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Interoceanic Highway: PART 2

December 4, 2010

The Interoceanic Highway - Beauty in the Developed Landscape


We started at 7am from Cusco with a projected driving time of 10 hours. Although I don’t have an exact mileage count, the section of highway between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado is over 400 kilometers. So, why does it take 10 hours? The highway starts in Cusco at 3,300 meters in elevation and climbs over two mountains, peaking at around 4,800 meters. Then it meanders out of the highlands through cloud forest and finally into lowland rainforest.

These images are from the highland section of the road. Before the paved road was constructed, there was a dirt road that locals describe using words like “horrible” and “terrifying.” Our driver told us that the road was more like a trail. In any case, there were towns along the dirt road and these towns are growing with the new highway. The image below the text is from Urcos, one of the towns along the highway. When we got out to photograph the beautiful lake, I noticed an incredible amount of trash along the edge of the highway.

The uninhabited land around the highway was stunningly beautiful. We could see glaciers and snowcapped peaks around almost every bend. Alpacas and llamas roamed through the landscape. This beauty was occasionally broken by areas of construction, but on the whole it was one of the most scenic drives I have ever taken. A lodge at the top would certainly attract visitors and would help preserve some of the landscape.

Construction along the highway

Urcos Lake and Litter

Homestead near the highway



Interoceanica Sur: POST 1

December 3, 2010
Interoceanic in the Andes

The Interoceanic in the Andes

Interoceanic near Cusco


My project here in Peru has two major components – photographic documentation of the Interoceanic Highway and of the conservation efforts around the highway. Today I made progress on the first component by driving the highway from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. I hired a private driver for the job so I could stop along the way to take photos. It was an incredible journey and I will share images and notes from the trip over the next few days.

To give you some background on the highway, it is a transcontinental highway that stretches across Peru and Brazil, linking the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The highway passes through the Andes and the Amazon, opening up previously inaccessible habitat to development. Although the highway was proposed over 30 years ago, the agreement between the two countries was only negotiated in 2004. The impetus for creating the highway was to increase trade between Peru and Brazil and between both countries and Asia.

Now, in 2010, the project is in its last stages and the road is almost entirely complete. We encountered road crews every 30 kilometers or so, but they were mostly clearing rubble or finishing bridges. The road itself is well constructed and, unlike other roads in the Andes, has well planned drainage systems. Landslides frequently take out unpaved roads and the new highway seems to be prepared for the rainy season at both high and low elevations.

I decided to focus on the Interoceanic Highway because Peru is at a crossroads – they can either conserve the land around the highway or let it go the way of the Trans-Amazonian Highway in Brazil. At the moment the land around the highway is mostly pristine –there are vast swaths of forest and incredible vistas. A few pre-existing communities, like Quincemil, are found along the highway, but they are few and far between. I hope images of the highway in its current state and images of the incredible wildlife and diversity around the highway will encourage Peru to turn the highway into a scenic byway, instead of another road surrounded by tiendas and deforestation.

4700 meters on the Interoceanic Highway


Bugs and Beetles of Villa Carmen

November 27, 2010


Order: Hemiptera (true bug)

These images are from Villa Carmen. I’m just adding a quick post to the blog because I’m in Lima and have been quite sick for the last few days – a stomach bug or parasite – yet to be determined.


Weevil building nest in tree.



Scutellarid (Order: Hemiptera)


Tortoise beetle (Family: Cassidae)





Help Save the Amazon by Googling!

November 26, 2010

If you are enjoying the blog and would like a very easy (and free) way to help the region, use the Amazon Conservation Association’s free google search page! You get the same results, and every search contributes $.03 to the cause. Try it out!

Visit: and register.

Anole displaying its dewlap, Villa Carmen Biological Station.

Leafhoppers congregating by a stream, Villa Carmen Biological Station.

What am I? See if you can identify these insects.

November 25, 2010

Here are four incredible insects – take a guess at what they are and then check your answers below the images . . . . you may be surprised.

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Image 1: Cockroach

Image 2: Grasshopper

Image 3: Dobsonfly

Image 4: Stick insect

Queros-Wachiperi: DAY 8

November 25, 2010

Fulgorids (peanut-head bugs)


My skin is like a battlefield. The forest has completely ravaged it. My ankles are the front lines where chiggers, mosquitos, and ants wage war against my socks. Our campsite swarms with wasps, bees, flies, and ants. Bees have taken a liking to my camera viewfinder, where the sweat of my forehead often drips. Here, in the forest, it sometimes feels like you could be eaten, bit by bit, if you stayed long enough. The insects are less of a problem when I am covered up, but the minute skin is exposed they hone in on the target.

While sometimes a nuisance, the insects are also the most enchanting part of the forest. At night, when I rise from my tent, moths hover in the hundreds above the campsite, glittering like fairies in the faint light of my headlamp. Today, I hiked a new trail the men are clearing. As I reached the top of a hill, I heard “Gabrielea, ven ven!” I saw Freddy waving his machete for me to come. He led me through the trail to a clearing and pointed at a large tree. From a distance I thought the insects on the side where large cicadas. Then, it slowly dawned on me – they were fulgorids – an insect I have wanted to see in the wild since I was 7 or 8 years old. These fantastic creatures have large wings and a head shaped like an unshelled peanut. There were 8 individuals on the tree and the largest ones were almost 7 inches long. Amazingly, they ranged in color from pastel yellow to pastel blue. While I found it difficult to take creative images of them, I did get a few interesting pictures. Then, I put my camera aside and just looked. Their underwings had yellow and black eyespots. Despite my prodding, I could not get one to fly, but I did see a mating pair. I was thrilled!

The fulgorid sighting was followed by a dead leaf mantis that hangs upside down and wiggles like a dead leaf in the wind. Its amazing behavior makes it look even more like a leaf than it already does.

After that, I wandered through the forest until Freddy appeared once more. This time, it was a bushmaster. The bushmaster is the most venomous snake in this area – I have had many a nightmare about it. However, this would be my first time seeing one in the wild and I was incredibly excited. This individual was about 2 meters long and it was sleeping under a tree in the leaf litter. Until it was pointed out to me, I would have had trouble seeing it. Its coloration makes it blend in perfectly with its surroundings. When I did see it, I was immediately impressed by how vicious it looks. Its whole appearance, from the sharp scales to the angular head, screams “I am a mean devil of a snake.” I took a lot of photos – from a distance. After I finished and started packing my camera up, the men began to move in with machetes. I quickly realized that they were going to kill it. I could not stand the thought of such a beautiful animal, however dangerous, being killed. So, I began to put up a fight.


Argument #1: It’s beautiful, please don’t kill it. Result: FAIL

Argument #2: It’s important for a healthy ecosystem. Result: FAIL

Argument #3: It’s endangered. Result: HESITATION AND SUCCESS


So, I saved the snake. However, Argument #3 was a complete lie. It turns out that the Central American Bushmaster is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, but the South American Bushmaster is not threatened. Hopefully good intentions justify the lie.


Dead Leaf Mantis

Fulgorid (peanut-head bug)

Fulgorids mating!


Queros-Wachiperi: DAY 7

November 24, 2010

Scarab beetle



Today was a ‘normal’ photography day. Freddy yelled into my tent at 4:55am and we set off for the small collpa. I came armed with an extra poncho to wrap around my legs while we wait for something to come. After 90 minutes, I called it quits and began photographing some flowers near the trail. Freddy disappeared into the woods for a while and I wandered around. He returned after 10 minutes to report on his findings: a swarm of ants, a yellow and blue beetle, and a flower. I fancy that I have well-trained eyes in the jungle, but he outdoes me every time.

I spent the rest of the day following the men as they opened a new trail. Sighting of note include an olive green oropendola, an iguana, and an anole. At night two click beetles with headlights came to the campsite. I was able to pick them up and examine them closely for the first time. They are often confused with lightening bugs, but they have two pinpoints of light at the front of their bodies – like headlights on a car.

After a hot day in the field, we returned to bathe in the river. I had brown water dripping off of my skin as I soaped up. The river is lovely because it is the only place where insects do not swarm. For a few minutes, there is a blissful silence and your skin only prickles from the chilly water, not from the feet of more than 30 sweat bees and ants. Ana asked me some interesting questions today, including “Is Obama a good President?” and “Do you want a Peruvian lover?” I am consistently amused by the questions Peruvians have about America – about the conspiracy of 9/11 and whether or not all Americans are rich.

Now, I am battling ants in our tent. Believe it or not, they are actually eating the tent. Each day there are more minute holes and I observed two tearing away at the mesh fabric with their mandibles. They slip into my sleeping bag and bite me in the night, usually on my cheeks and neck, the only body parts I leave exposed. It is an annoyance, but I really can’t complain because Marco, Freddy, and Rolando are sleeping under a tarp, exposed to any and all creatures that choose to visit them during the night. Sleeping under a tarp in the Amazon is one thing you could not pay me to do.

The Queros River

The forest


Queros-Wachiperi: DAY 6

November 22, 2010



In better spirits today. The morning got off to a slow start. Cooking breakfast takes a long time over a fire. No instant oatmeal for these guys. We had rice and fish cooked in bamboo stalks. You stuff the hollow bamboo with the fish and cap both ends with palm leaves. It takes about 30 minutes for the fish to cook. After breakfast, I was ready to go, but the men had to have their coca. I paced the small trail to the river, turning over leaves in search of insects.

We left at 9am, but leaving only involved walking to one side of the camping area and starting to open a trail. They open the forest like opening a book. I got caught up in a patch of mushrooms for a few minutes. When I looked up from my viewfinder, there was a path through previously impenetrable jungle. I ventured forth, amazed by the spectacular forest. A weevil sat on a palm frond by the trail, apparently undisturbed by the recent passing of 6 machete-bearing men. I spent the morning taking pictures and arrived at the collpa, or clay lick, at lunchtime. A collpa is a place where mammals and birds go to find nutrients and minerals. It is believed that birds use the minerals to neutralize some of the compounds they consume in seeds. We had lunch on a riverbank littered with the most colorful stones I have ever seen. The riverbed is like a crumbled rainbow.

After lunch, Ana stayed with me and we found some flowers and insects. We took our time along the new trail to the second collpa. Our arrival was greeted by a troop of wooly monkeys and a brief sighting of an antpitta. Freddy was selected to stay with me at the collpa until dusk to see if any mammals would visit. We sat in a cloud of sweat bees and mosquitoes for two hours. Freddy periodically whacked his bare flesh with the back of his palm and I wrapped myself in my raincoat and poncho to ward off the biters. Nothing came, but we did find tapir tracks.

We returned to the campsite for a dinner of noodle soup and cocoa nuts. Marcos, the President of the community, climbed a tree and knocked down 2 buckets full of the cocoa nuts. You boil them and peel each nut, scooping the meat out with a spoon. I ate over 3 dozen, peeling them with my bare hands and sucking at the nutmeat by the light of the cooking fire. It certainly beats Hersheys chocolate. Ana mashed up a huge number of the nuts and mixed the meat with sugar, milk, and water. We had the freshest hot chocolate you can possibly imagine. I will sleep well tonight.

Caña caña blanca flower

Tortoise beetle

Cocoa nuts mashed with bamboo for hot chocolate


Queros-Wachiperi: DAY 5

November 22, 2010

A stream near our campsite.


We camped by the river. My inflatable sleeping bag refuses to inflate, so I slept on the ground. It was not cold, but my back retains impressions of the roots and rocks on the forest floor. I woke at dawn and found that no one was stirring except my tent mate Ana, the only female conservation promoter. Breakfast was rice and fish. Ronaldo, one of the men, caught the fish last night and they have been cooked whole, whiskers, eyes, and all. I am expected to suck the bones dry and to peel it like a banana. I pass and nurse the peanut butter I have stowed away.

Our trek to the river begins at 10am. We have to cross the river and I am skeptical because it has swelled after the rains. Either I am weaker or my pack is significantly heavier, because I can barely lift my legs this morning to climb over the fallen logs. The forest floor is treacherous – slippery leaves and hidden holes make me stumble along behind the others. I am wearing my snake boots, but I still focus on the litter. I mistake a leaf for a snake, even though my eyes are trained to make sense of the mess of browns and greens.

We reach the river after an hour. I shake my head as I am confronted with a rushing chute of water. There is no way this is safe. My mind races back to my training as a backpacking leader in college – this is an occasion for rerouting. Unfortunately, there is no other route. I pass my camera gear to Freddy, an abnormally tall Peruvian and a beast of a man. He crosses the river and returns for me, holding my hand as I plant my bare feet blindly between rocks. I sigh with relief at the other side. Not so bad, I think to myself. But, there is more. There are actually two more crossings, each of increasing difficulty. I sit on the shore, sick to my stomach, as I watch three men go across. They are taller than me and it almost reaches their armpits. An attempt to walk in the water proves that the current is too strong for my 120-pound frame. The solution is to pass me from man to man like a sack of potatoes. I reach the shore, soaked, but safe.

We are in the wilderness. After 20 minutes of hiking, the trails have ended, tapering off as they reach another river. We proceed to hike up the river, zigzagging from shore to shore and crossing over 10 times. The water is shallower, but the current is still strong. The men hike in their underwear and rubber boots, gliding across the river like fish. I stumble and wince and am happy that they don’t understand English because I am cursing like a sailor.

After two hours of hiking, we arrive at a playa in the middle of the river. It is the first time that I am able to appreciate the beauty of the river and surrounding forest. Lush, tall trees line the banks and vines hang down over the water. I wait on the bank, while the men scout for a campsite. Modesty is cast aside in the wilderness and I bask in my sports bra and underwear on the bank, trying to dry out. The men clear a campsite with their machetes, turning a dense forest into a flat bank of land that is suitable for tents. After camp is setup, we all rest on the beach. I notice movement that isn’t human –a red brocket deer is swimming across the river right in front of us. It spooks when we make eye contact and retreats into the forest. A few minutes later, I watch it cross upstream and am able to snap a few images.

Night is coming on and I retreat into my tent after having scouted around the area. The forest is pulsing with noise, so I turn on my IPod and I am lulled to sleep by the dulcet sounds of Simon and Garfunkel. Believe it or not, the real adventure begins tomorrow.

Red Brocket Deer

Epiphyte (unidentified).

Queros-Wachiperi: DAY 4

November 22, 2010

Lunch - A Roasted Armadillo


I am venturing into the Queros-Wachiperi Conservation Concession today. There is one trail that goes in and that is all I am told. We are going to create tracks in what is currently an untouched wilderness. I am waiting in the community for the promoters, or park rangers, to arrive. Eddie pulls up on his motorcycle, machete strapped across his back – the epitome of cool. “Listo?” he says. Yes, I’m ready.

Eddie begins to pack up our gear. As he shoves a 10-kilogram bag of rice into his backpack, he tells me we might see a jaguar. A turkey climbs onto the porch of the little house and starts poking at our food. I save the bread form its insistent beak. The others show up and begin packing, while I sit and observe the morning activities.

I am led to the house of Ana’s abuelita for lunch. She hands me a bowl with rice and a piece of meat. They look at me, wondering how my vegetarianism will respond. “It’s white meat,” Walter says. In an effort to be flexible, I’d stated that I ate only white meat, figuring I could stomach some chicken if necessary. This is NOT chicken. There is an odd piece of bone curving over the outside of the meat. I watch as Ana plies it off and throws the bone to the dogs, eager for the ‘white’ meat underneath. What the hell is this? After running through a list of mammals in my head, it dawns on me. I am eating armadillo. Roasted armadillo. My stomach lurches. I look up at Ana’s grandmother, staring me down as I taste her specialty. I smile as I poke at it with my fork in an attempt to hide the meat in the rice, pretending I’d eaten it. But, I was the kid who ate all my vegetables; I have no experience slipping food under the table. I take four bites before Freddy saves me – “Are you going to eat that?” At least, I can say that I’m eating local.

Picture me, squeezed on a motorcycle between a camping backpack and a large Peruvian man with my camera backpack on my back and my tripod strapped in the front basket. We rode through a back jungle road, partially overgrown with vines and bamboo. The start of the trail into the concession is 5 kilometers from the community. We navigated puddles and rocky patches, driving blindly through spiky vines as we closed our eyes and pushed on. We finally stopped at a nondescript part of the road. “Estamos aca,” Walter tells me – we are here. We wait for 15 minutes for the others to arrive on their bikes. Ana pulls up with the camping gear and we unload, redistributing until we can all comfortably carry our packs.

Armed with machetes, we move forward. After only 10 minutes, Freddy puts down his pack. The others follow suit – it’s time for a rest and we’ve only just begun. Packs open and bags emerge, crackling with coca leaves. The men began to chew. They suck down handfuls, pushing the half munched leaves into the pockets of their cheeks. The bag comes to me and I take a handful, on a stage in front of the surprised eyes of my companions. “Don’t swallow the leaves – just the liquid,” they tell me. “Don’t chew hard.” I start forming a ball in my check, curious how they manage to masticate the leaves without swallowing pieces that escape the orb. My tongue tingles. We set off on the trail after they light up a few cigarettes and pass around a chocolate bar. Freddy walks in front, whacking bamboo leaves and vines with his machete and pausing occasionally to suggest a reroute because of a wasp nest. I focus on not falling down under the weight of my pack. I can only hear the tin of the machete striking the wood and the occasional stream of cocoa juice issuing from the mouth of my companions.

The sky darkens to the shade of dirty dishwater and we all know it will rain hard. We come to a clearing and the men drop their packs, rushing off to hack up bamboo for a temporary shelter. We finish off the shelter with my tripod. Within 10 minutes the raindrops are thick and heavy, obscuring the forest into a blur of greens and browns. The good thing about a hard rain is that it keeps off the mosquitoes. We sit with our backs against the packs, creating a moat of mud around the shelter with the heels of our boots.

The forest smells wet. I sneak pieces of Oreo from the pocket of my raincoat, appeasing my hunger from the unfinished lunch. The forest is lush here and I see pictures everywhere, but am afraid to expose my camera to the downpour. After two hours we emerge, stiff and tired and decide to spend the night on this side of the river, saving the long journey for tomorrow.

Our Group

The Forest in the Concession

The View from our Campsite