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.
Finally, the wet season starts to be noticed. The occasional downpours become more and more frequent. I get myself caught out in the rain quite often, and in the rain forest, even the most advanced piece of clothing won’t keep you dry. Gore-Tex or not, you might as well give up: you’re gonna get soaked.
As Mark leaves for a bit on a short well-deserved vacation, I am to keep myself busy with other activities. Since the caiman team has just started up to begin researching the crocodilian population around Boca, I spend a lot of time capturing their search for the prehistoric looking creatures. Taking photographs for Fauna’s Facebook page is another one of my concerns. After Mark comes back for a short while, he leaves his equipment with me to continue light box work on any new species I find. Night walks for capturing species, morning shoots and releasing now comes down to me and Allie, Mark’s other intern. And I have to say: we do a pretty good job. Among the new species we light box are the mottled clown treefrog (Hyla sarayucensis), the Amazon horned frog (Ceratophrys cornuta) and even the spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodillus, although some help was required for this guy). I do a lot of shooting for myself as well, now being fully comfortable in the jungle environment. I stop wearing bug spray, I stop caring about getting my socks and pants wet, and I couldn’t care less about pulling some worms out of my foot. We’re all connecting more with the community, playing volleyball almost every day and an occasional game of soccer (only when it’s chilly enough to not sweat profusely). For me, this makes the prospect of leaving this place harder and harder to cope with.
On one of my last days in Boca, I’m going out again with Mark to release some reptiles and amphibians we captured the night before. Even though it’s pouring down, I’m optimistic and bring a tripod and my camera in case it stops raining. Unfortunately it doesn’t, and we’re forced to release the animals without getting any pictures. As we’re walking back to camp, an incredibly bright flash of blue light illuminates the dark sky. Without any delay, a violent explosion of sound, the loudest noise I’ve ever heard, comes crashing through the raindrops. We dive to the ground and I drop the metal tripod. We crouch on the floor, with our rubber boots hopefully insulating the potential path of lightning through us. As the thunder fades away, we stand up and race back to the town. Though we laugh about our experience, we’re shaken out of our wits and smell a strong scent of burnt earth. Mark later describes it as ‘Gandalf the White coming down from the sky’. We’re very lucky that the lightning didn’t hit us, but missed us by around 10 meters.
After surviving a bullet ant infestation, seeing (and smelling) a huge pack of white-lipped peccaries and having a tarantula walk on my face, I’ve grown quite attached to the place. On November 21th, I have to leave at last. I’m going back to LPAC to participate in the Forest Ranger Program with ARCAmazon. But not before saying goodbye to everyone and taking a small party with me to Puerto. Little did I know I would be back sooner than I expected.
After spending a week on the couch in Puerto Maldonado enjoying the effects of a virus called Chikungunya, I am the last volunteer to be transferred to the forest community of Boca Pariamanu. Only 2.5 hours upstream from Maldonado’s harbor, this community is based where the Pariamanu river enters Las Piedras. When one thinks of a jungle community in South America, images of strange herbal rituals and naked dancing usually pop up. But to see that, you’ll have to visit the uncontacted tribes, hidden away far from humanity below the thick canopy. Boca is very much like a regular village, but without any roads, and houses above the ground to keep out any wild animals. Nobody in Boca seems to have heard of these strange people called ‘vegetarians’, so my first meal is a bit of improvising.
My job is now different from what I did at LPAC. Here I am working with Mark, a wildlife photographer from England with a love for coca leaves. I sleep on an empty Brazil nut drying platform, which quickly gets dubbed ‘The Nut Hut’. Mark is working on an identification guide for reptiles and amphibians in the Madre de Dios region. I am still skeptical when it comes to handling herpetofauna and going out at night; I thought the night was for sleeping? Slowly but surely, I start to get the hang of the job. The morning is where I get my workout of carrying a gasoline generator and a large wooden table to the Nut Hut, where we photograph species that we caught last night in a white box to avoid background distraction (find these pictures on facebook.com/untamedwildlife). I notice myself getting more and more comfortable with both my camera and the animals we’re handling. In the afternoon, we usually release the animals and take their pictures in their natural habitat. Most of the photos in this blog are from those times. As night falls, and everyone goes to sleep, we venture out into the woods to find new animals and bring them back with us.
After only a week in Boca, I encounter the most fearful animal yet; a young Fer-de-Lance pit viper. Strangely enough, this is the only dangerously venomous snake I’ve encountered during my time in Peru. Photographing this creature is highly exciting. Just a few days later, I have another amazing experience when I catch my first snake. As Mark is very ill (on his birthday) I am out early with Fauna’s mammal team to survey the area when we stumble upon something unexpected. A beautiful rainbow boa, relaxing in the middle of the trail. I have not seen a boa before and have absolutely no idea whether this is a dangerous animal. After being assured that this one is in fact not venomous, I’m urged by the entire mammal team to catch it. After all, there’s no way that they’re picking it up! And since the boa is starting to crawl away, I’ll have to move fast. Even though the snake does not seem to like me very much, I manage to not get chewed on and safely get him in the bag. In spite of Mark’s illness he seems to be happy with his birthday present.