Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Macaw Clay Lick of the Tombopato Reserve, Peruvian Amazon

the riverbank of the Tombopato
the riverbank of the Tombopato
We wake at 4 AM, using torches to navigate our way to the riverbank and onto the boat, immediately embarking on our journey upstream to the heart of the Tombopato Reserve and its highlight, the macaw claylick.
It's pitch dark, save the starry Amazonian sky. Our guide scans the banks with a high beam of light, in hopes of catching the red glow reflected back by the animals of the jungle. A pair of capybaras are spotted, though it's too dark to appreciate their form as they quickly hide, submerging themselves beneath the murky water.

video: the Tombopato River, just after sunrise

The sun rises sometime after 5 AM, soon after we veer away down a maze of smaller tributaries before we finally dock on a muddy bank. I step out of the boat, my boots sinking deep into what's nearly quicksand. It takes great effort to haul myself up the bank.
video: this is the riverbank I speak of above, and walk to the clay lick 
through the drenched pathways of the jungle

macaws arriving @ Tombopato macaw claylick
The Tombopato Reserve macaw clay-lick (on the right) from afar as the birds arrive
blue headed parrot
blue headed parrot- can you spot it with
what is otherwise perfect camoflauge

A five minute walk through the water laden ground, and we emerge at the observation area of the clay-lick. The dawn air is thick with mist and voracious mosquitoes which my arms windmill away, swatting a few in the process. 
So as not to disturb the shy birds, the observation point is situated in excess of 100 meters from the nutrient rich cliff, separated by a small river and swampy ground on the other side. It doesn't exactly lend itself to good viewing via the naked eye, so in turn we set up a telescope where we can get an eagle eye's view of the show.

Right on schedule at 6 AM the first wave of birds rolls through, in this case green and blue headed parrots with a few of the larger macaws intermixed.
It's rather fascinating to watch bird behavior mirror that of humans. When the parrots first arrive, they sit in the trees above the clay-lick, surveying, cautious, wary of predators, specifically their eternal nemesis, the Harpy Eagle. ...
Then one brave bird ventures down and begins to pick at the clay. Thirty seconds later another one joins, and following the psychological principle of "social proof" (defined by the belief that what everyone else is doing must be right/ safe) the rest of the birds follow suit and join.
green parrots + scarlett macaws @ Tombopato macaw claylick
green parrots + a few macaws- first feeders

The birds continue to feed until they've either had their fill, or are frightened away by a predator. When it's the latter, they fly away in unison, squawking the entire flight.
Some of you might ask, and rightfully so, I thought parrots ate fruit? Well yes, they do, and the clay lick offers the birds minerals which detoxify their body. (holistic healers rejoice)
Waves of parrots descend upon the clay-lick, cautiously nibbling, then leaving, making way for a new groups of feeders.
While mixed, most waves contain a predominant number of birds from a single species, today ranging from the early feeders- blue headed and green parrots, which give way to red and green macaws, then blue and gold, then finally followed by the scarlet macaws who close out the diner.
The birds nip and dig into the nutrient rich cliff until 10 AM. We're there for a full stimulating and awe inspiring four hours.
This was by far the highlight of the time I spent in the Amazon Jungle, and not to be missed. Absolutely fascinating and intoxicating.

by far the best video I took. It starts with a look at the claylick from afar, then jumps to the view of the feeding macaws through the telescopic lens, then at around the 1:35 mark, the birds get scared and fly away in unison, squawking the whole time.  

 birds feeding on the clay-lick at 4x zoom
birds feeding on the clay-lick at 4x zoom- you can see other in the trees (from well over 100 meters away)
macaws @ Tombopato macaw claylick
blue + gold with scarlett macaws

video: watch macaws gingerly descend on clay-lick
blue + gold macaw with scarlett macaws in trees
blue + gold macaw with scarlett macaws in trees
blue + gold, scarlett macaws @ Tombopato macaw claylick
feeding time

scarlett macaws @ Tombopato macaw claylick
scarlet macaws @ Tombopato clay-lick
macaws @ clay-lick Tombopato Reserve
macaws @ clay-lick Tombopato Reserve
macaws @ clay-lick Tombopato Reserve
such beautiful birds (red + green intermixed with scarlet macaws
 macaws @ clay-lick Tombopato Reserve, Perumacaws @ clay-lick Tombopato Reservefeeding macaws @ clay-lick Tombopato Reserve

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Penetrating the Amazon Jungle- exploring the Rainforest

giant tree- Tombopato Reserve, Peru

First off, let me acknowledge that there are safer, far more comfortable places to spend a few days than the Peruvian Amazon Jungle.
During the early afternoon the temperature and humidity makes walking around an uninvited chore. If you choose to seek refuge in the shade of the tall trees, there are tons of friendly little vampiric mosquitoes wishing to give you gentle hug, take a blood sample, and, if you're really lucky, give you the gift of malaria (or dengue, yellow fever, or uta, depending of where the reels of the slot machine land.)
Hiking around is always a treacherous proposition, with dangers ranging from stinging plants and insects such as wasps and large "bullet ants" (so named because if they bite it feels as though you've been struck by gunfire,) to well camouflaged poisonous snakes and spiders who will kill you with a single bite. The serpents are first of two reasons you must wear high rubber boots in the forest; the other being the soft, nearly quicksand like mud you'll invariably have to muck your way through.
video: slopping through the Amazon mud

The forest can be thick, with cobwebs, vines, prickly thorns, and branches close to the ground making a machete, or "lightsaber of the jungle" as I call it, an absolute necessity.
video: the machete- lightsaber of the rainforest in action

Though the forest is thick, and the shade near constant, once in awhile there is a break in the forest where one of the larger trees has fallen. It's a little like a newly deceased drug lord, it becomes a race for seedlings/ junior associates to take over the spot in the canopy, the winner expressing his dominance by drowning out its photosynthetic competitors with darkness.
video: the race for the sun- canopy of the Amazon

giant tree- Tombopato Reserve, Peru
the huge base of a 200 year old Amazonian tree

The jungle contains an ecosystem of great beauty that's been in tact for millennia. Billions of oxygen producing, life enhancing trees, some giant and ancient which shelter everything from Tarzan like vines to nests for thousands of species of birds who spread seeds from the fruit produced. There are plant species with still unknown cures for disease, tribes of Indians who've never made contact with the West, anti-biotic producing leaf cutter ants, and Howler Monkeys which can be heard from two kilometers away.
Being here isn't easy, but I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity and the adventure.
devil lips flower - Tombopato Reserve, Peru
devil lips flower

vine swinging - Tombopato Reserve, Peru
video: climbing a thick vine (photo of struggle on right)

"erotic tower" of the rainforest
"erotic tower" of the rainforest

the forest on the banks of the Tombopato River
the forest on the banks of the Tombopato River

Wildlife of the Peruvian Amazon- Jaguars + Capybaras

Okay, if you meet anyone who's going to one of the rare places left in the world still barely touched by the hand of man, where nature still operates as it has for millennia, we're not only going there for the flora and vistas, we want to catch sight of some of the world's rare animals, and #1 on my list was the elusive and beautiful jaguar. 
I constantly bugged my guide about the possibility. "Where's the jaguar," I would ask, "What do you think the odds are that I'll see the big cat?" ... "when's the last time you saw one?" Apparently only four days earlier a group of Chilean girls were kayaking down the river when a jaguar jumped into the water, swam, caught the world's largest rodent called a capybara, which can grow upwards of 150 pounds (now that's a big rat!) and pulled it back onto land and into the jungle. Wish I was here for that!
capybara on the riverbank
capybara on the riverbank

 We spot the cat's favorite prey on the riverbank. It doesn't seem especially fearful of us, chewing on the blades of grass as I film him from the boat, before he decides to disappear under the cover of water.
spotting a capybara in the morning on the riverbank

One afternoon as I rested for siesta in the hammock, my guide excitedly wakes me from my nap. "A jaguar is nearby," he yells, I'm already grabbing my camera and putting on my boots, sprinting up towards the riverbank. "We could hear him roaring moments ago."
We jump in the boat and head out crossing the river from where the noise emanated. We circle back and forth hoping to catch sight of the large cat, whose nearby presence is verified by the unusual amount of squawking from the birds and forest animals. Unfortunately, the cat doesn't make an appearance outside the trees, and my suggestion of entering the forest is shot down by my guide as incredibly unlikely to have a desired outcome. 
monkey - Tombopato Reserve, Peru
the best photo of a monkey I have from the jungle (center)
As opposed to jungles of say Laos, where most animals have been hunted out of existence, there is a lot of life in the Amazon Rainforest,  but when you're hiking amongst the trees, with camouflage and an incentive not to be seen, animals are quite hard to spot. I saw three groups of monkeys, but the moment they caught wind of our presence they vanished into the forest like ghosts.
toucan- Tombopato Reserve, Peru
if you look closely you'll see a toucan in the upper left part of the tree
wildlife photography ain't easy
parrot - Tombopato Reserve, Peru
Polly the Parrot is easy to make friends with
Of course, the Amazon isn't always the safest place. In addition to poisonous snakes and anacondas which I am happy we didn't encounter, we did run into a few spiders whose bite results in death.
deadly spiders of the Amazon

The river of course has tons of life, from fish, to otters, turtles, and caiman. You just have to keep your eyes open.
releasing the caiman back into the Tombopato River

dead grasshopper- Tombopato Reserve, Peru
a large grasshopper (se morto)
But the highlight of the area is the Macaw Clay-lick, an hour and a half away by boat, where the macaws feed on the nutrients in the clay each morning to detoxify their body. 
You can take a look at the clay lick from afar below and (hopefully) hear the Howler Monkeys sounding off. 

howler monkeys sounding off at the macaw clay lick (turn up your volume)
macaws feeding at clay lick
photo I took with my camera via a telescopic lens
of the macaws feeding

Alas, my time in the jungle ended without spotting the elusive jaguar. The odds of course were against me, but the clay-lick was so awesome, it made up for it. Almost, it almost made up for it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Caiman Hunt in the Pitch Dark- Tombopato River, Peru

white caiman of the Amazon Rainforest
white caiman of the Amazon Rainforest
You might think that waiting until nighttime is an odd time to go on a hunt in the Amazon Rainforest. "You're going to trip, fall in a ditch, and get eaten by an anaconda." Granted, this is a real possibility (not really) but counterintuitive as it might sound, it's actually easier to spot animals in the pitch dark.
Over millennia, evolution has created camouflage to help animals blend into the forest, helping hide both predator and prey, but without the chance to adapt to manmade technology, high powered lights shining at night will reflect back from the eyes of animals in a bright red glow, enabling us to pinpoint the creature's location which otherwise would have remained hidden.
searching for caiman of the Amazon Rainforest
approaching the riverbank + caiman in the night
We head out in a riverboat, insects flying all around us, attracted by the strong light hooked up to an old car battery being shone across the river, aimed at the shallow water and river banks. 
Tonight we are fortunate, an eerie red light bounces back in our direction. Our vessel glides towards the glow, our guide Milton crawls out onto the deck, laying horizontally, extending his arms down towards the river. 
handling white caiman of the Amazon Rainforest
pulling the caiman from the water (action shot)
With one fell swoop Milton grabs the caiman around the neck and tail. He pulls it up and into the boat, the Chinese tourists jumping backwards, frightened; me, I'm much more amazed at our guide's skill and dexterity.
He holds the caiman up for us, educating us about the animal, guessing it's likely age, then offering us the chance to handle it.
handling for caiman of the Amazon Rainforest
the light bounces back from the eyes with a red glow

video: watch the red eyes glowing in the light after our guide catches the first caiman

video: handling the caiman

The poor animal, despite being 8-10 years of age, clears its throat, instinctually calling for Mom. He's handed to me, he seems ... almost docile. As I adjust my grip the caiman attempts to thrash his way free. Once I've regained control, the animal once again seems to calm, perhaps awaiting his next opportunity for escape. I hold the animal tightly, but not so much to hurt him. 
Having perhaps selfishly handled the animal for long enough, we release him back into the water, hopefully not worse for the wear, and head back towards base, using our high beam to scan for larger animals such as jaguar or capybara, but only encountering birds (mostly nightjars) and a mother caiman with ten babies on the riverbank. We don't mess with the hatchlings, momma's present. Never piss off a mom. 

video: releasing the caiman back into the river

handling white caiman of the Amazon Rainforest

First Entry to the Amazon Jungle - Up Close + Personal

Peruvian Amazon rainforest viewed from avianca plane
the Peruvian Amazon rainforest viewed from above 

It's been a lifelong dream to visit the Amazon Rainforest, and as I fly above, I begin to have a vague understanding of just how massive an area the "lungs of the earth" covers; billions upon billions of trees, 2.142 million square miles (greater in size than the area of India + Saudi Arabia combined) 2.5 million insect species (is it wrong to wish there were fewer?) tens of thousands of plants, and more than 2,000 species of birds and mammals. 
We get into the riverboat from the tiny port of Philadelphia (many small Peruvian encampments seem to be named after large American cities) and head upstream on the Tombopato River.
riverbank Tombopato
The riverbank of the Tombapata River in the Peruvian Amazon
the banks of the Tombopato river as we travel upstream

stunningly beautiful tree on the Tombopato River
beautiful tree of the rainforest
Lush green foliage rises in all directions, much of it in the form of beautiful, tall trees. I scan the riverbanks for wildlife, no luck save for the scourge of the jungle, an illegal mining operation releasing highly toxic mercury into the river and ecosystem as they dredge for gold.
video: illegal gold mining operation

river fish of the Tombopato river
four different species of fish caught and eaten- Piranha on left
(on right is type of catfish)
I arrive at the lodge where my guide has just helped a couple catch some river-fish (hopefully who haven't ingested mercury.) The haul includes a piranha for those of you who are considering going for a quick dip in the river's muddy waters.
Video: Jungle Guide eats eyes of Piranha @Tombapata Lodge in the Peruvian Amazon 

Polly the Parrot Head @ Tombapata Lodge in the Peruvian Amazon (cute)

We finish eating lunch, and retire for siesta. The heat and humidity here in the middle of the day makes moving around an almost unbearable chore. There is a "shower" in my open air room, essentially a pipe connected to the river. For all of two seconds the fixtures are an off-white color; the moment I open the faucet a deluge of thick river water drops on me like an anvil, the tub instantly caked in dirt and mud. I emerge from my shower dirtier than when I entered. I just laugh as I wipe the added mud from my body. Just excited to be here.
machete in Amazon
me and my machete- the lightsaber of the Amazon
macaw clay lick
took this photo via telescopic lens at the macaw claylick

Friday, March 11, 2016

Fear What? Getting to the Amazon Basin + Puerto Maldonado

On the train back from Machu Picchu, I'm speaking with a tour guide who asks me where else I want to visit in Peru. "The Amazon," I respond vigorously.
He looks at me, and having had developed rapport with me previously asks, "Are you crazy?"
I'm a little taken aback, but he is a Peruvian Tour Guide. "What don't I know?" I inquire.
"It's dangerous, yeah the snakes are dangerous, but the mosquitoes are worse."
"I know, malaria right."
"Yeah, of course malaria. Get bit, you might be dead three days later."
"Three days?"
"It's serious and they swarm," he informs me, "But it's not just malaria; yellow fever, dengue, uta. ..."
"What is uta?"
viewing the Amazon basin over the wing of my plane

"You don't know?" His face gets a look of disgust as he thinks about it. "The mosquito bites you and lays a larvae in your skin. Then the larvae eats it's way out. There are Indians with big holes in their face which had to be removed when the larvae ate through."
I'm suddenly reconsidering my trip to the jungle. He seems like a nice guy, I don't think he's being a dick, but now I'm concerned. Uta just doesn't sound all that much fun.
Maybe I'll just kick it in the Sacred Valley and do some work on my computer. Yeah, that's what I'll do ...
Wait a second, when will I ever be back in Peru? Going to the Amazon jungle has been a life-long
dream of mine. Besides, people go there, if uta was so common I'd have heard of it. Fuck it, I'll just bathe in repellent, and wear long sleeves sweatpants the entire time I'm in the jungle. Hard for the little buggers to bite through that. I'm going.
a small monument of jaguars near the center of Puerto Maldonado

Book a flight to Puerto Maldonado, a small city with a population of 75,000 which lies in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon basin. My flight arrives three hours late (this is Peru after all.)
I take a rickshaw into town, all the tour agencies offering Amazon excursions are clustered together by the main plaza. I walk into a few of them, before meeting the owner of Tambopato Tours who, speaking surprisingly excellent English, sells me a journey to the macaw clay-lick and a three night adventure in the jungle.

a view of the Madre de Dios river from the bridge in Puerto Maldonado- the river is the WIDEST I have ever seen
for contrast- those trees are all Tall

I leave the next morning in a 4x4 truck, we move down a paved road through agricultural fields for an hour before veering off onto a muddy, dirt road. Slipping and sliding, we slowly make our way through the jungle, until we get stuck, our tires screeching, unable to make our way through the mud. We exit the car, grab a heavy pick-axe and some wooden planks, and take several minutes digging our way out.
                                                digging our way out of the mud on an Amazon road

Finally free, we continue down the road, slowly of course, til we arrive at the Tombopato River, where I board a boat to taking me upstream to the reserve and lodge. I keep my eyes peeled on the riverbanks. hoping to spot the elusive jaguar. No luck there, but I am achieving my lifelong dream of setting foot into the Amazon jungle, mosquitoes and their stupid uta be damned. Never allow unjustified fears to derail your journey!

the tiny village of Philadelphia after a two hour ride to the Tombopata river

Monday, March 7, 2016

The World at 16,000 Feet in the Andes Mountains and Wild Vicunas

the upper left of the sign- "4,910 meters"
Though I've acclimated to slightly lower elevations of the Andes, at 4,910 meters it only takes a few steps before my lungs feel like they're inhaling fire. My oxygen deprived brain wonders if I'm transforming into a dragon.

Some of my American friends are excitedly asking how many feet that translates to, while others are merely wondering what a "meter" is.
I dialed-up the Peruvian Scientific Society and asked if there's a way to convert 4,910 meters into feet, and the ominous reply came back, "There is, but it kill you."  ... Peru is not the safest country.
Someone later called me back and told me it had been calculated to be 16,109 feet ... Now, let's all hold a moment of silence.

a view of the Andes mountains at 16,000 + feet
the peaks in the distance are volcanos exceeding 20,000 feet

llama herd at 16,000 feet
Soon after we come across a herd of llamas, the only domesticated/ farmed animal in the Americas of yesteryear. I walk amongst them, they seem un-disturbed, used to people.

video: llamas and vicunas at 16,000 feet

A short while later we spot a group of four wild vicuna, ancestor of the llama. A jacket made of vicuna wool costs in excess of $20,000, explaining why the animal was at one point nearly hunted to extinction. We're quite lucky to see them.
Today a program has been instituted where highland villages capture wild vicunas and sheer those whose wool has grown for two years (past a certain designated length.) Once shorn, the animal is released back into the wild, which has enabled the vicuna population to rebound. 

All that being said, being at these these wind swept, fire inhaling elevations was quite an experience, but not one I'm sad ended relatively quickly. It's unlikely I'll be ascending Mt. Everest.  
wild vicuna

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Drama in Malata - Losing our Guide (Colca Canyon, Peru)

the Colca Canyon in the early AM
the Colca Canyon in the early AM
Having descended the steep canyon trail, we hike back up the other side in the afternoon, the sound of beating drums and trumpets echoing through the Colca growing louder as we approach the tiny town of Malata.
a quick tour of the tiny canyon town of Malata
band of Malata plays- fiesta in the tiny town of Malata- Colca Canyon
the band plays as the villagers revel
It's their annual Fiesta, and both men and women are dressed in traditional clothing, dancing, as the local band of this tiny, tiny town play their hearts out. Alcohol is flowing freely and somehow our guide is passing out tall bottles of beer to all the trekkers in his group; I'm pretty sure they weren't included in the tour price.
He seems bewildered when I politely refuse, offering me again; I stand firm.
fiesta time in the Colca Canyon

fiesta in the tiny town of Malata- Colca Canyon
traditional dress
I sit on the church steps, enjoying the show. Twenty minutes later, having downed at least a couple bottles of his own, my guide approaches me; I try wave him off, but he insists.
"I don't drink," I state firmly. He shrugs and disappears.
After watching the festivities for a little longer, I'm asked by an elderly village woman to dance with her, I oblige, no alcohol needed.
my own brand of dancing with a local woman who asked me to join her

Finishing my dance, I walk away to edge of the festivities, conversing with the cool German guys in our group. A small local man approaches and politely suggests it might be time for us to go. I'm bewildered, this is fiesta time! My Spanish is pretty decent so there was no misunderstanding. I guess we should wait for our guide before leaving.
Oh, here he is. He beelines towards me in a sloppy drunk manner, getting up in my grill, I back-up a step, he advances accordingly, once again offering me beer.
"No, thank you."
"Why don't you drink?"
"I just don't often. No need."
"How can life be fun without drinking?" he tries to force a cup into my hand. "Drink."
"Thank you, no." I turn away, trying to end the conversation. Like a fighter seeking an opening he circles around.
"You're insulting. Everyone's wondering why you're not drinking. This is their fiesta, you're insulting them." He gestures to a villager who seems to nod affirmatively. Now I'm confused and tired of all this and want it to stop. I take the small plastic cup of beer poured, clink it with that of the villager, and take the smallest sip I can.
The sub-text behind my next word to my guide, "Bueno," is clear in my tone and body language- 'Leave me alone.'
Guide staggers away. I toss the remnants of the cup in the nearest bin. Once again, the first small villager approaches me, letting me know it's time for me and my German friends to go.
"Explain why?" I ask, politely as I can.
"Because your guide is really drunk, and making a mess everywhere."
"Yeah," I sigh, "Understood. As soon as he returns, we'll all leave."
fiesta in the tiny town of Malata- Colca CanyonI translate the conversation to my German friends. We wait ten minutes, looking around for our drunk and rude guide. It's actually going to be dark soon, and the descent back into the gorge is steep and littered with stones, not a trail to be traversed in the dark.
"We should get going," I suggest.
"But what about the guide?"
"We waited, he's not here.  We need to make it to camp before dark."
And so I lead us down the trail, my new German friends asking me my views of US politics. It seems as though most Europeans have a greater understanding of our political system and current events than the average American citizen.

Slowly descending, admiring the canyon views, we eventually make it down to the Oasis. The trees are laden with fruit, the grass green, and pools of water offer us a chance to ... get wet; I can't say cool-off, we're at 8,500 feet, it's chilly.

Darkness creeps over the canyon, luminous stars light the night sky, my neck craned upwards, my jaw slack for several minutes enjoying the spectacular show.

Our guide still hasn't shown up. In our trekking group is a Peruvian guide who makes his living taking people on the Inca Trail. He's taken this trip to experience the Colca. He stands and defends our guide, explaining that, especially at this time of year with the Fiesta, it's impossible to go through the town and refuse to drink alcohol. If you do, the townspeople would be offended, and they wouldn't let you come through town again.
On the one hand, that's similar to what our lost guide briefly communicated in Malata, on the other hand, it's completely retarded.
First of all, he was the only one to whom I refused the offer of alcohol, he's the only one who could have known. Second of all, if politely declining an invite to consume your beer is considered offensive to the point of banishment, then your culture and thinking have major progress to undergo. To take the mode of thought to an extreme, it's akin to a the Catholic church of the Middle Ages or ISIS today forcing their paradigm/ religion upon the heathens/ infidels. I tire of people saying we have to respect ALL cultures and never to judge. There are differences, there are paradigms of the world and behavior/ thinking that leave everyone better off. Synergistic paradigms are superior.

Our guides reappears at 5 AM, our scheduled departure time, in what might be an effort to keep his job. We ascend up and out of the canyon, not mentioning what transpired.

I get back to my AirBnb in Arequipa and discuss the events with my hosts. When I mention the claim of the guide(s) that I offended the townsfolk by declining to drink, they look at me like I'm crazy and say this is simply not the case.
So, I'm happy to tell you that while Peruvian culture might not be retarded, our guide certainly was.

fiesta in the tiny town of Malata- Colca Canyon
pretty sure the man in the red and gold is the head of this tiny Colca village