Rainforest Diaries: Chapter 1- CREES
February 27, 2017
It is disorienting arriving to the Amazon at night. The thick dense air settles over you and it is hard to breathe momentarily as you adjust from the 9,000 feet difference in altitude. The humidity amplifies smells and sounds that are already more acute in this wet environment, the temperature seems have risen suddenly and your senses are overwhelmed and oversaturated. And if you are in the backseat of the van speeding down the rough dirt road with reggaetone, disco, and salsa music as the vehicle’s soundtrack and all you can see from your seat is the headlights illuminated the vegetation along the road, everything feels like a dream. All you can do is stare ahead at the road before you.
This 8+ hour trip from Cusco to the rainforest is always interesting and usually eventful. Fortunately, this particular ride only consists of two small landslides (we’ve spent the night between two before) and no flat tires (we’ve had five in one trip). But overall, for a rainy season ride, it's tolerable. Several vehicles go over the edge every year during this time. In all our jungle (mis)adventures, this is when I feel the most vulnerable. It is only until the switchbacks straighten out to flat ground does the knot in my stomach finally begin to unwind.
Because of the landslide delays our driver blows past the turnoff for our stop. I attempt my most commanding Spanish and (Peruvian manner) to get him to turn around and drop us off properly so we didn’t have to trek in the jungle at night with our bags to Atalaya.
When we finally arrive to our hostel, we had the warmest greeting by the owner Cecilo and his family. They serve us up what I like to call a three starch meal of pasta with potatoes and fried plantains. We fall asleep quickly despite not having the protection of a mosquito net, but it is so easy to fall asleep after a slightly stressful 12 hour day of travel, especially to the jungle’s familiar lullaby of cicadas, birds, and frogs.
February 28, 2017
We wake up to rain and quickly readied our bags when we realize the boat arrived early to meet us. Mist rises from the mountains and obscured the ridges. The Amazon seems its most magical during such mornings.
We arrive so quickly to CREES Manu Learning Centre that I feel the loss of not being able to ride the boat longer. We were given plates of scramble eggs and sweet bread and spent the morning learning about the station and their many projects.
At lunch we hear the cry of the resident sloth, who is often seen swaying in the trees near the river. Despite our best efforts, we cannot locate her. Hummingbirds dart territorially between purple flowered bushes. I am struck by how closely I could move towards them without them flushing. These jewel colored hummingbirds seemed threatened by no one except one other.
Ruth, the CREES coordinator, graciously offers to takes us on a long hike in the afternoon. It rains partway through the walk and we had difficulty crossing one stream which swells in the rainy season. Water spills over the edges of our boots and we have to empty them several times throughout the hike. I have forgotten the smell of rich, decomposing earth when it rains.
Ruth shows us the wetlands, the three different forest types on the reserve and lastly the clay lick, where herbivores get important nutrients like salt from the soil. The muddy little cove smells of sulfur as I set up one of my camera traps to capture any animal visitors over the next several days.
March 1, 2017
The rainy season makes quick work of the trails, transforming them into alternating stretches of mud and muddy puddles. T-2, perhaps the most widely used trail, may be me and my camera's downfall.
I get up before sunrise and hike to the mirador (overlook) that is just a few minutes from campus. Bethany, an intern, and her mom Jackie, a volunteer as already there monitoring macaws that are visiting the enormous clay lick wall just to the right of us out of sight.
Later in the morning Will and I spy tiny feisty saddle-back tamarins, bouncing back and forth between trees on one stretch of trail. We are looking for night monkeys though, the primary motivation for visiting this new place. We have been researching and filming them for a year and a half now and it is always exiting to find new groups. We pass some researchers on the trail who just spotted a known night monkey family in their nesting tree. When we go back, they are nowhere to be found. Such is luck with wildlife in the jungle. The rest of the hike yields no more sightings.
March 2, 2017
Yesterday was a long day and when I first wake up my whole body mildly aches. Like many mornings, my feet particularly hurt when I first step out of bed. The required footwear of the Amazon, thin rubber work boots, protect against mud, thorns, stream crossings and most importantly snakes.
Will and I set out on a new trail and manage to reach a glorious swimming hole. The water is a clear aquamarine and today the sun is out and it is finally hot. I float on my back in the deep pool and stare up at the sun filtering through the canopy of leaves.
On our last night in CREES we finally locate night monkeys. It is the same group that alluded us before, a family of four including a fuzzy baby. They are curious, tilting their heads as they stare at us below. We follow them as they begin their nightly outing through the forest, eating fruits, seeds and insects as they move. Will records their vocalizations as they call out to each other. Their strange otherworldly calls fill the humid night air.
March 3, 2017
We were on the trails at 5:30 this morning retrieving camera traps in the lightly falling rain. I was delighted to discover that amongst the three thousand camera trap photos of bats (triggering the motion sensor as they dart past), was the appearance of a two-toed sloth as well as tapirs, pacas, and birds at the clay lick.
On our hike back from retrieving the camera traps we spot a large group of capuchin and squirrel monkeys traveling together. We then eat a CREES special, homemade granola, out of tubberware at the mirador as macaws and other birds squawked by. It was lovely last morning at an extraordinary new place.
We miraculously make it to Pilcopata despite sweet worrying from the CREES staff that we would have to wait all day for a ride out of Atalaya. But moments after we got off the boat the hostel owners from the other night asked if we’d like a ride to town with them. The flammable gas truck was already running as we tossed our bags in the back and climbed up to stand behind the cab in a pile of sand, amid empty water containers and what we hoped was empty gas canisters.
Tiny saddle-back tamarins monkeys squeaked from a large tree as we flew past them. Views are incredible from an open truck. We felt like we were on a parade float as we rolled into Pilcopata, the town we’ve been based in the past two years. We even wave to señora Julia who we buy our chiflas (homemade plantain chips) from and singled we’d be come back to visit. We then checked in to Gallito de las Rocas, the hostel we have had enjoyed many a cold beer and coke from their outdoor patios.
It’s easy to become almost addicted to the spontaneity of this life, of the last minute rides, of the welcomed starchy meals when you are so hungry and tired, and unexpected extraordinary moments such of tiny tamarins in the trees. I’m already looking forward to out return to the jungle.