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iSUR Journal Part 3: Kapievi

January 2, 2011

My cabin at Kapievi


We got up at 4:30am to meet the boat at Refugio Amazonas. Mr. Ramirez drove the peke-peke and we arrived at 6:00am, 30 minutes before the scheduled departure. The boatman at the dock informed us that the boat had already left for Puerto Maldonado. We ventured up to the lodge with heavy hearts and worried minds and quickly discovered that the boat had not left – it was leaving at 8am. We settled in and were given a hospitable welcome by the lodge manager. She let us eat breakfast at the lodge and Therany and I toured the facilities. It was luxurious. – a beautiful wooden lodge with lanterns and an open dining room that looks out into the forest. There is also a bar where they sell drinks and ice cream.

The boat left at 8am and we piled in with all of the tourists. Therany and I ended up sitting beside a really nice family from Washington State. We talked about the road, gold mining, and the incredible beauty of Tambopata. We arrived at the community of Infierno a few hours later and were bussed back to Puerto Maldonado.

From there, Therany and I picked up a car at the iSUR office and stopped by a bakery to buy a cake for the family we are visiting for Christmas. We arrived at Kapievi at lunchtime. It is a one-hectare property that used to be a pasture. The owner, a charming woman, has converted it into an ecovillage. There are eight cabins on the property and she has reforested it with native trees and plants – including orchids and fruit trees. I am staying in the cabin called Orquidea. It has two hammocks on the screened porch and a bathroom that is open in the back. I can shower and look at the forest. We are here for three nights. The family is lovely. They are trying to grow all of their own fruits and vegetables and they are all vegetarians. They even have a yoga studio.

We spent the afternoon touring the property and resting. The owner’s children are all visiting, so we are taking it easy. Dinner was a smaller meal of bread and fruits. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day here and people typically eat a small dinner of bread and cheese or some other aperitifs.



I slept wonderfully last night and awoke to a breakfast and a tour of the property. We photographed the orquids, the yoga studio, and the buildings. At 10am, the family took us to a chocolatada, a hot chocolate party that the corridor association threw for the children of the local community.

We spent the rest of the day taking pictures and visiting with Piernia’s family.

In Peru, they celebrate Christmas much like we celebrate New Year’s. They eat a very late dinner (11pm or so) and then welcome in Christmas at midnight with an astounding number of fireworks. We went to Piernia’s brother’s house for Christmas and had a lot of drinks and danced to cumbia music. We did not eat until almost 11:30pm and then everyone counted down to the arrival of Christmas. At midnight at a song played on the radio “La navidad llegue” – Christmas has arrived. Only at that point do they exchange gift. In a gesture of incredible kindness, Piernia had gotten gifts for both me and Therany. Therany got a really nice t-shirt and I got a belt that says “Kapievi” – the name of her initiative. I went to bed soon after midnight and overall spent a wonderful Christmas. It was so nice to be with a family instead of alone in a hotel.

Inside view of my cabin

False bird-of-paradise

Orchids at Kapievi in the orchid garden


iSUR Journal Part 2: Agroforestry

January 2, 2011

Ladder-tailed nightjar (Hydropsalis climacocerca)


El Gato is a paradise. Maybe not by the definition of wealthy Caribbean vacationers, but it is perfect for me. I woke up to find a view of the Tambopata River and watched birds from my bed through the screened wall. I saw 12 species without emerging from my sheets. We had a breakfast of fresh fruit, ripe plantains, rice, and starfruit juice.

After taking some pictures of the rooms at El Gato, Therany and I ventured up the small stream near the lodge in the peke-peke. Mr. Ramirez dropped us off at the trail to the macaw clay lick and he left a canoe for us tied to the side of the river. Therany and I walked one of the many trails at El Gato and I was amazed by the sightings –a pair of mot-mots and three blue-fronted jacamars on a branch. Therany is a tree expert, so he was constantly bending over and retrieving fruits and nuts from the ground and handing them to me, saying “smell this” or “taste this.” He’d rattle of the scientific name and I wouldn’t be listening because I was caught up in the most delicious smells. The parrots and macaws had already left the clay lick by the time we arrived, but we saw three species in the canopy – blue and yellow, red and green, and scarlet.

We spent all morning on the trails and I made up my mind to return to this location (Rick and I will be staying here for six nights in January). Mr. Ramirez served us chifa (rice with mixed vegetables served in a palm leaf). We talked with him about the history of the property – he’s owned it for over 20 years and is passionate about preserving it. He told me that it requires a lot of work and money, but he had something that would last. In Spanish he told me, “Yes, I could make more money, a lot more quickly, by selling the large trees to loggers. Or I could become a miner, but this is a labor of love and my hard work is paying off.” “Good things come to those who wait,” I told him. He nodded in agreement.

In the afternoon, Mr. Ramirez took us to visit two of his friends who also have conservation initiatives along the Tambopata River. One man has an organic fruit farm and he is practicing agroforestry In six years, he has taken a pasture and turned it into a productive, sustainable farm. He is reforesting the area with hardwood species – planting mahogany in a place where people only take it away. He proudly showed me the seedlings of ironwood and mahogany trees and told me about his hope for the future. When we arrived his family was sorting through corn. First, they rub the hard cobs on a table until the kernels fall off. Then, they sort through the kernels to remove the bad ones. And then they bag up the good kernels for the markets.

We waited for a few minutes for the owner to finish a bag of corn and then we set off into his chakra. The first striking thing about the farm is that the ground is covered in a thick green plant. He explained that this is the key to his success. The plant is a legume species that replenishes the nutrients in the soil. The soil in the tropical forest is nutrient poor and very shallow. After three years of planting, farmers typically move on to another plot, slashing and burning more forest because they have depleted the nutrients in their old fields. This legume is the solution to the problem. He plants it underneath the canopy and it covers the ground. When he is ready to plant, he clears it with machetes.

The second striking thing about his farm is the diversity. We took a circuitous route through the farm in order to see and experience all of the species. As we walked through one section he pointed to the trees –a lime for ceviche, a lime for limonade, a lime for garnish. Then came the fruits I’ve never heard of – like copazu. He pulled down ripe fruits and sliced them with his machete so we could try them. At one point I was holding half a lime, half a starfruit, half a cacao fruit, and half a copazu (and I was trying to take pictures). The cacao was my favorite. The seeds are used to make chocolate, but they are encased in an embryo of the sweetest, tangiest fruit I’d ever tasted. You suck on them like a caramel and spit them on the ground. I had a hard time asking questions when my mouth was constantly full of delicious fruit. I mostly made sounds of delight.

After our tour we spoke with him about the process and the benefits of this type of farming. He is the only person in this region of Tambopata practicing agroforestry and it’s hard to believe after you hear about his successes. He converted his traditional farm to this technique seven years ago. For him, it is significantly less work and the production is higher for the amount of input. Instead of spending all day in his fields clearing the land, he lets the legumes do the work. And, his fields are still viable after seven years (I would describe them as thriving).  He doesn’t need to move farther into the forest – he can walk right out his door to his fields. I’m going to recommend him to the World Wide Organization of Organic Farms (WWOOF) because I think he would be a perfect host to volunteers.

After I finished my third cup of fresh copazu juice we left for sunset at the house of Mr. Ramirez’s other friend. This gentleman is 72 years old and worked in the Rubber Boom. Now, he owns a 65-hectare piece of forest and has built a nice lookout terrace on a ridge overlooking the river. First, I have to note that for 72 years old, he looked incredible. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I checked out a man of his age. He hiked up to the ridge with us and talked with Thernay while I took pictures from the overlook. The sunset never popped, but the view was spectacular.

We returned to El Gato after sunset and spoke some more with Mr. Ramirez over a dinner of spaghetti, mashed potatoes, and fish. Peruvians use spaghetti in the most interesting ways.  I passed a restful night in my bungalow, saddened that we would be leaving at 5am the next morning.

Tambopata River at Sunset


Man Sorting Corn at Agroforestry Property


Ripe and unripe starfruit.

iSUR Journal Part 1: El Gato Lodge

January 1, 2011


Moonlight over the Tambopata River


The rainy season has started. Last night it rained without stopping on the tin roof of my hotel. I slept straight through the beating and only woke up when it stopped. In the morning, I ventured downstairs to the hotel lobby to find out what was wrong with the Internet and found that there were a lot of things going wrong. Apparently nothing here works when it rains – including the city’s power and the credit card machines. I made a desperate walk to the bank in the rain to get out enough cash for my bill.

Therany, my guide, arrived right on time for our departure to the office of Rainforest Expeditions. Our goal was to catch one of their tourist boats upriver to El Gato, one of the rural tourism initiatives that work with Interoceanica SUR (iSUR). We were informed of a three-hour delay – the rain had also set back the planes in Lima and the tourists were late.

After waiting three hours at the hotel, we finally boarded a boat in the Tambopata port near Puerto Maldonado. There were about 15 American and Canadian tourists going out to the three lodges owned by Rainforest Expeditions – lodges that I will probably never stay at because they average about $150 per night per person. The strong rains made the Tambopata River incredibly strong and we struggled against the current in our heavily laden boat. At 6pm we were told that we had about three more hours to go. We were going to experience the river at night . . .

Luck was with us – the moon was full. The large trees that float down the river were visible in the moonlight and our boat driver was able to avoid them. We were, however, three hours late for our transfer to El Gato. The owner, Mr. Ramirez was supposed to wait at the lodge until we arrived and then take us up river to his property in a peke-peke boat. We had no way of contacting him and just had to hope that he would still be there.

Apparently I have grown accustomed to the unknown, because I just sat back and enjoyed the beautiful reflections of the moon rising over the wide Tambopata River. In the dim light, the water looked like quicksilver – never breaking, just undulating at the surface in the glowing light. The forest is much different in the Tambopata River than in the Madre de Dios. The forest floods in the rainy season and the soils are richer. We passed by giant mango trees and towering ficuses. Along the way we saw a jabiru stork, capybara, and a white caiman.

We arrived to find Mr. Ramirez waiting on the dock and we climbed into yet another boat for the hour-long ride to El Gato. Without a lantern, Mr. Ramirez guided us upriver by the light of the moon. The peke-peke mother is loud and it shakes the boat so two opposing forces impressed me – the motion of the river rocking me to sleep and the vibration of the motor shaking my bones. We arrived at El Gato at 10:30pm after over seven hours of travel.

Mr. Ramirez led me to my room, a rustic bungalow with a beautiful bed and sturdy mosquito net. I made myself at home and then ventured into the main lodge, barely needing a headlamp because the moonlight was so strong. A ripe mango fell from a tree right in front of me and I let out a little squeal. We were greeted by a meal of fresh fish and rice with fish eye peppers (pea size, delicious peppers that pack quite a punch).

I fell asleep at 11pm with plans to meet Therany at 6:30am for the start of our day. As I lay in my bed and listened to the sound of the river, the croaking of frogs, and the eerie calls of the bamboo rat, I realized how much I love living in the jungle, even if it means giving up electricity and ice cream.

Boat ride to El Gato


10 Days with iSUR

January 1, 2011

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Interoceanica SUR (iSUR) is an organization that works around the new Interoceanic Highway to integrate change and conservation. I spent the last 10 days on a tour of their projects near Puerto Maldonado in Lower Tambopata. They are working with private landowners here to create sustainable initiatives that create income for families, allowing them to preserve their land. In this area, iSUR is focusing on the Tambopata Buffer Zone. Tambopata National Reserve is one of the largest reserves in Peru and it is adjacent to the new Interoceanic highway. Studies have projected that deforestation will take place within 50 kilometers of the new highway, deforesting the buffer zone and up to 20 kilometers into the reserve. To combat the projected deforestation, iSUR is working with private landowners in the buffer zone to create a solid buffer of forest that should resist future development around the highway. See below (the gray area is the buffer zone, the yellow area is the reserve, and the red line above them is the new highway).

From the Servicio Nacional de Areas Natural Protegidas (SERNANP)

I visited 10 properties over the last few weeks, ranging from ecotourism lodges to an animal rehabilitation center. While we have conservation trusts and private land reserves in the states, they are virtually unheard of in Peru. With the help of iSUR, some of the very first private land reserves in the country have been created in the lower Tambopata region. One of these, amazingly, is owned by a dynamic 14-year-old Peruvian girl. These landowners have made the decision to preserve their forest without the promise of any benefits from the government (in the United States, conservation trusts lead to significant property tax reductions and other benefits). Overall, I had a blast and you can read about the whole experience in my journal (to be posted in 10 parts). Above you will find a few favorite images from the trip!

Sacred Valley Slideshow

December 20, 2010

Here is a collection of images from the Sacred Valley. I finally have a few days to wade through the thousands of images I’ve taken. Enjoy!

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A few other favorites . . .

December 18, 2010

Titi monkey (Callicebus brunneus). Local name: Tocon.

Vine growing on large tree.


Insect Family: Coreidae

Alone in the Forest

December 16, 2010

Madre de Dios River


Today was the first day that I have been alone in the forest since visiting the Los Amigos Conservation Concession. I was fortunate enough to have an assistant and friends with me until three days ago. Since then I have managed to walk with park rangers and station volunteers during my forays on the trails. It’s not that I don’t like being alone in the forest, I am just aware of the safety risks of being out by myself. Last year Rick and I were walking along a trail here and a wasp stung him. That single wasp sting was debilitating; he was unable to walk and had to be evacuated by eight men from the station. In a forest with so many species, it’s hard to know what could be dangerous.

For the last three days I have found excuses to stay inside – checking email, writing blog entries, and catching up on some project reading. I have been hesitant to venture out on my own. But, since today is my second to last day here in the concession, I decided to swallow my fear. I picked three short trails that are very close to the station. I strapped on my snake boots, packed my medical kit, and set out at a slow pace.

Being alone in the forest is one of the most magical experiences. I had forgotten what the silence is like. Without the crunch of other footsteps or the din of attempted conversations, you can hear beetles buzz by and the chatter of birds in the canopy. One of my favorite subtle sounds is the weevils and beetles dropping off the leaves. At the sound of my approach, the weevils tuck in their long snouts and nosedive into the leaf litter to escape detection. I don’t know if I find more when I am alone, but I feel less inhibition about expressing my excitement over tiny leaf beetles and iridescent cockroaches. Today I found two beautiful groups of caterpillars on the underside of tree trunks.

Tomorrow I’ll go out alone again. I’ll stay close to the station, just far enough to escape the noise of people, but close enough that I feel safe. It’ll be my last day in this beautiful forest.



If you’ve liked the images you’ve seen of Los Amigos Conservation Concession, I’d like you to know that it is open to tourists. The station is rustic and really lovely. The trail system is outstanding. There are private cabins and dormitories with private bathrooms. Please email me if you have any questions.

Social Caterpillars

Titi Monkey

Fungus Amongus

December 16, 2010

Orange mushroom


Netted mushroom

Pattern in Lichen

Where are all the mammals?

December 15, 2010



One question I am frequently asked is where are all the mammal photos? When people picture a rainforest, they see a canopy teeming with monkeys and jaguars weaving between the trees. Let me assure you that this fantasy is quickly shattered when you first visit a primary forest. I spend an average of six hours in the field per day and cover anywhere from two to ten kilometers in that time. During 12 days of work here at the station I have seen huanganas (wild pigs), lobos del rio (giant river otters), capybara, six species of monkeys, and a squirrel. I consider these sightings to be incredibly lucky. Of those sightings, I was able to take decent photographs of three species.

Why is it so difficult? First of all, there just aren’t that many mammals in terms of species richness and species abundance. For instance, in a forest with over 1000 species of butterflies, there are only 9 species of monkeys. Second, mammals experience a lot of hunting pressure – their numbers are reduced over time by the bushmeat trade and by the wild pet trade. While the forest here is relatively unimpacted, local people do eat tapir, capybara, and other mammals. The giant river otter is just one of the species that has been driven close to extinction because of hunting (for its pelt) and habitat loss. Listed as endangered by the IUCN in 1999, it is estimated that there are less than 5000 left in the wild. People also kill jaguar and puma for the same reason that farmers kill wolves in the United States – fear for their livestock and livelihoods.

Mammals are skittish and I’m pretty sure I sound like a freight train when I walk through the forest. Despite the care I take to walk slowly and carefully, the leaves crunch under my feet and branches snap in the leaf litter. Any mammals that were nearby quickly disappear in the thick undergrowth. I’m positive that I pass by mammals all the time, but seeing them in the tangle of lianas and bushes is virtually impossible. One of my friends and mentors worked in Brazil for over 15 years before he saw his first jaguar in the wild.  Thus, you can almost equate seeing a jaguar in good light and for long enough to take a picture with winning the lottery.

Monkeys are relatively common and I do see them at least once a day. However, seeing monkeys and photographing monkeys are entirely different things. I went out with a monkey researcher the other day in hopes of photographing a group that he is studying. We found them, but they were at the top of a tree in dappled light. And the top of a tree here is not like the top of an oak back home. The top of a tree here is so far away that the monkeys look like specks with my 400mm lens.

And, to top it all off, I am constantly battling with the light. Yesterday it was cloudy out and in the forest my shutter speed at ISO 800 with an aperture of 5.6 was four seconds. Trying to capture a sharp image of a wild pig foraging in that light is impossible. I spend most of my time whispering “tranquilo, tranquilo” to insects (yes, I talk to my subjects) with the insane hope that they will settle down so I can make a 15 second exposure at f/32.

I hope this does not sound like a tirade or rant; I just want to explain the challenges of this type of photography. Every day only increases my respect for the photographers who specialize in large mammals and have achieved incredible images of these majestic species in the wild. I’m hoping that by going out everyday for the next seven months, I might just beat the odds and win the lottery.

Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri boliviensis)


A few favorites . . .

December 14, 2010

Pink Cup Fungus

Aquatic Plants