Journey to Villa Carmen

Villa Carmen

08 September 2018

Cocha Cashu is now a memory. We departed early this morning to head down the Madre de Dios river. This has been an invaluable experience that I feel truly grateful for. I have been dreaming of being a field wildlife biologist and this past week, I’ve been able to live this dream. The thrill of constant alertness and mindfulness, waiting for the crashing of palm trees to discover a primate species. The distant barks of Ateles chamek (spider monkey)that I trace like a detective makes me feel alive. Observing the various species of primates was a fascinating experience that I cannot believe I had the opportunity to partake in. When we arrived to the station, it seemed like we were a nuisance to to the researchers. By the time we departed, I felt more like a researcher. The opportunities to ask researchers questions and bounce ideas off of each other helped to build confidence as a scientist starting out.

It’s amazing how different the temperature varies from morning to the afternoon. In the morning, the fog rolls off over the river mysteriously, enveloping our canoe in a blanket. In the afternoon, the sun beats down, absorbing its energy into the sand and radiating out as I step onto the river bank, once submerged under the Madre de Dios.

We originally planned on stopping to set up camp at Limonal but we all decided to continue since we arrived around 1 pm. Our trip continued for another three to four hours and we were going to camp on the beach. Around 5 pm, we found a beautiful little resort along the river that we were able to set up camp at. The host told us that we could not tell his boss we stayed there but allowed us to pay 10 sols per tent to sleep on the grounds, far above the river. We pitched the tents outside among the flower beds and had a nice dinner in the kitchen. I am officially a Cashu nut!!

After dinner, I went to my tent to go to sleep. I was extremely tired and needed some time alone. Tomorrow we have a long day on the river followed by our bus ride to Villa Carmen.

                            Etlingera elatior (Ginger)


10 September 2018 Villa Carmen

I am feeling rejuvenated this morning! After our arrival on land yesterday, the class stayed at the hostel along the river and shared some well earned cold beers together. A few of us woke up early and met with Ursula and Jennifer to do some bird watching. We set out around 6 am around the small lake and witnessed a plethora of bird species from woodpeckers to wood creepers, piping guans and there is no lack of predatory birds.

Crested oropendula nests


Plant propagation at Villa Carmen

Later on the class went on a guided walk to learn about Villa Carmen and the medicinal plants harvested and grown there. The land was previously owned by an agronomist that worked for the government. Conservation and sustainability efforts were eventually implemented. Our guide worked for the Amazon Conservation Association, who purchased the property. The ringing of Cicadas was intense in the medicinal garden and vibrated throughout the group and into the surrounding forest. The guide went on to tell us that he obtained his knowledge of medicinal plants from a native person who knew over 300 species. He shared with us that medicines such as penicillin was discovered in the tropics. 

River swim at Villa Carmen

11 September 2018

We have departed from Villa Carmen and we are on the road to Wayqecha Biological field station. The Amazon basin is a special place. I can see the differences in varying layers of vegetation and I know we are gaining altitude when I begin to observe giant tree ferns. Along the narrow dirt road, small waterfalls cascade down the steep rocks, giving way to a lush green under story. Soon we entered the land of Rupicola peruvianus, the Andean cock-of-the-rock and Peru’s national bird. These birds are a gorgeous and attractive bright red color. On the way down, the lek was closed off to the public but upon our return from Cocha Cashu, we were allowed–in groups of five–to silently descend the staircase to observe the birds in action. It feels like another lifetime that we ventured down into the Amazon basin. I feel as if I am returning as a new person with curiosity, excitement and burning passion.

Canopy walk at Wayqecha

Adventures into the Amazon basin

If you’ve ever contemplated any kind of science career, you should participate in field research in the forests of Peru in the Biodiversity, Conservation and Sustainability study abroad program in early fall with Dr. Ursula Valdez. My experience in this program this August through September reinforced my passion for field work and ignited a curiosity within me for wildlife biology. Some of my classmates went into this trip thinking they wanted to pursue the medical biological field yet completed the program with a desire to conduct field research instead. One main reason I chose this particular program over the other one I was accepted to in Rome was that I could never recreate the experience offered in Peru. We ventured through treacherous winding roads for a day and spent two days traveling by canoe to the Cocha Cashu biological station in Manu National Park. Tourists are not permitted to travel this deep into the park so this experience was truly an exceptional one. When else in my life would I be able to study monkeys in the Amazonian rainforest in South America? As an individual who loves animals, conservation and nature, this trip was spiritually and educationally stimulating at all times. Following is a snapshot of my journal entries for travel to and time spent in Cocha Cashu.

The beginning of our adventure started at 3,399 m from Cusco, Peru over the Andes

The Madre de Dios river in southeastern Peru

28 August 2018

Our adventure on the river begins! I awoke to the sounds of more birds and bugs than I have ever heard in my life! The forest dominates the land. A massive stretch of natural beauty. Here, we go into the unknown, down the Madre de Dios river. This is heaven compared to our sixteen hour bus ride from Cusco. Grasses taller than I’ve ever witnessed upwards of twenty feet tall!! They resemble palm trees at first until you see the gigantic spikelets shooting from the top that must have been half my height! Sweeping valleys enveloped in all levels of succession catch my eye. I wonder what secrets this forest holds. This immaculate treasure tucked away from society. You need not worry about the world beyond your own two feet and the community you have built. We have a hunger, a curiosity for the adventure ahead. I am blessed to literally be with those who like to stop and smell the orchids, poke the slimy ferns and ponder over fuzzy caterpillars.

Motorized dugout canoes took us to our destination–Cocha Cashu

This is a great start to the journey ahead. We ease our way down the river, flowing with gravity and venturing deep into the heart of darkness (Conrad 1899). The rich copper tones drape down into the river, kissing the pale water. I am alive!! More than I’ve ever been. Each sense awakens and becomes more tuned with our Mother Earth. Through all the pain and suffering in the world (socially, spiritually and environmentally), I feel a sense of relief in the presence of a vast expanse of rainforest.

Canoe views

29 August 2018

We have started our excursion on the river with a vertebrate survey. Most of the species observed have been birds with the exception of a few reptiles such as Caiman or the yellow spotted river turtle. I witnessed a biodiversity hotspot right along the Manu river. We saw well over 50 species in a few hours, including at least three to four monkey species!!

Having arrived at Cocha Cashu, I am overwhelmed by the richness of species within the region. There are many researchers partaking in fascinating work. From bird banding to those aiming to research the family of ten giant river otters.I look forward to working in this place over the next ten days. Seeing all the monkeys along the river has me extremely excited to start our primate behavior and ecology research project! The class is split into six different research groups: bird ecology, primate ecology, mammal and camera traps, insect ecology, plant/fungus ecology (ended up pertaining to butterflies instead) and a qualitative project (the group chose sustainability as a focus). I also got stung by a wasp square in the forehead during introductions. Awkward turtle! This is definitely part of the experience and I am sure I will be stung by many other creatures.

Cocha Cashu biological station

03 September 2018

Day one of Black spider monkey (Ateles chamek) research

Lizzy, Katerina, Nico and I left the station around 6:00 four minutes after leaving, we spotted one individual leaping through the canopy. It seemed we were off to a good start. The trails we ventured down made a big loop, all the way past Cocha Tortura and back around to Cocha Cashu. Along the way, we encountered two groups of primates on separate occasions; squirrel monkeys (Saimieri sciurius) and Saddleback Tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis). We took note and observed the troops for a bit but did not record all data because our research is focused on Spider monkeys. The total distance we ventured was around 3.5 miles. Our plan is to go out again in the afternoon but we are definitely exhausted. However, I loved seeing all the different primates. The most interesting troop was that of the Saddleback Tamarin because of how stealthily they moved through the canopy. If you did not spot them you would never know they were there. This extremely contrasts with the Spider monkeys who crash wildly through the palms, not making an effort to be inconspicuous. I really hope I have time to do some observations of the Pygmy Marmoset (Cebuella pygmaea).

Forest canopy where primates are                                    observed

Nico and I went on a canoe adventure after lunch to see if we could spot “monkeys zappa” from the vantage of the lake but this resulted in no success other than paddling in circles, literally. The researchers make canoeing look much easier but it takes time to warm up. I was about to give up on collecting data for the day when, after I utilized the compost toilet I spotted a single Spider monkey slowly climbing through the canopy within a few hundred meters of the biological station. I ran to wash my hands and get my research team. Lizzy and I followed the adult female and one juvenile for over an hour. The female appeared to be pregnant. After awhile of feeding, ‘Preggo’ rested 25-30 meters up in an unidentified tree. When it comes to chasing primates through the Peruvian rainforest, there is never a dull moment.

Spider monkeys curious about human observers


Brown capuchin (Cebus apella) observed near Cocha Cashu

This snapshot of my time at Cocha Cashu reflects the mindfulness and presence one embodies when in the rainforest. The adventures of collecting research are never predictable but the process of creating a proposal and being flexible with your approach to data collection is a great educational experience that will provide one with a sense of accomplishment. This amazing experience can give one insight into the type of career to put energy into–work indoors or work outdoors. The value of experiencing biodiversity firsthand is priceless and I hope every aspiring environmentalist has the opportunity to extend their education into the field.

Early morning fog rolling off Cocha Cashu


Turning Dreams into Reality

April 16, 2018,  Blog by Mahleah Grant, Environmental studies- Conservation Science & Management, From Andes to Amazon Peru: Biodiversity, Conservation & Sustainability.

From the first time I learned about the study abroad program as a high school graduate in 2010, I have wildly dreamed about participating in such an amazing educational experience. As much as I yearned for an opportunity to study abroad, the idea seemed so far from reality for me. The financial obstacles between myself and studying abroad felt like the steepest, most treacherous mountain to climb. Though I constantly kept the idea in the back of my mind, it seemed like just that–an idea.

When I was first accepted into UWB, one of the first things I did was apply to an environmental study abroad program in Costa Rica for the early fall. I had no professors to write a letter of recommendation for me because I had not established any relationships with them yet–it was my first quarter. Excitedly I waited for the trip leaders to accept me into the program–it felt so right I was sure I would be accepted!! After a couple weeks went by, I randomly received an email that my study abroad application status had changed. My heart started beating and I happily logged into the study abroad website. Five beats went by as my computer slowly loaded..When my application appeared, I read it over and my heart sank. A staff member had withdrawn my application. I had received no letter as to why or any information. I was simply out. And that was that. I felt so discouraged and disheartened. Why was my application withdrawn? Would I ever have the chance to study abroad?

Truth be told, I could not afford to study abroad anyways. I just wanted it to happen so I went with it and thought that if I applied, money would magically appear and all would fall into place. Though I never found out exactly why I was withdrawn from the application pool for the environmental program in Costa Rica, my guess was that because I had taken no classes at UWB yet and had no letters of recommendation I was automatically removed from the selection pool.

Despite feelings of remorse and apathy, I knew that if I truly wanted the study abroad experience while in college, I would have to plan. And plan in advance. I have always been the type to do things on a whim or last moment. But I have come to learn over the years that planning is the key for success in making a big trip come together. Over the summer, I constantly checked the study abroad website and read up on upcoming programs. During one of my sustainability courses, the professor mentioned a program of interest to me, Biodiversity, conservation and sustainability in Peru with Dr. Valdez. As an environmental studies major, the sound of this program immediately sparked my interest and seemed intriguing. I knew that this program would provide me with an experience that I would never be able to recreate. When would I ever have the opportunity to visit the Amazon river or hear monkeys swinging through their native habitat? I knew that this was something I needed to experience; not only to benefit my education but to grow as an individual.

I kept this vision of myself backpacking through Peru, tired yet excitedly making my way through the tropical forests, feeling more alive than ever before. I never let this vision escape and when I began fall quarter, one of my classes happened to be taught by Dr. Ursula Valdez. On the first day of Ecology and the Environment, I waited for students to shuffle out then I made my move. I asked Dr. Valdez about the program she taught in Peru. She had just returned from her early fall excursion weeks before and excitedly told me about the program and the amazing opportunity it was. I proclaimed my interest in the program and told her I planned on applying for the next round! Every time I saw Dr. Valdez, I shared my excitement and interest I had in the program. When it came time to apply for the program, I submitted the necessary documents as soon as possible and made sure to have two letters of recommendation from professors that I had at least one or two courses with. Though I heard the program was competitive and was offered across all three campuses, I passionately pursued my dream without any doubts or second guesses. When there was an info session, I eagerly attended to gather a more transparent picture of the program in my mind. Attending this info session completely strengthened my will to join this program and provided me with much daydream material because we discussed the itinerary and learning objectives. Going to Peru was just the challenge I need and have been prepared for in the last year. Once I finished submitting my study abroad application, I would obsessively check the status every single day, several times a day. One rainy afternoon, I logged on drearily to my study abroad account and discovered I was accepted into the program!! My daydreams became my reality!

If there is something you feel strongly about, especially when it comes to your education, it’s amazing how far a conversation will take you. If you ask questions and show your interest, doors open and stay open. Do not become discouraged or compare your progress to the progress of others. We all have a journey to take and asking questions can take you so far!! And asking for help will help to carry you further than you can imagine. I have never been able to afford to study abroad, but planning ahead and preparing, asking questions and being persistent will pay off in your educational journey.