This article originally appeared in
Piranha meat: It can take a bite out of what ails you
© 1998 Houston Chronicle

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PUCALLPA, Peru -- Feeling old? Tired? There is something found around these parts
that a lot of people say can help.
     Men in their retirement years eat it, start new families and swear by it. So do childless
women, who drink it and give birth.
     Found in the Peruvian rain forests, the demand for it is phenomenal. But it isn't some
pharmaceutical corporation's answer to Viagra, the impotence drug, nor is it available at a
corner drugstore. In fact, an Amazonian witch doctor here must be consulted for a
     It's piranha.
     The bitter-tasting flesh of the fish that have devoured so many villains in jungle B-movies
is hailed here as the cure for problems dealing with fertility, virility, even baldness. It is said to
be the ultimate aphrodisiac.
       "These claims about the power of the piranha fish meat have been around for a very long
time, and there has never been any scientific evidence to support it," said Celso Pardo, the
dean of a Lima pharmacological institute. "People see an aggressive, macho animal, and
they say, `I want to be more like that.' "
     Such disparaging words do not faze the supporters of the bony fish. Piranha fisherman
Miguel Socorro, for example, said his father had been sterile before eating piranha and
fathering Socorro and his two siblings
     Maria Luisa Quepo, a childless woman near Pulcallpa,
gave birth to twins when she was in her 40s after
drinking a piranha-based brew. And the mayor of a
nearby village, a widower in his 60s, started a second
family with the help of the fish. Countless couples
here say they've used the seductive powers of the
piranha to spice up otherwise unimaginative marriages.
     "The people helped by the fish don't need proof from
scientists," said the witch doctor, Flor, whose name
means "flower" in Spanish
     Catching a piranha isn't easy. The best fishermen
start early in the morning by pouring buckets of blood
around their boats to attract the fish, which gather with
such ferocity that the water near the boat seems to be boiling.
     The fishermen slap the waters with their fishing poles to mimic the splashing sounds of
an animal in distress -- something that excites the piranha even more. Then they they drop in
multipronged hooks baited with chunks of red meat.
     The piranha just nibble at the meat, but a slight tug at the hook-lines tells the fisherman to
jerk the hooks upward, something as likely to snag the fish in the gills or tails as in the
mouths, since the piranha do not allow hooks past their razor-sharp teeth.
     "The process is difficult, but a good fisherman can catch 12 or 15 piranhas before the sun
gets too hot," said Socorro, the fisherman.
     The piranhas sell for a little less than $1 each to witch doctors like Flor, meaning a
successful fisherman can make the average weekly wage near Pulcallpa of $16 or so in a
little more than a day of fishing. Flor charges about $4.25 for most of his signature brews,
which use one or two fish each.
     "This is one of the most profitable businesses a man can get into near here," Socorro
said proudly.
up by healers. Meat from a baby piranha is thought to start working quicker; pregnant
piranhas are used to solve fertility-related problems.
     According to Flor, medicinal uses of the piranha go back generations, though he said that
he personally "discovered" the formulas he uses to make some of his most potent potions.
     "Medicine in the jungle is always changing, always becoming better, always discovering
new cures and powers," Flor said. "The things we can't cure are only because we haven't
figured out how yet."
     But Pardo, the pharmacist, said any power claimed to reside in the fish is purely
     "If there's any effect at all, it's due to somebody being convinced it will work," he said, "and
then it does."
     "That's not such a bad thing," he added, "just as long as people don't take it too seriously
and start hailing it as the next great miracle cure."
     Or the next new impotence drug
     Whoever is right, the witch doctor or the pharmacist, it makes no difference to people like
Quepo, the formerly childless woman who gave birth to twins when she was 43 -- a miracle
she attributes to piranha.
     "I don't understand science, and I don't know why it works, but it does," she said.
     "Before I took the medicine, my husband and I were alone. Now, thank God, we have two
little children."
After 5-hour trip into jungle,
I'm at home with witch doctor

     The route to the home of the witch
doctor known as Flor is long and
difficult, but it doesn't discourage
     Inside his wooden hut, a sweaty five
hours by dugout canoe and foot from
the Amazon jungle city of Pucallpa, Flor
brews his mysterious potions and
medicines for an average of three
"clients" a day.
     "People," he said plainly, "they want
what I have."
     They want it for dozens of reasons.
Flor boasts cures for maladies ranging
from infertility to baldness, from
alcoholism to poor night vision.
     During a recent visit, Flor told me he
could cure me of whatever ailed me.
     `"You have all your hair," he said,
stroking his chin. "Any fertility
problems?" I told him I was single, but
he wasn't deterred.
     "Do you have problems shooting an
arrow straight?" he asked, a little more
desperate. "Do you make too much
noise when you walk through the
jungle? Do your feet sweat when you
     Flor wasn't what I thought an
Amazon witch doctor would be. He
wasn't dressed in bright robes, his face
wasn't painted in cryptic patterns. In fact,
he was virtually indistinguishable from
the 60 or so people in the nearby
village of Nuevo Destino -- Spanish for
New Destiny -- with his earth-tone
clothes and high, Indian cheekbones.
His Spanish was fairly articulate, given
that it wasn't his native language. The
Shapibo Indian language is spoken by
most people in the area.
     The route to his hut included a maze
of minor river tributaries -- some of
which had to be blazed by breaking off
or slipping under branches from
fast-growing Amazon trees -- and then
a muddy, hourlong walk along an
overgrown path.
     Flor's hut, on the southern edge of
Nuevo Destino, looks as if it grew out of
the land around it. Weeds sprouted
between the unevenly spaced floor and
the wooden-and-palm-thatched roof
seemed to absorb the tube of smoke
rising up from the flame Flor used to
heat the potion he was making for me.
     The brew he concocted for me
included an ounce or two of piranha
meat along with a ground-up mixture
twigs, herbs, powders and some drops
from an odd assortment of bottles that
Flor kept on a shelf with the skull of a
huge Caiman.
     The gritty potion tasted bitter, but
Flor and my guide urged me to drink it
down as they chatted in Shapibo. After I
took a few hesitant sips, Flor took the
clay pot back and smiled a toothless
smile. He declared me almost cured.
     Of what? I asked Flor and my guide.
They looked at me as if I should have
perhaps asked for a cure for being
dimwitted. A few seconds passed, and
Flor spoke slowly. "You will find love,"
he said, "within 30 days."
     That time has nearly passed, but I
haven't given up hope.  

--By Eric J. Lyman
July 17, 1998  -   Page C-1