Journey to the jungle

After days of chasing paperwork around smoggy, hectic Lima, with fool’s errand after wild goose chase, it was exciting to take a final taxi to the airport. Getting a permit to carry out any kind of biological research in Peru is getting increasingly difficult, as the authorities are rightly keen to make sure that Peru gets the benefit of any lucrative discoveries. Numerous forms must be filled in, with the exact requirements changing – ever so slightly – between you filling them in and submitting them for scrutiny. They are then returned with their deficiencies to be corrected and resubmitted, and meanwhile the shopping list of last-minute field kit takes up the rest of your time. My field assistant and I spent ages tracking down people who could make some bespoke cables for our speakers, and a leather holster to hold a specialist microphone – for recording bird song – that would clip onto my belt. It proceeded to smell, go mouldy and fall off my belt for the next 4 months. Finally, once the ethanol for storing blood samples had been decanted into hundreds of tiny eppendorf tubes on the floor of my hotel room, and we’d bought all the batteries and chargers we were going to need, we were off.

The field station we were heading for, Los Amigos Biological Station (known by its Spanish acronym CICRA) is in the south east of Peru, in the Madre de Dios (Mother of God) region (on the banks of the river of the same name). To get there we took a short flight that encapsulated the extreme diversity of Peruvian landscapes. Lima, the sprawling capital, sits on a cliff above the Pacific and is surrounded by desert. Puerto Maldonado, the closest we could get to CICRA by plane, is not much more above sea level, in the lowland Amazon rainforest. In between are the high Andes, with the beautiful city of Cusco (at 3400m) a short stop mid-flight. Even remaining on the plane for the time it took to exchange old passengers for new ones, I could feel the effects of the cool thin air at the high altitude. It was also a tantalising glimpse of the city as we landed and took off again over the mountains, before the final peaks dropped away and a vast expanse of green stretched as far as I could see.

I think there are few things more exciting than descending into the rainforest. The canopy looked placid, calm, from above, but I was itching to know what was going on underneath. Arriving into Puerto Maldonado felt a world away from Lima; a tiny airport, hot and humid. We buzzed to our hotel on a mototaxi (like a tuk tuk, or a motorbike with a bench seat and awning on the back), for final preparations, final luxuries (ice cream, menus, cold drinks) and a final night in civilisation.

Puerto Maldonado is at the hub of a gold-mining boom that has attracted hundreds of people searching for their fortune, leading to a slightly wild west feel amongst the ecotours and jungle trips that make up the other part of local income. We left early the following morning, towards Laberinto, a town that makes Puerto feel quite grandiose. We bumped along in a taxi, hot air buffeting in through the windows, along paved and unpaved sections of what is now the Interoceanic highway, linking the Pacific with the Atlantic via river ports deep inland in Brazil. It struck me how lucky I was that such an adventure, speeding towards a boat up an Amazonian river, to a world class research station deep in the jungle, counted as a day at the office for me.

From the river bank in Laberinto, lined with gold merchants, we scrambled down the bank and onto the boat for the journey upriver. A few other researchers were also taking their seats, with everyone’s kit, and food for the station for a week, carefully stowed. We set off heading up the Madre de Dios river for the 5 hour journey, watching the forest, and gold miners, as we passed. At last we arrived, and were faced with a monumental flight of stairs to climb.

Once everything had been carted up to the main buildings high on the terra firme, which took so many trips up those stairs, I began to take in my surroundings. A scattering of thatched buildings, in a clearing dotted with palms, made up the dining room, laboratory, library, dormitory and cabins of the station. The clearing extended to the cliff’s edge, high above the river. The view was breathtaking.

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