Adventure to the Remote Native Community of Puerto Nuevo, Las Piedras River (By Zoe Cole)
Day 1: 9th February 2014
It's "Sunday Fun Day" at the Amazon Research and Conservation Center (ARCC). Today was a day off for everyone, to relax and recover from our wildlife research activities that have been full on for the last week. We played games, read our books etc., it was nice. I also took the opportunity to take photos of Claire’s tadpoles that have been growing fast, so she can later ID them for her thesis project. Jess and Alice made brownies for desert after dinner, using fresh Brazil nuts in the recipe. Many Peruvian locals in the Las Piedras River area are collecting Brazil nuts at the moment as this is the peak season for them, when all the nuts are falling from the canopy. I also had to get ready for our 7am departure tomorrow to the indigenous community of Puerto Nuevo located way upriver. I packed up my stuff and made sure there was a spare tent available, intact and pitch-able. It’s going to be a long stay in a very, very remote part of the Amazon rainforest…probably a whole day travelling in the boat.
Day 2: 10th February 2014
Today we departed on our 7-hour boat ride up the Las Piedras River, heading deeper into this magnificent forest. We left about 7 am, the boat was loaded with our crew, everyone’s kit, along with a 2-week supply of food. The boat ride up was very nice as the rain held off, and we had the wind of the boat which felt amazing. We had packed lunches made for us, which we ate as we passed endless forest with many huge trees that had fallen into the river and now lay skeletal on the banks. Due to the high levels of water during the wet season many trees along the river banks can't stay upright due to the rapidly eroding banks from fast flowing water. Most of the trees in the Amazon spread there roots very widely (but not deeply) in an attempt to keep standing as long as possible, but obviously sometimes their weight simply can't be sustained. With the floods that we’ve seen recently the trees have had a tough time. We also saw spider monkeys, and my first sighting of Red howler monkeys! I have been hearing their loud morning calls a lot, so it was great to finally see them as they darted up a sandy bank, and swung into the hanging vines. Howlers eat the salt-rich clay on the sides of the river to protect their stomachs from some of the plants they eat which have strong toxins.
(Right) Howler monkeys and Spider monkeys eating salt-rich clay
We arrived at the community around 1 pm. We were welcomed by everyone and they all chipped in to help unload our boat. Us girls were to sleep in the school, which is basically a big wooden shed, in which we would erect our tents. The whole community consists of about 20 huts and the community members are almost all related to each other. One of our aims in visiting the community at this time was to help them install running water to their houses and a flushing public toilet system. Before, the community would fill up buckets from the river and take it back to their houses. I noticed how they used the flushing loo, but also the long drop which they’d always used before. The community has a Head Chief and his wife was called Rosita. She welcome us with a traditional drink that the women make called "masato", made from yucca, a root vegetable that is fermented (often using saliva!!), and it can become quite strong in terms of alcohol content. I had a few sips but it was not to my taste, and the team thankfully discretely helped me with it by sipping it too. We then went to set up our tents, and a few of the little kids in the community followed us, interested to see what we were up too. They spoke in a very strong dialect of local Spanish, which was difficult to understand; even the people among us who spoke good Spanish struggled to pick up some of the words they said. I knew that these next few days were going to be tough, in terms of living conditions. I found myself in awe that people can lead their daily lives in such seemingly harsh conditions. The rainforest can be uncomfortable at times. I have been attacked by waves of sand flies, which are little devils! I wore long sleeves and long trousers most of the time, but still my arms and parts of my legs still got destroyed with bites, and I have to resist the urge to scratch! Anyway, the first night sleeping in the tent, needed some getting used too.
(Right) Sunset from Puerto Nuevo
Day 3: 11th February 2014
Today we had a full-on community meeting in order to formally introduce ourselves and them to us. We had the opportunity to tell them why we had come. Apart from helping install the new water system, we were also there to help Lena, a student from the USA who is working through Fauna Forever doing a research project on medicinal plant use among native communities. Lena wants to understand how the community uses plants against a variety of common illnesses. Brian, one of Fauna Forever’s coordinators, also wants to explore the forest here to see if he can find any interesting amphibian and reptile species with the help of community members. He is a herpetologist, which means he goes crazy for such animals!
After the meeting we were ready for the rest of the day. We split up into two teams and our group went with one of the locals to cut a new forest trail. This basically means getting a machete, and cutting through thick bush, spiny bamboo, and the rest. We managed to cut through about 2.5 km in about 5 hours and came back exhausted, and very thirsty (we didn't take enough water between us)! I had to down several glasses of water in one go. In the jungle you can drink loads, but because you sweat so much it out so quickly one tends to get dehydrated quite fast. I had to take some time out, as my head was thumping and I almost passed out with exhaustion from lack of water. Next time I took out much more water with me. Later in the afternoon I went birding with Alex, who knows a lot about Neotropical birds. We didn’t walk far. I took out my tripod and managed to set up my photography equipment to get a feel for capturing bird pics. I went to bed exhausted!
(Left) Kids at the Puerto Nuevo Community
Day 4: 12th February
I laid in 'til about 7 am, which here is a long lie in! After breakfast, I went out on a good walk with a few of the team, just as a recce to see what we could find. The trail was a loop about 2 km long, so were round it in just over an hour. The ground was very wet and muddy. I don’t think I mentioned earlier, but wellies (rubber boots) are the most useful footwear in this climate by far.
After lunch it started to rain, but it eased off and we were able to set up some pitfall traps to sample amphibians and reptiles that live on the forest floor. Some community members came out with our team to help find a spot to set up the traps. When we found the perfect spot, it began to rain cats and dogs, soaking everyone, yet we continued with our job which was to dig holes and place large buckets into the holes with long plastic sheet walls between each bucket. It took us about 3 hours to complete it in the rain, and we hoped to get some good results in the coming days. Hopefully we’ll get some lizards, snakes or frogs, we shall see. The trail between camp and the traps is very muddy and has some steep patches where we have to scramble up the banks on all fours. We also have to cross a stream. There is a tree-fall that we have to traverse to get to the traps, which is challenging to say the least. Fun was had by all however.