Kambo, also known as sapo, is a traditional Amazonian frog medicine derived from the protective secretion of a South American tree frog. For various indigenous groups in the Amazon basin, kambo is an ancient shamanic tool used to empower hunting, cure physical ailments, and cleanse negative energies. Since 2010, kambo has become popular outside of South America for treating physical, emotional, and spiritual issues. In contrast to many other natural sacred medicines, kambo does not produce psychedelic effects. Instead, it has a reputation for being very physically intense but with the ultimate payoff of a detoxifying, immune-boosting experience after the initial challenging purge.
What is Kambo?
Kambo is a waxy skin secretion produced for defensive purposes by Phyllomedusa bicolor, a frog native to the Amazon basin. P. bicolor is found in large numbers throughout the rainforests of Peru, Columbia, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, and the Guianas. It is known by several common names, including the giant monkey frog, giant leaf frog, and giant waxy monkey tree frog. Both the frog and its venomous secretion are also known as sapo, a word that means “frog” in Portuguese.
As a member of the Hylidae family (the tree frogs and their allies), the giant monkey frog spends most of its life within forest canopies along stream banks and above ponds. It is approximately the size of a palm, making it the largest frog in its genus. It is identifiable by its bright lime-green back, spotted white underside, and unique call that resembles a low guttural bark. This call helps catchers locate the amphibian, usually during the night as the frog is nocturnal. It can even be imitated to draw the frogs nearer for capture. Since only free-roaming sapo living within its natural habitat secrete kambo, the frog must be caught in the wild to collect the secretion.
The Chemical Makeup of Kambo
Chemically, kambo is made up of a high concentration of bioactive peptides. These powerful short chains of amino acids account for up to 7% of kambo’s weight. The major peptide families include the dermorphins, bombesins, bradykinins, tachykinins, caerulein, sauvagine, and tryptophyllins. Notably, the dermorphins and bombesins are opioid agonists that are similar to beta-endorphins produced naturally by the body. Research has found that dermorphins are potent analgesics, some 30 to 40 times stronger than morphine.
Generally speaking, kambo’s bioactive peptides have a wide variety of beneficial functions within the body, acting as vasodilators, anti-inflammatories, antimicrobials, blood-pressure regulators, stimulators of the pituitary gland, and much more. As research over the decades uncovered the myriad benefits of these peptides, pharmaceutical companies began to show interest in developing synthetic versions of the compounds. But currently, owing to kambo’s complex pharmacology, no derived pharmaceuticals have come to market.
Common Ways to Use Kambo
The only safe way to use kambo is the time-tested method outlined below, where kambo is administered through the skin into the lymphatic system.
Kambo Ceremony Preparation
Once the frog is caught in the wild, it is harmlessly tied up by all four limbs and suspended, forming an X shape with its body. The stress of being tied up coupled with light stimulation causes the frog to secrete kambo. The kambo is scraped off the skin of its back and legs and collected on sticks to dry, such as bamboo. After milking, the frog is released back into the wild unharmed. It will take about a week for it to replenish its supply of kambo.
Using a sharp knife, the dried sapo is reconstituted with saliva or water into a paste with the consistency and appearance of wasabi mustard. The kambo practitioner then heats up a stick (usually of the tamishi vine) until it is glowing red-hot. The smoldering stick is applied to the body, traditionally the upper arm or chest. From here, the top layer of skin is scraped away, leaving roughly ⅛ inch burn points. Usually, between 3-5 points are made, depending on an individual’s needs and experience with kambo. These points are arranged into rows known as “gates.”
The wetted kambo is then dabbed onto the burn sites, completely covering them in a small mound roughly the size of a matchstick head (about 10mg). The burns expose capillaries in the subcutaneous layers of the skin so that the medicine can absorb into the lymphatic system and then into the bloodstream. The bioavailability is further aided by vasodilating peptides present in the kambo. The effects begin within seconds, and the kambo is wiped away from the arm no later than 15 minutes after the initial application.
History & Traditional Uses
While various kambo origin stories exist among the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, the most prevailing story comes from the Kaxinawa tribe in Brazil. According to legend, one day many of the tribe members came down with an intractable illness that the tribe’s medicine man was not equipped to cure. While under the effect of an entheogen, the shaman ventured out into the forest where he met a great female spirit. During their meeting, the spirit taught him about the giant monkey frog’s secretion and how it can be used medicinally. Armed with this knowledge, he returned to his tribe and, following the spirit’s instruction, was able to cure his sick tribesmen. After the healing ritual, the shaman became known as Kampu. Following his death, the Kaxinawa held that the spirit of Kampu lives on in the frog, whose secretion became known as kambo.
Over the ensuing millennia, the use of kambo spread to various other Panoan-speaking indigenous groups, including the Matses, Amahuaca, Katukina, Kulina, Marubo, and Mayoruna. Traditionally, it has been used by these groups to facilitate hunting and to heal the body, emotions, and spirit. Kambo is used as a stamina boost and to sharpen the senses so hunters can better track and hunt animals. To this end, the Matses people use kambo in conjunction with nu-nu, a psychoactive snuff that gives them visions of where to find game in the surrounding rainforest. Kambo is also believed to eliminate the hunters’ scents, helping them to move about the forest undetected.
Also known as vacina da floresta (vaccine of the forest), kambo is also used as an all-around jungle medicine—helping to treat snakebites, malaria, fevers, and infections. It is traditionally used to treat panema, an indigenous word for dark, negative energy. Panema is thought to manifest as depression, stress, trauma, and anger. In addition, indigenous women have used kambo for reproductive issues and to induce abortions. Children have used small doses of kambo when they have grippe, or a basic cold.
Modern Day Discovery
A French priest named Constantin Tastevin was the first Westerner to observe the ceremonial use of kambo among the indigenous peoples in the Amazon. In 1925, he stayed with the Kaxinawá in Brazil and recorded his observations regarding the rituals and uses of the medicine. In the 1980s, the American anthropologist Katherine Milton observed the use of kambo among the Mayoruna tribe in Brazil. Around the same time, the investigative journalist Peter Gorman detailed the ritualistic use of kambo, including his own self-experimentation, with the Matses tribe in Peru.
In the mid-1980s, Gorman gave a stick of sapo to Charles Myers, the curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Myers then gave the sample to a biochemist named John Daly at the National Institute of Health. Reports of his Amazonian specimen circulated, attracting the interest of Italian pharmacologist Vittorio Erspamer. Erspamer was the discoverer of serotonin that was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize. After receiving a sapo sample himself, he became the first person to analyze kambo’s chemical constituents in a lab. In 1986, he concluded sapo contained a “fantastic chemical cocktail with potential medical applications, unequaled by any other amphibian.” Thus, a new field of biomedical research was born, dedicated to understanding and utilizing amphibian peptides as Western medicines.
With kambo use becoming increasingly popular outside of South America, users have claimed that it can help with a variety of disorders and conditions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that kambo could help treat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, addiction, depression, hepatitis, HIV, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, diabetes, arthritis, and much more. As of now, these claims have not been borne out in any double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. Much of the current evidence of the medicinal properties of kambo’s peptides rests on in vitro studies, rather than in vivo.
Commonly Reported Effects of Kambo
Aptly known as an “ordeal medicine”, the kambo experience can be difficult to navigate but ultimately rewarding. When properly administered, the effects are felt within 90 seconds. The most unpleasant effects last approximately 30-40 minutes. The acute cleansing intoxication phase lasts about 15 minutes and is nearly always characterized by an intense period of purging (vomiting, urination, and defecation). A range of other intense gastrointestinal and cardiovascular effects occur once the drug is placed on the skin, including:
- Increased body temperature
- Increased heart rate
- Large fluctuations in blood pressure
- Spreading of burning or tingling sensations
- Increased awareness of vasculature
- Stomach cramps
- Loss of control of bodily functions
- Facial swelling (‘frog face’)
- Feelings of drunkenness or spaciness
- Animalistic vocalizations (barking, growling)
While the initial experience resembles temporary anaphylactic shock, the effects are due to the pharmacological action of the bioactive peptides present in the kambo.
After the initial unpleasant effects, many people report feeling exhausted and just wanting to sleep. Others report a mood lift, vivid sensory enhancement, and overall bodily rejuvenation. These positive effects may be immediate or may take a day or more to manifest. In his book Sapo in My Soul, Peter Gorman describes the immediate after-effects after his first sapo experience with the Matses tribe, stating,
“Every sense I possessed was heightened and in tune with the environment as though the sapo put the rhythm of the jungle into my blood.”
Other kambo after-effects can include:
- Increased stamina
- Enhanced vitality
- Heightened alertness
- Resistance to stress
- Increase in physical strength
- Resistance to hunger and thirst
- Enhanced focus
- Feeling emotionally and/or physically cleansed
Overall, the effects can be very different from person to person, depending on idiosyncratic reactions and the amount and size of the points applied. The purity and potency of the kambo can influence the effect profile as well. These factors may vary significantly depending on how it’s stored as well as the specific frog and milking methods.
Since kambo hasn’t been studied in human clinical trials, its long-term safety is unknown. As an extremely powerful medicine, kambo has to be treated with the utmost respect to minimize any potential dangers.
To stay safe, it is strongly recommended to use kambo under the direction and guidance of a properly trained and experienced sapo practitioner. Commonly, participants will fast for at least 8 hours leading up to the ceremony. It’s common to drink around a liter or two of water immediately prior to the ceremony to facilitate purging. To keep this portion of the experience as safe as possible, the kambo practitioner will hold space, supply buckets, and lend support when needed. For instance, they will make sure the users never lie down on their back, a dangerous position during purging that can lead to asphyxiating on vomit.
The intensity of the kambo experience can vary widely from person to person due to factors such as individual sensitivity and variability in kambo potency. For this reason, it’s strongly recommended to start with a small dose (1 burn) to gauge one’s individual reaction. Like all drugs, allergic reactions can happen, producing adverse effects that are beyond the severity of the acute purging phase of the ceremony.
Kambo should not be used by those with a history of cardiovascular and neurological conditions. It should also be avoided by those using heavy pharmaceuticals, including immunosuppressants and hypotensive medications. In addition, individuals with a history of recent major surgeries, seizures, and severe mental illness (such as psychosis or bipolar disorder) should not partake in a kambo ritual.
Is Kambo Legal?
Kambo is legal in the United States and the vast majority of other countries. There are currently no restrictions on its sale, possession, purchasing, and administration—except for a few exceptions.
In 2004, Brazil banned the sale and advertising of kambo. This action was taken in response to a request by the Katukina people to protect their intellectual property, despite the drug being used by many other tribes throughout the Amazon. In addition, in Chile, it is illegal to import kambo. In several Australian states, kambo practitioners were banned from administering the treatment after the death of Natasha Lechner, a kambo practitioner who suffered cardiac arrest during a kambo ceremony in 2019.
Is Kambo Safe?
According to the International Association of Kambo Practitioners (IAKP), kambo is “100% safe in the right hands.” If the medicine is administered by an experienced and well-trained practitioner to a healthy individual, life-threatening outcomes are very rare. With that said, there are numerous contraindications that may make kambo use unsafe. Kambo user contraindications can include a history of heart problems, being pregnant, breastfeeding, using immunosuppressants after an organ transplant, being a chemotherapy patient, having a severe mental illness, and more. It’s imperative that anyone interested in trying kambo communicates any medical conditions to their kambo practitioner.
Has Anyone Died From Kambo?
While deaths from kambo are rare, they have happened. At least five deaths have been reported worldwide, mostly as a result of pre-existing health conditions that were contraindicated with the use of kambo.
One potential danger related to the ceremony that is not due to kambo itself is the possibility of hyponatremia, or excessive water intake. It’s common to consume a lot of water prior to taking the drug in order to aid purging. However, exceeding 3 liters of water carries the risk of potentially fatal water toxicity.
Is Kambo Psychedelic?
Despite being called a “hallucinogenic tree frog”, kambo does not produce any dreams, visions, or psychedelic states of consciousness. Instead, the bioactive peptides present in the secretion produce physically intense effects. Many people report maintaining a lucid state of mind about what is happening during the experience.
Is Kambo Used with Other Drugs?
Indigenous people often use kambo with the herbal stimulant nu-nu to aid in locating and hunting animals. It is also used alongside iboga, 5-MeO-DMT, and prior to an ayahuasca ceremony. According to Peter Gorman, “While the ayahuasca cleans up the garbage in your heart and soul, the sapo cleans out the physical garbage stored in your body.”
Does Kambo Show up on a Drug Test?
Standard drug tests will not detect kambo. Only specialized lab tests (GC-MS) can detect the peptides in kambo.
Does Kambo Create Permanent Scars?
The burn marks heal and become fainter over time, but they often don’t go away completely. Once the kambo is removed from the gates, a natural tree sap called dragon’s blood is applied to the burns. This sap aids the healing process and prevents infection. For many, the warrior burns are worn as a badge of honor.
Contributing RS Author: Dylan Beard
Dylan is a freelance science writer and editor based in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. After finishing his physics degree and dabbling in neuroscience research at UC Santa Barbara in 2017, he returned to his first love—writing. As a long-term fan of the human brain, he loves exploring the latest research on psychedelics, nootropics, psychology, consciousness, meditation, and more. When not writing, you can probably find him on hiking trails around Oregon and Washington or listening to podcasts. Feel free to follow him on Insta @dylancb88.