Los Amigos Biological Station – a hub of biological research in the Amazon rainforest

Los Amigos Biological Station (aka CICRA) sits at the confluence of the meandering Madre de Dios and Los Amigos rivers in SE Peru, high on the terra firme, with more than 60 miles of trails extending in every direction. Getting there is an adventure in itself, and it is a real privilege to be able to live in such a wonderful place.

The view as you gasp, out of breath, at the top of the stairs, and marvel at your new home. Photo credit: Tom Beattie

The forest, despite having been disturbed in the past by logging and mining (and still suffering from both of these in places), still hosts an abundance of wildlife. The trails extend through various habitat types, from bamboo patches to swamps to floodplain, and there are lakes where you can paddle canoes to birdwatch, otter-watch, and anaconda spot.

Cocha Lobo, in search of giant otters

And a sleepy anaconda found in Pozo don Pedro

The facilities are amazing – various accommodation options from shared dorms to private cabins; a large comedor, a communal space and dining room, where 3 tasty meals a day are served; laboratories; a library with desk space for researchers; and of course a football/volleyball pitch.

The library

You can even visit as a tourist, if you want to see what life is like at one of the most active Amazonian research stations. Please do, because you’ll be supporting the protection of this forest, and it needs all the help it can get.

A private cabin for two. Photo credit: Tom Beattie

Living here for months on end is a brilliant but slightly bizarre experience. Communal living with perhaps 15–20 other people, the trials and tribulations of fieldwork, and isolation (internet access aside) make for a close-knit community, sharing highlights, triumphs and disasters from the day in the field over meals.

The enthusiasm of other researchers is infectious, and this lovely short film gives a glimpse of moth diversity at CICRA, and the entomologists that love them.

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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.