Category Archives: North of Peru

Peru’s North-Eastern Route: Alto Mayo

Alto Mayo is one of my favourite places to birdwatch. The cloudforest has spectacular views from a road that twists and turns through it, the Fernando Belaunde Terry highway, finished  during the late 70’s to finally reach the jungle of Northern Peru. The place where I was going was the campsite of one of the many fronts of workers who I’m sure must have suffered to build a road over these mountains. In fact the camp’s name, Venceremos (“We will win”), gives an idea of the epic struggle it must have been, but also offers a perception of the purpose nature serves around here: to extract, defeat and tame.

Fernando Belaunde Terry highway

My friend Marco Leon works in the area studying orchids but also his NGO, INIBICO, recently received a fund to create an interpretation center right at Venceremos, so now the campsite is no longer abandoned. I have worked with Marco in the past and this time I went there to do some birding and give him the lists of what birds I found to add some value to his project.

Interpretation center at Venceremos

I was at Venceremos one year ago and I must say that the work they have done there has produced an amazing change in the aspect of the campsite! Now it looks like a place to visit, with a building where the proper interpretation center will be, with explanations and photographs of the Alto Mayo Protected Area. On the building next door the park guards live and they have their kitchen, toilet facilities and rooms. I’m happy for this means that protection will be enabled though this is too positive for an area that faces extremely difficult conditions to manage.

Alto Mayo extends over cloudforest, a delicate and relatively small habitat, yet a very rich and biodiverse one; in fact the most biodiverse habitat in relation to its size in Peru. This diversity has attracted people from far places such as Cajamarca and Chiclayo, cities where opportunities are less and poverty abounds. They come here and claim a piece of land as theirs.  With no law enforcement from the authorities (many times authorities themselves are involved in “land trafficking”),  they start practicing the Andean way of agriculture: slash and burn, a technique that makes no sense in such poor soils as those of cloudforest. The steep hills are ideal for coffee. We are losing our forests to give coffee to a world already too hyperactive. That and cows, and what once was a beautiful forest full of ferns, moss, epyphites and bromeliads is now grazing green grass for cows. Of course, on the way to deforestation all the wood is taken care of and the hunger of the world for cedar will soon realize there’s no more of it.

It’s hard to be positive when one looks at the reality of things for the local people. I haven’t even listed all of the problems of the Alto Mayo. But we try to do something. I think the simple fact that truckdrivers see me looking for birds on the side of the road can at least raise the question of ‘what the hell is that gringo doing by the side of the road?’, and maybe the spontaneous answer will come too ‘oh, he’s watching birds and nature….maybe then I won’t throw my thrash out the window’. If all drivers would think that, because the amounts of thrash I saw on the side of the road are a shame. Even the bus companies throw their rubbish from the meals they give their passengers off the window!

But Alto Mayo remains beautiful and biodiverse nevermind all the trouble closing in around it. I dedicated my second day there to walk the side of the road until the afternoon and saw amazing birds: my first ever Blackburnian Warbler, a tiny bird that migrates from North America. Also a female Royal Sunangel, a hummingbird endemic of Peru.

Flame-faced Tanager

Cinnamon Flycatcher

In the afternoon we drove to the other side of the high pass to a village named Buenos Aires. There Marco works with Doroteo Valle, a man with a passion for orchids who is growing hybrids on his greenhouse. The pressure for orchids is great here and is common to see locals picking them up on the side of the road to

sell them to drivers passing by for ridiculously low prices.  That’s how Mr. Kovach got a flower of Phragmipedium kovachii, he bought it illegally for a few soles and took it (illegally) to the US where he quickly published the new species description getting ahead of a team of Peruvians who were doing just the same. He even put his name on the scientific name of the flower (kovachii). And though Mr. Kovac is in jail now, most people don’t run that luck and they get away with it.  The orchids of Alto Mayo are beautiful and abundant but some of them are extremely rare, like Phragmipedium kovachii which only grows in Alto Mayo. We must be able to reproduce it so that it doesn’t have to be extracted from its natural places and that’s what Marco wants too. Not only he works with Doroteo but with many other locals who have their green houses next to the road giving them assistance in how to reproduce the orchids so they don’t have to go and extract more from the wild.

Phragmipedium kovachii

Doroteo

Next day is long with some birding in the morning and a lot of driving to return to Tarapoto. On the way we visit a huge plantation of Stevia, a plant that replaces sugar, especially recommended for diabetics ‘cause it doesn’t contain any glucose.

 

 

There are good things happening out there, we just need to find them.

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Peru’s North-East route: Ojos de Agua

While I was in Alto Mayo I met Hugo. When he found out that I was interested on birdwatching he suggested I should go to Ojos de Agua, a dry-forest area of conservation located only one hour by car South of Tarapoto. I was definitely interested since dry forest offers a whole different set of birds and is a disappearing habitat due to human pressure for farming lands. Hugo happened to be the ex-director of an asociation of ‘campesinos’ (small farmers) who decided to actually create a conservation area. I asked him all the details of who to contact there and started planning the trip.

As I was leaving Tarapoto it started raining, which seemed a bit strange since it hadn’t for the past 3 weeks. I gave little attention to the rain knowing that the dry-forest is affected by a ‘rain-shadow’ effect, making rains go discharge on more eastern areas. Little I knew…Pablo Escudero, the current director of the association, and other members, greeted me at their office on the main square of a village named Pucacaca (‘Red Mud’ in Quechua language). “You brought the rains Pepe!” they exclaimed.

Pucacaca’s main square when we were ready to leave the first time. That motorcycla is the ‘furgoneta’ I mention forward.

I explained how I got in touch with them and my interest in visiting their area. They were all very kind and told me their fascinating story of how they went from ‘campesinos’ to conservationists: as rains were becoming rarer in that part of the Huallaga River valley, they thought it had to do with the accelerated pace of the deforestation in the, mainly due to corn plantations. Knowing that, I preferred to think of the rains I arrived with as a good omen. The area also has a demand to produce coal and dry forest trees are excellent for that. It’s fairly common to see the long chimneys of coal burning plants in th elittle town along the main road. They formed a society and started talking to people in their village searching for support. But people they wouldn’t understand that standing forest is important for rains. Still they went on trying to look for support to their idea of protecting a 2500 hectare forest. At one point a local timber mafia guy sent them to court alleging they were liars and just wanted to cut the forest for themselves (when that was actually that guy’s interest). The trial took 2 years during which they spent great amounts of money from their own pockets. But help would come. People of the Embassy of Finland (known in Peru for their support to nature conservation) offered them help. Other NGO’s offered technical and legal  assistance. Soon after they won the trial, a fund and their project was approved.

And so, in 2007 Bosque del Futuro-Ojos de Agua was officially the first Conservation Concession of San Martin region in North-East Peru. One listens to them tell their story and can’t help but believe them, not only cause truth is heard on their voice but because they seem (and later I realized they truly are) committed to conservation.

We decided to kill some time until the rains left and I offered to show them a presentation of a power point that me and a friend presented last year during a workshop in another village as an introduction to birdwatching with the purpose of training local guides. They called all available members of the society and we went on with that. Lunch passed and the rains stopped so we prepared everything to go to the starting point of our walk. From there we would walk for 2 hours until a cabin they had recently finished in the heart of the forest they protect. To get to the starting point we would take a ‘furgoneta’, a motorcycle with a small load box on the back. The road was very muddy and wet and the engine got soaked and turned off. We had to walk back and send to motorcycle to the mechanic and wait. After a second try with equal results we decided it was too late to leave that day. We would wait and meet at 3am that night at the office to go and do the walk without the heat and humidity of the day and to get to the cabin on time to do some birding, if the weather allowed it. I was given a room at one of the society member houses and hoped the weather was good the next day.

We were lucky, rain was light and motorcycle worked fine this time. The path was difficult because it was very muddy and with each step mud would stick to the rubber boots making each foot weigh 3 times more after a few minutes. There were 5 of us and some of them were carrying stuff to the cabin to set it up: a gas tank, a stove, and food. People here carry things with a band they call ‘pretina’ which they place on their forehead (where the weight sits), but the actual object is carried on the back where the ‘pretina’ ties it up, that way they can have free arms while they walk. I was amazed to see the man carrying the gas tank (35 kilos) on his forehead in such a miserable path. I have tried that method before and honestly I felt my head was about to break in 2. But we managed to get to the cabin at dawn. It was a beautiful spot.

Great Owl butterfly, check out the snake face on the lower right part of the wing.

After breakfast we went walking around the forest recording birds and whatever showed up. Along the way, giant snails were everywhere. They showed me a species of fern (Platycerium andinum) very rare that has only been recorded here and somewhere in Bolivia. Also trees such as Quinilla (Manilkara bidentada), a Giant Columnar Cacti (Cereus peruvianus), Shucshungo (Eugenia limbosa), Manchinga (Brosimun alicastrum) are all endangered and well present in the area, not to mention that they are very important and valuable trees for their wood (Quinilla) and nutritional possibilities (Manchinga. For more information on Manchinga check www.mayanutinstitute.org).

Rare fern ‘Platycerium andinum’ anly found in these dry forests of Peru and Bolivia.

Shucshungo Tree

Quinilla

We saw the creek that gives name to this area, Ojos de Agua, a large rock platform where the running water of the rainy season has eroded “eyes of water” on it. Frogs are abundant and a study by expert Rainer Schulte showed that at least 3 species are rare and need conservation here. Birds were not showing themselves much because of the weather but a few interesting species were heard or spotted: Gray-headed Kite, White-eyed Tody-Tyrant, Planalto Hermit, among others.

Ojos de Agua

After returning to the cabin for lunch and some rest the plan was to bird the afternoon but the rains got stronger and didn’t stop until the next morning. At this point the creek was filled with running water and the whole forest was draining it. This forest, due to the hard, red clay soil, does not drain so much rain and so it floods. The path we walked on to get to the cabin was a river at portions upon return, sometimes with water up to our waists. But I was happy I met these people, true conservationists, people who have an ideal and work very hard cause they are convinced of something and they don’t mind not getting paid for it, though obviously they would prefer if that was the case. Hopefully one day they will reach that goal.

TO VISIT THIS WONDERFUL AREA CONTACT WILLIAM RODRIGUEZ (IN SPANISH IF POSSIBLE) AT abofoa@gmail.com

With my guide William and the path after the rains.

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Peru’s North-Eastern Route: Tarapoto

The idea of crossing over the mountains from Mendoza, walking for 2 days to arrive to the town of San Marcos, and from there follow by car a few hours to Rioja (the actual first Spanish-founded city in the Peruvian jungle, in 1538), was not convincing for the 3 of us. Matt had an injured ankle, and myself not fully trusting my left leg yet after the injury, we ended up returning on our steps by bus to Chachapoyas, a 3 hour beautiful ride nevertheless. In the middle of the way, at Mariscal Benavides, lightning was storming the whole thing around and above us. It was actually scary. What a display of nature right there! We waited until the storm passed and then went on.

From Chacha we caught a ride with a driver who thought he was an F1 driver and made it to Pedro Ruiz in 45 minutes. Driver said there are others who do it in 30! At Pedro Ruiz, where the crossroads is, our bus was late ‘cause it was coming from Lima. That bus took us all the way to Tarapoto. Tough the idea originally was to go to Moyobamba, only 2 hours before Tarapoto, but we were tired and had had a long day.  A curious coincidence marked the catch. A young girl at the stop asked me if I was from San Roque, a little village near Tarapoto where I used to live between 2008-2009. She was the daughter of Keiner, the driver of one of three trucks that do service between Tarapoto and San Roque. I thought it was nice that she reminded me just from seeing me at the stop and that she would think I was from San Roque. I felt really honoured!

This type of coincidences have marked my arrival to Tarapoto. A prove of it is that as soon as I woke up at midday the next day after the lousy bus ride-sleep, I went for breakfast at a Menu around the corner from the nameless hostel of Don Alberto. And right there by the door passes my friend Trinnah! Trinnah is a British ex-pat who is married to Daniel, a Peruvian friend as well. Now they have a baby daughter and an artist-studio where they welcome artists for seasonal stay and work.  Check Sachaqa web page here if you are interested:

http://www.sachaqacentrodearte.blog.com

San Pablo de la Cruz St.

In 2 days in Tarapoto I have ran into several friends from the days when I used to live here, back in 2009. The assumption that things must have been set up to motion might have not been so pretentious as can seem. Somehow Tarapoto seems a bit more mature and grown. Might be the stability of the local government that was just re-elected past November. Speaking of politics, reading the paper today I learnt that Alejandro Toledo, an ex-president and  presidential candidate, was just in town to give a rally looking over the elections next April. The rally was poorly rated but it did mention that Toledo promised to build a road from Soritor to Mendoza, exactly the route of the ancient Inka Trail to the jungle the Spaniards followed to go and found Rioja and that we wanted to follow too! How ironic. However, I’m thinking I may not vote for Toledo after all because in that area roads mean deforestation in a very rich forest that is also protected. Of course he calls that progress. Progress it may be but at what cost? This area of Peru, San Martin and Amazonas regions, are the most deforested of the country and they have lost 1/3 of their native forests.

Cumbaza River after the rains.

After our arrival Erick and Matt have gone on their side. Our agendas are different in Tarapoto but I’m sure they will keep appearing on these lines. I went to San Roque to visit Javier and Claudia, good friends who are building their house. A unique construction designed by them and made from mostly local materials and respecting nature as much as it can, in the middle of the forest, simple yet beautiful. They have named it Chirapa Manta. Idea was to go and birdwatch on his land, all secondary and healthy hill forest right on the limit with protected area Cordillera Escalera. But the weather had planned differently and as soon as we arrived to San Roque it started raining and it went on for 2 consecutive days. You should have seen the river! This way we couldn’t birdwatch as much as we would have liked but we did see some good birds such as Spotted Sandpiper and Golden-headed Manakins displaying on a ‘lek’ or “flirting area” where male manakins “display” their ways of convincing female Golden-Headed Manakins to mate with them. And they go some distance to do this because manakins are credited for inventing the Moonwalk step that late King Michael stole.

Javier and Claudia’s place

A funny thing caused by the rain was that we had to go across Cumbaza River to get to the car and leave. There is another path to get across it but much it’s a longer walk and we were well packed. I say it was funny because there’s no bridge at the river and the current was strong with water almost up to our waist. Few dry clothes came back from my stay in San Roque, but I love that place. Staying at Javier’s place in the middle of the forest is really calming. Birdwatching from the house itself is almost perfect!

Now I’m back in Tarapoto. Last night I visited my favourite bar in town, the always popular Stonewasi. It was a great night with my friends. There’s a concert outside on the street tonight. It’s going to be huge! Street is closed, 2 big bands are playing and it’s carnival party, which means water balloons and powder!

Closing time at Stonewasi

The weekend is here.

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Peru’s North-Eastern Route: Tocuya and Omia.

We decided to try this full day on our own, took a car to Tocuya and 45 minutes later we were walking towards a beautiful setting for 2 large pools with hot springs right next to a natural stream. The water is bluish and smells mildly to sulphur but the exact chemicals and medicinal properties are unknown. We spent the morning laughing and splashing on the pool, jumping from a tree and taking pics.

Tocuya Hot Springs

Underwater fun.

We walked our way back to Restaurant Magaly on the side of the road and had lunch. This tiny little restaurant has been so far the best surprise on the trip for me. Food was truly delicious and local. I had Cecina (pork jerky) with rice and fried bananas. Erick had Chorizo with beans and salad and Matt had Gallina (Chicken).

Sopita de verduras

Transport can be a pain in these isolated areas. We waited for a taxi for 40 minutes and when finally a driver was available we fit 9 people in a station wagon to Omia, just 15 minutes back on the road to visit Leo’s cave.

“Why is it named Leo’s cave?” Erick asked before getting there. “Because Leo is the owner of the land there, he will be our guide” I answered. Leo welcomed us and asked us if we had lamps. He tried to evade our answers and said “I prefer we get there and you see it, then I will answer all your questions”. We had the option of visiting the Quiocta caves near Chachapoyas, but my friend Michell Leon had said that Leo’s cave was far more impressive. And he was very right.

Cave’s entrance

I had never seen anything like it! We entered by a little hole on the rocks that breaths in the middle of Leo’s coffee plantation. He bought the land in 1986 and didn’t find the cave until 2007. He has worked himself the steps that guide us on the cave; “Imagine working here, a work-day in here becomes a week” he says as we enter. On the way Leo lights up with his powerful torch the beautiful rock formations on the cave. Millions of years of liquid history solidified and turned into galleries where columns, stalactites, stalagmites, quartzes, etc. can be found.

Leo hasn’t explored the whole cave but he says it’s about 80 meters deep n the second level and a little shorter on the first level. He has even found the skeletons of 3 people in here!

We are very happy we came here and we return to Mendoza ready for another great meal at Restaurant Elenita on the main square. I had Chicken in Huacatay sauce and it was delicious. So far food has been great. We eat cheap menus near markets and they have proved delicious and satisfactory for the research on Peruvian and local cuisine. In all this area the dairy products are very popular and so far the Lucuma yogurt, the different cheeses, breads and sweets we’ve tried have been excellent.

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