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Peke-peke Diaries: The Los Amigos River

December 11, 2010

Los Amigos River


I woke to the sound of a grandfather clock chiming. It was 4:45am and I was rudely pulled out of a sleep cycle by a sound that should be foreign seven hours from civilization. Ben turned off his iPhone alarm and I realized that I was in fact still in the Amazon and not in my grandmother’s stately Southern home.

We gathered up gear and went to the kitchen to find some cookies because breakfast doesn’t start until after 6am. Pascual, one of the cooks, emerged with a plate of hot pancakes. We quickly rolled them up to facilitate consumption while hiking.

Ben, Gabriel, Pablo, and I set off into the forest just as it was becoming light in the clearing. Stepping under the canopy at that time of the morning is like stepping into a closet. The trees above are fighting so hard for the light that they cover every square inch of sky. We flipped on the headlamps and began the 1.7-mile hike to the port on the Los Amigos River. It’s been raining lately so I kicked up frogs every few yards and paused to see if they were photo worthy.

We arrived at the port at exactly 6:00am and could hear the peke-peke boat chugging up river to meet us. I had arranged a morning river trip up the Los Amigos River to see wildlife along its shores. The Los Amigos Conservation Concession starts at the fork of two rivers – the Madre de Dios and the Los Amigos. The Madre de Dios is the larger of the two and is filled with gold miners. The Los Amigos is smaller and shallower – enough to prevent gold miners from dredging the bottom. With the hopes of experiencing a more pristine river ecosystem, we climbed into the peke-peke with two of the concession’s conservation promoters and began the journey upstream.

I love boating in this region because it allows you to see the forest. This is truly a location where you frequently ‘can’t see the forest for the trees.’ The trees are so massive that a single trunk can fill your plane of vision. On the river, you begin to appreciate the diversity of species and the complexity of the forest structure. Giant kapoks and cecropias tower above more petite species. Saplings fight for the right to light and the ability to photosynthesize. Incredibly, some saplings stay small for decades just waiting for a large tree to fall. Tree falls are one of the only times that the understory is able to access the power of the sun.

The river is also a prime location for birdwatching. In the forest, birds are obscured by leaves and branches or by limited lighting. Some birds’ activities are entirely restricted to the canopy, making it almost impossible to get a good look. Within the first few minutes on the river, I spotted red-capped cardinals, yellow-rumped caciques, scarlet macaws, and cocoi herons. White-banded swallows wheeled over the river, occasionally perching on snags of wood protruding from the shallow river. It was spectacular.

After 20 minutes, Ben pointed to a beach on the side of the river – “What’s that?,” he asked. It was a capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), a medium-size mammal that looks like an inflated guinea pig. It was sitting on the side of the river with four or five young. It was bathed in golden light and sat still for a stream of photos before leading its babies into the forest.

We went on to see red howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and more species of birds. At one point, we pulled over to the side of the river for a quick break and I went out with my wide-angle to photograph the river. I was quickly scared back to the boat by the sandflies.

All in all it was a successful river trip. Photographing from a moving boat is always challenging, but seeing is just as rewarding as taking pictures. The trip downriver was hot and sunny. I had the men turn off the motor and let us drift downstream for a while; we were guided by large pieces of bamboo they used to push us off the bottom. We returned to the station for a hot lunch and a cold shower.  I plan on repeating the trip in three days to see what I can see. For now, it’s back to the understory.


Capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris)

Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana)

Red Capped Cardinals (Paroaria gularis)

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