While the infamous rubber baron, Fitzcarrald (often mistakenly called Fitzcarraldo), is associated with the founding of Puerto Maldonado, he actually died some twelve years before the event; his story is, however, relevant to the development of this region. While working rubber on the Río Urubamba, Fitzcarrald caught the gold bug after hearing rumours from local Ashaninka and Machiguenga Indians of an Inca fort protecting vast treasures, possibly around the Río Purus. Setting out along the Mishagua, a tributary of the Río Urubamba, he managed to reach its source, and from there walked over the ridge to a new watershed which he took to be the Purus, though it was in fact the Río Cashpajali, a tributary of the Río Manu. Leaving men to clear a path, he returned to Iquitos, and in 1884 came back to the region on a boat called La Contamana. He took the boat apart, and, with the aid of over a thousand Ashaninka and other Indians, carried it across to the “Purus”. But, as he cruised down, attacked by tribes at several points, Fitzcarrald slowly began to realize that the river was not the Purus – a fact confirmed when he eventually bumped into a Bolivian rubber collector.
Though he’d ended up on the wrong river, Fitzcarrald had discovered a link connecting the two great Amazonian watersheds. In Europe, the discovery was heralded as a great step forward in the exploration of South America, but for Peru it meant more rubber, a quicker route for its export and the beginning of the end for Madre de Dios’ indigenous tribes. Puerto Maldonado was founded in 1902, and as exploitation of the region’s rubber peaked, so too was there an increase in population of workers and merchants, with Madre de Dios ultimately becoming a departamento of Peru in 1912. German director Werner Herzog thought this historical episode a fitting subject for celluloid, and in 1982 directed the epic Fitzcarraldo.