Back at LPAC Part IV: Mammals, birds and plants

 

While I love photographing herpetofauna and arthropods, the amount of other amazing flora and fauna in the forest is stunning. It’s hard to go out searching for a specific bird or mammal, but plants lend themselves perfectly to macrophotography. They tend to stay in one spot, if you don’t count the peculiar walking palms that slowly but surely move from place to place. Plants don’t try to flee or bite you either, which makes the process of photographing them somewhat relaxing were it not for the ravenous mosquitoes buzzing in your ears. Although plants may seem easy to shoot, making them look interesting is ever more the challenge. It’s good to have all the time you want to play around with lighting and the background.

Many of the plants in the rain forest have incredibly interesting stories to tell. The amount of medicinal plants in the jungle is mindblowing. Cures for fever and headaches, potent hallucinogenics and even remedies for malaria. Who knows what else is out there that can potentially change modern medicine? I’m always told that this is one of the most important reasons why we should be spending all our effort on protecting the rainforest from destructive farming and hardwood logging. Some plants have evolved incredible ways to survive and reproduce in the harsh environment of the tropical forest. Colourful flowers attract both insects and hummingbirds, trees have sharp spikes to discourage mammals from scratching them, and some form special alliances with other animals like ants. Don’t be fooled by their passive lifestyle; plants can be dangerous killers. If ever a brazil nut falls on your head, you won’t live to tell the tale.

IMG_1408
Massive palm leaves dominate the forest floor. What’s especially fun is cutting them down right when someone is walking underneath one.
IMG_1232
Dried up palm leaves make an excellent roof and, as I have come to learn, bulk material for compost.
IMG_1285
The view from the ‘mirador’, a hill right across from LPAC. An immense ocean of green, with thousands of undiscovered wonders.
IMG_1101
Insects can be a plants greatest enemy. This leaf shows necrosis around the bitemark, but the rest of its body survives.
IMG_1164
Fresh roots from an above-ground palm tree.
IMG_1094
Jokingly called peccary balls, these fruits are a treat for every animal in the jungle. Monkeys will come down to the ground to get a handful, even when there’s people around.
IMG_0723
The amount of morphological diversity in the plant kingdom is amazing.
IMG_1085
Flowering season is all year long in the tropics, but some show up at different times than others. Seeing these flowers around the forest was very nice.
IMG_0538
As this fruit dries up, its seeds become exposed; a delicious meal for birds and mammals alike. Seedplants like these rely heavily on those dispersers for their survival, as they make sure the plant colonizes new areas in the forest.
IMG_0603
Evolution gave rise to flowering plants way after complex animal life came to exist. They’re a relatively new group of organisms, ‘only’ 160 million years old.

While I know that only a bad craftsman blames his tools, my telezoom and camera body are not ideal for photographing animals I can not catch and place right in front of me. It’s so dark under the canopy, you’re forced to bump up the ISO a lot, which results in grainier pictures than you would like. Lengthening your shutter time is never an option when your subjects move incredibly fast. But, I’ve had some bouts of luck. The day after Lucerna’s fifth anniversary party, someone found a bloated capybara corpse on the river bank. It was attracting a great deal of scavengers, including the majestic king vultures. These multicoloured birds are called ‘condor del monte’ (condor of the forest) in Spanish, since they resemble the mountain loving Andean condor in shape. We took the oppurtunity to take the boat and get as close as possible. The smell of decay and the sandflies feasting on my exposed back did not make for good shooting conditions, but it was a sight I would not have wanted to miss. The king vultures were more easily scared than the black vultures and quickly retreated into the trees.

IMG_1347
Black vultures enjoying a rotting capybara.
IMG_1358
A very far away shot of two king vultures. Notice how full their crops are; they certainly had their share of the cadaver.
IMG_0962
Pale-winged trumpeters are hilarious birds. They roam the forest floor in large groups and seem to prefer walking on human trails. When scared, they will keep running on the trail and only flee into the undergrowth as a last resort.
IMG_1534-2
We’d often see nests like this in low shrubs next to the trail. They’re very well hidden, but what gave it away is mother bird flying off at the same place every time you walk past.
IMG_2474
A young trogon that just raided an ants nest; its face is still covered with them.

Finding monkeys to photograph was not much of a challenge, as the capuchins would simply come to us. These extremely smart primates had no fear of coming into camp and munching on the fruiting palm trees, nor did they care when we stand right underneath them to take photos. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll start coming into the kitchen to steal the apples and bananas on the counter.

IMG_2309
Two capuchins enjoying palm fruits in camp.
IMG_1177
Yes, the jungle has squirrels too! And they are loud little rascals.

Bonus video: a southern naked-tailed armadillo digging a burrow. I was extremely lucky to amble upon this rarely seen nocturnal mammal.

Advertenties

Back at LPAC Part III: Amphibians

Those who think that nature is always quiet and peaceful should visit the jungle. The air is permanently filled with the sounds of birds and insects; unless it rains, of course. But as the sun sets, the birds and the bees go to sleep and different noises fill the air. As it gets darker the air becomes filled with the deafening noise of calling frogs and toads, desperately trying to find a mate. The loudest males are the most wanted; their bellows are an indication for good genes to pass on to the next generation. Anurans dominate the night, as their thin skin easily absorbs heat from the warm water in streams and ponds. The intense tropic sun would dehydrate them in minutes, so during the hot day they hide in the shade.

IMG_0637
Hypsiboas boans, the gladiator tree frog, is one of the noisiest and most abundant species of frog at LPAC. Their common name stems from their defensive nesting behaviour. They build shallow pools in streams and ponds where the female deposits her eggs. Males will aggresively defend these ‘colloseums’ from other males, which supposedly looks like a gladiator fight.
IMG_0762-2
Many members of the Osteocephalus genus are characterized by their mesmerizing weel-like eyes.
IMG_2218-2
Osteocephalus castaneicola. This fellow was not cooperating one bit. Less than a second after I shot his picture, he leaped out of sight.
IMG_2057-2
Hypsiboas fasciatus, the banded tree frog.
IMG_2345
An intimate close-up of H. fasciatus.

As the weeks went on, it was as if there was a certain order in which the frogs decided to become active. The big gladiator tree frogs were calling from the beginning, but after a week the Phyllomedusa and the Leptodactylinae joined them. Even later the Dendrosophus showed up. Simply a coinicidence, or does this order actually exist? And if it does, is this pattern the same throughout the Amazon basin or does it locally diverse?

IMG_1918-2
Dendrosophus minutus, the least tree frog, is more flattering than its name suggests. It is indeed the smallest of the Dendrosophus genus, barely larger than a thumbnail.
IMG_2101-2
Dendrosophus sarayacuensis has a gorgeous yellow specked pattern on its dorsum and limbs.
IMG_1909-2
Phyllomedusa palliata, showing of its orange and purple flanks. Notice how the green colour is only present on the top of its dorsum and limbs.
IMG_2371
Another P. palliata, beautifully disguised.
IMG_1800-2
Phyllomedusa camba, my favourite species of frog and the second largest in the genus. They can be mistaken for the giant monkey frog, but their pitch black eyes give away their true identity. These frogs are definitely the most dopey Phyllomedusa; they will stay completely still or even fall of a branch when they’re put one one.

Photographing these amphibians can be a serious challenge. Frogs are quick, slippery and need to stay wet. Even though they can’t fly, their strong hind legs make them jump impressively far. And once on the ground, good luck finding an animal smaller than your thumb that’s hiding somewhere in the leaf litter. They can climb a vertical surface with zero effort thanks to their sticky webbed toes, and some even secret poison that can potentially make you very ill or even kill you, while others cause vivid hallucinations. But when they stay still for just long enough to take their photo, the results can be amazing. While many people dislike these cold blooded acrobats, I find them incredibly cute. Their big eyes and soft flappy throats give them a charming and innocent look. Just like sloths seem to always be laughing, a frog looks eternally surprised. And the diversity within this order is stunning. From the miniscule Dendrosophus minutus (least treefrog), to the massive Leptodactylus pentadactylus (smoky jungle frog). Some flash with brightly coloured flanks and dorsums, others are barely discernible from a browned leaf.

IMG_1985-2
The enormous Leptodactylus pentadactylus, the smoky jungle frog. When they use their strong hind legs to jump multiple feet in the air, they seem to defy gravity. Combined with a very slippery skin, it makes them a difficult frog to catch.
IMG_2135-2
Rhinella sp.. I am not sure about this toad’s species. He used to be classified into the Bufo margaritifer complex, which has since been spliced up into more than 15 different species.
IMG_1854-2
Hypsiboas punctatus, the polkadot tree frog, is completely see through. One can imagine this is very convenient when hiding from predators.

I was glad to see that my favourite genus, Phyllomedusa, was abundant on LPAC land. Of all the species that were mentioned in the herping guide, I failed to see only two: P. tarsius (warty monkey frog) and P. bicolor (giant monkey frog). We went searching for the latter in a small dried up oxbow lake; the same swamp where many coral snakes roam. A perilous place to search for wildlife in the dark. The knee deep mud makes for streinous walking conditions and the vines and branches are crawling with stinging ants. When I imitated their call (a loud ‘brab’, followed by ‘brarararara’, descending in pitch) I did not expect to hear anything call back. But the multitude of response calls was impressive and indicative of a healthy bicolor population. Unfortunately, these canopy dwelling frogs were too high up in the trees for us to see. But at least I know my frog imitation is on point.

Back at LPAC Part II: Arthropods

Together with one of my favourite Brits I was hiking to the end of the concession. We were trying to see if the monstrous Boa constrictor I had found a few weeks prior was still hanging out there. We were close to the end of the trail and sweaty from the intense heat of the afternoon sun. The humidity doesn’t allow your sweat to vaporize as much as in dry air, so the salty fluid accumulates on your body and soaks into your clothes. On our way there we had spotted a group of titi monkeys, capuchins and spider monkeys. We were walking towards a large buttress tree on which I had previously found a horned wood lizard (Enyalioides palpebralis) and an Amazon thornytail (Uracentron flaviceps). ‘I bet there’s something wicked on this tree again’, I said. We didn’t have to look long to find it. A pair of giant harlequin beetles, one of South America’s most stunning insects, was mating right before our eyes. However gorgeous these animals are, we didn’t want to disturb them in the act to take photos. But when we got back from our unsuccesful search, the deed was done, and the beetles remained. Both of us weren’t too keen to grab an insect with mandibles that will probably chomp off a good piece of flesh, but we succesfully got the female in a bag. The male, who has much longer front legs, almost flew into my face.

IMG_1210
It’s funny how I’d rather handle a boa than pick up a harlequin beetle (Acrocinus longimanus).
IMG_2168-2
Another example of a species in the same family of long-horned beetles (Cerambycidae).
IMG_2462
This species is particularly colourful example.

Just like I hadn’t expected to be fascinated by herps last year, the beauty of all the insects and other arthropods was a surprise this year. I would take particularly slow macro-walks and discover many amazing bugs hiding in plain sight. Bark spiders perfectly blending into their environment, groups of caterpillars underneath a big leaf and colourful cicadas emerging from their old skins.

IMG_1369
It’s incredibly difficult to spot these spiders when they’re sitting on tree bark; the colours match perfectly.
IMG_1570-2
A very brightly coloured species of leafhopper (family Cicadellidae, literally ‘small cicadas’). Perhaps it evolved this appearance to fool predators into thinking its poisonous?
IMG_1711-2
This cricket does an amazing job at mimicking moss and lyken to avoid predators.
IMG_1974-2
Cicadas (family Cicadoidea) are members of the order of true bugs (Hemiptera). They gather in large masses on trees and fly off, seemingly very uncoordinated, with a loud buzzing noise when you get too close to them. When they shed their skin, their old husks will keep clinging on to the tree. This huge family of insects is incredibly diverse: there are over 260 genera!
IMG_2014-2
Another well-hidden insect, treehoppers (family Membracidae) are bigger than their relatives of the leafhoppers. Around 3200 species are known worldwide.
IMG_2116-2
Suddenly, these pairs of mating stink bugs (family Pentatomidae) were all over the place. They get their name from the foul-smelling chemicals they release from pores in their thorax when disturbed. I’m not quite sure what the critter in the middle is on about; perhaps he wanted to join in on the action.

One of the most biologically interesting phenomena in the jungle is Cordyceps (used to be one family, now split up into multiple groups). These fungi are mind-controlling parasitic organisms that use arthropods like ants and wasps to feed on and reproduce. A spore from the fungus enters a creature and migrates through its body to the brain. Here, the fungus starts secreting chemicals that drastically change the behaviour of its host. The animal crawls to a high point, places itself under a leaf and then bites through the stem and locks itself into position. The victim dies. after which a mushroom grows out of its body and releases more spores to infect new hosts. Some ants will recognize when a member of the colony is ‘zombified’ and take it as far from the nest as possible, so that other members won’t get infected by the same fungus. It goes to show that the jungle is a strange place in which everything, from small to large, has interesting ways of killing their victims.

IMG_1378
A wasp with a mushroom already growing out of its body. It looks like something out of a sci-fi horror movie, but it’s very real and very common.
IMG_0675
This wasp was very far gone. Someone asked me if I would still go out into the jungle if there was a one in a million change of this happening to me. I said yes.
IMG_1550-2
Termites are another type of social insects. Just like army ants, they form long roads moving from one place to another. In my observation, the termites move faster and in more coordinated lines than ants.
IMG_0953
Another parasite, but thankfully not a mind-controlling one. The botfly lays it eggs on clothing or mosquitoes. If you put on those clothes, or a mosquito with an egg bites you, the egg is transferred inside your body where it hatches. The larva secretes enzymes that dissolves your flesh, which it then eats so it can grow. When they reach a certain size, they start to hurt and this is when you’ll notice that one is living inside of you. Stick some duct tape on the bump before you go to sleep in order to suffocate the critter. The next morning you can squeeze it out, or let someone do it for you when it’s in a hard to reach place. I’ve had to remove four of these: one in my shoulder, two in my side and one in my cheek.

The arthropods I photographed the most are caterpillars. As it turned out, this was the best time of year to find these larvae, either moving around or in their chrysalis. There is an incredible diversity in how caterpillars look, how they behave and how they defend themselves. One would think of a caterpillar as being utterly helpless, but they evolved amazing ways to keep predators at bay. Photographing caterpillars can be a challenge. Sometimes they refuse to stay still, other times it’s difficult to truly show how beautiful they look. And other caterpillars you just don’t want to touch at all. I’ve used the waterproof container from my GoPro to safely transport them to camp when I didn’t have my tripod on me. What follows now are my favourite shots of the caterpillars I stumbled upon while walking on the trails.

IMG_2472
The big horn is actually growing out of the backside of the caterpillar, its head is underneath the stem.
IMG_2010-2
Caterpillars such as these evolved irritating spikes that make them an unattractive meal for any hungry bird. Furthermore, their bright colours are a warning sign that they are an unappetizing prey. They turn into an animal called the shag moth.
IMG_1953-2
This foot-sized caterpillar has the same strategy, but instead has long soft hairs that protrude from every part of its body.
IMG_1428
This guy was probably getting ready to metamorphosize.
IMG_1382
There’s safety in numbers, especially if you flash your yellow and red warning colours.

IMG_1304

IMG_0884
This might be the most alien-looking caterpillar I’ve found. The green part and the spikes are placed like a harnass over its soft red legs.
IMG_0545
Not all caterpillars are flashy and bright. This individual hides from its predators by almost perfectly mimicking a tree branch. Had this one not accidentally grabbed my backpack, I would have never found it.

 

IMG_2245
This caterpillar has alredy entered its chrysalis. It’s strange to think that the metamorphosized butterfly looks so incredibly different from its larval stage. Practically, the function of a caterpillar is only to eat and grow, while a butterfly’s goal is to reproduce.

An entomology book on site would be very practical, but the species that exist only within the Lepidoptera order (butterflies and moths) in the region already fills a heavy book. The amount of biodiversity within insects and other arthropods is just stunning. Some are horribly annoying, like the wasps that decided to build a nest next to our platform twice, but others are gorgeous and interesting. If anyone can identify some of the species in my photographs, I would be glad to hear from you.

IMG_1930-2
This beetle’s jaws were simply fearsome. When we held a dried leave in front of it, it sliced through without any effort. It then moved its jaws back and forth to saw through the rest of the leave. My offer of five soles was not enough to have someone put their finger in front of this monster.
IMG_1987-2
This is one of the biggest wandering spiders (Phoneutria sp.) I’ve ever seen. While trekking through a stream during a camp-out, this beast blocked our way and made us turn back. Wandering spiders can be very aggresive and are highly venomous (although the potency of their venom in this region is not clear). A side-effect of its venom in men is very unusual: a bite will result in a priapism, a condition in which the penis remains erect for hours. So not only might this spider kill you, it will also be a rather embarrasing death.

Back at LPAC. Part I: Reptiles.

The sense of familiarity I expected to wash over me as I stepped out of the plane on Puerto Maldonado’s tiny airport was silenced by the strangely cold air that hit my face. I had not anticipated a friaje, a front of frosty polar currents that often hits South America in the winter months. Combine this with jet lag and a long car ride into the forest and the result is a very tired traveller. My first afternoon back in the most wonderful place on the face of the earth was therefore spent in bed. I can confidently say, however, that in the following two months I completely made up for this bit of ‘wasted’ time. I think my campmates would agree with me.

IMG_0592
I found this gorgeous Liophis reginae (yellow-bellied swamp snake) on the first day; quite a good start.

Being surrounded by other people with cameras, it would be selfish not to bring back interesting subjects to share with everyone. As long as a snake, lizard or frog fits in a bag (and is not dangerously venomous), it’s coming back to camp. Unfortunately, they don’t always fit.
When the friaje cleared up, I knew that this was the time to go out. Cold-blooded animals had been deprived of warmth for a week and had to come out to bask in the few patches of sun that the rainforest has to offer. I hiked to the edge of our land to search in an aguajal (a swamp with a special kind of palm tree) for any big-bodied snakes. I hoped that the animal I still want to see the most, the green anaconda, would make an appearance there. But after scouting around the algae-covered swamp for thirty minutes, I was ready to give up. I glanced to my left one more time and did a sudden double take. On a fallen tree, stretched out perfectly, was a three-meter long Boa constrictor, fatter than my upper leg. I felt a mix of emotions taking over. Somewhere down in the primal parts of my brain, there was a dim fear for this creature; have we not been naturally selected to have an inherited fear of serpents? But mostly, I felt respect and awe for this wonder of evolution. With my trembling hands I was barely able to grab my camera. As I walked closer to inspect the marvellous animal, I realized there was no way I would be able to catch this behemoth. Its head was almost invisible in the thick undergrowth, and my futile attempt to lift up the back of its body only resulted in the boa casually slithering out of reach.
Despite seeing a giant armadillo and a giant anteater in the following months, this has been my favourite wildlife sighting.

IMG_0620
This massive Boa constrictor was very close to farmland, a habitat where it often comes into conflict with humans and livestock.

The longest night walk I’ve ever taken also turned out to be the best. I started off at 17:30 with a packed dinner and only returned at half past midnight. After eating my rice and eggs on a log next to a rather frightened collared tree runner, I finally found a species of boa I had somehow not seen before. A young Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) was hunting in a small shrub at eye-level. Finding this beautiful serpent only leaves me with two boas yet to find in the Amazon basin: the green anaconda (or ‘water boa’) and the very rare emerald tree boa. After bagging the young snake I continued my 12 km nocturnal loop while growing more and more tired. After 11 PM, I did not think I would see anything more as my exhausted stumbling would surely scare everything off. Imagine my surprise when I came eye to eye with a foraging giant armadillo. It’s hard to describe just how big this animal looks when it stands a mere two meters away from you. Seemingly oblivious of me, it sniffed the ground in search of insect nests to raid, before calmly walking off into the night. This encounter still had my heart pounding when I walked back into camp and made my way towards the kitchen. Next to one of the galletas (wooden stepping stones) I saw the unmistakable pitch black body of a mussurana (Clelia clelia). This snake was most likely interested in making a meal out of a sleeping lizard when I caught him in the act. After safely containing the serpent, I plunged into a deep well-deserved sleep.

IMG_2424
Since the animals are getting more used to our precense, they start coming into camp. Rats and mouse opossums already steal from the kitchen, which means that opportunistic snakes such as the mussurana (Clelia clelia) will come to hunt them. I predict that soon tiger rat snakes (Spilotes pullatus) will find their way to camp as well. Hopefully the fer-de-lances will stay away…
IMG_2419
The Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) takes many forms throughout its life. They may be completely red or yellow, or have a banded pattern like this individual.
IMG_2406
Because tree boas are primarily arboreal, they can perform impressive feats of flexibility and strength, coiling themselves into beautiful positions.
IMG_2237
Mussuranas look very different when they’re young, like this example here. When they become adult, they lose their red and white colours on the dorsum and turn completely black with a white belly.

Some weeks, I would find at least one snake every single day, either at night or during the day. Other weeks I would find nothing. I wonder what drives these strange clusterings of snake sightings; is it the weather, or am I simply better at searching during certain weeks? Why do I sometimes have five snakeless days in a row, and then a night with both a rainbow boa and a rare coral mud snake (which unfortunately got away, as neither my pal Sean nor I knew what it was).

IMG_1666-2
Don’t let this picture fool you: this rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria) was not enjoying being wrapped around this thick liana.
IMG_1694-2
Rainbow boa’s have one of the most beautiful patterns of all snakes in the region. Blotches like these are called eye-spots and are a form of mimicry. They either fool a potential predator or draw away attention from more vulnerable parts of an animal’s body. Perhaps these eye-spots are useful to young rainbow boa’s, when they’re still too small to defend themselves.
IMG_1761-2
When using a flash on a rainbow boa, the reason for its common name becomes quite apparent.
IMG_1880-2
Superficially, the tawny forest racer (Dendrophidion dendrophis) bears a strong resemblance to the venomous fer-de-lance. Its round pupils give away that this is in fact a Colubrid (harmless snake). However, it didn’t feel that harmless when it sunk its teeth into my hand and refused to let go.

 

 

IMG_2262
The black-skinned parrot snake (Leptophis ahaetulla) is one of the most photogenic snakes in the world. It very easily goes into this threatening pose, but won’t actually strike. This individual has a beautiful turquoise coloration around its mouth, something I’ve not ever seen before.
IMG_0907
The green-striped vine snake (Oxybelis vulgidus) is one of the most common snakes in Madre de Dios. It’s often found at night, sleeping at eyelevel. But because it tucks its head under its slender body and doesn’t show any eyeshine, it’s not as easily spotted as one would expect.
IMG_0936
This snake’s primary defence is striking at its attacker. If that doesn’t work, it musks (read: poops) all over the unlucky predator or interested human.
IMG_0712
The yellow-tailed cribo (Drymarchon corais) is one of the most badass snakes I found. Reaching up to 3 metres in length, this non-venomous snake eats just about anything it can find; including other (venomous) snakes. Notorious for its aggresiveness, it will often strike at faces when disturbed. This 2 metre individual however was extremely docile and could be handled without too much constraint.

Snakes are not the only reptiles I found while searching for subjects in the rainforest. In streams and small lakes, caiman predate on anything they can take. When you’re in the forest for long enough and you’re surrounded by other crazy people, catching caiman becomes a fun nighttime activity. The forest harbours many beautiful lizards, tortoises and turtles as well, like an Amazon thorntail (Uracentron azureum) that fell on someone’s helmet as they were climbing a tree.
Finding reptiles can sometimes feel like playing Pokémon. You want to catch them all, but this becomes harder and harder as you find more species. The common species become familiar to you (e.g. rainbow boa’s, yellow-footed tortoises and collared tree runners) while you crave more for the rare or hard to find ones; I think of anacondas, matamatas and emerald tree boas. Fortunately, you level up as you find more species. You learn where to look, how to catch them and to safely handle your subjects. It can be overwhelming to look up the incredible biodiversity that exists within the class of Reptilia (finding out about dwarf boas was interesting) and think of all the species that are still hiding out there, waiting to be found and classified within our strange and ever-evolving taxonomic system.

IMG_1614-2
Haseman’s gecko (Gonatodes hasemani) is a beautiful species of dwarf gecko. Its pattern is absolutely stunning for such a small reptile.
IMG_1622-2
Looking right into the camera. To me, this picture is evidence that not only warm-blooded animals can be cute!
IMG_1420
This yellow-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata) is always a strange sight to behold. For some reason, I never expect to see a tortoise on the leaf-littered forest floor.
IMG_1270
This turnip-tailed gecko (Thecadactylus rapicauda) likes to hang out around human settlements, such as the small house where we store boat equipment and extra mattresses (and sometimes hold parties).
IMG_1271
A true master of camouflage. Its common name stems from the fact that when this gecko drops its tail (autotomy), it grows back as a big turnip like bulb.
IMG_0990
The Amazon thorntail (Uracentron azureum) is one of more illusive species I’ve seen at LPAC. Being a canopy dweller, it rarely shows itself to humans walking on the ground.
IMG_0686
Bonus picture: a highly venomous Eastern ribbon coral snake (Micrurus lemniscatus) eating a blind snake. For some reason, the small oxbow lake where I found this individual is full of this species. Without failure, I’ve found them there every single night. This was my first ever sighting of a coral snake, and also a very special one.

Rupsenliefde

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.

IMG_0447IMG_0448IMG_0450IMG_0481IMG_0457IMG_0470IMG_0434IMG_0477IMG_0473

Peru Part IX: Surrounded by giants

The Colca Canyon and Arequipa


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.

THE END

IMG_9989
A llama looks out over one of the many highland lakes. The small pinkish dots are flamingos.
IMG_9993
The Colca Canyon is still mostly used for agricultural purposes.
IMG_9995
Misti’s first eruption of the day. We were freaking out upon seeing this, but the hotel owners shrugged it off as completely normal. The volcano erupted at least four more times that day.
map
Herbert’s amazingly drawn map.
IMG_0011
This skull looks like an artifact from Area 51, but it is actually the product of head binding, a popular practice among ancient Andean cultures.
IMG_0007
Yes, these bones are just lying out in the open. Some Soles have been put in a broken skull in the background.
IMG_0016
The church on the main square of Yanque.
IMG_0039
The age of a condor can be recognized by its color. This brown youngster will later turn black.
IMG_0046
A remarkable flower growing near Cruz del Condor.
IMG_0059
This lady in traditional attire is showing of her weaving skills at Mundo Alpaca in Arequipa.
IMG_0093
The red part of the monastery of Santa Catalina was reserved for more experienced nuns, while the new sisters resided in the blue part.
IMG_0083
The contrast between these colors is amazing.

IMG_0073IMG_0070IMG_0068

Peru Part VIII: From Picchu to Puno

Visiting Macchu Picchu and the city of Puno

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.

img_9939
Pukara is an ancient city on the way from Cusco to Puno. Not much is left, but a nearby museum gives an interesting insight into the live of the frog-worshipping pre-Inca culture that lived here.
img_9956
A colorfully dressed Ouros woman in a traditional reed canoe on Lake Titicaca.
img_9972
As you can see, it will be long before the Ouros run out of construction material.