Forest, meet the group…group, meet the forest – August 31st and September 1st

Day Six: Introductory Hikes

Our first couple of days at Cocha Cashu were spent getting our bearings, and for good reason. Cocha Cashu is so remote and the forest is so untouched that it comes as a bit of a shock. The 31st of August was an easy hiking day.

We woke up nice and early for our first hike (though much later than we were used to, at that point – we nearly fell over when they told us that we weren’t meeting until 7:00AM). We were all required to wear rubber boots while out in the wilderness, so I donned my absolutely ridiculous-looking white boots that I bought in Cusco. Pretty much everyone bought there’s in Cusco, but theirs were black and yellow. Me, being my father’s daughter and therefore an incredible cheap individual, decided to go for the white boots that were two or three soles cheaper. Suffice it to say, I got teased a bit – but all in good fun, of course!

We split up into groups after breakfast. One group went with Ursula to explore the area north of the station, and my group went south with Tim. We worked our way beyond the tents, into the thicker vegetation, and eventually into swampland. Along the way, we were introduced to dozens of plants, insects, and spiders. At one point, Tim caught a beautiful Blue Morpho butterfly and held it up for us to see clearly. They’re simply enormous! He also caught the much smaller Glass-Winged Butterfly. Throughout the hike, we were focusing on plant adaptations, particularly in the swampy areas. We discussed why all leaves in the rainforest had “drip tips”, why only some trees have buttresses, and how plants compare to others. For me, it was a new academic experience; I’m not a science major, after all. I struggled to keep up with the Latin names of plants, but I was determined to learn more!

Later in the day, our group went with Ursula and did the same thing in a new area. We talked a lot about termites, the Solanaceae family (tomato, eggplant, bell pepper, etc.), and plant predation. We also got to see some incredible monkey activity right above our heads! We all went to our tents completely exhausted that night, and fell asleep to the itching of bug bites and the lullaby of the jungle.

 

Day Seven: Introduction to Bird Watching

And on the seventh day, Ursula said….let us watch birds.

Ha….ha….

Anyway, the first of September was devoted to the birds! We got up very early and split into three groups, who all went in different directions. My group started in the canoes with our TA, David. The canoes are these shaky, hard-seated cedar canoes – I’ll talk a whole lot more about those once we get to our research projects. For today, we took these canoes out for nearly two and a half hours before breakfast and enjoyed watching the sun come up over the lake. 

 

During our time out there, we got to finally see the Giant River Otters up close. They were too quick to get good pictures of, but they popped up around us a few times before becoming bored with us and heading north. We also observed Jacanas, Hoatzins, Donacobius, Green Ibis, Scarlett Macaws, Blue and Gold Macaws, a Red Capped Hawk, Tiger Heron, and many other bird species. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, I was getting really into birds at this point. I think the fact that I struggled so much with the plant names but understood the bird names made them that much more exciting to observe. Not to mention that they were all beautiful and so different than the birds at home.

After breakfast, we went with the next group. For us, that was mist netting with Ursula. She taught us how to handle, take out, clean, put away, transport, and set up the nets. Once we had been educated, we headed out into the field to put our new knowledge to the test. We found our spot in the woods, set up our nets, and left them overnight. It wouldn’t be until the next day that we actually got to try catching birds and studying them.

The day wasn’t long enough for a three-part rotation, so my group would be bird-watching with Tim the following day. The rest of this day was spent taking a botany class in which we learned how to inquire about and identify plant characteristics. Again, I really struggled, but I’ve come home with a bunch of new knowledge about plants and I want to learn even more.

 

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.