Peruvian Amazon

Wet, loud, and stunning.  We spent a total of three weeks in the forest volunteering at two different lodges, and a few days in the town of Puerto Maldonado.  At both lodges, bugs were everywhere, and seemed particularly inclined to chew up me, my clothes and my boots.  That´s about where the similarity ended.  The first place we went was called Las Piedras Biodiversity Station, run by a Peruvian-English couple by the name of Emma and JJ.  Lovely people, they´re dedicated to studying and preserving a spot deep in the jungle, far from other towns and lodges.  The second place we stayed, Explorer´s Inn, was dedicated to making money off the piles of tourists that went through there.

First, we met up with our friend Danielle on her flight from the states to Peru.  We were honored to accompany her on her first trip outside the country.  We tried to surprise her, I was deliberately vague about when or how we would meet up, just that "Puerto Maldonado is small, I'm sure it won't be hard" kind of thing.  Turns out she stayed up all night the night before packing for the trip, and passed out in the airport waiting for the flight, so she surprised us on the bus ride to the plane.  It was great to see her after a year of being gone, and fantastic to spend the six weeks with her.  We arrived in Puerto Maldonado 3 days before we started our first volunteering trip, Danielle spent most of that sleeping, Tim and I bopped around checking out a pretty nice town.  It doesn't have much in the way of tourist attractions, but the people are all friendly and it has a nice town square next to the ice cream store.

Our trip at Las Peidras started with a day and a half long boat ride up the Las Peidras river in a canoe with a peke peke (like a converted lawnmower motor) strapped on to the back.  We camped on a beach on a bend in the river for the night, where I got sick for the duration of the night.  The next day was better, we stopped by an oxbow lake to see a cayman mother come out of the lake water to protect her nest.  That was a bit scary.  We arrived at that beautiful lodge, all the while with Emma as our guide, and quickly a friend, with the lodge almost to ourselves.  Also volunteering with us was a woman named Teresa, we all got on famously, and she ended up joining us in Explorer´s Inn too. There were a few tourists there, but they were on a much different schedule, so we didn't see them.  We were quickly trained on how to fill in data sheets and identify the various macaws, parrots and monkeys in the area.  And off we went, each morning, bright and early, we woke up to walk mammal transects, or go sit at the clay lick and watch the macaws and parrots gather for their morning chat and feed. 

Now picture it, it's about 4am and you're well into the woods on your way to the far end of the mammal transect, you have a head lamp and the moonlight to help you pick your way through an "assault course" kind of trail.  Logs across the trail, holes everywhere, and you have to keep moving pretty quickly or, in spots, ants crawl up your legs and bite, very very painfully.  You also have to be as silent as possible so as to not wake or scare away the animals you will be trying to detect and count.  A red howler monkey starts his morning territorial roar ahead, so we shut off our head lamps and continue on.  He is directly above the trail, as I pass underneath, trying so so hard to be inconspicuous, he has a last loud roar, then stops.  So I stop, and I try to stop breathing.  It was great.

We would see loads of monkeys; brown capacians, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, red howler monkeys, saddle-back tamerins, night monkeys, and monk-sacy monkeys.  Not all on the same day, and not all of them twice, but I saw all of them very up close and personal, standing really still watching them cross a trail en route to wherever they went.  That was in addition to the rest of the mammals and four kinds of bird we were looking for.  It was phenomenal.

Then there was the clay lick, really the whole reason we went there.  The macaw shift was easier, as it didn't start until about 7 in the morning.  From 7am to 2pm, we took turns staring across the river at a clay cliff at a bend in the river from within a mosquito net.  And what a show we saw, up to 104 (I know, I counted them) red and green macaws would sit around a chat with each other, eventually making their way down to cling to the side of the cliff and eat some clay.  The actual lick wasn't all that big, so these huge birds commonly bumped into each other, with all the attendant squawking that ensued.  The rainforest rose above what became a seething, squawking mass of macaw.  Then, at the least provocation, e.g. a mean looking bird, they would all "flush" which means they all took flight at the same time, wretchedly pissed about it, and this mass of red would twist and turn and squawk across the river and wheel up into the trees.  Then, they would slowly make there way back across the river and back down to the lick.  Again, it was phenomenal.

And the woman that owns and runs this place, Emma, was a force of nature in her own right.  Incredibly knowledgeable about the rainforest and it's animal inhabitants, she got excited *everytime* she spotted saddleback tamirans, even if it was 5:15 in the morning, even if there were mosquitoes everywhere, even if we'd already seen them twice before that same morning.  Note that I said when *she* spotted them, the woman had radar ears.  The rainforest is really incredibly noisy when you're trying to listen for a particular sound, but she could pick it out everytime.  Sometimes she just 'felt' it, and we'd wait a few minutes and, sure enough, some mammal would come creeping by.  I'm not sure how much her hearing improved when she had their little boy, who's now about 2, and lives with them at the lodge.  Seems to me that mom's ears are pretty much all amazing. 

We spent the afternoons as time off, whiling away the time with walks in the forest, getting some plantains, limes or pineapples from the organic farm for dinner, playing backgammon, reading, or showering to cool off.  Tim and I celebrated our one year anniversary of marriage there with surpise presents from Danielle (thnx for the glitter!) and some brownies we fired up the oven special for.  It was a fantastic two weeks, I'm looking forward to trying to get back there.

Then there was Explorer's Inn.  We tried really hard to keep an open mind to new experiences, and figured that this one would certainly be a different one.  But it was a kick in the stomach.  They are set up for having a lot of tourists for only a couple nights, meaning the trails are mostly short and close to the lodge, the food is served only at set times (though the food was pretty good, and it was nice not having to prepare for or clean up after our meals), and volunteering for research is a complete joke.  There wasn't really any research going on that people were interested in us participating in, we had to beg an outside researcher to let us help him.  The people were mostly nice folks, as everywhere, with a notable exception of the dude that was running the place in the absence of the regular couple that ran the place.  To that guy, it was clear, we were a major pain in his hiney.  Additionally, the place was so disorganized and we were given last consideration anyway that we cut our trip in half and left a week early.  It's unfortunate because the place apparently *was* someplace really cool, the guy that started the place was instrumental in setting up a big reserve that the lodge is inside of. 

So we decided that an additional week would be great! We'd see more of Peru and or Bolivia than the jungle!  What could possibly go wrong!  Well...

Here´s some links to

Las Piedreas Biodiversity Station

Explorer´s Inn

The clay lick itself! as bouncingly seen through a balancing act between camera and binoculars

And here´s a tree full of macaws right by the clay lick.  There were several of these.

Our day and a half boat ride up the river

Then it started pouring rain

Here´s where we camped for the night

And the oxbow lake we checked out the following day.

A cool caterpillar Emma found

Me, so so happy, sweaty in the rainforest with an orchid in hand and a butterfly on my shirt.

D, wielding a machete at some rainforest horror

Dinner at Las Piedras...