Leaving for Cocha Cashu – August 29th and 30th

Day Three: Travel by Boat

Me and my tent-mate were woken up around 4:00AM by the sound of biblical rain. And I mean BIBLICAL. I’ve heard stories about heavy rain, but this exceeded even those. It sounded as if the Blue Angels were somehow hovering over our heads for an hour and a half. At one point, I thought the world might be ending. At another, I was sure that we were in danger. But everything turned out fine – in fact, you might say things turned out better than they otherwise would have, since the height of the river rose nearly a meter! When we all (officially) got up, we boarded a boat on this river and were thankful that our chances of having to push the boat over shallows was decreased.

The boats, which were large, covered canoes with motors, carried all of us in two groups deep into Manu National Park. As we pushed on, civilization became sparser and vegetation denser. Eventually, no other boats or houses were able to be seen – only thick, dark forest. We made a few bathroom stops on beaches (not much privacy throughout this trip…) and looked for animal tracks in the sand and mud. At one point, we found fresh ocelot tracks.

One of our stops was at a very remote town called Boca Manu. Here, we were supposed to present our vaccination cards to a doctor and get approved to go deeper into the park. We waited for hours for the doctor to show. During these hours, we became well-acquainted with the gnats of Peru, which are not at all like the ones here at home. These ones bite…and itch. They’re also everywhere; nearly impossible to escape. When they bite you, they take out of a visible chunk of skin and leave behind a congealed spot of blood. The group impatiently waited for the doctor, swatting and grunting at the gnats the whole time. Once the doctor finally came, we were disappointed to find out that he had no interest in seeing proof of the vaccinations we paid a lot to get. He was much more concerned about us wearing sunscreen. To be clear, though, DO make sure that you get your vaccines when traveling to Peru and other surrounding countries! Not only for your own safety, but for the sake of the indigenous people that you have very real chances of running into.

We left Boca Manu and practically cheered to have the gnats gone from the surrounding air. We did, however, take dozens of bites with us. My feet and ankles had somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty bites.

After a full day of travel, we stopped at our lodging for the night. This place, called Limonal, was a station off the bank of the river. Unfortunately for the group – which was composed of new adventurers, at this point – we arrived after nightfall. We started setting up our tents by the light of our headlamps and quickly realized that the long grass we were setting up in was swarming with insects. And I mean SWARMING. You could shine your light at any given spots and see a blur of hopping, flying, and sprinting creatures. We got our tents up quickly, ate our dinner with an air of paranoia, and dove into our tents for sleep. My tent-mate and I spent a number of minutes checking the nooks and crannies of the tent for any critters. Alas, there were a handful of grasshoppers, but we let them stay, since they were the least of our concern. We slept pretty hard that night, though we practically fell asleep itching gnat bites.

 

Day Four: Travel by Boat…again!

We got up at the break of dawn and set out for our final destination: Cocha Cashu Biological Research Station. We ate our breakfast of eggs and rice, packed up our tents, and were on the boat once more. This time around on the boat, we were to take a wildlife survey for the whole ride. Over the course of the eight or nine hours we spent on that ride, I learned how to identify a large number of bird species, even from a distance. Horned Screamers, Yellow-billed Terns, Large-billed Terns, Roadside Hawks, Black Vultures, Greater Yellow-headed Vultures, Turkey Vultures, Muscovy Ducks, four kinds of parrot, five kinds of macaw, Orinoco Geese, and many more. That was my absolute favorite part of this section of the trip: learning that I had a knack for bird identification. I can see myself getting into bird-watching later in life.

Along the way, we also got to spot a White Caiman, Wooly Monkeys, and Spider Monkeys. It was a beautiful day. You hardly notice that you’ve been sitting for nine hours on those boats. There’s so much to look at, and you’re acutely aware that you could spot something amazing at any given moment.

In the early evening, we made it to Cocha Cashu. We had to hike our things about half a kilometer from the beach to the station. It’s a beautiful area – the

kitchen is spacious and clean, the bathhouse has plenty of room

for storage, the showers are clean and modern, and the library makes for a nice quiet area. After everything was brought in, we were assigned to tent platforms. K

ellen, Haley and I set up our stuff on our platform quickly and made it back to the common area with time to spare. The light was amazing – you would look up through the trees and see shimmering leaves, puffy clouds, and a Squirrel Monkey or two. The lake was calm and quiet.

We all went on a short hike to get introduced to the vegetation surrounding the station. We talked about plant species and the history of the land. The floodplains used to be under water a little over 100 years ago, but once the river broke off and formed the lake, the floodplains burst to life with tons of interesting species. We talked for hours about the plants’ adaptations to the environment. Tim, the other professor, caught a couple butterflies and let us look at them closely. The hike was an adventure in and of itself.

That night, we were welcomed by a few researchers at the station. They told us that we were incredibly privileged to be there – a statement that I know understand the weight of. In the 40 years that Cocha Cashu has existed, fewer than 5,000 people have been there. It is truly one of the most remote and untouched places on the planet.

We went to bed feeling blessed…and acutely aware of how isolated we all were.

 

Arriving in Peru – August 27th and 28th

Day One: Arrival

I arrived in Lima around 12:45AM. De-planing and customs were relatively painless. My next flight was at 6:45AM, and I was told Star Peru (my airline) didn’t open registration until 3:00AM. Well, as it turned out, Star Peru didn’t open until 4:30AM, so I sat in the frigid terminal for over three hours. Fortunately, I was able to call my boyfriend from a pay phone – that helped immensely. Once I got my boarding pass, I made the long trek to gate 36, which actually opens up to the street. We waited a little over an hour there. At about 6:50AM, we boarded a bus, which took us maybe 500 yards to our plane. The plane, which was quite small and old, was remarkably spacious and comfortable. I was in an aisle seat in a row of only two. The flight was very easy, save for the nausea I felt from being awake for so long.

Once I arrived in Cusco, I got my bag, found a taxi, and got to Hostal Alfonso II (though the taxi driver scammed me in the process – I ended up paying about five times the amount I should have). When I got to my room, I sat on my bed and got a bit emotional; mostly over the fact that I could now sleep. I was so glad that the travel was over. I put on more layers, curled up under two alpaca blankets, and passed out for two and a half hours. Those hours were the longest of my life. I woke up feeling like I’d been out for seven hours.

We had a brief meeting with lunch, then some time to settle in before we went shopping for last-minute supplies. Later, we had a more official meeting to go over rules, expectations, and itinerary. Everyone seems really sweet – I think this group will be very successful together. We had a wonderful dinner and a quirky, fairy-tale-like restaurant, got to explore the main plaza a bit, and now…here we are. My brain revolts when I remind myself that I got in just this morning. It feels like I’ve been here for days.

Tomorrow will be an interesting one, I’m sure. I am eager to see what ends up presenting itself out there in the wilderness. I feel like I’ve already become a much better traveler; I can’t imagine how I’ll feel at the end of this trip.

Day Two: Travel by Bus

On this day, we spent our time on a bus, which took us over the Andes. I had a great conversation with Ursula (one of our professors) regarding political climate – of course, I found that fascinating. Apparently, it’s a very mixed political spectrum here. There are many parties, and the country can’t really be divided into political regions like the U.S. can. Religion and affluence seem to be bigger indicators of political leanings. It also sounds like environmental sentiment is very similar to Ecuador (where I studied abroad last year), meaning that most people are in favor of development over conservation – it’s that same predicament of humans rights in theory versus in practice that we see all over the world.

After a few hours, we stopped at Ninamarka, which is a recently excavated area with pre-Inca tombs. That was a fascinating bit of history. The tombs looked like small, one-room houses, and were made up of rough stone and mortar. About forty minutes away from Ninamarka, we stopped in a pre-colonial town for a snack. They served us egg sandwiches with tea and coffee. After we left the town, we descended into a narrow valley where there was clearly more moisture. The green cover was much denser, and there was less agriculture.

We later stopped at the entrance to Manu National Park, which would be home for the next twelve days. At this stop, we took some time to walk along a trail and look at plant species. We talked about the endangered Polylepis tree, bromeliads, epiphytes, etc. We ate our lunches of fruit with simple cheese sandwiches, and we were on our way. Our bus bottomed out a nubmer of times, but it provided us with wonderful opportunities to walk around and stretch our legs again. On one stop, we got to see six Cock of the Rocks doing their mating songs and dances. They were simply stunning birds, and their behavior was so peculiar! The males moved to new locations together, trying to lure in the females.

After a total of about 12.5 hours of travel by bus, we’re made it to Atalaya. Some people stayed in dorms while the rest of us camped in our tents on a big wooden platform. Everyone seemed in high spirits, and we were feeling ready for the next two days of travel.