Sometimes, rainforest creatures come to you…

My first night of a 4 month field season, I settled down to sleep listening to the buzzes and squawks of the jungle night, mosquito net carefully tucked in all around my mattress. After a while, in the pitch dark, I felt the net trembling, as an animal climbed down the cord that held it up. Then it climbed down the net itself, and then – I’m not sure if it was the first night or later on once this had become routine – it ran across my toes. Welcome to the rainforest, where the creatures come to you.

A few minutes later I heard it knock over all the things I’d unpacked onto my shelves in an attempt to settle in to my new home. It turned out to be an opossum, a large mousey marsupial, which was encouraged on its nightly forays by a long-term resident at the field station who lived in the room next to mine, who left apple cores out for it to find.

Earlier in the evening I’d discovered a very effective (for someone who isn’t good with spiders) energy saving device above the lightswitch. spider lightswitch

It was a good introduction, as various animals were frequently found in the station buildings, from the boa that settled in a couple of metres beyond my desk in the library, to the (absolutely massive) tarantula that appeared in my bedroom (some may wonder why an arachnophobe would live in the jungle), the frogs and geckos that patrolled the bedroom walls, the curly centipedes that would drop from the palm thatched dorm roof, the cockroaches that could be found snacking on soap in the middle of the night, and once a tiny black scoprion in the middle of my bedroom floor.

I became quite attached to one particular creature that I shared a cabin with for a while, although the first time I saw it – a black frog appearing in the toilet bowl when I flushed it – it made me jump. He would appear as the flush was pressed, swim hard against the current to avoid being swept away, and disappear again under the rim afterwards. It took me ages to figure out he wasn’t living just out of sight in the bowl, but up in the cistern. What the toilet offered over the forest I don’t know, but he was always there, swimming away. Until one day I was devastated to see him swim not quite hard enough, and disappear down the pipe. I was happy to see him again a few days later, or if not the same frog, another who shared its taste in cisterns.

My field assistant once encountered a jaguar a few metres away when he made a night-time trip from the dorm building to the bathroom cabin, at CICRA’s satellite station CM1. The two buildings are separated by a short stretch of grass. As he was about to return to the dorm, he spotted huge eye-shine in the beam of his headtorch, and could even make out the markings on the jaguar’s face. The eyes moved down to the ground, and back up again, as if sizing up prey. The following morning dawned grey and rainy, meaning no mist-netting could be done, and I wondered why he was up and wide awake so early. He hadn’t been able to get back to sleep.

CM1 bathrooms are evidently treacherous places, as this photo from good friend and fellow CICRA resident,  Brian Phillips, shows. Might make you re-think how badly you need to go.

snake chain

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The Making of Amazon Gold

An in-depth look at the gold mining in Madre de Dios, from fieldwork dramas to an award-winning new film. A super interesting read.

http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0219-watsa-amazon-gold.html

Surround Science

New film documents a shadow world: the illegal gold mines of the Peruvian Amazon.
When Sara duPont first visited the Peruvian Amazon rainforest in the summer of 1999, it was a different place than it is today. Oceans of green, tranquil forest, met the eye at every turn. At dawn, her brain struggled to comprehend the onslaught of morning calls and duets of the nearly 600 species of birds resounding under the canopy. 
Today, the director of the new award-winning film,  Amazon Gold , reports that “roads have been built and people have arrived. It has become a new wild west, a place without law. People driven by poverty and the desire for a better life have come, exploiting the sacred ground.”
Read more at  http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0219-watsa-amazon-gold.html#S3zkoaM4r7yb8Xlp.99

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The Road to Cocha Cashu

Cocha Cashu is one of the most renowned rainforest research stations in the world. It is in Manu National Park, Peru, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, where the Andes give way to the Amazon lowlands. A lot of hugely influential work has been carried out at Cocha Cashu, and it is on my wish list of destinations to visit. This lovely video by primatologist and conservationist Mark Bowler gives an insight into the journey into the jungle from the mountain city of Cusco. Getting to the rainforest can be half the fun, and if this doesn’t make you want to run away to the jungle then nothing will.

Cusco and the Sacred Valley

The beautiful, buzzing city of Cusco greeted us as we woke from a ten-hour overnight bus journey crossing the altiplano from Arequipa. Steep colourful streets, pretty plazas, and huge Inca stonework forming the foundation of most of the buildings make Cusco a really fun place to wander around. We spent a couple of days exploring the city, visiting historical sites, indulging in delicious food, having Pisco sours on a roof terrace, getting train tickets to Machu Picchu, and poring over our newly exchanged guidebook to Brazil to try and work out what on earth we might be doing in a few weeks time.

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To get to Machu Picchu we headed first to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. We took a shared taxi minibus up and out of Cusco, over lush green hills – Andean peaks on the horizon – down a steep valley to Urubamba, and onwards to Ollantaytambo. As we arrived a huge procession of women, marking International Women’s Day, was making its way through the streets. Ollantaytambo is a small town with a grid of narrow cobbled pedestrian streets as they were in Incan times. Water gushes along channels built into the street design, part of an irrigation system that extends to include the ruins that stretch up one hillside to the edge of the town.

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After scrambling around the ruin terraces, and lunching in the main plaza, we made our way down to the station and boarded the posh touristy Machu Picchu ‘vistadome’ train to Aguas Calientes, the village in the valley beneath Machu Picchu. This is the only train route open to tourists, and for your money you get tea and snacks and windows in the train roof, the better to gawk at the steepening valley and snow-capped mountain peaks. The train follows the chocolate-brown rapids of the river along the valley.

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We arrived in Aguas Calientes in the pouring rain and darkening dusk, fought our way through a maze of a tourist souvenir market, and then up one of the main streets, to a hostel at the top.

We slept fitfully, anxious not to oversleep the 4.45am alarm, but excitement spurred us out of bed in record time to be at the bus station in time for the first bus up to the site. The bus zig-zagged up the hairpins to the main entrance as the day brightened, and wisps of cloud hung in the valley beneath us. We joined an excited throng of people waiting for the gates to open. I arrived at Machu Picchu at the end of the Inca Trail hike ten years ago, and was keen to recreate the first big view of the site from up above, so we hurried up to where the hikers come down, tearing ourselves away from the tantalising viewpoints that we passed on the way. But it was worth it, as we had the classic view of a virtually deserted Machu Picchu to ourselves. It was spectacular, even a second time, and we drank in the view, watching the light change and the sun finally reach us.

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We spent hours exploring, before heading to the station for the train back to Ollantaytambo. We spent one last day enjoying the Cusco life, before setting off on our last Peruvian journey, back over the altiplano, through the desert to the coast, and south to Chile…

Condors, canyons, and a hot spring in a thunderstorm

From Arequipa we set off on a mini-tour to the Colca Canyon. We drove out of the city with views of the volcano El Misti, through the dry and dusty landscape, higher and higher. We passed lakes and altiplano plains dotted with vicuñas, the dainty wild ancestor of the domesticated alpaca.

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We stopped to admire the view at the highest pass at 4900m, with far-reaching views towards snowy mountain peaks, somewhere hiding the source of the Amazon river. Then we zigzagged down towards a lush valley and the small town of Chivay, where we were to spend the night.

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Thunder clouds were building as we explored the town, and rumbles of thunder began to echo around the valley throughout the afternoon. We headed to the hot springs just outside the town as planned as the storm grew closer, and soaked ourselves in the blissfully warm waters in an outdoor pool, above the river, and surrounded on almost all sides by vast, steep rocky mountainsides. High above us a condor circled on a thundery thermal.

As flashes of lightning began to streak the sky, we debated the wisdom of lounging in an outside pool during a thunderstorm. As we stepped out of the pool to shelter in the open air changing rooms, the most incredible streak of pink lightning blazed across the sky, seemingly hanging there as it slowly fragmented into a dotted line and faded away. A couple of steps later and the sky had emptied itself of hail, quickly covering the ground in an inch of ice, with clouds of steam hiding the pool from view as the temperature plummeted. We hopped about shivering until the hail had lessened a little, and made a dash for the muggy and now crowded indoor pool.

The next morning we were up early for our journey to the Cruz del Condor, a lookout point above the Colca Canyon, and one of the best places to see the majestic Andean condors as they soar on thermals rising up from the depths of the canyon. The Colca Canyon is over 4100m deep, more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. The region has been cultivated for hundreds of years, with pre-Incan terracing still visible throughout the valley. I visited Cruz del Condor 10 years ago, when freak cold weather meant no condors were visible. Hoping for better luck this time, we were sad to learn that the stormy weather had resulted in landslides, likely making the road impassable. We set out to try our luck.

We very quickly hit a landslide, so took an alternative route, bouncing along a small road that took us along the other side of the valley, through lush fields and small villages, until finally we climbed back up to re-join our original route.

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Excited to be back on track, we could see small puffs of cloud, indicating the top of a thermal, and perfect condor conditions. We could just make out condors soaring in the distance, and thought that that might be as lucky as we were going to be. Once at the lookout we scanned with our binoculars, and finally saw a condor sitting on a rocky outcrop in the distance. As we watched, it began to soar, and come closer, and closer, along the canyon edge towards us. It soared in broad effortless spirals, and then it soared right over our heads. It was no more than a couple of metres away.

Peru (141)Peru (142)Peru (144) To see this enormous wild bird so close was thrilling. The white marking on its neck identified it as an adult male, and we continued to watch as he did an almost repeat performance. Three juveniles then did a more distant fly past. We were dragged back to the minibus reluctant to leave such a fantastic spectacle.

We paused a short way down the road for another lookout, this time to see the terracing rather than the birds. But the condors had other ideas, rising up from beneath us, and then four or five circling and soaring around us, it was impossible to keep track of them all. We couldn’t have hoped for a better condor encounter.

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1700km of Peru’s Pacific coast by bus, Arequipa, and a detour to the Cordillera Blanca

A desert runs along virtually the whole length of Peru’s 3000km Pacific coastline, the western limit of the country. The Andes run down the centre, and to the east the terrain drops away into the Amazon basin. Although we wished to travel from the northern highlands to the central mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, it was easier to return to the coast and to travel along the Pan-American highway, than to navigate remote roads and steep mountain passes in the rainy season. So, we retraced our steps from Jaen to Chiclayo, where after a short stopover we boarded our first 12 hour night bus south to Lima.

We chose Oltursa out of the myriad bus companies plying the major routes. At the top end of the scale, this is one of the most comfortable, and most safe and secure, of all the companies. The seats are large and recline a long way and there is plenty of legroom. A hot meal is served before you retire for the night, with your blanket and pillow provided. You can choose your seats when you buy tickets, and we unashamedly picked the front seats on the top deck whenever we could, to get amazing panoramic views.

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We woke about 6am as we trundled through the northern suburbs of Lima, the Peruvian capital. We had a few hours to kill before our next 8 hour bus to Huaraz, and took the opportunity to revisit some of my favourite Miraflores haunts where I had spent time before and after PhD field seasons. It was a luxury to wander the streets without thoughts of data collection, fieldwork, and permits for research and for exporting samples. We took advantage of the capital city’s abundant and varied food options (visiting the closest equivalent of an M&S food court south of the equator) and then we were back on the bus to climb away from the desert coast, inland and uphill to Huaraz at 3000m.

We arrived after dark and found a bright orange hostel. In the morning we were greeted by incredible views from the roof terrace, of glistening snow-covered peaks.

Huaraz breakfast terraceHuaraz view Cordillera Blanca

We set about exploring the town, and planning our excursions, but unfortunately they were not to be. Illness struck, and by the time I was well enough to explore a week later all we wanted to do was leave. So, the mountains we came to see were only ever enjoyed from our hostel, along with sunsets and thunderstorms, and we will have to return to explore some more.Huaraz sunset

After a few days recuperating in Lima, we continued south, with another long overnight journey along the coast. Travelling hour after hour and still having similar landscapes all around gives a real sense of scale. Peru is big. At last we turned inland again, this time towards Arequipa, a colonial city with a grand central plaza, a colourful convent, and a view of the volcano El Misti.

El Misti view from hostel in ArequipaArequipa is a beautiful city. We wandered the pretty streets, and spent hours in the peace and tranquility of the Santa Catalina convent, a self contained city painted vivid blues and oranges, where you can explore the rather fancy living quarters of the nuns who used to live there.

Arequipa’s main plaza is one of the grandest in Peru, with the cathedral making up the whole of one side, and the centre filled with palms and fountains. Santa Catalina ArequipaSanta Catalina ArequipaSanta Catalina ArequipaSanta Catalina ArequipaArequipaArequipa cathedral

Marvellous spatuletails and Gocta waterfall

Hummingbird diversity is highest in the Andean foothills. Species ranges are limited by elevation, or by the complex topography of the region, and many species are endemic to a small area. Hummingbirds had captivated us since our journey began in Ecuador, and we had been lucky to see many dazzling species by the time we reached Peru, but there was one species, found only in the Northern highlands near Chachapoyas and one of the rarest in the world, that we were especially keen to see. The marvellous spatuletail has the most extravagant plumage of all hummingbirds, with males having long curved tail feathers, each with a disc on the end. These are extremely cumbersome for such a small bird, and make performing an acrobatic courtship display exhausting. The display therefore serves to demonstrate male quality.

Our hostel (the excellent Chachapoyas Backpackers) put us in touch with a man named Santos Montenegro, who has been instrumental in establishing the Huembo reserve and interpretation centre near Pomacochas where a number of hummingbird species can be seen. We gave him a call, and arranged to visit. Not knowing quite what to expect, and crossing our fingers that we would be lucky enough to see this beautiful bird, we were astounded when within two minutes of sitting down near his homemade feeders a male appeared. We were the only visitors, and we spent the next few hours quietly watching the comings and goings of not only both male and female spatuletails but many other species too, including the little woodstar, and the chestnut-breasted coronet. We were thrilled with our encounter with this amazing species. Peru (36)

The female spatuletail has discs too, but on shorter tail feathers. These female discs are a bit of an evolutionary mystery, because if their evolution in males is solely a result of female mate choice (females preferring males that are of a higher quality, as demonstrated by more elaborate and cumbersome plumage, with these males having a higher number of offspring, which inherit the same elaborate plumage, and so on) then they would not be expected in females too… a conundrum waiting to be solved.

Unfortunately we were too late in the day to have a chance of seeing the display itself, but keen birders can arrange to visit Santos’ private reserve on the land behind his home in Pomacochas, just up the road from Huembo, where he has found a lek (display) site. It was here that the BBC filmed the courtship display in slow-motion and high definition for the Life series, which revealed exactly what is happening during the display for the first time. The video can be seen here (unfortunately I can’t embed it, but I urge you to click the link and take a look!).

From this biological wonder, we then headed for a geological one: Gocta waterfall, one of the highest in the world at 771m (3rd, 5th or 16th highest depending on who you ask; who knew that waterfall measuring was such a controversial field). Regardless of ranking, the waterfall is spectacular, and incredibly it was largely unknown to the outside world until 2006 when it was measured for the first time. The falls have two drops, the top often disappearing amongst the clouds, and at the bottom the water disappears into tropical forest that is home to toucans, monkeys and cock of the rock birds.

We splurged with a stay at Gocta Lodge, a small hotel that was by far the most luxurious place on the trip, and an amazing treat, especially after some of the (bud beg ridden) mattresses we had slept on in the previous few weeks. The hotel is in the tiny village of Cocachimba, at the end of a long twisting unpaved road. Driving round each bend took us deeper and deeper into the stunning valley. Peru (42)Peru (39)

Each room at the hotel has a stonking view of the falls, and from the hotel it was a hot, sweaty, but beautiful 6km walk to the base of waterfall. We skirted the hillside, passing from agricultural land into the tropical forest, hearing the strange grating growling noise made by the elusive cock of the rock, and seeing the falls appear and disappear between the trees. Peru (49)Peru (53)Peru (60)

Finally we reached the bottom, the top section no longer in view. Rather than the roar of crashing water on rocks that we were expecting, it was quiet, as the water turned to vapour long before it reached the ground, and a fine mist drenched the rocks, cliffs, and us, as we gazed up in awe. Peru (65)Peru (58)

The pool made our bare feet ache with cold within seconds, so a swim was out, but we sat eating our picnic of enormous avocado, hyponotised by the spray, until all other visitors had left and we had the falls to ourselves. At last we headed back, finding the rough path tiring, the heat oppressive, and spurred on by the thought of jumping in the pool at the hotel as soon as we got back. Peru (63)Peru (71)Peru (85)