously rubbed the resin and substance into a paste). He then stuck a small stick into the faggot, setting it on fire before burning me with it three times. After scraping away the skin, he applied the paste. My skin already stung from the burns, but the moment the “medicine” touched my body, my heart started to race. I felt it beating hard in my chest as a current raced through my body. All of a sudden, I found myself lying on the floor without knowing how I got there. I felt my hosts place a cold towel on my forehead and lemon halves on my temples. I sat up and proceeded to throw up, twice. My entire body convulsed and I repeated, “Oh god, oh god.” My guide poured a pitcher of water over my head and had me lie down. Twenty minutes later, I felt well enough to stand and eat.
Later in the day, during our jungle walk, we spotted hoatzin, horned screamers, monkeys, a three-toed sloth, and alligator, tapir, capybara, and jaguar tracks. My guide’s father told me that I saw many animals because sapo brings luck. I don’t know about that, but I know that I sweated loads more than my companions. I also felt more alert to the sights and sounds of the jungle than I did previously. I felt the presence of the monkeys way before my guide spotted them. I didn’t try hunting, but I successfully stabbed a fish with a spear. We cut the fish up into small pieces with a machete and then used it as bait to catch piranhas. How’s that for the power of the sapo? Excuse me, I have to go, I feel a croak coming on.
*In his book Ayahuasca in My Blood, Peter Gorman says, “In large doses, the intense sweating it causes could make a Matses hunter ‘invisible’ to poor-sighted but acute-smelling jungle animals by temporarily eliminating the human odor. In studies by the University of Rome, sapo would found to have bio-active proteins, meaning that the body believes it has produced them and reacts accordingly.
Nervous but excited
I'm smiling because I thought the burning was going to be the worst part
My guide applying the paste
It got pretty intense