This trip was the big one for me. The Amazon. As a nature lover, I was even more excited to go to the jungle than to see the incredible ruins at Machu Picchu. The forest is my element, I have always loved hiking through the woods and exploring unknown trails. In school as a kid, I enjoyed researching the Amazon rainforest and even wanted to be a conservation biologist at one point in time. So the opportunity to visit the Amazon rainforest was an absolute dream come true for me.
Given all this build-up, it was extremely important to me to find just the right place to experience the Amazon. First of all, every place I found was extremely expensive, and second of all, I wanted to make sure that my money was going to a place that actually did research and conservation. I also wanted to include a volunteering element into our trip. Fortunately, in my search, I found ARC Amazon and their LPAC Research Center. I emailed them with loads of questions and their answers sounded exactly like this was the place I was looking for.
The trip from Cusco started with an overnight bus to Puerto Maldonado. It wasn’t too bad as far as long bus journeys go, although sleeping on buses is next to impossible for me. We took my favorite bus line, El Cruz del Sur, which is extremely comfortable and makes me feel safe. Pedro from ARCAmazon picked us up from the bus station after our 7 a.m. arrival. Thankfully he took us to their office just outside of town where we were able to eat some breakfast and shower (the last warm shower we would enjoy for a week). At the office, I met David, the director and the person I had been communicating with for the past month. I immediately knew I had made the right choice for our week-long adventure just from being in the office and meeting David. He was warm and enthusiastic and knew how to talk to kids. The office was actually David’s house situated on a heavily wooded lot located along the Madre de Dios river bank. The living and working spaces were downstairs and the upstairs had a dormitory feel with 6 sets of bunk beds. Already it felt like we were in the ‘real’ jungle.
After refreshing ourselves with showers and food, we left half our baggage at the office and just took a few backpacks with us on the 3-hour journey into the jungle. Thankfully we didn’t have to carry our bulky load with us into the actual jungle. Pedro picked us up again in a 4wd pickup truck and drove us into town to pick up our guide for the week. Our guide’s name was Alberto and although he spoke Spanish and English, I insisted he only speak to us in Spanish. After heading down the Inter Oceanica, the highway that goes from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the border of Brazil and Bolivia, we turned onto a dirt logging road. The irony was not lost on me that we had to use a logging road to get to a conservation center.
After riding down the bumpy dirt road for an hour we took a pit stop to stretch our legs. Already I was in awe. The forest towered around us. It was so dense. It was so beautiful. It was so amazing. There were colorful butterflies everywhere. We must have hit more butterflies with the truck than there are in the butterfly exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (which was the only other place I have ever seen so many butterflies). Unfortunately, the grim reminder that we were on a logging road was everywhere. We passed quite a few heavily loaded trucks that were transporting many different kinds of logs. We saw more roads into the forest being cleared to allow the loggers in. Our guide explained to us which types of trees they were looking for. Ironwood or Shihuahuaco in Spanish was the most sought after tree in this region now that Mahogany and Spanish Cedar are regionally extinct. Ironwood is an extremely hard wood used for parquet flooring but we learned that it is used by over 100 types of animals for food and shelter. The loggers were also looking for mashonaste, locatawa, tornillo, and locuna (all of these are approximate spellings and probably regionally used words). We passed by several large areas of clear-cut land. The land had been cleared for cattle grazing, but curiously every now and then I would see a large tree that had been spared. I then noticed that it was always the same type of tree. Our guide explained to us that this was a castaña, the Brazil nut tree and that it is illegal in Peru to cut them down. Anyone caught cutting one down would receive jail time. I was so excited to be learning so much already, and we weren’t even there yet!
After our 3 hour drive, we arrived at the riverside village of Lucerna. Alberto explained that the town was founded by inhabitants that had been displaced after mining devasted their forest home. From Lucerna, we took a 20-minute boat ride to the LPAC base camp. The camp was exactly how I had imagined a research camp would be in the middle of the jungle, but it was even better. Seriously, this was like Disney World for me! After showing us to our sleeping platform with our mosquito net covered bunk beds, David explained to us that we would have a safety meeting. In the safety meeting, we learned about the numerous diseases and dangers that could befall us if we weren’t careful. Leishmaniasis, yellow fever, dengue, and malaria were some of the diseases discussed. We were not to wander away from camp without a guide since getting lost was a serious danger as well. We were to always wear boots when hiking since there exists an ant called the bullet ant whose sting is akin to being shot. These were just some of the warnings we received.
We have never been on a tour while traveling, so this whole experience was quite new to us. Other people carried our bags to our platform, there were 2 planned outings each day, we had our own private guide, and we were served 3 hot meals a day. (And I didn’t have to cook or clean!!) Joaquin and I relished our VIP status at the camp, the little boys think they’re VIP’s wherever they go. The base camp is a research center, so there are scientific investigations going on, research and conservation are being practiced, there are scientists, interns, and volunteers all working on various projects. The whole place was like a paradise to me. I wish I had realized when I was younger that places like this truly exist. It would have changed my entire life. I loved listening to the conversations going on around me. They were intelligent, passionate, and full of hope. Working with young people a couple of years ago caused me to lose faith in the future of humanity, but this trip has restored it. The young people working at LPAC were bright, impassioned and actually changing the world.
The boys and I got to participate in a number of activities, we went on hikes, caught caiman, visited a macaw clay lick, toured a cacao plantation, swam at a waterfall, watched the sunset from a lookout point, went on night hikes, participated in a turtle count as part of a research project, went geocaching, and planted mahogany and Spanish cedar trees. I even got to climb to the top of a tree sit on a branch up high overlooking the forest canopy. I can’t tell you what an amazing experience this was for me. We saw all kinds of birds; macaws, toucans, a harpy eagle, and so many more that I have forgotten their names. We got to see and touch caiman, various snakes, lizards, and frogs. We also saw three kinds of monkeys. We saw so many different kinds of insects; the Amazon is truly an entomologist’s dream. Many of the large mammals shied away from us since my boys are not the quietest of hikers, but we enjoyed watching footage of them from the researchers’ camera traps. Some of the cooler animals that passed through LPAC and were caught on video while we were there were: a harpy eagle, capybara, a puma, a sloth, and tapir.
The little boys often like to latch on to an older kid and follow him around forever. They used to do this at park day with our homeschool group. During this trip, they met an 18-year-old Dutch student that was studying herpetology. He was so sweet with them and really took them under his wing. He showed them all of the animals that he would catch on his night hikes and bring back to camp. He even helped Judah catch a lizard on our last night there. The boys absolutely adored him.
Not everything was perfect on our trip. Joaquin had a horrible 2 day headache and one night Jovani woke up with vomiting and diarrhea. The poor kid had a horrible night and I, of course, immediately thought back to all the diseases that were discussed in the safety talk. After breakfast, David brought me a bottle of electrolytes for him and asked me how many cacao fruits that he had eaten the day before (10!) and then he told me about its diuretic properties. Thankfully, that seemed to explain his sudden and short lived illness.
I knew there would be bugs, but oh my god were there bugs!! The mosquitos were the least of them. There were chiggers, noseeums, ticks, wasps, sandflies, and I’m sure many more that I can’t name. We left there completely covered in itchy bites despite my best intentions to keep us covered and sprayed. The ticks loved poor Judah and he learned that they go for the warmest of places. (There’s nothing like a boy’s screams of pain and horror during a serene night hike when he realizes there’s a tick on his balls!)
I am a bit delayed in posting this which is a shame since this trip was a dream come true for me. But it’s better late than never, right? Most of it was written shortly after we got back to the States, but life happened and I forgot to post it. The pictures are awful since my phone camera just doesn’t cut it in the jungle. Especially compared to all the professional photographers’ pictures that we got to see there. So many of the people there had done actual documentaries and been featured in National Geographic.
Jovani asked me just recently when we would go back to the Amazon. I almost replied that it was a once in a lifetime trip, but then I realized that it will be only if I make it so. So instead I simply replied ‘one of these days.’