Het is weer zover: de temperatuur schiet over de 25 graden heen en Nederland begeeft zich en masse naar het strand. Onderweg naar zand en zee zal het veel mensen zijn opgevallen dat er zich weerzinwekkende taferelen voordoen in sommige bomen. Zoals ieder jaar zijn enkele ongelukkige planten helemaal kaalgevreten en ingepakt met dikke witte draden. Tussen die weefsels krioelt het van de rupsen, die bij overmaat van ramp ook nog eens in je haar gaan zitten. Snel doorfietsen dus, op het strand kunnen ze je niet te grazen nemen.
Maar wat zijn het nou eigenlijk voor beestjes? De rupsen zijn larven van 7 verschillende soorten stippelmotten, geslacht Yponomeuta, die hele bomen inspinnen om zich te beschermen tegen roofdieren. De eitjes zitten bijna een jaar lang in de planten voordat ze in mei allemaal tegelijk uitkomen. In tegenstelling tot wat ik dacht, lijden de bomen er niet of nauwelijks onder. De blaadjes komen snel weer terug als de rupsen hun metamorfose tot motten hebben ondergaan. Toch blijven veel mensen het een vies gezicht vinden.
‘Gadverdamme’ hoor ik dus een paar keer van langslopende wandelaars. Daarna valt hun blik pas op die debiel die er met zijn camera naartoe is gegaan om close-ups te maken van de smerige insecten. Ik vind het daarentegen een prachtig gezicht. Het is een spookachtig schouwspel, zo’n witte boom, alsof er een reusachtige spin zijn web in heeft gemaakt. De diertjes zijn hartstikke onschuldig, ook als mot doen ze niemand kwaad: het idee dat alle motten kleren eten is een mythe. Het lijkt alsof ze allemaal samenwerken om zo efficiënt mogelijk een schild te bouwen tegen de loerende kauwen en koolmezen.
I am dreading another bus ride, this time from Puno to Chivay. But this trip turns out to be a lot better. Not just because I downloaded the entire season of Dirk Gently on my phone, but the landscape is even more beautiful than last time. We drive past wide lakes that seem pink from the thousands of flamingos feeding on shrimp. We make a stop in the National Park of Salidas and Aguada Blanca, where wild vicuñas roam freely like flocks of long-necked deer; how life can exist in this seemingly barren desert is beyond me. Great rock formations and ancient masses of green moss surround the road leading up to the mountains. After passing the highest point of our journey at 4900 meters we start descending into the valley. The Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but its walls are not nearly as steep. The snow that covered the side of the road disappears and after half a day we arrive in the small town of Chivay. We sleep just a few kilometers away in a guest house looking out at the Misti Volcano.
Later that day, I go out for a run. It’s not easy finding a level route to jog. I start on the pre-Inca terraces that are relatively flat, but the thorny bushes painfully scratch against my legs. I follow a trail downhill and end up on the quiet main road, which is partly covered with sheep. On my way back, I notice that I’d been only running downhill the entire time; I struggle upwards while barely getting enough oxygen. As I turn around a curve, I see a group of manic Peruvians standing and shouting around a fallen boulder, which is keeping their car from continuing. We combine forces and manage to push the heavy rock over to the side. After celebrating our herculean achievement, we all laugh and go our separate ways. I think to myself as I run up the hill, that there would most likely be a national outrage if something like this occurred in The Netherlands.
When we wake up the next day, 2016 has transformed into 2017 without a noise. In the distance, Misti is coughing out gray clouds of ash, as she does many times a day. Using a crudely drawn map from Herbert, a tour guide who is also staying in the hotel, we start a hike along the sides of the old terraces. I can’t believe my eyes when the open tombs that Herbert described turn out to be real. Bones from Inca times and even before lie piled up in big carved holes in the mountainside. I feel like Indiana Jones when I spot the elongated skulls that reveal the age and historical importance of these remains. Small pieces of cloth can even be distinguished between the skulls and ribcages. But these burial places are not a secret: scattered Soles proof that locals still visit these tombs regularly. How these graves have not yet been robbed or their contents put in a museum is a mystery to me.
We continue along the slope until we reach Uyo Uyo, the ruins of another pre-Inca religious metropole. When we hike down towards the Colca river, a stray dog that was sleeping near an old temple decides to tag along. He doesn’t leave our side when we cross the vertigo-inducing bridge to the town of Yanque, but he’s gone after we have lunch in a small cafe. While my dad, plagued by altitude sickness, takes a taxi to our hotel, my mom and I decide to finish the hike. Even though we’re walking on plain asphalt, the white peaks of the mountains around us make for a stunning walk. Meanwhile, dark clouds are rolling in and the sound of thunder in the distance grows louder. A bolt of lightning cuts through the sky and surprises us with a shower of rain. My mom, a notorious astrophobe, quickly increases her pace. I annoyingly start playing AC/DC on my phone before we safely make it back to the hotel. After all too many bus and boat rides, this active day outside was very welcome.
The next day is once again an early one. Along with our guide Olivia and charismatic driver Coco, we ride to the most famous spot of the canyon: el Cruz del Condor, the best place to spot the bird with the biggest wingspan in the world. You might ask, why do they gather around this area? Well, only because Peruvians leave all their dead cattle near this spot to attract the massive condors. Once again, we’re extremely lucky. No less than seven condors decided to put on a show today. And the Patagona gigas, the largest species of hummingbird in the world, shows up as well. We spent much time admiring the humungous birds before taking a detour back to the car. The second half of the day, we spent driving much of the same route as before. We get to Arequipa in the late afternoon, our last stop before going home. Before going out for dinner, I destroy both my parents in table tennis and foosball.
Arequipa’s Plaza de Armas is arguably more beautiful than Cusco’s. Its palm trees, large fountain and grand colonial houses make for an impressive sight. The city lies in a valley circled by volcanoes and is frequently disturbed by strong earthquakes. It’s home to Guanita, one of the best preserved Andean mummies in the world (she unfortunately was on holiday to the US). From her remains found high on the mountain sides, we have learned much about sacrificial Inca rituals. It is believed that these were voluntary; it was a great honor to be sacrificed to the gods of nature. Another one of Arequipa’s main attractions is the trade of camelid fashion. Mundo Alpaca sells baby Alpaca sweaters, meaning the high quality wool of an alpaca’s first shearing. If you wish to buy a cape made from vicuña hair, prepare to pay at least a couple thousand dollars. Mundo Alpaca is a great place to finally learn the difference between llamas and alpacas, as both are on display in an outside section of the store. Don’t anger the llama as I did, unless you want to find out what llama spit smells like.
We start our visit of the Santa Catalina monastery just before the fall of the evening. I am not in a great mood; the prospect of returning to freezing Holland in the most depressing month of the year does not excite me. But my bad state of mind is immediately reversed by the simplistic splendor of the monastery: the contrast between the red and blue walls is the perfect backdrop for photography. The light begins to change and the sun is setting as we climb the stairs to the top of a small church within the complex. The clouds have disappeared and we can suddenly see the looming mountains that surround us everywhere. I feel a strong understanding of why the Incas considered the volcanoes to be powerful and divine beings. For just a moment the setting sun paints the peaks with orange, before the clouds come back and conceal them once again. Then, it is time to go.
What could I write about the return trip? It’s awful, except for one thing. When I get back to The Netherlands, the strangest thing happens to me; I’m mystified by all the cycling people. It is as if they’re floating in the cold air while gracefully gliding forward.
In the next weeks, I make arroz a la Cubana, vegetarian llomo saltado and chicha morada to try and bring a part of Peru in my home, but it’s simply not the same. The days are cold, the trees are bare and the animals are hibernating. I want to somehow relive the best moments in the jungle and the mountains. So I start writing.
I figure we are out of luck when we arrive at Macchu Picchu’s cloud gate. Typical for the wet season, a thick mist covers most of the ancient city. But when we descend and step through the sun gate, the fog dissipates before our eyes. We watch the ruins of the Inca empire’s last stronghold with a sense of awe and respect; to see this, we’ve been climbing slippery steps for the last three days. We get only a few moments of clear view before the dense clouds hide the secretive jungle city once more. Walking further down, we are greeted by the first hordes of day tourists coming to see this wonder of the world. The mystical sense of ancient times is somewhat spoiled when we arrive at the foot of the city by a long que to visit the first clean bathroom since we left Ollantaytambo. After refueling with some caffeine and going through security, David leads us around the site. Even though the place is bustling with people, the strong connection with the sacred town returns. It is not hard to imagine what life in Macchu Picchu must have been like right before the ruthless conquistadores arrived. The most special place for me is the Temple of the Condor, where the Incas have moved and carved tonnes of granite to display an abstract symbol of a giant condor. The temple makes clever use of the illusion of depth to create an image that automatically silences the beholder of this divine bird. Important dead people would be buried under this condor’s wings, or in its ‘stomach’, so the messenger of the gods would carry them up to the sun. If visiting Macchu Picchu is not yet on your bucket list, you should definitely consider changing that. Although I am a person that will often reject religion as being useless and ridiculous, I think the spiritual connection that the Inca’s had with the sun, the mountains and the plants and animals around them is a beautiful way of thinking. It was essentially a religion that placed sustainability and the circle of life in the center, something that religion-inspired societies of today fail to do. The Inca’s fall came from the Spaniards, but we might be creating our own spiral to collapse.
I can’t get enough of the ambiance that is radiated by the meticulously carved stones, but we eventually take the bus down to Aguas Calientes, a small town that has profited greatly from Inca tourism. Together with other trail finishers we recognize from before, we have our final lunch with David before we part ways. A beautiful train ride takes us back to Ollantaytambo and by car we ride to Cusco. A long night’s sleep has to wait until later, since the next morning is an early one. After four days of being outside for hours on end, I now have to suffer through a ten hour bus ride from Cusco to Puno. The occasional stops at historic sites are overshadowed by the feeling of being trapped in a bus for eternity. The things that make me survive the trip are the beautiful landscape, Hiram Bingham’s Inca Lands and watching Scott Pilgrim v.s. the World twice on Netflix. When we finally arrive in Puno, the surprise of another early rise is not a welcome one…
Puno is built on the shore of Lake Titicaca, a huge body of water that crosses the border between Peru and Bolivia. It is the home of Telmatobius culeus, a very interesting species of frog commonly named the scrotum frog, due to its many skin flaps. It needs this extra skin to absorb enough oxygen out of the high altitude water of Lake Titicaca. Unfortunately, its numbers have drastically lowered in the past years; 10.000 dead frogs were found in October 2016. Pollution is most likely the cause of this great dying of the extremely cute amphibians. A successful breeding program was initiated near Puno, but we weren’t able to visit. Other famous inhabitants of the lake are the Ouros people, the biggest tourist attraction in Puno. For more than a thousand years, they have built their homes on floating islands made out of reed. They discovered the touristic appeal not long ago and have been milking that udder extensively. Nevertheless, it is still an amazing look into these people’s cultural heritage to walk around on one of these islands. To create such a home for some twenty people, they first cut blocks of living reed roots that are stuck together with wooden poles. The roots grow together to form a strong base on which many layers of reed are placed to make a comfortable and dry floor to build on. Ten heavy stones are used as an anchor to prevent the island from floating away. After 30 years, the reed base is not safe to use anymore and a new one needs to be built. But the Ouros do not only use the plants for construction, they also eat it. Supposedly it has very high nutritional value. Although that might be true, I found that the flavor resembles what you imagine a wet heap of compost tastes like.
After spending some time on the small island of Tequile, the boat takes us back to Puno’s harbor. As my mom and I have some unused energy, but running outside on the streets of Puno does not feel safe, we end up in a greasy place called Gymnasio Buffalo. Well, imagine what you would think the average gym owner looks like. Now take the complete opposite of that. Gymnasio Buffalo is owned by a Sunday suit wearing elderly couple with the physiques of heroin addicts. Only a faded picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger reminds us that we are in fact in an actual gym. After some language difficulties, we both get to pick a machine. I take off on a treadmill and am quickly joined by my mother when she finds out the elliptical is in fact not plugged in. On multiple occasions I am strongly urged by one of the owners to turn down the speed of the treadmill, and after half an hour I absolutely have to stop running for reasons unknown (we are the only costumers at the moment). I decide to give the spinning bike a go, but discover that there is no way to set the bike to a higher gear. I am frantically pedaling to keep up with the out of control fitness machine before I’m saved by the grumpy old owner. After a few more minutes on a frictionless elliptical, we decide to call it a day.
Christmas morning arrives without any presents, trees or snow. Instead it brings me something much better: our guide David, with a bus to take us to the start of the Inca Trail. As we step into the car, I’m shocked by the amount of porters we’re bringing with us. Eight men sit in the back to carry our tents, our food and cooking gear. Are my parents really that lazy and colonial, to make eight people carry their stuff for them? Not exactly. The Peruvian government has actually made it mandatory for tourists to have so many porters, thus creating more jobs for Peruvian people in the Andes. They also set a limit to the amount of tourists entering the trail on one day, thereby conserving the natural and cultural heritage of the route. Back in the day, David explains, there were practically no rules. Porters carried up to 40 kg on their backs, people camped between the ancient ruins and littered without giving it a second thought. Things are better now. A porter can carry a maximum of 25 kg and his bag is weighed multiple times throughout the trail. My parents let their bags with clothes and sleeping bags be carried by these Peruvian heroes; I refuse to let go of my burden.
The start of the trail is pure chaos. In a small overshadowed spot, hundreds of people crowd together to make their final preparations: applying sunscreen, changing clothes, spraying bug repellent. Some groups have even set up a long folding table, where they’re having a festive breakfast. Funnily enough, a little order is created by the shirts the porters are wearing. Every team has their own colour, and ‘our’ men are easily recognized by their orange outfit. Coincidence? Nope, the company is owned by a Dutch couple. We finish our final preparations and take a picture in front of the famous ‘KM 82′ sign that marks the official beginning of the trail. David’s incredible negotiation allows us to skip right to the front of the line for the control point… and off we go.
On the first day, the pace is slow, with many stops that I deem unnecessary. When we pause for lunch, I realize why the porters have such a weight on their backs: together with tables, chairs and a dozen sets of cutlery they take out an entire extra tent for eating and even a table cloth. Everything is set up in a designated spot and the chef (whose name is also David) starts cooking. He’s in a hurry; usually, tourists arrive a long time after the porters. Sorry, but not these tourists.
I don’t know how David achieves culinary excellence in a tent at 3000 meters, but he makes it happen. After an extensive lunch and a small siesta, we continue to our first base camp: a small field in a local family’s garden. We have this spot reserved just for us, so the only noise comes from the family’s Christmas lights that play a continuous loop of the 8-bit rendition of ‘Feliz Navidad’. It seems that soccer breaks all language barriers, as minutes later I’m fanatically kicking away with my dad and three young kids. As night falls, the temperature drops and we retreat back in our tents.
Alex, the youngest of the porters, wakes me up at 5:30 with a hot cup of tea. That’s a very welcome luxury: the second day is famous for being the toughest. After a hearty breakfast and a mouth full of coca we begin our 1100 meter ascend. I’m the first to arrive at our meeting point, having passed tourists and porters alike. The view is amazing: the snow-capped peak of mount Veronica rises 5800 meters high, while the steps I use to climb are surrounded by a lush green environment. Spanish moss and bromeliads dominate the plant life around me. Llama’s and alpaca’s graze in the distance. However, it’s nowhere near quiet at this midway plateau. Hordes of hikers gather to buy supplies from the last shop on the trail. Porters and guides enjoy a glass of chicha, low-alcoholic corn beer that’s traditionally made by chewing the corn and mixing it with saliva. When we’re all gathered, we begin our final ascend of the day: the Dead Woman’s Pass. Although this sounds very intimidating, it’s simply named after the shape of the mountain ridge, which indeed resembles a female figure lying on her back. 45 minutes later, I’m standing at the Inca Trail’s highest point: 4215 meters. As I’m waiting for my parents, the phenomenal panorama is sporadically obscured my thick clouds. I’m cold from the strong wind when they arrive for a much needed picture moment.
From here to the basecamp, it’s only downwards. Quickly walking down the slippery slopes is difficult to master, although I see porters literally running down the mountain. The cloud forest down below encourages me to pick up the pace. The vegetation has returned when I arrive at the large base camp at 3800 meters. To my surprise, no one from our party has made it there yet. When the porters arrive, they’re quite astonished to find me already sitting in the grass. When my parents and David come down, I’ve helped with setting up the tents and already started organizing my own. After lunch, we won’t be hiking any further. I decide to explore the base camp and its surrounding a bit. The place is booming with activity. Many people are arriving just now, or have given up and are being escorted back to the trail’s beginning. The few squatting toilets present are not the best; taking it to the bushes seems like a better idea. I notice the different levels of comfort in which people make their journey. Apparently, we’re on the low tier. I see special toilet tents with chemical disposals underneath -imagine being the porter that has to carry that- and gigantic dining places and sleeping tents. The most ridiculous thing I find are groups that brought a masseuse with them, including a special massaging tent. I stroll around the site and take a few pictures of the plants and streams. After dinner, we call it an early night and wrap up in our sleeping bags.
The longest day starts early. When I crawl out of my tent, the porters take turns in weighing my backpack. I get nods of approval from all of them. We start hiking up the next mountain pass and I look back at the Dead Woman’s Pass from yesterday. Our first stop, Runkuraqay, was once a resting place for chasquis, the running men of the Incas who used this trail to deliver important messages to and from Macchu Picchu. The clouds roll in as I arrive at the top and start making my way down the tall stony steps. I wait for David and my parents at the foot of Sayamarca, another ancient Inca settlement. The fog that obscured my view before now disappears and reveals an ocean of green beneath me: the cloud forest. The prospect of walking through the jungle again excites me. David gives us a short tour of the town and tells us about the sacrifices the Incas made to their gods. Llamas, corn and potatoes would be taken by a priest to the glacier and buried beneath the snow; almost as if they were feeding the mountain spirit. The next part of the trail is absolutely stunning. The pathway is one hundred percent original, and it takes us along steep cliffs and through humid caves. The amount of green around me increases every step and the millions of trees from the cloud forest stream from the mountain flanks. Since I’m walking alone, it is completely silent except for the wind and the birds. We have lunch at Phuyupatamarca, looking out over the still functioning fountains of the city. Even after decades of being a guide, David is still passionate about the route, especially this segment. We spend the afternoon walking down through forest that grows increasingly dense. David tells me he often spots snakes crawling over the path, but I can only find a shy lizard that quickly scurries away. Suddenly, the trees make way and reveal a stunning view of agricultural terraces and the valley below, where Aguas Calientes is split in two by the Urubamba river. We silently sit at this spot for a while, taking in the natural beauty of the scene. It’s only a short walk down to our final basecamp, where we arrive around 5 pm. This camp is even more crowded than the last one, as this is the final camp for every single group: there is no place to sleep beyond this. Tourists, porters and guides roam everywhere, and the place fills up as the evening falls. For our last dinner, David the cook prepares a feast. I don’t know how one makes a warm apple pie without an oven, but he achieves the impossible. This evening is our opportunity to say goodbye to the porters, as they will not be joining us tomorrow. I thank them all in English and David translates it, both in Spanish and Quechua. After the ceremony is over, we settle in for a very short night.
It is 3:30 when I wake up in my tent with hot tea for the last time. After a very quick breakfast and another goodbye to the porters, we walk to the line before the gate to Macchu Picchu. It’s as crowded as can be. At 5:30 exactly, the last control post opens and we rapidly pass through. The steep and slippery path is full of people, many of which try to walk as quickly as possible to be the first in Macchu Picchu. A few of them slip and make some nasty falls. Fortunately, the path is beautiful and the sky is clear as we make our way through the final stage of the journey. At last, we climb the steps to the cloud gate, and there it is: Macchu Picchu.
Growing up as a kid, I used to watch Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove about once every week. I loved the movie for the goofy humour and the catchy music. The fact that it was set in Peru during the reign of the Inca’s only occurred to me a few months ago. Now I step out of the airplane into the city that lends the film’s animated narcissist its name: Cusco. But my first days out of the jungle are tough. I can’t seem to get used to the cars, the hordes of people and the lack of plants and animals. I’ll have to do with pigeons and planted palms. Slowly, the new environment grows on me. Cusco’s marketplace especially amazes me. Wasted meat does not exist here, everything is sold and used. If you want the freshest and most delicious fruit juice in the world, there’s about a hundred spots on the market alone.
After a day and a half in this urban jungle, we meet our next guide. His name is David Condori, named after the holy messenger bird of the Incas. He takes us on a day-long tour through Urubamba, the Sacred Valley. While we make our way to Ollantaytambo (viewers of A Series of Unfortunate Events might recognize this name; do geckos with an extra leg ring a bell?) we get our first sights of spectacular Inca ruins. From Pisac we drive to Moray, for a view into the genius of Inca agriculture. By using gigantic terraced pits they were able to grow coca plants, but also fruits from the forest at an altitude of over 3000 meters. We continue to the salt mines near Maras, where work has stopped in the wet season. Thousands of large puddles are continuously filled with warm salty water from an unknown location. An ancient irrigation system makes sure all the holes are filled equally. In the dry season, the salts that build up after evaporation are harvested and sold for their medicinal properties. Right now, the inhabitants earn their living from tourism.
In the late afternoon we arrive in Ollantaytambo. Before allowing us to rest, David takes us to a viewing point on one of the mountains surrounding the town. He points out the historical center of what was once a military stronghold. To my surprise, I can easily distinguish the shape of a llama in the old buildings. This is no coincidence: Cusco looks like a puma, Macchu Picchu is a condor and another town resembles a snake. We walk to our hotel near the train station of Ollantaytambo and wave goodbye to David, whom we’ll meet again in two days. The next day we take it slow, acclimatizing to the height. For 2800 meters, it is surprisingly warm. We pay a visit to the llama-shaped fortress, which also served as a religious center. I see the Inca Imperial style of building for the first time, and I’m blown away. Somehow, this mysterious culture managed to perfectly fit together irregularly shaped granite blocks, weighing maybe ten tonnes, without a crack between them. The exact angle at which the walls stand makes them indestructible and able to withstand the regular earthquakes of this area. The temple of the sun looks out at the actual face of Apu, the mountain spirit, a clearly visible rock formation on the side of the hill. To think that this was the site of the last stronghold of Manco Inca, the last king who battled the invading Spaniards to the death, gives even more historical importance to the place. The Inca temples, with simple symmetric fountains and windows that align perfectly with the sun, are stunning on their own.
In the afternoon we hike up the mountain once more and then enjoy the many hummingbirds in our hotel garden. Our Christmas eve is spent eating pizza, after which we call it an early night in preparation of the coming adventure: hiking the Inca Trail.
Picking up my parents from Puerto Maldonado’s tiny airport is a strange experience. Of course, I am very happy to see them again. On the other hand, their arrival marks the end of my time as a volunteer in the jungle. From now on it will be much more like a family holiday instead of what I’ve experienced so far. Fortunately, I get to show them the rain forest from my perspective, before we move on to other parts of Peru. We visit Boca Pariamanu for two days, allowing me to meet up with some friends again. I show them the forest at night, which they later describe as ‘being in some sort of dream’. With my bright headlamp in front, I lead the way along the trails. At first, they’re not quite sure what to think of the caiman and the snake I’m suddenly holding in my hands. But they get used to having me as a guide. After a long day of hiking on Boca’s main road, it’s time for me to say a final goodbye to the town that has been my home for more than six weeks.
We don’t leave the jungle straight away, but my experience in the forest becomes very different. From now on, it’s all in control of my parents and the guides they have booked. We’re taken with a big boat on the Madre de Dios river, all the way to the Rio Heath which marks the border with Bolivia. Here we sleep in a small raised hut, and to me this seems like a useless luxury. Who needs walls in the jungle? A roof is enough in my opinion. And what’s up with the three course meal we’re getting served twice a day? Let me just grab my rice and veggies straight out of the pan. I have serious trouble adjusting to the new, more touristic way of traveling. Thankfully, we have Pepe; a very knowledgeable and friendly guide. I serve as his sidekick: the animals he fails to notice, mostly at night, are quickly spotted (and caught, if possible) by me. Through the eyes of my parents, I get to experience some things all over again. I share their enthusiasm when they see capuchins, squirrel monkeys and hoatzins for the first time. But also for me, many things are new. We climb a massive lupuna tree with a rope ladder to get a 360 view above the canopy and we watch one of the global top ten macaw clay licks from a floating platform. I have a close encounter with a group of coatis, a raccoon-like mammal that communicates with strange clicking noises. The most amazing view I get on the Pampas del Heath, a big stretch of savannah in a place where you would never expect it. It feels like suddenly entering Africa when the trees give way to the great open plain. This is where giant anteaters and the illusive mane wolf roam, but it’s also the stage of a daily spectacle when yellow and blue macaws return from the forest to their nesting trees. We even get a good look at the toco toucan, the biggest species of toucan in the world which is very hard to see in this part of the country.
When we’re transferred to our next destination I almost sleep through my parents’ first (and my sixth) tapir sighting. In the late morning we arrive at the most crowded piece of jungle I’ve seen so far: Lake Sandoval in the Tambopata National Reserve. A long muddy road stretches to a small port, where a canoe takes us and our luggage through the palm swamp and on the oxbow lake. All hell breaks loose as buckets of rain pour down from the clouds. My parents scramble to get their rain coats on, while I’m happy for the frogs and plants that are finally getting some water again; it’s been ridiculously dry for the wet season.
We only have a day to spend in the lodge that we’re taken to. I wish I had more time in the reserve, as it turns out to be an amazing spot for wildlife. Brown agoutis roam the terrain, while squirrel monkeys and dusky titi monkeys jump from tree to tree. Our guide tells us he sees bushmasters on the path near our hut rather often, while I’m happy catching an olive forest racer. After the rain eases down, we venture out with the canoe to see what makes the lake famous: giant river otters. And are we lucky. The entire family shows up, playing and catching fish right before our eyes. We don’t even need Pepe’s binoculars to see them munching on their freshly caught food. The river otters (called ‘wolfs of the river’ in Spanish) used to be heavily endangered because of the trade in their fur. Now they are slowly coming back, repopulating the lakes one family at a time. As if this sight is not enough, a three meter black caiman decides to pay us a visit and show off its enormous jaws. We have no luck finding a tree boa, apparently common in this area, on our final night walk. The next morning we pack up, get back to Puerto Maldonado and check in for our flight to Cuzco. I’m grumpier than ever, now definitely leaving the forest and Maldonado behind me. The prospect of hiking the Inca Trail does not yet excite me; I arrive in the ancient Andes capital without a smile. But that’s about to change.
After saying goodbye to everyone at Boca Pariamanu, I transfer back to LPAC for my final three weeks as a volunteer. The new organization I’m with is ARCAmazon, where I’m joining as a Forest Ranger. I find out that our base at LPAC has been taken over by Dutch people: there’s four of us. As a Forest Ranger, I’m mostly working on conservation in the LPAC-concession and the new Jungle Keepers-concession right across the river. Together with Rory, Elvis and Chizito, we cut through dense forest to create a path right along the JK borders. It’s tough work, especially when you unknowingly come across a tangaranga tree. This tree, that supposedly has medicinal properties, has a symbiotic relationship with a certain type of fire ants. The ants live inside of the tree and protect the plant from any damage done by other plants and animals, such as, unfortunately, me. To cut the borders far away from LPAC, we organize a two-night campout in the forest, using triangular tents suspended from three thick trees. Although swimming in the forest stream and cooking on an open fire is wonderful, the operation can’t be called a succes: in the morning of the second day, Chizito takes a wasp sting in the eye, forcing us to canoe back.
Around LPAC, we cut new trails and monitor the area for any mammals, guans and human activity. It shows me how amazingly well this small part of the rain forest is doing. Large groups of the endangered black spider monkey are seen almost everyday. In total, I manage to see an astonishing ten different species of monkeys during my time at LPAC. One of my most precious experiences in Peru revolves around two spider monkeys. As I’m taking a walk through the jungle on my own, two of them spot me before I see them. They come incredibly low and seem to be communicating about me. They’re checking me out, just as I’m checking them out. At that moment, we are equally interested in eachother.
My three fellow Dutchies are all doing their own research in the forest. Liselot intensively studies the spider monkeys around camp, identifying each individual and closely monitoring their movements. She unfortunately misses the group of 23 that I spot one day. Marjolein builds traps to find dung beetles for her research, showing us the diverse beauty of these strange animals. And Piet tries to catch as many snakes as possible. Mostly, he’s on the lookout for yellow tailed cribos and rainbow boas. Helping him out with this proves to be a lot of fun, but also a challenge. They’re quick, fierce and often well camouflaged. Nonetheless, I manage to bring back racers, calico snakes and boas.
I see some amazing mammals that I have not seen before. On a solo night walk, I see a giant armadillo slowly scurrying away in the distance. A capybara sits in the shallow water of the river with a cowbird on its head. One night, Piet and I take a small canoe up the stream behind camp. For the first time, I see a huge tapir wading through the water. It’s a beautiful and strange sight.
It’s almost impossible to mention everything I see and experience in these three days. From watching saki monkeys swing from tree to tree and seeing the trail system literally turn into a river, to picking up a tarantula and having a tree crash down on our platform. I have a near-death experience as I’m almost bitten by a wandering spider in my life jacket. Liselot saves me by calling out the dangerous critter. My final two days are especially amazing. On my penultimate afternoon, I see the last half of a big rainbow boa slither under a root. After what can only be described as tug of war with this powerful constrictor, I safely bag the boa and triumphantly take ‘Ozzy’ back to camp, where he is measured and PIP-tagged. The last morning, Piet and I get up before dawn to try and see a roaming jaguar. We walk very quietly along the trail, but without any luck. As we hike back, we notice an abundance of new cat tracks and furballs. We’ve been followed. The jungle awards us on my last night walk with a relatively rare sight: two adult tapirs crashing through the trees; a mating couple. On our way back, we wade through the stream to catch caiman, some of the best fun I’ve ever had. I leave the next day in the early morning, back to Puerto Maldonado. The next day, a new adventure wil begin: meeting my parents again.