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…

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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.

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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

Canopy crusade: world’s highest network of camera traps keeps an eye on animals impacted by gas project

This was a super cool interview to do for mongabay.com, the original can be found here.

Oil, gas, timber, gold: the Amazon rainforest is rich in resources, and their exploitation is booming. As resource extraction increases, so does the development of access roads and pipelines. These carve their way through previously intact forest, thereby interrupting the myriad pathways of the species that live there. For species that depend on the rainforest canopy, this can be particularly problematic. Home ranges become fragmented and species movements across habitats are disrupted, affecting the behavior, health, and genetic diversity of these species and consequently impacting broader ecosystem processes within the forest as a whole.

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Tremaine Gregory climbing in a canopy bridge. Photo credit: Farah Carrasco/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Now, a pioneering conservation project in the Peruvian Amazon is collaborating with a gas company to develop an effective way of mitigating some of these impacts. Natural canopy bridges have been left standing across a gas pipeline, and are being monitored by the highest network of camera traps ever deployed.

“In this project we are using more cameras, for more time, higher in the canopy than ever before. I can guess why other projects have not been so ambitious: placing a camera 100 feet above the forest floor is not easy!” Gregory says.

Gregory and her team have already recorded a huge range of species using the bridges (such as primates, kinkajous and anteaters), including one mammal species never before seen in the region.

Mongabay.com caught up with Tremaine Gregory, a Research Scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who is leading the project.

INTERVIEW WITH TREMAINE GREGORY

Mongabay: What is your background and how did you become a tropical biologist?

Gregory: I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Spanish, a Master’s in Anthropology, and a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology. I recently told someone that I am a neotropical primate behavioral ecologist and conservation biologist, although in Peru I tend to refer to myself as a “mono-loga.” I came to this career through many twists and turns (Peace Corps volunteer, Spanish medical interpreter, wild trout biologist, veterinary assistant (of course), theatre technician), in search of a life that would be meaningful and fulfill both my dedication to understanding and conserving wildlife and as well as my love for adventure.

Mongabay: Your previous research investigated the little-known Guianan bearded saki monkey (Chiropotes sagulatus) in Suriname, can you tell us about what you found in that study? 

Gregory: For about six years I worked in Suriname studying both the bearded saki monkey and the white-faced saki monkey (Pithecia pithecia). My Master’s research contributed to our understanding of the evolution and niche divergence of these two species. During my dissertation research, I had the opportunity to spend 13 months in the field focusing on bearded saki ecology and social behavior. The bearded saki has been studied very little in continuous forest in the wild. This is largely due to the fact that these monkeys are exceedingly difficult to study—they travel through the huge, emergent trees at the top of the canopy, and they live in very large, fast moving groups. Trying to keep one eye on them while running across the forest floor can be a challenge. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose track of 40 monkeys. My research explored how the monkeys potentially use the forest’s complex topography strategically to reduce the costs of travel. I’ve also contributed to our understanding of bearded saki social behavior, particularly with regards to the relationships between males. Male bearded sakis seem to be highly affiliative with one another, showing signs of very tight bonds. There is also evidence of sexual mimicry and other unique characteristics. I look forward to returning to Suriname someday to delve back into many fascinating questions that remain about this group of monkeys.

Tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) with baby. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla) with baby. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Mongabay: What is the main aim of your current work in Peru?

Gregory: The goal of my current work in the Peruvian Amazon is to provide scientifically sound recommendations to industrial development companies that operate in tropical forests to reduce their impact. I know that industrial development in the Amazon Basin will continue, and as a conservationist, I hope to do as much as possible to limit its impact.

In the Lower Urubamba Region of Peru, I am working in an area where a natural gas pipeline is being constructed. In order to install the pipeline, a swath is cut through the forest. This swath can be over 16 meters (53 feet) wide, and it eliminates connectivity of the forest canopy overhead. The good news is that the pipe is buried and the swath is reforested, but during the five to ten years it takes for the canopy to reconnect, arboreal animals can become isolated on either side. Some animals may venture down to the ground to cross, but doing so can be dangerous, and our results so far suggest that they do so very rarely. In order to reduce the fragmentary effect caused by the pipeline swath, the company with which we are working agreed to leave connections above the pipeline to preserve some connectivity. We call the connections “natural canopy bridges” because they are made up of the branches of the largest trees that connect over the top of the swath. Before pipeline construction began, I walked back and forth along the proposed pipeline path with my team mapping out locations where it looked like the branches would connect after clearing. We then worked with the construction company to preserve the trees that connected. Leaving the trees can be challenging for operations, so this required careful coordination. In the end, there were 13 canopy bridges, and we are now testing whether animals use them.

Black-capped capuchin monkey (Sapajus apella). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Black-capped capuchin monkey (Sapajus apella). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Dwarf porcupine (species yet to be determined). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Dwarf porcupine (species yet to be determined). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Mongabay: How widespread are infrastructure development projects in the Amazon, such as the one you are working on?

Gregory: Most of the Western Amazon is zoned for hydrocarbon exploration (Finer et al. 2008; Finer and Orta-Martínez 2010), and in 2012, over half of the Peruvian Amazon was under concession (there are detailed maps available on the Perupetro website: http://www.perupetro.com.pe/). However, while these numbers may seem surprising, it is important to understand that within a concession block, a corporation will generally do some seismic research and drill a few exploratory wells, impacting a relatively small proportion of this area (see “Effective Area of Work” on Perupetro maps). In fact, pockets of natural gas or oil large enough to lead to the construction of a pipeline are very rare. Industry environmental standards have become strict, and many corporations use the off-shore model for their operations. This model simply means that corporations do not create access roads but instead treat operations camps as if they were “offshore,” and all access is by helicopter. All of this is to say that hydrocarbon exploration and extraction activity has the potential to impact a large part of the Amazon Basin, and my research explores ways to keep that impact to as much of a minimum as possible.

Mongabay: Why is it important to ensure the connectivity of populations?

Gregory: There are many reasons why it is important to maintain canopy connectivity and gene flow between populations of animals. First of all, when populations become isolated, the gene pool shrinks. With reduced genetic diversity, animals are more susceptible to disease and inbreeding depression. This, in turn, affects their survival and can even lead to localized extinctions. Another problem with fragmenting the area used by a community of animals is that they lose access to resources. Animals have complex mental maps that help them remember the location of feeding resources and shelter in their environment. They also are likely to have knowledge of neighboring individuals or groups of animals—information important for territorial and mating decisions. When an animal’s or group of animals’ home range is divided, they lose access to those resources. The area they use shifts, and they are forced into unknown territory. This can affect survival by influencing nutrition and increasing stress through augmented search time for resources and conflict with novel groups of animals. Effects on arboreal animals can then affect the forest as a whole. Many primates, for example, are seed dispersers. This means that they eat fruits, swallow the seeds, and after the seeds pass through their gut, they drop them in a different location. This is an extremely important process that contributes to the survival of the fruit tree species, and from a broad perspective to the function of the ecosystem as a whole.

Peruvian night monkeys (Aotus nigriceps) with baby. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Peruvian night monkeys (Aotus nigriceps) with baby. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Bald-faced saki (Pithecia irorrata). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Bald-faced saki (Pithecia irorrata). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Mongabay: Have camera traps been used in the forest canopy before? 

Gregory: In this project we are using more cameras, for more time, higher in the canopy than ever before. I can guess why other projects have not been so ambitious: placing a camera 100 feet above the forest floor is not easy! It took me and Farah Carrasco, my Peruvian collaborator, two weeks to place our 25 canopy cameras, and keeping them running for a year has been a major challenge. The conditions for the cameras are much harsher in the canopy than they are on the ground. More of our canopy cameras (we have another 55 cameras on the ground) have been invaded by ants, and they are exposed to more wind, constant sun and rain, and extremely tenacious animals like porcupines who enjoy gnawing on and opening them.

Mongabay: How do you install and monitor the camera traps?

Gregory: Installing camera traps in the high canopy is quite an adventure. When we decided we needed to monitor the canopy bridges with camera traps, we realized we needed to learn how to climb trees—tropical trees. Off we went to a tree climbing course in Panama. There we learned to use a seven-foot-tall sling shot to place a climbing line in a tree. But getting up into the tree was just the beginning. In some cases it took us upwards of five hours to figure out where the camera should go to capture the crossing point, transfer between branches to reach that point, then place and test the camera—all the while trying to remember not to drop anything. My dad and I designed a mounting system with two ball joints, allowing the camera to be angled in any direction. Cameras on the ground can just be bungeed to a tree trunk, but the canopy is a more complex, three dimensional world. I’m currently working on a manuscript that describes our methods in detail so that other researchers may benefit from what we’ve learned.

Mongabay: What is it like climbing such enormous trees?

Gregory: Climbing canopy trees is exhilarating, to say the least! As I bustle around juggling the cameras and ropes and things, I have to remind myself to stop, take in the view, and feel the breeze. I think the most fascinating part has been experiencing a world that I had only observed from below. After years of watching monkeys in the canopy through binoculars, it is an entirely different experience to be in the top of a tree. You realize that rather than a plane-like environment, like the forest floor, the canopy is a network of linear pathways, and a false move can be very costly.

Kinkajou, Potos flavus. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Kinkajou, Potos flavus. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Emperor tamarin (Saguinus imperator). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Emperor tamarin (Saguinus imperator). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Mongabay: Have you been surprised by any of the camera trap footage, and have there been any unexpected species using the bridges?

Gregory: So many of the camera trap photos are breath-taking. I have to discipline myself to avoid spending all day marveling at photos of monkeys, kinkajous, anteaters, opossums, and many other animals. In addition to mammal species, we’ve had many photos of birds and even reptiles. I usually take a quick look at the photos while up in the tree to make sure the camera is working properly, and my guides are accustomed to hearing me exclaim over the photos. In camp in the evening, everyone gathers round to see what goodies we’ve brought back on the memory cards. One of our many exciting finds has been an arboreal dwarf porcupine species that was not known to occur within 800km of the study area. Others include some spectacular photos of saki monkeys and anteaters with their babies. These really blew me away. If you haven’t been up in the tree to see the camera, it’s hard to imagine that the animals are actually up so high.

The canopy bridge research team this past October.  Photo credit: Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
The canopy bridge research team this past October. Photo credit: Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Mongabay: Do you know yet how successful the canopy bridges have been? Are they likely to be effective enough to mitigate all impacts of the pipeline on these arboreal species?

Gregory: Interestingly, arboreal animals were already using the bridges immediately after they were exposed by the construction activities. I thought it would take them some time to locate the crossing branches, but they had no trouble finding them. The bridges have been used by over 20 species of arboreal mammals, and we recorded over 1,000 crossing events in the first six months. Because the canopy was continuous before construction, we could not monitor all possible crossing branches in order to make before and after comparisons. The 13 bridges are spread over a five-kilometer (three-mile) area, so potential crossing options have been dramatically reduced, likely leading to fewer crossings, overall. I would therefore not say that the bridges have mitigated ALL impacts, per se. Our monitoring has also suggested that groups of primates may migrate away from the area during construction. However, we’ve also had very few recordings of crossings by arboreal animals on the ground, suggesting that the bridges have been a huge success, allowing animals to continue to access feeding resources, shelter, and social partners on either side of the swath. We plan to recommend that all pipeline projects in tropical rainforest habitats include canopy bridges.

Mongabay: What about in situations where the largest trees have already been felled – could there be a role for artificial bridges to help mitigate the impact of development projects that have already been completed?

Gregory: That’s a good question and one that many people have asked me. In future research, I hope to address that question. I imagine that animals would be inclined to use artificial bridges, particularly over roads, where there can be continuous activity. There are projects all over the world that are using different types of artificial bridges or crossing structures. One major difference, however, between natural bridges and artificial bridges is that animals must habituate to the artificial bridges. While we observed animals using the natural bridges within days after they were exposed, I understand that it can take many months for animals to feel safe enough to use artificial bridges. In this time, they lose access to resources on the other side. With proper planning, natural bridges should also be cheaper and require less maintenance. But certainly, where there are no bridges, artificial bridges are a good solution.

Mongabay: Being able to monitor species before, during and after the pipeline construction must be crucial to understanding the effectiveness of the bridges – was it difficult to initiate collaboration with the company building the pipeline? 

Gregory: While this is my first collaboration with a large corporation, the Center in which I work (the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability) has over a decade of experience around the world, with multiple corporations. We therefore have a good reputation both in the world of conservation and with industry. And while the goals of conservation and industry can be very different, I think there is a surprising amount of common ground to be found. Particularly in recent years, corporations have begun to pay more and more attention to conservation issues. While this project has been very challenging, I think it is a great example of the positive conservation outcomes that can be achieved through partnerships.

Mongabay: What are your future research plans? 

Gregory: With over one million camera trap photos from a year of data collection on this project, at the moment, I am focused on data analysis and publication. I also look forward to providing recommendations to corporations and the Peruvian government on the mitigation benefits of canopy bridges. After that, I look forward to exploring new ways to help corporations reduce their impacts. While I miss working in a national park, as I did as a graduate student, and find working in concession blocks with corporations to be much more challenging, I know that as a conservation biologist this line of research is where I can be most effective. But, if I can sneak in a trip to Suriname to catch sight of a bearded saki, I’m unlikely to pass it up!

Dwarf porcupine (species yet to be determined). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Dwarf porcupine (species yet to be determined). Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Tremaine Gregory and Farah Carrasco.  Photo credit: Joe Maher/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Tremaine Gregory and Farah Carrasco. Photo credit: Joe Maher/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Citations:

  • Finer M, Jenkins CN, Pimm SL, Keane B, Ross C. 2008. Oil and gas projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to wilderness, biodiversity, and indigenous peoples. PLoS ONE 3(8).
  • Finer M, Orta-Martínez M. 2010. A second hydrocarbon boom threatens the Peruvian Amazon: Trends, projections, and policy implications. Environmental Research Letters 5:1-10.

 

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)

Into the northern highlands of Peru

We entered Peru as the light faded completely, so our first impressions were vignettes illuminated by pools of light from bare bulbs, of late evening scenes, families, groups and individuals, sitting outside small single storey homes and shops, in hammocks, doing chores, children playing. Crossing the border from Ecuador brought us our first encounters with mototaxis too, the typical transport of small-town Peru, motorbikes with bench seats at the back under an awning. We passed through a fruit growing region with piles of fruits, and boxes stacked high, for sale or for transport to larger markets. At last we pulled into Piura, and toasted our arrival in Peru with the bubblegum flavoured, flourescent yellow coloured Inca Kola, before collapsing into the worst hostel of the trip. We woke covered with a constellation of bedbug bites in their telltale clusters, and set off for the mountains once again.

Our next destination was Chachapoyas in the northern highlands, but all direct buses ran at night, something we had decided not to do on mountain roads in the rainy season. Instead, we bussed first to Chiclayo, paused for lunch in the sweltering main plaza, and then continued to Jaen where we spent the night. Chachapoyas was now in our sights, and the next morning we took a mototaxi and then two combis (shared taxis or minibuses) to hop between Jaen, Bagua Grande, Pedro Ruiz and finally Chachapoyas. It was a fun journey, first crossing the Maranon river, the young Amazon, high up in the mountains but wide even here. Then along a palm tree-lined road in a lush broad valley of vivid green rice fields, with scrubby red-earth hillsides rising up, and hazy blue mountains beyond. We turned south, away from the Maranon which was continuing towards Iquitos, and now the road followed a raging chocolate brown river, at the bottom of a steep ravine, with the road virtually carved out of the rock. Eventually we hairpinned our way up and out of the valley and arrived in the peaceful colonial town of Chachapoyas. The buildings were painted white, and the large plaza was lined with dark wooden balconies. Peru

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From Chachapoyas we headed to Huancas canyon close by, and then ventured to Kuelap, an archeological site to rival Machu Picchu in importance and setting. We descended to cross the river and then climbed up the other side, with staggering views of vast green mountains and valleys in all directions, the unpaved track clinging to the side of the mountain. At last we arrived at Kuelap, on the highest peak around. Peru (9b)

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A vast wall concealed the ruins inside, but instead of there being buildings on ground level on the other side, the wall was actually the edge of solid platform of stone. We enjoyed exploring the overgrown site as it felt like it had only recently been discovered. There were three levels built on top of each other, the most recent bearing the rectangular buildings of the Inca in contrast to the Chachapoyan circular buildings that were built first. The function of the site is still not fully understood – not quite a fortress or a city, but with homes still complete with pestle and mortar rocks, and guinea pig tunnels in the kitchen. The steep paths leading up into the compex have grooves worn into them from llama hooves, there were sacred carvings on the walls, and a temple was aligned with the sun at the solstice. A very mysterious place.   Peru (17)Peru (27)Peru (25)Peru (23)

The Interoceanic Highway: coast to coast through a biodiversity hotspot

There is now a road that links the Pacific with the Atlantic across South America. The Interoceanic Highway starts on the coast of Peru, goes up and over the Andes, and then down into the Amazon. It links the Peruvian coast with river ports on Amazon tributaries, as well as connecting to the road network that extends across Brazil. It travels through one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

A road along this route has existed for many years, but it is only recently that it has been widened and paved, making it fit for freight trucks, and easier and faster for all vehicles to travel along it. When I first visited Los Amigos Biological Station in 2008, the first section of the journey, from Puerto Maldonado to the small river town of Laberinto (where we scrambled into a boat for the journey up the Madre de Dios river to the research station), was an exhilarating drive along mostly unpaved road. We bounced along, stones flying up around us, the fractured windscreen of the taxi evidence of many previous journeys along this route. We would leave a plume of dust rising up behind us. At times we would navigate around workers taming this stretch of the highway. It was a fairly slow and uncomfortable journey.

By the next year, this journey was quick and smooth, fresh tarmac all the way. In Puerto Maldonado itself, the first supports of a vast red steel bridge were growing up on the banks of the Madre de Dios. Today this 720m bridge, and all sections of the highway, are complete.

Photo from http://www.waagner-biro.com © 2012 Waagner-Biro AG

A road such as this is a boon for trade. But the Interoceanic highway has been a highly controversial development. Roads are inevitably linked with migration to previously inaccessible areas, bringing loggers, miners, farmers, and growing human populations. Where roads lead, deforestation follows.

As the impact of roads is now so well known, with lessons learned elsewhere in the Amazon, the Amazon Conservation Association has been working for some years to establish a corridor of protected areas to help mitigate the road’s impact. By linking Manu National Park, Peru, in the north with Madidi National Park in Bolivia in the south, via a number of other protected areas including the Los Amigos Conservation Concession, this corridor will be invaluable in ensuring the conservation of biodiversity in this region.

This short film (it is only 8 minutes long) gives a glimpse of life in Puerto Maldonado and along the Interoceanic highway, and some of the consequences of its development.

You can support the conservation of this region by donating to the Amazon Conservation Association or Amazon Aid Foundation.