Category Archives: Trekking

A Peruvian in Australia: a visa letdown, a sacred leave and a trip back home.

I didn’t get the visa. Not the Australian residence visa but the one to visit New Zealand.  We had plans to visit Mel’s friends in Auckland and also do the Milford Track in the South Island, a sort of Kiwi Inca Trail without the archaeological bits but so beautiful it actually is nicked the ‘finest walk in the world’. Had flights and accommodation booked, buses as well, etc. But the one thing we weren’t counting on was the visitor visa for me. Turns out the Kiwis are pretty thorough on their visa procedures and they do not joke around with the subject, no matter who you are. Recently they denied a Visitor Visa to Mike Tyson. Though his refusal was on very different grounds, and by that I mean worse than mine. My refusal was due to an event that took place 11 years ago: I was deported from the Netherlands.

No Milford Track this year. Maybe next time!

No Milford Track this year. Maybe next time!

It sounds bigger than what it actually was. When I say I was ‘deported’ I have the feeling it makes me sound like I am a criminal. And when you put it next to the fact that I am Peruvian, even worse. I’m pretty sure the drug smuggling association springs to the mind of common people when I say it. Now imagine what it sounds like in the mind of a visa officer in an embassy. When you consider that the event took place in The Netherlands (where some drugs are legal), well, I just deserve an Oscar for staging quite a dramatic anecdote don’t I?

I was simply a tourist with an expired visa. And I happened to be travelling on a train between The Hague and Brussels that was searched by police looking for illegal immigrants. All this in the context of massive deportations taking place in Spain (where I was living) and an ultra right-wing government in Brussels (obviously doing the same). The policemen who detained me decided that since I was coming from The Netherlands it was the Dutch business to deal with me, so I was sent back, hand-cuffed, escorted by 3 or 4 policemen and handed over; they placed me in a detainment centre for illegal immigrants.  They interviewed me, I spoke to my Consulate and was advised that nothing could be done for me. So I was deported at 21 back to Peru after 3 days detained.

At the time I thought that that was that and end of the story. Oh, how wrong I was. A deportation follows you for a long time. Sometimes I feel like I actually committed a crime.  If you are wondering why am I rambling bitterly about that episode, it’s because that is the reason why I didn’t go to NZ. I declared it and they asked for documents from the Netherlands which were impossible to get in time for our attempted travel dates, and so the whole trip fell through.

The next best thing was to go to Cairns, where we had been recently and loved it. So we changed our plans and carried on with our holiday. This time we had heaps of more time than the last time we were in Cairns (which, now that I think about it, was also a visa related trip following the pressure that involved submitting the Partner Visa application). We decided that the approach to employ our time should be more balanced with one day of doing nothing (proper relaxing according to Mel) and one day of exploring the area (proper travelling according to Pepe). The question on whether to watch the birds or not was put aside since Mel got herself a pair of binoculars (and good ones, I am a bit jealous in fact!).

We knew the rains were about to start but were not worried since checking on the weather report every day prior to the trip the results were always above 30C. We were also aware that it was low season so we didn’t expect much of a crowd there. In this last regard we were a little wrong as something unexpected was going to take place in Cairns that we hadn’t heard about: a solar eclipse. The first in ten or so years in Australia and the only total eclipse for the next years that I will be around to see one in Oz.

Solar Eclipse November 2012

Solar Eclipse November 2012

As soon as we arrived in Palm Cove we noticed businesses selling ‘eclipse postcards’, ‘eclipse t-shirts’ and ‘eclipse glasses’ plus other paraphernalia  Asking around we learnt 3 things: that Palm Cove was the best spot to watch it, that we were gonna miss it, and that anyway everything was fully booked to its top capacity. Oh well, too bad. I also learnt that the whole Cairns area would be flooded with around 50 thousand enthusiasts. A niche of tourism I hadn’t heard of, ‘eclipse-watchers’!

We focused our explorations more on the Atherton Tablelands this time as we missed that area on our short first visit and had heard wonderful things about it. We visited Davies Creek National Park and that was a great surprise. Such a beautiful walk and almost no one to spoil it! We visited Mount Lewis too looking for birds and found heaps of Birds of Paradise (Victoria Riflebird), as well as Tooth-billed Bowerbirds and Golden Bowerbirds displaying.

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

Davies Creek NP

 

We visited Mosman Gorge and its beautiful walk around the forest. It was interesting to witness that the indigenous village just before the gorge entry looks just like a village could look in the Peruvian rainforest. In general, the indigenous presence in the Cairns area is more abundant than in Melbourne, where is passes pretty much unnoticed. I am very interested in the aborigines and so seeing their villages, culture and life in a non- tourist fashion is quite enlightening. Sadly I have come to learn about their problems with alcohol abuse and how their bodies are not able to cope with it as they do not have the enzyme that processes alcohol, leading to a strong addiction to it and a quick decay of their bodies. Similar thing happens with other drugs. I have been able to witness this on homeless people hallucinating on the public transport and men drinking their fill on their own at lunchtime in pubs while playing the slots. And while of course that is not the whole of the population, it is a percentage that worries non-aboriginalAustralians too. This situation has often times reminded me of how is it in Peru, where alcohol is much-abused in indigenous communities yet this doesn’t seem to be a significant issue for the government or the rest of the population. And this leads me to think how in the History of conquests, alcohol has played a role in helping to submit the local natives to the new rulers. I guess it plays the same role today with the youth that abuses it, turning them to obedient goats. I think the one thing I would change about my youth would be precisely that, to not abuse alcohol and know that that wouldn’t make me uncool but quite the opposite.

Mosman Gorge Aboriginal Community

Mosman Gorge Aboriginal Community

Mosman Gorge

Mosman Gorge

Mosman Gorge

Mosman Gorge

 

Peru was present in the trip to Cairns in a strange fashion. We met a German…should I call him  hippie to illustrate to you; a nice fella. Anyway, he was selling coconuts on his wheel barrel in Palm Cove. He looked completely out of place there, yet that may be the reason why he was so appealing to me. He told me straight away, without me asking, ‘I have a Peruvian poncho with bright colours to attract the customers’ as he chewed something. I asked ‘is that coca leaves you are chewing?’. The man nodded. I bought a coconut from him and he chipped some coca leaves in for a bargain price. Mel had never had a coconut the way I have only had them, so we sat by the ocean, and in an typical Indiana Jones moment, I opened the coconut with my Swiss army knife after sucking all the juice out of it and ate the white sweet meat.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Coca leaves, here is a little bit of the speech I used to tell my travellers when I was a Tour Leader: Coca leaves are not to be confused with Cacao beans. Both sound similar when pronounced in Spanish. The latter are used to produce chocolate and cocoa. The first is (tragically) infamous for being used to produce cocaine. Yet what is unknown of this leaf, native of Peru and Bolivia, is that in natural shape, chewed or ground or in tea, is quite healthy and in fact a super-food as some call it. Some of its many properties are to be a great energy booster, to take away appetite (this is particular useful when you leave in the mountains and have to work far from home in the field), to help adapt to high-altitude conditions, helps protect teeth and gives you all your daily requirements of Vitamins A, B, B12, C, E, Minerals (Zinc, Magnesium, Potassium, Calcium)  and others  in just 2 grounded teaspoons or the equivalent of chewed leaves. In Peru and Bolivia it is considered sacred by the indigenous people and in fact it is a huge part of their culture. Why then, you may wonder, it is forbidden? Well, you may ask that to the geniuses who insist in waging their ‘war on drugs’ and spend billions of dollars on it, when the true fact is that that huge effort is just a scratch on the arm of the drug industry that uses Coca leaves that they buy from poor farmers to produce cocaine. Had all those millions be spent on improving the conditions in which those farmers live and you would have no one to supply the drug-dealers with their prime matter. Or you would have it easier to locate who is supplying it. Makes sense?

How do they make the drug then? By isolating the cocaine (an alkaloid from coca just like caffeine is an alkaloid from coffee) when mixing the leaves with kerosene, and later solidifying that mix with Clorhidric Acid, Sulphuric Acid, Benzine and at least 10 other super toxic chemicals. That’s what makes it harmful and addictive, not the pure natural cocaine. No one has died of overdose from chewing coca leaves (not that you wanna try chewing them to death to prove me wrong, that would miss the point).

Another famous product made from Coca leaves, perhaps more even so than cocaine, is Coca-Cola. COCA-Cola, uses the leaves in its recipe in a synthetic formula that eliminates the cocaine alkaloid from it, hence they do not get in trouble. Because what is forbidden in fact is the cocaine alkaloid, not the leaves themselves. And according to American law, you can’t sell a product named after an ingredient that does not have that ingredient. So Coca-Cola uses coca leaves and they get them from Peru.

Coca K'intu, the sacred shape in which the leaves are 'offered' to the apus or mountain gods.

Coca K’intu, the sacred shape in which the leaves are ‘offered’ to the apus or mountain gods.

So why can’t the rest of the world use such a nutritious and healthy natural product? Once again, logic fails to help. Luckily, you can find so-called hippies like that German mate who, in true coca fashion, just handed me a bunch of coca leaves as native Peruvians do when they greet each other (they exchange coca leaves instead of shaking hands). Those leaves were most helpful when we woke up early to go watch birds. I chewed them, Mel instead loves the tea.

That lucky encounter awoke a thirst for the sacred Incan leaf that lead me to find that our favourite breakfast spot, Vivo (Spanish for ‘alive’), had Pisco liquor and, more importantly, Peruvian Pisco, as well as Coca Leaf liquor. So Vivo became our favourite dinner place too!

The trip was great and we really made the best of our stay. We returned to Melbourne fresh, rested and tanned- that’s important, especially for a gringo like me who looks pale as a radish in Peru. Here I actually am a brown-skinned in comparison.

Once back we started planning our next big adventure: the return to my home country! We plan to visit Peru in 2013 and bring my mother in law to travel with us and meet my family. Hopefully that trip won’t bring any complications. You would think ‘but you are going back to your OWN country, you couldn’t have ANY complications’. I in fact need a visa to leave and return to Australia until I get my residence assessed.

Or maybe by 2013 the world will have already started changing in a way I dream of, and people won’t need visas anymore. Maybe Australia would be the first country to welcome such measures. After all, isn’t Australia a country that has moved ahead after being founded by convicts? If, speaking metaphorically, our past is not to be forgotten, let it at least be forgiven so that we can all move on.

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A Peruvian In Australia: Far North Queensland

July saw us submit the visa application and a well-deserved break was needed. Besides winter had been a long few months and the Vitamin D reserves were running out. The body needed some sunshine. Specially my dear Mel who thinks anything below 25C is ‘cold’.

Cairns was the natural number one candidate spot. Not only was the weather we were looking for in full bloom there but we had the luck that my father-in-law has a place to stay. So we found a good flight offer, booked accomodation, rented a car, I designed an itinerary and we started counting the days…

One day, as I was showing the itinerary to Mel, she stopped me and said ‘You do realise it’s a holiday and not a birdwatching trip Pepe!’. I want to believe we stroke a balance between the two. Though lately Mel has been saying that she needs to get a pair of binoculars.

Day one saw us arrive at the airport with very little sleep due to the excitement of our trip. And we are not the lovely people we look like when we hadn’t slept enough. Tempers were short, luck was bad. Jetstar charged us for the baggage because a ‘newie’  clerk behind the counter didn’t know better than our bussiness class rights. That sat it off. And with the time we wasted trying to not pay the 60 dollars for 5 kilos of ‘excess’ there was no time for morning coffee at the lounge. To make things worse, during flight I realised that I had forgotten my camera at home! I had bought an extra card and battery for it. Oh dear, to think that once, in a not-too-distant-past, I was an efficient tour leader who could get up with 3 hours of sleep and a hangover with no problems the next day!

We arrived in paradise and the warmth and humidity were a soft caress on our faces. My pores immediately started choking in the sweet water of the air. We picked our white Hyundai from the airport and off we were to Palm Cove! Ah, the beauty of beach resorts! Everyone seems so chilled. But not us. Our room wasn’t ready until midday so we changed into lighter clothes and went for a recognition walk of Palm Cove.

Palm Cove Beach

It was nothing like I had imagined, and that’s a good thing. Palm Cove deserves a medal for being such a clean, cute little place. Maybe more oriented towards the ‘retired’ part of the population, but still a lovely spot. Our first 2 days were dedicated to that healthy and so often forgotten activity: being lazy.

Sunrise in Palm Cove

Sunbaking by the shore or by the pool, walking the beach, having a beer at the bar, getting some groceries for our appartment. The second morning I went for an early walk to check the birds in the nearby mangroves around Argentea Park. Turned out to be a very productive morning, with my first Rainbow Bee-eater and Metallic Starlings, as well as Orange-footed Scrubfowl (everywhere!), Pied Imperial-Pigeon and Double-Eyed Fig-Parrot.

I convinced Mel to drive to Cairns Botanic Gardens that afternoon and visit a bit of Cairns. The gardens are a lovely spot to have a stroll. In fact I started realising then that they really like their boardwalds in Queensland. They are everywhere and it’s a great way to see the forest without “walking off the path”. I like this “little things”. So far I can say that Australia had a very effective design and protection of the natural areas. In the gardens I caught sight of new birds like Australian Brush-Turkey  (very abundant), Magpie Goose and Radjah Shelduck.

One of the swampy lakes at Cairns Botanical Gardens

We walked the Cairns Esplanade towards the Lagoon. There was a circus show in the gardens there. Everyone seemed so relaxed and hippie. I guess that’s the outsiders view of a place, the grass is always greener on the other side isn’t it? Didn’t take long for me to imagine myself living in Cairns, of course me being a tourism industry born and bread. Mel did not dislike the idea mainly because it’s a warm place.

The Lagoon at Cairns Esplanade

On day 3 we drove to Port Douglas to catch a boat that would take us to see the coral reef. I had no idea what I was in for. I couldn’t help to compare it to Lake Titicaca (obviously in a much faster, nicer boat). The coral reef must be the number one attraction for foreign young tourists in Australia. I’m not forgetting Ulluru, but this one is much closer to main cities like Sydney or Brisbane and cheaper too. At the port I saw several boats leaving packed and the best thing is that the coral reef is so vast that there is no need that all boats go to the same place, so it doesn’t feel crowded, which would be the ultimate ruin for this sight, a common conplain at Lake Titicaca.

Port Douglas

We did it in a boat named Calypso (like Cousteau’s!) and it was great value for money. We paid AUD200 each and it was an all day tour including guides, snorkel gear, liquids (except alcoholic or sodas) and food. The boat was incredible, with several toilets (even showers), and several sundecks. The weather was beautiful. I had never snorkeled before. OK, maybe once, but choking in the pool is not exactly snorkeling. Yet, with reason, I was concerned. I didn’t want to drown or destroy the slow-growing coral with my split-splat.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef.

Turned out to be easier than I thought and sooner than later I was an underwater ballerina admiring the beauty and colous of what is, deservedly, one of the wonders of the natural world. Fish of all colours and voltages, sizes and shapes swimming just at hand-reach. Schools of huge parrot-fish would pass next to us regarding like they had never seeing a human before. And the complex neon-like forest that is the coral reef is just a mind blowing event for me! I don’t care we didn’t see a Humpback Whale (we did see a dolphin though). I’m lucky I saw the Great Barrier Reef.

Coral Reef

Day 4 was MY day, birdwatching time. Time to see in depth the other reason why this area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Tropical Rainforest. We drove very early in the morning to Daintree Village to reach a small birdwatching tour on the Daintree River. Caught sunrise as Mel drove what must be a record time and embarked on a beautiful and quiet two and a half hour tour spotting birds by the river. Caught many waterdragons, a record 6 according to Murray Hunt, owner and guide of Daintree Boatman Nature Tours.

The Daintree River

Great-billed Heron, one of the most sough-after local specialities opened the morning. A pair of Papuan Frogmouth perfectly camouflaged with branches, were asleep a couple of meters from us and the boat. Azure Kingfisher, Olive-backed Sunbird and Shining Flycatcher gave more colour to the green forest. The Saltwater Crocodile and the Amethystine Python eluded us. But the trip was worth it.

Can you see the Papuan Frogmouth?

We continued our drive after some breakfast at Daintree Village. Took the ferry across the river and stopped and every possible boardwalk and vista. We tried Jindalba Walk to see the Southern Cassowary but didn’t find it except in roadsigns and sculptures. The landscape made for all the wildlife we missed though. Jungle next to the ocean, a turquoise-blue ocean. That’s paradise to me.

A Cassowary sign

Cape Tribulation certainly looked like it. Open beach, no people and extreme beauty. No camping is allowed here because crocs have been know to assault on campers before. Every paradise has its guardians I guess.We drove back to Palm Cove so exhausted that we were asleep by 9pm.

Cape Tribulation Beach

The next day was a relaxing day. It was Mel’s birthday and we visited Kuranda, a small village near Cairns. Located between 2 protected areas, and among hills, Kuranda offers walks, markets, museums, a train ride and a telepheric ride over the forest. We enjoyed ourselves visiting the buttefly house, eating ice cream, walking around the market and the forest. At night we had dinner at NuNu, a fusion restaurant in Palm Cove. The food was delicious and based highly on fish.

Boardwalk to Barron Falls near Karunda

On our way to the airport I convinced Mel to do one last walk! She did not agree but knew that if we didn’t do it it would be painful. On the swamp next to the airport there is another boardwalk. I would have loved a croc to show up on one of these but it didn’t give. But I was satisfied as I spotted more than 30 new birds or lifers for me.

Guess next time we will go even further North, to the tip of Cape York. That would be quite an adventure. Mel did it when she was a kid with her family. We are thinking on doing it again sometime in a not too distant future.

Cairns Birdwing Butterfly

 

 

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A Peruvian in Australia: Getting Around (Part 2)

The Grampians

The Grampians must be one of the classic family holiday spots for Victorians. It definitely seemed very popular when we went camping there in November last year. We chose a campground at the heart of the Grampians: Hall’s Gap, a little village with a few restaurants, bungalow facilities, a nice museum of aboriginal history, an information centre, petrol station, etc. From here most hikes or roads leave from into the Grampians National Park. Mel was a bit curious and concerned about the accessibility, as in early 2011 this area had suffered from floods and mudslides and fires. We realised that one of the main roads was still under repair and to get to one of the main spots we would need to make a huge loop by car on what otherwise would be a 5km drive from Hall’s Gap.

The Grampians and Hall’s Gap down in the valley

But the weather was lovely, the people were happy and as soon as we set up our camp we were out looking for hikes. First we walked to a lookout point up on a mountain from where we could see massive flocks of Cockatoos flying across the valley, filling it with their loud calls that reminds me of those from macaws. The kangaroos were there too, in large groups, not shy at all, grazing next to the paths where people walked.

A Mob Of Kangaroos

But the highlight was definitely the circuit we did on day 2, when we walked for most of the day, to The Pinnacle, a lookout point at aprox.1200meters , and a circuit of beautiful avenues carved in ancient rocks where once water must have flown. I don’t want to seem rude but it is funny how when aussies refer to the Grampians they refer to them as ‘high’ mountains. You need to have in mind that the highest point in this big island is Mt. Kosciuszko at 2228 meters. So for me, having grown up in Cusco at 3400masl, surrounded by ranges well above 5 or 6 thousand, that was a bit…well, no disrespect at all, it’s just a simple way of saying how context is such a big thing in our lives.

The Pinnacle

We were able to witness the damage made by last years natural disasters when we walked by forest that had been burned. It’s very clear how the fires are such a big part of nature’s cycles here. The winds are strong and the heat is too, the land is flat and when all of these factors conspire, fires are the result.

Ballarat

Ballarat is one of Australia’s 20 largest cities and it only has 90 thousand people. It’s only an hour and a half drive from Melbourne, a reason why many of its inhabitants move to the bigger city looking for better opportunities. But there was a time when Ballarat possessed the bigger opportunities and attracted people from all over the world because of the gold that was found there. Nowadays the most popular attraction in Ballarat is Sovereign Hill, where a gold processing facility has been kept and well maintained. Visitors get to be dressed in the old fashion, just like we do in Peru with the visitors to Lake Titicaca. If you are thinking that it sounds like an amusement park where you get to see how the miners lived, you are right. If you think it’s boring, you’re wrong. Every detail is been taken care of and walking into Sovereign Hill seems like a passage back in time, to the 1830’s, when immigrants from all over the world were coming to this new continent in search of wealth and fortune. If it wasn’t for all the visitors…we did go on what probably is the busiest day in the year, but still managed to enjoy it!

Old shop in Sovereign Hill

Demonstrations on how lollies were made the old fashioned way (with the old-fashioned machinery and tools and all!) were so inspiring – we still have lollies from that visit a few months on! Another show on how a gold bar is melted and poured was particularly beautiful and entertaining. They had a whole foundry still working and it’s so impressive to see that machinery not only working but to imagine all the effort it actually took to make it and all the thought put into it. That’s one thing I love about old machines, they actually look clever. Modern stuff just looks pretty and disposable, utterly incapable of being appreciated for its charm. Just mass production.

And as you walk by you discover the whole village: the bar, the bakery, the mechanic that repaired the trolleys, the bowling saloon, the school, the Chinese neighbourhood (someday a whole district), the gold-wash area. We actually walked down into a mine. I couldn’t but sigh at the light years between this, still a working small mine, and the mines that I saw in Potosí, Bolivia, where the health and safety conditions are non-existent and when you sign the waiver it says clearly that there’s a chance you will die buried in the tunnel!

Chinese shop

So far I think Ballarat has given me that sharpest impression of what Australia used to be when it was founded. It reminds me what a young nation this one is and how fast it has gotten to where it is now.

Brisbane

Mel had to work in Sydney and Brisbane and I decided to tag along. I had miles on my account so I traded them to do my first domestic flight in Australia. Besides, Brisbane has a reputation for sunny weather and chilled out people and is close to some of the biggest tourist destinations in the whole country: Gold Coast and Noosa.
I had contacted my friend Renata on e-mail and we were plotting a visit to a nearby beach. She, a marine biologist, and her boyfriend Nick also a biologist and a surf enthusiast, named a few amazing sites nearby that were ideal for camping, hiking, surfing and just relaxing. I was reassured by Renata that sharks don’t eat people and that it is easier to die in a car accident and that’s all it took to sell me.

Mt. Glorious forest

I purchased a train ticket online to go from the Brisbane airport to the city, and in Melbourne I got a bus ticket to the airport. It is quite surprising how the second largest city in Australia (and the current most liveable city in the world) has such a weak and inefficient public transport system. There is no train to the airport. If you don’t have a car you have to go to the city centre and grab a bus from there that costs AUD$17 and takes 45 minutes with some traffic (not talking peak time). In comparison, Brisbane has a train that takes you straight to the city centre in 20min and costs AUD$14.

When I arrived at the airport I hesitated about where to go. The domestic area had only computerised check in and a few attendants. This is funny about Australia, everything is automated: when you go to the supermarket you weigh and pay for your products at automated check out machines. The idea is the same at airports, and since pretty much everyone has a frequent flyer number or a reservation code, there is really no need to hire staff to check people in. But I didn’t know how to use it, and also I was travelling on miles so I thought it better to contact a real person to help me out. I wondered though how these systems would fare in Peru. My first response is that in such a corrupted society as ours they would probably not do well, but then again, why think so bad of my own people?

The weather forecast (yes, I now use the forecast – I have an app on my Iphone that I check every morning) was not kind on Brisbane: showers for most of the weekend. Ironically that would turn out to be the last super hot weekend in Melbourne with temperatures of 38C! With Mel and I both recovering from a flu, the Brisbane weather was no real help to improve. But a new city it was and it needed to be discovered, so rain or shine, out on the streets I went, to the CBD, the Royal Botanic gardens, Southbank, the Gallery of Modern Art. Brisbane seems like a smaller, tropical, more relaxed Melbourne. I liked it lots on first impression. With Renata and Nick we went to The Joint Pub to get a glimpse of the night scene. We also drove to Mt. Glorious for some hiking and birdwatching in the beautiful rainforest. Mel and I visited the West End and dined at a Greek restaurant in a popular part of town. Not soon after we were considering the idea of moving to Brisbane someday to get more sunshine (I know, right!) and outdoors.

City contrasts

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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: Limabamba.

One of the pools we found.

Like I wrote before, in this area the most beautiful women are said to come from here, but once we arrived to Limabamba we just saw a tiny village with nobody in it, literally nobody was on the streets. So we headed straight to the waterfalls. Asking around we found the path that follows the side of a mountain as it gets far from the village and the fields until on a forested creek there are the waterfalls. On our way we ran into an old lady and her niece who were waiting for the veterinarian of the town (also the mayor) to help them with their female horse who was laid on the side of the road not able to stand up. We stayed making conversation for a minute and petting the poor horse.

There are 14 waterfalls but we must have explored the first 6 or 7 and we would’ve explored more but time was an issue as we asked our driver to wait for us on the main square at 2pm. Also, once we found a deep enough pool to bathe we jumped right in. Water was very cold but nothing some jumps and swimming can’t take away.

On our way back the vet was with the horse, still not able to stand. Our car was gone though we arrived only 5 minutes late, so we had to wait for any car going to Mendoza that could give us a ride. Found a little restaurant and asked for lunch without even asking what was for menu. We got “locro de frijoles” a thick soup made of yucca and beans that was delicious. Main was “picante de carne”, a stew of potatoes, beef and spices. The owners of the place were very kind and we noticed they looked completely Spanish-like. Don Waldo was green eyed and we invited him to join our table, share a few beers and tell us the history of the village. “Wayayayayayaya” he exclaimed. Little we knew he was in fact very interested in the subject and when he was a local mayor he had done his own research on the subject, but he says that most documents are lost now. He talked to us about pre-hispanic local tribes in the area and the legends of them being tall, blonde and clear –eyed. But he also mentioned this village as being on the route of the Spaniards to the jungle and being one of the first places they explored in Peru. They must have left some people here and then it is documented that they brought artists from Germany, England and Italy, as some local last names suggest. I believe him. We saw a red-headed man who could have been perfectly placed somewhere in Dublin or London without looking foreign. But here in Peru?

With Don Waldo

Also, he mentioned, the fact that people in the village have been very closed to outside influence and didn’t leave much or got married with foreigners until in 1978 the first school was built in town and with it the arrival of new teachers. But other foreigners arrived too, such as cops and merchants. Then the population started getting mixed even more and people started migrating to places such as Lima, Cajamarca or Chiclayo. Don Waldo suggested that’s when the most beautiful women left Limabamba.

Truth be told we saw a few young girls on the streets and Erick couldn’t help but getting a picture with them. We have noticed that women here, even when they are very young, say 14, have no problem about talking to older men even when they are with their mothers. And I mean that they can be quite straightforward for a 14 year old. They will even be flirtatious in front of us, a typical attitude of jungle women. I guess is simply the fact that we also look foreign to them but I suspect that also it’s involved the idea that a foreigner might be a good husband, so it seems socially accepted that a young girl kind of flits with an older man from outside their village. And I suspect the story of Limabamba must be one of many secrets and intrigues as I can imagine that this tiny village must have experienced some in-breeding between families being so little and isolated over the centuries. 

Erick and young girls of Limabamba.

In any case we did find the proof of why Limabamba has such a reputation for their beautiful women. And the walk to the waterfalls was great too. To crown our short visit Don Waldo invited us a bottle of ‘cañazo’, a local liquor made of sugar cane, a good digestive that we downed as we were riding on the back of a truck back to Mendoza. There we were immediately invited to play ‘carnival’ with the locals and we took refuge on our balcony with buckets full of balloons filled with water and the war begun as sun was setting. Each day is a surprise here.

Carnival time

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