Heading downriver on his balsa raft, in what I projected, before I arrived on the Perené, as an Aguirre, Wrath of God voyage into chaos and dissolution of all that colonialist planter confidence, it started to come apart for Arthur. As it was doing now for Lucho, our guide, and for the underlying and on-going conflict between curated tourist highlights and the necessity of understanding and untangling the means and motives of the Sinclair/Ross expedition of 1891.


Arthur stumbled and slid from the ruined hutch of Juan Santos Atahualpa into the riverside camp of the Asháninka chief he called ‘King Chokery’. (More probably, according to Ross, Kinchoquiri: a name associated with settlements on the Rio Tambo.) The king was sick, feverish, attended by a personal physician or shaman.

‘Our chief priest cautiously approached, unbuckled his flask, a sort of bladder he always carried well primed with rum – the only spiritual matter he dealt in,’ Arthur wrote. ‘The tube attached to this he placed in the royal mouth, into which he injected a liberal supply of the spirit, which for the moment had the desired effect. The King, lifting his head, indicated that we might be permitted to lie down on the earthen floor at his feet, and there we lay, supperless and saturated with perspiration, till next morning.’


Kinchoquiri recovered and consented to the construction of balsa rafts. ‘Trees were at once cut down and fixed together by pins of palm wood. The balsa, or raft, consisted of seven logs, about 24 inches in circumference, rather roughly pegged together, but sufficiently buoyant to support three of our party on each. Seven of these rafts carried our company of twenty; the King accompanied us, and as he himself had never been forty miles down the river, it was an interesting voyage of discovery to all concerned.’


And to me. I had been preoccupied for most of my life in London with the myth of this river voyage, the casting off into unknown waters. There had been a few adventures over the years along the Thames, a passage from Hastings to Hackney by swan pedalo, in company with Andrew Kötting, being the most recent (and eccentric) version.

We calculated, from Farne’s researches and the study of maps by Ross, Sinclair, Padre Sala and others, that Kinchoquiri’s camp must have been close to Puerto Yurinaki. And we made a detour on our return from Mariscal Cáceras to identify the launch spot. In grainy twilight gloom, romanticised by naked bulbs hanging outside stalls offering dusty fruit, beer and coca, we rambled along the river bank until we found a line of moored boats, pulled up on a shingle beach. With advertisements for balsa excursions.


On the following morning, we made our push to get to the rapids at Ipoki, the essential climax of Arthur’s outward journey. And the heart of the matter. The rapids were where it came apart, divisions and rifts and simmering quarrels surfaced. After these dramas – vanished priests, disgruntled porters, whirlpools, a night spent with rifle on lap waiting for an imminent attack – the expedition lost focus. Arthur suffered serious altitude sickness on the return journey.

‘It was a weary zig-zag: my mule and I got sadly short of breath, but it had to be done, and what is more, we were in a tremendous hurry, my companions being possessed by the one idea – to break the record – which neither my mule nor I shared… By and by the heart’s action seemed to fail, and I suddenly collapsed, slipped off the saddle and lay down on my back, my mule gasping for breath beside me. When I gradually came to myself, I could see around me the bones of many a good mule and llama, cleanly picked, while high in the air floated the ever alert condor, said to be the largest and most powerful of all birds.’


The boatman Lucho had fixed to carry us towards the rapids had vanished like Arthur’s priests. We’d stepped out from the shared minibus and were standing in the morning heat at a small settlement where no phone connections seemed  to work and nothing our guide attempted was going to get us on the river.

But Lucho was resourceful. He flagged down a truck stacked with empty plastic fruit crates and got us a lift, wind-surfing and hanging on, dodging branches, on the road to Ipoki. We agreed to keep the driver on, if we failed to get an alternative boat at a riverside halt with café on stilts, hungry dogs and a couple of tied up motor launches.

But nothing was going to plan. Lucho called Beliza, telling her to gather up some food, take a taxi, and start work on the lunch. I placed Arthur’s photograph in a dugout canoe, and then let it float away towards the rapids.

It was determined –  ‘Let’s go, vamos, come on!’ – that we would visit yet another waterfall. There was some confusion over the term ‘cascades’. Lucho knew about jungle paths to waterfalls, but we wanted cataclysmic river features, rivers of no return. Ipoki was an initiation, a barrier between worlds. The Asháninka were reluctant to paddle any further, they would be swept into a whirlpool of dead ancestors. Arthur’s first experience of the balsa was an epiphany. After the sweat and tangle and dirt, this flight.

‘We started in single file, I electing to sit in the prow of the foremost balsa. It was a glorious morning, and as we glided onward at a rate of four miles an hour, through ever changing, but always enchanting, scenery, the effect was indescribably exhilarating. Every nerve seemed stretched to the highest pitch of enjoyment; the eyes, glancing from scene to scene, took in more impressions than the mental powers could take note of. Such a wealth of vegetation seems to mock at the idea of a few puny planters ever making much impression upon it.’

Then the Aguirre hallucinations begin. 

‘Turning a bend in the river we are struck by what seems the ivy-clad ruins of an ancient castle; but it turns out to be only an aged tree clad from top to bottom with verdant creepers, its huge horizontal arms supporting a perfect screen of living trellis-work below, while ferns, lycopods, and rare orchids, beautiful in hue as they are grotesque in form, grow upright from the damp decaying bark.’

Padre Sala shocks Arthur by fishing with sticks of dynamite:  ‘diabolical and unsportsmanlike’. The result is approved by the Asháninka who scoop up the dividend.

A woman and two children fall from a raft and are drowned. ‘It seemed the standing joke of the day, and no one enjoyed it more than the woman’s husband, who danced with fiendish glee the whole night through, encouraged by the screaming laughter of the native ladies.’

In the prow of the leading balsa, Arthur notices that they are gliding ‘rather faster than was pleasant’, and he hears a ‘ not very distant roar like muffled thunder.’ They have arrived at the Ipoki rapids.


Further and further we bounce and shudder on the river road, stopping from time to time to ask about rapids. Eventually, just beyond a bamboo hut selling fruit and stale biscuits, we see the first angry ripples, white streaks in a river that is beginning to boil. The woman who keeps the stall advises that these rapids continue, getting higher and fiercer all the way, for about five miles. There is no road but a sort of track through the jungle. She warns us against taking it: ‘a place of danger’. Beyond the rapids we are in conflicted narco territory, with private fiefdoms, guerrilla remnants from the Maoist days, traffickers, indigenous men paid to carry packages down impossible trails, bands of raiding forestry pirates. Leave well alone. As compensation, she gifts us with huge bunches of sweet bananas, which we devour as we jolt back to the riverside restaurant where Beliza is ready to serve up the lunch.

There is now a man sitting in the long launch, playing with an outboard motor. But Lucho won’t approach him, he’s hungry and there are more important matters to consider than our whim to be out on the water. ‘Yes, there is a man in the boat, but he is not the boatman.’

But there is also a boy, paddling to the far shore in the dugout canoe. He can be approached and he agrees, for two soles, to take us on the river, once more at that magical time of day. Out towards the point where a tributary enters the Perené and the water begins to seethe and make patterns.

This is much better than any motor cruise. Low to the surface, leaking a little, rocking at the slightest movement, this short voyage is as close as I come to the exhilaration Arthur experienced and expressed.




The Silence in the Jungle.


Following on from the recordings made with the Asháninka at Marankiari, the gifts and exchanges, the way the women responded with such excitement to Arthur’s photographs of ‘King Chokery’ and his wife, the sense of kinship, and then the presentation of the copy of the original contract between the government and the Peruvian Corporation, we felt that certain parts of the story were being withheld or glossed as myth. Bertha Rodriguez de Caleb agreed to talk to us, in the twilight, beside a smoking fire, only because of the intercession of Beliza, as intermediary and translator; a fellow Asháninka who had already helped and advised over the meal prepared by the river. Bertha knew about the cave of Juan Santos Atahualpa, the messianic leader of the uprising in the 1740s, but she told the story without revealing any details about a possible pilgrim route. The paths over the plateau above the Perené, and the significance of the journeys to the Salt Mountain, Cerro de la Sal, always seemed to invoke the names of those neighbouring settlements, Metraro and Mariscal Cáceras, working plantations right at the outer limits of land controlled by the Peruvian Corporation.


‘We entered the great Trans-Andean forest after crossing the Pucartambo river,’ Arthur wrote. ‘We were a goodly company to start with, consisting of seven Europeans, as many Cholos, and a score of mules. The shade of gigantic trees seemed grateful at first… But the road was a villainous rut at a gradient of about one in three, a width of about eighteen inches, and knee deep in something like liquid glue. Before we had gone five miles one-half the cavalcade had come to grief, and it was some weeks ere we saw our pack mules again; indeed, I believe some of them lie there still… Shortly after six o’clock we were overtaken in inky darkness, yet we plodded on, bespattered with mud, tired, bitten, and blistered by various insects.’


Lucho’s headlong velocity – ‘Come on, vamos, let’s go’ – is neutered by the obligations of hospitality, that a meal, lunch, must be prepared as a social event with advice coming from all sides, with many participants, donors, casual witnesses. Root vegetables, variants on the inevitable yucca, are being hacked by machete on the mud floor of an outhouse shack, set conveniently close to the box with the hole for relieving urgent bodily functions. 

Lucho intended to bring pork as his offering, but remembered in time that this would not sit well with Seventh Day Adventists, followers of Fernando Stahl. He went early to the market in La Merced and chose a nice mix of prehistoric mud creatures, all bone and spine, and plump piranhas with rictus grins. They smoked and simmered. And made for a fine broth. After which, the dialogue could begin.

It had been hinted that, if all went well, we would be guided to the shrine of Juan Santos, a short distance from the village. The post-prandial gathering at Metraro showed no interest in Arthur’s photographs, but the locals were engaged by the letters and documentation dealing with the transactions of the Peruvian Corporation. They were shocked to discover, confirmed in writing, the duplicity of Stahl. The Adventist missionary offered, if he was permitted to establish settlements and schools, to make the Asháninka biddable, sober and willing to work on the coffee plantations. Soon he was conducting baptisms in the Perené.

The spokesman of the village, in long plaid shorts and sandals, mounted a motorbike piloted by a character in a cap with a DOPE signature and cannabis leaf design. And we were instructed to follow: we would be taken to the path that led to the cave of the reincarnation of the betrayed and slaughtered Inca, Atahualpa.


‘At last,’ Arthur continued, ‘there was a slight opening in the forest, and the ruins of an old thatched shed were discovered, with one end of a broken beam still resting upon an upright post, sufficient to shelter us from the heavy dews. It turned out to be the tomb of some old Inca chief whose bones have lain there for over 300 years, and there on the damp earth, we lay down beside them, just as we were. Our dinner consisted of a few sardines, which we ate, I shall not say greedily, for I felt tired and sulky, keeping a suspicious eye upon the Jesuit priests…

We were told, by the way, that the bones we were handling were the bones of Atahualpa, so treacherously murdered by Pizarro; but in Peru, of course, every such tale must be taken cum grano salis, and in this case the remains turned out to be those of a pretender who died about 1740…’


Juan Santos Atahualpa has become an authentic icon of resistance for the Peruvian tourist industry. In the main plaza at Pichanaki, on the back of a hoarding placed alongside a giant coffee cup for a recent festival, is Juan Santos, looking like Colonel Gaddafi about to greet Tony Blair in his tent, stern desert gaze and tribal robes. But the resting place of his bones remains obscure: hut, cave, shrine or, as some accounts have it, carried to Tarma.

We are hacking through the cloud jungle, trying to keep pace with the men from Metraro. Pressed hard against dripping rocks, reaching for vines. The village leader pushes ahead to test the path, overgrown, blocked by fallen trees, to the sacred cave. His bike jockey, the man in the Dope cap, holds us back. This is the moment of the silence in the jungle. Nobody moves. The birds are hushed. Everything is in green suspension. We catch our breaths. A moist and luxuriant interval, standing, not talking, but already suspecting that this is as far as we will be allowed to go. None of those miraculous old women will manifest to wave us through to the next stage of enlightenment.

The leader returns: it’s impassable, we must retreat. We follow the motorbike through a golden-hour landscape of small farms and thickets of dead and dying banana palms. Our guides dismount and walk down a dusty road beside the ghostly barracks of a diminished coffee plantation. Here is the final and most unexpected revelation, a tall blue and white pyramid, triggering memories of the pyramid in the grounds of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s in Limehouse. But this alien structure has a memorial function, it is dedicated to the Adventist and colonial prophet, Fernando Stahl.

‘He must have been a Mason,’ Lucho pronounced. ‘Like all those Jesuits and bankers and politicians in Lima.’

It was that time of day. ‘I shall never forget that calm, bright Sunday afternoon when we looked out for the first time on the great interminable forests of the upper valleys of the Amazon,’ Arthur wrote. ‘The faint buzzing of bees, the subdued chirping of finely feathered birds, the flutter of brilliant butterflies, are the only commotion in the air… What crops of vegetables and fruit might not be produced in such a climate and in such a soil.’ 


Laura Grace Ford Presents: An Act of Unforgetting + Q&A

As part of Open City Documentary Festival this year, we have an event with artist and psychogeographer Laura Grace Ford. She’s curating a screening of archival television documentaries from the early 90s, exploring the poll tax riots, housing, architecture and the politics of the time. One of these will be an episode from the series ‘Summer on the Estate’, set on the old Kingsland estate, whilst the other is “The Battle of Trafalgar’ which looks at London more generally. 
Her work is really interesting, and she’ll be present to introduce and discuss the work she’s chosen, placing it within an idea of these films being “catalysts for new social imaginaries.” I thought this event might be of interest to you, considering that Iain Sinclair reviewed Laura’s book Savage Messiah for the Guardian back in 2011, and they’ve worked together on projects also.
At @OpenCityDocs 2019, artist and writer Laura Grace Ford (@LauraOF) will host ‘An Act of Unforgetting’: a programme of archival TV documentaries centred around social and political upheaval in London during the summer of 1990:

A rare radio appearance last night, talking about Poe in the interval of the BBC proms. Available as podcast:

Novelist and Gothic literature specialist Elizabeth Lowry joins the writer, documentarist, film-maker and psycho-geographer Iain Sinclair to discuss the dark glitter of the Gothic and the work of the American poet Edgar Allan Poe, with presenter Matthew Sweet.

Elizabeth Lowry’s latest book is entitled ‘Dark Water’

“A rare radio appearance last night, talking about Poe in the interval of the BBC proms. Available as podcast” (Iain Sinclair)




By Iain Sinclair



After Tarma and the old Spanish hacienda, with the stand of eucalyptus trees, the stepped gardens, the white and yellow irises, the scarlet geraniums, the green parrot, the dogs and chickens, the running water, an oasis much appreciated by Arthur, we are firmly established on the road travelled by my great-grandfather. So much so that for the first time I begin to hear his voice, to feel the portrait I’m carrying taking form against the curtainless window.


‘We stayed here for some days,’ Arthur wrote, ‘greatly enjoying its splendid climate – a paradise for consumptive patients.’ And then they took the route we were now following. ‘We halted for breakfast at Acombamba, only six miles from Tarma, from which we had been rather late in starting. Acombamba is a beautifully situated but decaying hamlet, with about 1,500 rather seedy-looking inhabitants.’


Dropping through a gorge, where trucks and cars flirt at every bend with disaster, throwing dirt over the wayside shrines of previous victims, and slowing only for landslides and craters being repaired by ragged bands of children and old people, freelancing for pitiful alms, we made the shift to La Merced, the town on the border of the territory we want to explore. The first intimations of a more humid jungle culture. ‘The valley opens out, and the vegetation assumes a more luxuriant aspect,’ Arthur reports. ‘The moist steamy heat tells us that we are truly in the tropics.’


The turning point in the original Sinclair/Ross expedition of 1891 comes when they make contact at the Convent of San Luis de Shuaro with the priests who will guide them through the territory of the Asháninka to the point on the Rio Perené where they will take to the water, to survey the land granted by the Peruvian Government to those remote investors, the Peruvian Corporation of London. Arthur does his best, as he confesses, to put aside his native bias against the perceived iniquities of ‘the Spanish priesthood’. 


‘I honestly tried to go forward unprejudiced, thinking only of the monks of old, and the good they did in their day. But this convent was a revelation to us. We had never seen anything quite so filthy and suspicious looking before, and would gladly have escaped within an hour; indeed, did so, and began erecting our tent at a safe distance; but were implored not to insult the reverend fathers by refusing to accept their hospitality, an infliction which we bore patiently for several days.’


Arthur does not name their tonsured guides, but claims that they ‘knew as little about the path as we did ourselves’. Arthur’s companion, Alexander Ross, is more forthcoming. The man taking them forward is none other than the celebrated Padre Gabriel Sala, a Franciscan missionary of fierce temperament; a well-armed backwoodsman, bounty hunter, chronicled for rounding up souls for Christ, filling the fortress of his newly-established convent with children and other cursed or damaged outsiders.

Our own guide, Lucho, knows nothing of this history or the status of the vanished buildings. But I have seen Sala’s pioneering large-scale map in the convent at Santa Rosa de Ocapo, with its drawings of buildings and river traffic, and I recognise the shape of the wall beside the new church. And right in front of it there is a statue of Sala, up on a high pedestal like a stylite; grim-faced, gripping his bible like a grenade. As I lift my camera, Lucho calls out. He has found an old Chinese lady, Maria Genoveva Leon Perez, keeper of the church keys. Here is one of those magical presences, usually female, usually bright-eyed but mature, spirits of place stepping from forest or river to put pilgrims who have put in the necessary miles on the right path.

Maria gets on well with Farne. We are invited into her house, where she tells us how the convent collapsed in an earthquake and was never restored. She knew about life in the Colony, the harshness of the rule of the Peruvian Corporation. Yes, there were schools and hospitals – but only for sanctioned employees. Otherwise, all that land along the river was enclosed, forbidden.

We visit the church and then, at the back, the rough ground on which Sala’s border-post convent once stood. Arthur’s story has moved into an active present tense. In the earth I find a rusted machete and a stand for votive candles. On the wall somebody, at some past moment, has painted FS – as if waiting for Farne Sinclair, who has now arrived to confirm the prophecy.

If nothing else, Sala inspired Arthur to try out a phrase that has become a standard in contemporary politics. 

The worst weakness of the Hispano-Peruvian race is their inability to tell truthfully the little they know… The common people are born and bred to it, but their lies are clumsy, palpable, and comparatively harmless. With the priests and privileged classes, however, it becomes a studied art. “We must dissimulate,” said the chief priest of the convent, and I will give him credit for consistency in this; for during the three weeks I had the opportunity of studying this great economist of the truth, I never once knew him to utter a word that could be relied upon.