A couple of years ago, Matthew Barker visited the Alto Mayo Protected Forest on a photography assignment. The region, located in the upper reaches of the Mayo River basin, straddles the northern border of the San Martin department, approximately 68 miles northwest of Tarapoto.

The Alto Mayo, by Matthew Barker

Shimpiyacu Alto Mayo Peru

Following the Rio Mayo north from Tarapoto you eventually reach the Alto Mayo preserve, created to protect virgin forest and the indigenous Peruvians, mostly Awajun, who live there. The settlement of Shimpiyacu is typical to the area. People here live on what the forest provides, in their palm-roofed homes that have changed little in centuries.

Alto Mayo Apu Peru

The village chief, known as the Apu, is also the schoolteacher and magistrate. Western clothes have long been the norm, but he retains his ceremonial beads as a symbol of his status.

Schoolboy Alto Mayo Peru

The school is one of the few concrete buildings in the village. Around 50 youngsters attend each morning, learning in Spanish as well as their native Awajun.

Alto Mayo children Peru

After school, the kids run back to their homes for lunch. The unusual sight of a 6’4” white man with a camera was enough to cause a riot of curiosity. None of the kids had seen their own faces on a camera screen before.

Traditional home Alto Mayo Peru

At home in the traditional log & palm home. Inside is a compressed mud floor and open wood fire. The whole family sleeps in the same room, on mattresses under mosquito nets.


Coffee harvesting is one of the principle sources of income in the region.


Thanks to the support of the NGO Soluciones Practicas, wells and running water have been installed throughout the village.


The chief’s son and heir.


The chief and his family. Ever wondered what a Peruvian Patrick Swayze would look like?


Guided visits to the Alto Mayo preserve can be arranged, but be sure to deal with a responsible Peru tour operator. For more information about the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, have a look at this detailed pdf document by the ParksWatch organization.

All images © Matthew Barker.