The Life of a Guacamayero (Macaw Researcher)


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Published: June 23rd 2009
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Why Don't You Get a Little Closer?!Why Don't You Get a Little Closer?!Why Don't You Get a Little Closer?!

This is the famous bullet ant. It is reputed to have the most painful bite in the insect world. It is also the largest ant in the forest.
By my fifth week living at Posada Amazonas I was ready for a break. The eight to ten hours I was spending on the trail every day, while immensely enjoyable, were taking their toll on my body. To make things worse, the lumpy, sagging mattress I had been sleeping on had resurrected an old pelvis injury, which I had earned in a fit of stupidity during a mountaineering trip in Yosemite many years before. I spent a few days resting in my bed, hoping to prevent a total flare up that would eventually spread to my lower back, rendering me useless to the project. After my second day in bed it became clear that I was not going to recover sleeping on the same moldy mattress that had caused the flare up in the first place, so I packed a small bag and took a seat on one of the boats bound for Puerto Maldonado. The ride down river was uneventful, though the scenery along the river had changed dramatically in the week or so since the rains had ended. Where there had been muddy orange water running right up into the trees there was now a long series of muddy
Moon Over the AmazonMoon Over the AmazonMoon Over the Amazon

During the ride up river from Posada Amazonas to Refugio Amazonas the moon lighted our way.
banks and wide, sandy beaches. There were also more obstacles in the river for the driver to avoid. Some of the obstacles were very obvious, such as the huge rock-like islands and large grounded trees, but some were hidden beneath the water giving little or no hint to their presence - Luckily, we only had a few minor collisions. We arrived at the port near Infierno and finished the trip in the small tourist van.

Back at the Rainforest Expeditions office I scheduled my return trip to Posada Amazonas and then I caught a moto-taxi into town. The buildings along the dusty paved road had the same dilapidated appearance that just about every building on the outskirts of town in the developing world has, with crude, but colorful, concrete construction and rusty re-bar sticking up out of the roof just incase the owners ever want to add a second or third or fourth floor to their house of cards - How high they can go nobody really knows! I was a bit surprised when the driver came to a stop and said, “Plaza del Armas”, because the construction methods that were usually reserved for the outskirts of town, where
The Giant MussuranaThe Giant MussuranaThe Giant Mussurana

My job was to head him off so that he headed back onto the trail. He was about nine feet long and wanted nothing to do with us.
nobody monitors, or even cares what is built, continued right into the city center. I took a look around to get my bearings and then I headed off in the direction that the hostel I was planning on staying at was located. I only had a very basic idea of where it was, but after about half an hour of walking in the wrong direction I finally arrived at the colorful Tambopata Hostel. I found a comfortable room with a private bathroom in the exceptionally friendly hostel, which was run by a former Rainforest Expeditions guide and his wife, a former guacamayero. I quickly unpacked and then I laid down on the large comfortable bed and drifted off to sleep, buffeted by the heavenly breeze from the industrial-sized fan standing in the corner of the room.

I spent the next three days wandering around Puerto Maldonado. I got all of my foul-smelling jungle clothes cleaned at a local lavanderia. I found an amazing little phone shop that only cost a few cents per minute to call home and I used their services frequently, though my brother and sister decided to screen my calls, thinking I was a salesman or
Sunrise Over the AmazonSunrise Over the AmazonSunrise Over the Amazon

This was a lovely sunrise from the top of Refugio Amazonas' tower.
something. As you might expect, I spent most of my time in gluttonous revelry, devouring as much delicious food as I could get my hands on - I gorged myself on lomo saltado, a Peruvian specialty consisting of stir-fried beef and french-fries, and pizza and ice cream; I even found a place that made a decent cappuccino! Between feedings and phone calls I sat in the Plaza del Armas or at a little park overlooking the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata Rivers watching the people go by and enjoying the odd, ramshackle construction and the authentic, frontier-town feel that was infused in every aspect of life in ‘Puerto’. Motorcycles and moto-taxis were the preferred modes of transportation and they buzzed through the streets without any regard for the lines drawn on the pot-holed pavement or the pedestrians. There were three banks on the Plaza del Armas and, judging by the lines of people that wrapped nearly half way around the plaza at all times, they were the only banks for the town of forty-thousand people.

After a few days I was feeling a lot better, though the pain seemed to be there to stay. Because of
The Largest Rodent in the World!The Largest Rodent in the World!The Largest Rodent in the World!

No it isn't a rat, but a capybara. I managed to spot a few different groups of them on the ride to Refugio Amazonas.
that, I decided to cut a month off of my time with the project. I had planned on staying for three months - One month at each of the three lodges. It was a difficult decision to make, because the last of the lodges I was scheduled to stay at, the Tambopata Research Center (TRC), was supposed to be the best, located seven hours up river, deep within the reserve and national park boundaries. Before I went back to the office to catch my boat up river I sent an e-mail to my mom asking her to help me with making the changes to my plane tickets. By the time I had e-mail access again the following morning the changes had all been made - I guess that means my mom was eager to have me back in the perceived ‘safety’ of home!

I only had one day to stay at Posada Amazonas before I was scheduled to head two hours further up river to the Refugio Amazonas Lodge. I spent my time getting packed up and saying farewell to the handful of people I had become friends with at the lodge. I also did a few walks into
El Gato ColpaEl Gato ColpaEl Gato Colpa

Looking at the clay lick through the mist - It is a lovely sight, but the birds don't like it much.
the forest taking in my favorite places, such as the giant kapok tree, one last time. I was excited to be heading further up river, but I had grown quite fond of the majestic forest at Posada and it felt like I was leaving home. As I stood on the wooden steps of the tourist dock I set my sights on the new experiences that my final three weeks in the forest would bring. The boat arrived on schedule and I stepped onto the bow and took my seat. A few minutes later we rounded the sharp bend in the river near the Tres Chimbadas Lake and I entered new territories on my journey deeper into the Amazon Rainforest. We made a quick stop at the Torres River check point, where I showed my official permit and signed the book reserved for scientists - I was in good company, just above my name was a group of researchers from the World Wildlife Fund! There was a magnificent moon above us as we headed up river into the unknown. At times the moon was at my back and at other times I was facing it, which illustrated just how winding the
The False Fer-De-LanceThe False Fer-De-LanceThe False Fer-De-Lance

First it was a deadly snake and then it wasn't, but it was still fun to see.
river’s course was. Just before darkness set in we found a family of capybaras basking in the tall grass on the riverbank. A short distance further we came to the port for Refugio Amazonas. I met Aldo, the project manager at Refugio Amazonas, at the top of the steps at the staff port. He led me to a small house known as Casa Tio Tom, or Uncle Tom’s house, and then showed me to a small room and a very comfortable bed - Things were looking up already!

By the time I stepped off of the boat at Refugio Amazonas I felt like I knew the place well. Many of the guides talked fondly of the wonderful lodge and the friendly staff working there. From everyone’s descriptions, I knew that the forest was not as pristine as the forest surrounding Posada Amazonas and that, due to the newness of the lodge, the animals were still very shy and kept to themselves. Despite the ‘rareness’ of animal sightings amongst the guides and tourists, I had read a recent report done as part of a camera-trap survey of the surrounding forest that basically said that Refugio’s forests were actually filled with
Colorful InsectColorful InsectColorful Insect

In the forest, the insects were the easiest animals to find and usually they were quite beautiful.
rare and interesting animals in great abundance - The report went as far as saying that its forests may have been a better place to spot wildlife than the forests around TRC! There was also the famous story of a jaguar encounter that had happened two weeks before at Refugio’s tower. I had heard the story from both Daniel, one of my guide friends, and the manager of the lodge, whom I had met in the office in Puerto. The story went basically like this: Two of the women that work at the lodge had gone to the tower, which was about a ten minute walk from the lodge, to make a phone call home (oddly enough there was cell-phone reception on top of the tower, even in the middle of the Amazon!) There was a commotion below the tower and they looked down to see a large jaguar eating an animal it had just killed. They waited a long time for the jaguar to leave and then they headed back down the tower, but when they got to the ground the jaguar walked back out of the forest to guard its meal! They were forced to make a hasty
On the TambopataOn the TambopataOn the Tambopata

Fino telling us about life along the river.
retreat back up the tower where they sat and waited for several more hours. Eventually they were missed at the lodge and rescued by a search party that came and scared the cat away! There was another story that had me excited as well - Apparently there was a family of giant armadillos that lived right next to Casa Tio Tom, my new home.

Refugio Amazonas was built on a large brazil-nut concession. One of my friends explained to me that it is impossible to have a brazil nut ‘farm’, because the trees require the forest and its inhabitants to survive and reproduce, so instead there are huge agricultural concessions in the forest. The brazil-nut tree, known as a castaña tree in Peru, is massive. At Posada the trees formed a huge part of the canopy. At Refugio, where the forest was relatively young, second growth forest, the massive castaña trees rose high above the canopy like forest guardians, which, in a way, they were. Brazil nuts are Peru’s biggest (legal) cash crop and the department of Madre de Dios is Peru’s biggest producing area. Because of the importance of the industry, it is illegal to cut down or
A Long-Tailed PuduA Long-Tailed PuduA Long-Tailed Pudu

We were not sure if the set of glowing eyes belonged to a predator or a bird, so we proceeded with caution.
harm the brazil nut trees in Peru. Since the trees need the forest to survive, it is therefore (in theory) also illegal to irreparably harm the forest surrounding them. During the brazil nut harvest the forest is full of castañeros (brazil-nut harvesters), who walk along a haphazard network of trails that link all of the brazil nut trees together. They wear hardhats to protect their heads from the falling brazil nut ‘coconuts’ and they carry a basket and a long grasping device, much like the ones people use to pick up trash in parks, and they collect a portion of the coconuts, leaving some to sustain the circle of life for the trees. Then, either back at camp, or at a place on the trail near several trees, they carefully cut open the coconuts with a machete and then pull out the individual nuts, which are arranged inside the thick coconut much like the different sections are arranged inside an orange - I often came across huge piles of opened coconuts along the trails at Refugio. While all of the trails that connect the trees are the main reason that the forest lacked the pristine look that the forests around
A Worm for my SisterA Worm for my SisterA Worm for my Sister

Yes, even the worms are large in the Amazon.
Posada had, they are only a minor, and very impermanent, annoyance when you consider the huge benefits of the brazil nut industry, which is the king of all of the ‘sustainable use’ projects in the rainforest - The brazil nut industry, coupled with ecotourism, has given the locals a way to make a reasonable living off of the forest without destroying it!

I dropped my bags off in my new room, which I shared with Aldo, and then I gathered what I needed to take a shower and headed up to the lodge - I had already known from other guacamayeros that there were no bathrooms at Casa Tio Tom and that it was a ten minute walk to the showers at the lodge. We walked quickly through the darkness, Aldo leading the way. After just under ten minutes along a well maintained trail we emerged into a large clearing and I gasped at the sight I saw - The main lodge building, which housed the bar, tourist dining room, massage ‘spa’, shop and lounging areas rose in its two story magnificence in front of us. It was an amazing sight. The lodge at Posada had been more along
Looking for DinnerLooking for DinnerLooking for Dinner

One of the many frogs I found on the night walks.
the lines of a traditional Amazonian settlement and, while it was comfortable and nice, it was very simple in design. The lodge at Refugio Amazonas was constructed in the same open design and massive thatched roof that was present in Posada, only with a huge twist - They had built a second floor up in the massive space beneath the thatched roof. The second floor was only in half of the building, so there was a long balcony that overlooked the dining area and then there were three covered porch-like openings through the roof that made excellent places to sit and read, or watch the comings and goings of the canopy life. It quickly became apparent that Refugio was set up to be more of a luxury resort than a remote jungle outpost - It was a nice change!

Aldo quickly showed me around and introduced me to several people. I already knew the manager and most of the guides, so it was a quick introduction. I quickly took a shower and then I checked my e-mail - I will never get over the novelty of having a good Internet connection in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest! One
A Flower on a TreeA Flower on a TreeA Flower on a Tree

I am not sure what this tree was but the flowers were lovely.
of the guides ran up to me excited and said, “Kit (Keith was difficult to say in Spanish, so most people called me ‘Kit, el auto fantastico’ after the talking car), do you want to see a porcupine?” I jumped up and ran after him. I was only wearing my socks, having forgotten my sandals back at Casa Tio Tom, but I trudged after him along a muddy path that lead to the back of the kitchen. I followed him under the building, which was built on four-foot stilts to make it more difficult for the animals to get in. He shined his light up on the floor support beams next to one of the stilts and there it was in all of its odd glory, less than ten feet from me. I had seen traces of porcupines in the US and in Africa, but I had never actually seen one, so I was very excited. The Amazonian variety had the proportions of a mid-sized dog, or a river otter, with a long, thick tale and an odd, muffin-like snout. It was completely covered in short, pencil-sized, whitish gray spines from the base of its buff colored snout to just
Life in the CanopyLife in the CanopyLife in the Canopy

One of the lovely birds we saw from the tower.
shy of the end of its tail, including its clawed legs. In my rush to get up to the lodge, I had broken my one big rule of Amazonian photography - To always have my camera with me! In the absence of my camera all I could do was sit and admire the odd looking creature, which was hanging from the support stilt munching on one of the floor support beams. It was an amazing, close encounter with one of the Amazon’s oddest animals - The forest around Refugio Amazonas was already giving up some of her secrets and I had been there for less than two hours! I walked back to the computer area, trailing a set of faint footprints from my mud-soaked socks.

Mealtime at Refugio was similar to mealtime at Posada: A shouted, “Rancho!” sent a stampede of hungry people to a pair of big plastic bins filled with bowls, cups and spoons and then up the stairs into the kitchen, where several large pans were sitting on the stove filled with food. However, the similarities stopped there - At Refugio we served ourselves! I took the amount of food that I needed, including a large
A Self PortraitA Self PortraitA Self Portrait

This is a picture of my shadow on the canopy while I was standing on top of the tower.
serving of vegetables and a few pieces of manioc, which was a delicious Amazonian staple with a texture that was similar to a potato. I sat at the table talking with all of the staff members in broken Spanish and a little English - It was immediately clear that I was going to get along with everyone there from the start. After dinner I walked back down to Casa Tio Tom to organize my things a bit. Along the way I watched with amused loathing as my new headlamp dimmed before my eyes, started blinking and then, with a final flash of life, went dark! I was only about half way back to Casa Tio Tom and I had no extra batteries with me. As I sat there in the dark in the middle of the jungle wondering what to do next something strange happened. A dim, bluish light started to spread across the understory. At first I couldn’t make out any detail in the surrounding landscape, but as my eyes shed their last dependencies on the artificial light and adjusted to the darkness I remembered that there was a beautiful full moon just above the canopy! A few moments
The StranglerThe StranglerThe Strangler

The strangler fig is a plant that grows up around another tree and eventually takes it over and kills it, leaving just the fig standing with a hollow core. This fig picked a formidable foe in the brazil nut tree.
more and I could see the trail before me and I could even make out potential snakes on the ground. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but enough light was hitting the trail for me to follow it all the way back to my room, with only occasional spots of pitch-black along the way - I walked slowly with a heavy foot to scare away anything that may have been lurking in the shadows. Back at Casa Tio Tom I lit a candle and changed my batteries, resolving to not go anywhere without extra batteries from then on, and then I adjusted my mosquito net and drifted off to a much-needed sleep.

I was back at the lodge by four-thirty the following morning for breakfast. As I ate my usual breakfast of pancakes, fresh fruit with yogurt and fried manioc Aldo explained a bit about what activities the Macaw Project did at Refugio. Essentially everything was the same as it was at Posada Amazonas. I would be doing a lot of walking on foraging walks and point count censuses on the many trails around Refugio and, occasionally, I would go with the tourists to the small colpa on the Rio
More Life in the CanopyMore Life in the CanopyMore Life in the Canopy

Aldo was excited when this bird flew up. He called it a purple throated fruit crow or something like that.
Gato (Cat River), which was a small river that flowed from the south into the Tambopata a little further up stream. We always went with the tourists because to get to the colpa either required a two-and-a-half hour walk along a cryptically blazed trail, or a short ride up river in a boat and a half hour walk through the forest - As it turned out, my first activity as a volunteer guacamayero at Refugio was to go to the colpa. We left the lodge with the tourists and walked down to the river port, making sure we were the last people on the boat. The river was shrouded in fog, tinted blue in the early morning light. Through the mist we could just make out the trees along one bank and then the other as we weaved our way up the hidden river.

In an impressive feat of knowledge and skill, the boatman ‘blindly’ pulled to the southern bank of the river after a few minutes and rammed the muddy bank exactly where the trail to El Gato started! Aldo and I were the first people off of the boat and we hit the trail ahead of the
A View of the CanopyA View of the CanopyA View of the Canopy

The brazil nut tree is the tall one. The forest at Refugio is second growth, so the brazil nut trees rise high above the rest of them.
tourists and briskly walked into the forest. At first the path was shrouded in darkness, so we had to keep a close eye on the trail for any snakes that may have been in the path. We walked up through a bamboo forest and into the terra firma and then down into a ravine, crossing over a lovely creek on a small wooden bridge. As the morning sunlight trickled down into the understory I got my first unobstructed glimpse of the forest around me. There were some large trees here and there, but the vast majority of them were small and fairly young. The forest definitely had a different feel than the forest beneath the majestic giants around Posada Amazonas, but it was still very lovely and steeped in mystery. Eventually the trail descended steeply to the flood plain and then into a landscape of swampy mud-holes and streams, but, due to the high volume of tourists that used the trail, we had a network of wooden plank bridges that made the going fairly easy. We passed a sign that had been posted as part of the Tambopata Macaw Project that explained in English, Spanish and German how to observe
A ToadA ToadA Toad

No, I didn't kiss it!
the birds without disturbing them - Things like, “Don’t use your flash”, “Observe silence”, “ Don’t wear bright clothing”, etc., were posted for everyone to see, though the suggestions were rarely followed. After a few more minutes of trudging through the mud and climbing over recently fallen trees we saw a small thatched hut in front of us, right at the edge of a bright break in the canopy - We had reached the Rio Gato!

We set up in the hide and filled in all of the preliminary information on the data sheet. Aldo pointed out the colpa, or clay-lick, which was fairly far away, and then we waited. The Gato River flowed slowly by about thirty feet below us. Its muddy brown water, swollen by the recent rains, was flowing through the vegetation on the walls of the narrow quebrada, or ravine, we were sitting above. The narrow jungle river and its green banks made a beautiful sight through the thick mist that still filled the air. Over the next several hours we watched for activity on the colpa and we recorded our data, such as ‘first arrivals’, weather, quantity and species of birds feeding on the
A Wood CreeperA Wood CreeperA Wood Creeper

It isn't the best picture, but they rarely are beneath the canopy of the forest.
clay, tourist activities and flushes - It was a fairly slow morning due to the fog, but we did have several birds fly by, giving the tourists (and me) a small show. In addition to the birds we found a few bats hanging from the thatched ceiling, so that was neat to see as well.

We gave the tourists a half hour head start and then we followed them back to the boat. They were walking slowly, so we caught up with them at the top of the ascent out of the flood plain. We slowed down then as well and in less than ten minutes we had two exciting snake encounters. The first was a large whip snake that appeared before us and quickly shot off into the forest, prompting both Aldo and I to follow after it - I learned then that Aldo and I shared a similar love of snakes! After the whip snake we were both paying close attention to the sides of the trail. Aldo was walking in front of me and he paused and started cautiously looking in a bush on the right side of the trail. When I got to him he
A Small Pink-Toed TarantulaA Small Pink-Toed TarantulaA Small Pink-Toed Tarantula

I found this guy on the trail to the lodge from Casa Tio Tom.
said, “I saw a small snake that I think was a baby fer-de-lance!” I excitedly started rooting through the brush with him, because the fer-de-lance, which was one of the four venomous snakes in the area, was a snake that I really wanted to see. We were both using long sticks and being very cautious, because we knew that the fer-de-lance, locally known as gorgon, also had the not-so-glamorous title of ‘The deadliest snake in the Americas’! Eventually we found the small snake and managed to get a few pictures of it - It was exciting! I agreed with Aldo, it looked just like the pictures of the fer-de-lance that I had seen, with a pronounced, diamond shaped head and a light gray body with darker gray bands. Later, after the excitement had died down we independently looked at our pictures and saw something that made us re-think our identification - The snake had round pupils instead of the ‘cat eye’ slits that the gorgon should have had! A bit more research led us to another interesting discovery - The snake was not a fer-de-lance after all, but a harmless ‘false viper’, often called a false fer-de-lance, due to their
Look into My Eyes!Look into My Eyes!Look into My Eyes!

The frogs always made great subjects for taking pictures of.
striking similarities. It was still a great snake sighting!

I made several more journeys to the colpa during my stay at Refugio Amazonas. Each of the trips seemed to have something different in store for me. One morning I came across a fresh footprint in the trail that had been left by a jaguar or a puma. On another trip we had an amazing show at the colpa with giant flocks of beautiful blue-headed parrots, giant mealy parrots, dusky-headed parakeets and orange-cheeked parrots. We were watching them fly around the colpa in a giant, closely packed mixed flock. Their movement was fluid and graceful, like a choreographed dance, and the noise was deafening. One of the tourists spotted a bright yellow bird on a branch next to the clay-lick and the guide and I confirmed that it was an orange-cheeked parrot, but it was an albino one! The usual coloration of an orange-cheek was green with a black head and orange cheeks, but the bird we saw was bright yellow with a grayish-black head - The bird was too distant to make out its orange cheeks, but it flew in unison with the rest of the orange-cheeks and it
An Explosion of ColorAn Explosion of ColorAn Explosion of Color

Who said the forest had to be all green?
was the same size. It was apparently a very special sighting due to the rarity of seeing albino birds! On another morning I arrived at the hide well before the tourists. There had been a few sightings of a fer-de-lance snake in the hide in the preceding days, so I did a quick scan around the seating area to see if I could find him (and to make sure nobody was bitten if he was there). I didn’t find the fer-de-lance, but up in the rafters I found a small Amazonian tree boa hanging and looking around. I quickly took some (blurry) pictures of the beautiful snake and then, when the tourists got there, I pointed it out to them - Sadly, most of them were instantly filled with terror and refused to stand under it, even after it disappeared into the thatching! On that same trip we found a medium-sized white caiman on the bank of the river basking in the sun - He stayed put, with his mouth open and let us get very close to him in the boat, which was great!

While the colpa on the Gato River was a big draw for the tourists
The Demon MothThe Demon MothThe Demon Moth

When I arrived in the Amazon I had a strong fear of flying insects, so when I first saw the glowing eyes of a moth as it flew at me I pictured it as a demon.
at Refugio, most of the data collection we did for the macaw project took place on the varied trails in the forest. Transects and point count censuses and foraging walks were a daily activity and ensured that I spent a lot of time exploring the forests around Refugio. Each trail passed through amazing sections of forest and I grew to love each of them equally. Some of the trails were well maintained tourist thoroughfares and others were adventurous slogs through overgrown, swampy forest filled with hidden wildlife and exciting river crossings. The wildlife around Refugio was very difficult to spot, but the signs of their presence were everywhere. Every trail I followed had fresh tapir tracks in the mud and on several occasions I startled one of the giant animals, but all I got to see of them was the swaying branches as they crashed away through the undergrowth. Most of the animals stayed well hidden, but I did manage to spot tayras, which are large weasel-like animals, huge numbers of monkeys, an odd looking coati, countless macaws and parrots, including my favorite, the blue and yellow macaw, and several snakes. On one walk near Candenado Lake Aldo and I
The Architects of the Devil's GardensThe Architects of the Devil's GardensThe Architects of the Devil's Gardens

This is the tree that the small black ants live on. The ants keep the forest cleared around the trees so that sunlight can penetrate down to them.
found a small, green swampsnake, which puffs up like a cobra when it feels threatened, and a massive mussurana. The mussurana was a magnificent snake that was nearly nine feet long - We attempted to take a few pictures of him and I briefly tried to catch him, which resulted in Aldo almost getting bitten (I didn’t try that again!), and we had a lot of fun pursuing him though the forest. On another occasion near the lake I spotted a small, black cat-like animal that was quietly lurking just off of the trail. It was getting dark, so it is possible that it was a tayra, but in the fading light I couldn’t make out the white coloration that is usual on the tayra’s head and it had a slender, cat-like tail and a smooth gait, so I am more inclined to think it was a jaguarundi, which is a small cat.

For me, one of the more interesting trails was Castaña trail, which passed through the heart of the brazil nut harvesting area. As a result, there was a wide, well maintained trail that had several side trails leading to the many castaña trees in the area.
The Stubborn SpiderThe Stubborn SpiderThe Stubborn Spider

This guy built a massive web across the trail in the same place every day and we had to move it every time.
There was a mock castañero camp set up near the lodge to teach tourists about the life and living conditions of the men that lived in the forest and harvested the brazil nuts. A good bit further down the trail there was a large clearing on a small creek that served as the real castañero camp in the area. There was a small, well built hut and a rustic frame building without a roof. The camp was deserted, since the harvest season was over, but it made a nice place to stop and cool off in the creek. From the camp the trail continued over the creek on a small plank bridge and up the hill on the other side eventually leading to another large, mysterious clearing.

Aldo was with me the first time I reached that clearing and he explained to me the special story of the strange place, which he called a chacra. I excitedly listened to him talk, quickly realizing that I was standing in a ‘Devil’s Garden’, an entirely natural feature of the forest, one that I had read a lot about and was near the top of my list of ‘things to see in
Cicada CityCicada CityCicada City

These towers were everywhere along the trail. The cicadas built them as a nest of some sort.
the jungle’. He motioned me over to one of the few large plants that grew in the clearing and pointed to a pod in one of its branches. The pod, and the entire plant, was crawling with tiny black ants. He then told me a story that I already knew well: The small ants live in the pods on the trees and feed on of the sap and fruit that the tree manufactures for them. In return, the ants scour the ground around the trees killing all of the tall plants in the area and keeping the canopy open. The resulting clearing in the forest allows large amounts of sunlight to reach the tree, allowing it to grow - It was a perfect example of a symbiotic relationship! There are lots of stories surrounding the devil’s gardens. Early explorers couldn’t understand how the clearings were made, so legends sprung up about them. The legends said that the clearings were gardens that were tended by jungle spirits, such as Chuyanchaqui. I admit that when I first entered the clearing I though it was a strange place that must have been a farm of some sort at one time. I returned to
Tapir TracksTapir TracksTapir Tracks

These tracks were all over the trails though I never saw a tapir - I suppose they could also belong to a small Tyrannosaurus Rex.
the Devil’s garden several times during my walks and it retained its mysterious feel, even though I knew well how it had been formed!

One day we were doing a long transect walk on Ara trail. We followed the trail through a messy swamp and up into the terra firma and then back down to a wide, deep creek. We crossed over a series of wobbly, submerged logs that served as a bridge, steadying ourselves with a few long branches that we probed the water with. On the other side of the creek we walked back up onto the terra firma. The forest along Ara was the best that I encountered at Refugio. There were huge numbers of large trees and the terrain was varied and interesting. Eventually Ara joined the Castaña trail about a kilometer past the devil’s garden and continued deeper into the forest. Later, the trail turned down into a swampy floodplain full of more pristine forest. There we immediately found signs of a huge heard of white-lipped peccaries. Their tracks covered the ground and their smell filled the air - They were definitely close! At two places along the trail we found the odd impression
The Fading Light of DayThe Fading Light of DayThe Fading Light of Day

Often the trail beneath the canopy was dark despite the sun still being out.
in the mud that had been made when one of the peccaries had laid down in the mud - One of them was a nice side view of the pig, which showed just how big they were, and the other was of its belly! Something startled the herd and set them into a stampede. The roaring sound of them all screaming in unison shattered the silence of the forest as the ground trembled beneath their hoofs - It was an exciting sound, but we were glad it was going away from us! When we finished the transect we decided to continue deeper into the forest to see if it was possible to reach Lago Sachavacayoc, which was located on the other side of a wide, deep river. When we got to the river’s edge we found an un-crossable jumble of wreckage that used to be a simple bridge - Aldo told me that the bridge had been washed out during the previous wet season! I decided to come back when I had more time and find a way across the waterway to the lake. On the way back to the lodge Aldo stopped in the trail and pointed down to
The Green-Eyed Specter The Green-Eyed Specter The Green-Eyed Specter

If you look closely between the tree and the vine (highlighted by the flash) you will see a dark figure with a pointy nose and glowing green eyes - It is a Coati.
a jumble of leaves and said, “Do you see the frog?” I said, “What frog? That is just a jumble of leaves.” Aldo laughed and told me to take a closer look and sure enough I found an odd looking crested frog, which had amazing camouflage!

I loved all of the time I spent in the forest around Refugio, despite a few unpleasant moments out on the trails trying to find my way back to the lodge on unfamiliar, poorly marked paths after dark - Getting lost being a frightening prospect at any time out there! In addition to loving the forest, I also enjoyed my time in the lodge at Refugio, which was a welcome change from my time at Posada. I had many humorous conversations at the dinner table with the lodge staff. One of the more interesting mealtime conversations was about Grand Patiti - There had been news stories flying around the forest that said that Gran Patiti had been found in the forests around Manu National Park and several of the staff members were excitedly talking about it! They were happy and a little surprised that I knew of the legendary lost city, so we
Wandering SpiderWandering SpiderWandering Spider

This guy was big and quite aggressive. Much like the large one we found at Posada, this wandering spider didn't have all of the telltale markings.
had a long conversation about the news - It is definitely exciting to think about. I got along great with just about everybody, despite still having a sizable language barrier. One of the men working there continually asked for help with engineering problems - It was fun teaching him about levers and fulcrums and hoists; he was trying to build a hoist system that would help the guys unload the heavy cargo from the boats without having to hoist it on their backs! I also enjoyed several interesting conversations with Fernando, the assistant bartender and lead oarsman at the lake, while I practiced my Spanish and helped him with his English. One night my friend Cesar, from Posada, showed up unexpectedly on his way to TRC with a big school group, so we got to re-live some of our adventures at Posada. I also had a lot more interactions with the tourists at Refugio, which was nice.

About a week into my stay at Refugio Aldo told me that I might be going to TRC for my final week in the project. He told me that they didn’t have any help there at the moment and that the other
The Brazil NutThe Brazil NutThe Brazil Nut

This picture is a bad one, but it shows what the brazil nut coconut looks like. The open one has two sections of nut in it still.
volunteers at Posada didn’t have their permits in order, making me the only permitted volunteer available. Needless to say, I was excited. A few days later he confirmed that I was, in fact, going to TRC. I had been forced to cut my time in the Amazon short knowing that I was sacrificing my time at TRC, but it looked like I was going to get to go after all! I happily gave up my plans to return to the distant lake at the end of Ara trail and my hopes of seeing one of the many tapirs around Refugio or the giant armadillos at Casa Tio Tom and I set my sights on the pristine forests and unknown horizons that I had in store five hours further up river in the heart of the reserve and national park. I looked forward to the exciting river journey into the untrammeled wilderness, where few people go. I was excited by the opportunity for some unequaled wildlife sightings and I couldn’t wait to see the spectacle of hundreds of macaws and parrots feeding on the largest colpa in the world! The Tambopata Research Center had all of that and much more…



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A BeetleA Beetle
A Beetle

The beetles were by far the most colorful insects around.
A Saddle-Back TamarinA Saddle-Back Tamarin
A Saddle-Back Tamarin

These monkeys were playing on the trees at the edge of the devil's garden.
In the Devil's GardenIn the Devil's Garden
In the Devil's Garden

This odd clearing, locally known as a chacra, is naturally formed as part of a symbiotic relationship between ants and a certain tree.
The Castanero CampThe Castanero Camp
The Castanero Camp

This is the real camp for the brazil nut harvesters. There was one for tourist a bit closer to the lodge.
On the TrailOn the Trail
On the Trail

The trails at Refugio were well maintained in places and hard to follow in others.
A Blue-eyed BeautyA Blue-eyed Beauty
A Blue-eyed Beauty

I have no idea what plant this is but they were everywhere.
Creatures of the NightCreatures of the Night
Creatures of the Night

This odd, spider-like animal was as big as my hand if you included the legs.
"Do You See the Frog?""Do You See the Frog?"
"Do You See the Frog?"

I didn't at first. The crested frog had really good camouflage.
A Jungle CreekA Jungle Creek
A Jungle Creek

The forest around Refugio Amazonas was crisscrossed with lovely streams and rivers, often hidden in the forest.
Aldo and the MussuranaAldo and the Mussurana
Aldo and the Mussurana

This is another bad picture, but it shows the scale of the snake (the black band in the foreground) This picture was taken just after the snake tried to bite Aldo (when I tried to catch it).


23rd June 2009

Amazing pictures.
23rd June 2009

Simply Incredible!
Got to hand it to you. You take incredible photos and you write very well. Thank u for taking us through all your experiences.........
23rd June 2009

AMAZING picture of the snake! Really great capture.

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