Pishtacos – Human oil extractors – The Bogeymen of Peru.

by Gunnar Engblom on November 21, 2009

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Beware of the birder – I’m coming to take you away, ha ha!

Bay-vented Cotinga. One of the special birds in the remote Unchog in Carpish, Huanuco

Bay-vented Cotinga. One of the special birds in the remote Unchog in Carpish, Huanuco

The news of  Peruvian human oil extractors – pishtacos- is now not only a legend of the central highlands of Peru after yesterday’s news release that travelled the world. (See World War 4 Report and BBC)

This quite seriously damages Peru’s reputation and could also have effects when birding.

In the Central highlands of Junin, Pasco and Huanuco the Pishtaco is the Bogeyman. The adults tell the kids that if the don’t eat up or behave, the Pishtaco will take them. The Pishtacos are white mercenaries killing locals, extracting their oil, to sell to Europe and to the US for use of beauty lotions, plastic surgery, grease the railroad and – believe it or not – to run the Space Shuttle.

When I first travelled in Central Peru with a group in 1996, the kids upon seeing us jumped into the ditch as we drove by silently screaming “Pishtacos”. A few years later our car was bombarded with stones as we drove up to Unchog. At the trail just beyond the Carpish Tunnel a man directly accused us of being Pishtacos.

Over the years, the people in the Carpish/Unchog area have become more accustomed to see gringos birdwatching. Also there have been direct benefits with donations to the schools in the area as well as an entrance fee established to visit Unchog for birding and I until recently thought the Pishtaco episode – taking birders for pishtacos – was over and done with.

The myth becomes reality

With  the national police showing the evidence yesterday and three suspects have confessed to killing five people for their fat, and two were arrested carrying bottles of liquid fat, the legend suddenly get some substance. It is hard to believe however that there really is a commerce with human body fat going on around the world. As Dr Adam Katz, professor of plastic surgery at the University of Virginia medical school,  says:

I can’t see why there would be a black market for fat, It doesn’t make any sense at all, because in most countries we can get fat so readily and in such amounts from people who are willing and ready to donate that I don’t see why there would ever be a black market for fat, of all tissues.

If it is true, and these crimes have been committed, it seems that the gang may have believed the legend so much that they got absorbed in becoming producers of the oil wanted by “beautiful white first world”. Sad when you think of it. Like digging for gold at the end of the rainbow.

In some Peruvian sources, it has been claimed, that this type of news-story – urban legends “proven” true – such as pishtacos or blood-crying madonnas, always pop-up as smoke screens when the reigning authorities are in trouble.  Time will tell, but watch carefully what pops up to be officially forgotten within the following days.

Recommendation for birders

Unfortunately, the deep-rooted myth is getting fuel by such news. This may become dangerous to adventurous travellers off the beaten track – as birders often are. Here are some examples for you.

Last year we took some farmers from Central Peru (Carpish and Satipo road) to Mindo so they could experience eco-tourism in practice. We wanted to bring more people from Carpish, but rumours had it, that we were Pishtacos and that the participants would be beheaded, slaughtered and adipose extracted when exposed to foreign buyers in Ecuador. One of the members from Carpish, was suprised to see that none of this was true and that he returned living and well to Carpish.

Earlier this year, in another part of Central Peru, in Pucacocha in the Andamarca valley, Junin, our car was surrounded by villagers accusing the birders inside the vehicle for being Pishtacos. The situation was somewhat uncomfortable, but our guide and driver managed to explain what we really were doing and the group could leave with somewhat of a scare.

In light of the hysteria and psychosis that follows news like this I recommend that independant birders visiting the departments of Huanuco, Pasco and Junin to be very careful. You should speak good Spanish if you want to visit these areas now or go with a Peruvian guide. Birders travelling with tour companies should have no worries, as these companies make pre-arrangements with the local communities.

Also, I don’t expect any complications whatsoever along the normal tourist circuit Lima-Paracas-Nazca-Colca-Titicaca-Cusco-Machu Picchu-Manu – or other parts of Peru for that matter.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Tallman November 21, 2009 at 4:08 pm

Erika and I had an encounter with Pistacos in the Carpish Pass region of Peru in the 1970s. This is from my journal:

Our plan was to go straight up the dry side of the mountain and then straight down the wet side. Manuel and Reyes assured us that this plan was doable, but that they would need to check with the elders of the next village over, since the land we wanted to hunt in was in a different jurisdiction than Acomayo. Manuel and Reis reported back that we had permission to hunt, but that the elders would not be responsible for our lives.


“These people believe in Pistacos.”

“What is a Pistaco?”

“A Pistaco has blue eyes, not brown, like a Peruvian,” explained Manuel

“A Pistaco has brown hair, not black hair like a Peruvian,” continued Reyes, “and have heavy beards, unlike the local folks who have little facial hair to begin with and, as adolescents, pluck out their facial hair with tweezers.”

“And Pistacos roam the forest with machetes, chop people’s heads off, and eat them raw. Nobody’s ever seen a Pistaco and survived.”

I have no idea either how folks got such an accurate description of this beast or why I was dead ringer for a Pistaco. In the interest of science, I decided to make a hard right and follow a ridge to the northwest to an abandoned trail which, years before the Central Highway, had connected Acomayo with the region below the Carpish Pass.


Mike Chapman November 22, 2009 at 2:42 pm

I was in the vehicle which was stopped in Pucacocha in the Andamarca valley, Junin. We were leaving town before daylight after spending the night in the village school. Several men had barricaded the road so we couldn’t get by and forced our van to return to the village square. They also barricaded the road leaving the square in the other direction. They forced us to allow them to go through everything in the van- our luggage, camera bags, coolers. After they found nothing they wouldn’t allow us to leave in the direction we were headed but made us go back the way we had come. They told the guides not to bring anymore gringos to their village.

Gunnar Engblom November 23, 2009 at 11:06 am

Dan. Thanks for that great account from your pioneering trip to Unchog/Carpish with Reyes. Reyes is still going strong and helps us out with our expeditions to the area.

Mike. We have not been back to Pucacocha since, but our contacts in Mariposa have approached the village to let them understand what we are doing. This reaction is really strange. We have been staying in the school for a couple of years now during our trips. I held a little speach to the school kids about ecology and conservation after a request from the teachers.
It goes to show, that the hysteria from rumours in these parts of the world is very powerful. One have best to speak Spanish.

Some recent improvements that I soon shall be blogging about:
At the Paty Trail, we have installed some beds in the local school, for the benefit of our clients and to start a small eco-tourism project together with the school.
At Cochabamba on the way up to Unchog, there is now a small communal hostal that we shall be using.
Apaya on the Satipo road will soon have a small community lodge, since funds have been secured by the Mariposa Municipality, Rain Forest Partnership and Kolibri Expeditions.
Next year the whole central Peru circuit can be done completely without camping. Be sure to let people know!

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