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The drive from Cuzco was long and rather sketchy. Yet, however, incredibly interesting. The drive starts in Cuzco at an elevation of about 11,300 feet, reaches an elevation of over 12,000 feet, and then drops dramatically to an elevation of about 2,700 feet. During the drive we past many different ecosystems, it was very interesting to see the rapid change in environment. A hour outside of Cuzco we were staring at 20,000 snowy peaks, and by two hours later, we began to stare at the start of the jungle.
We left Cuzco about 11 am in a van called a collectivo. These vans make daily drives to the more remote areas outside of Cuzco. The vans carry 10-15 people with the luggage on top of the vehicle. Our ride out of Cuzco was filled with a few families, as well as a box of baby chicks. Emil and I were traveling with 2 other volunteers headed from Maximo Nivel (our volunteer organization in Cuzco) to volunteer for two weeks at Tierra Linda. The first several hours of the trip were on the high plains, staring at the mountains and seemingly gaining elevation. After a few hours we stopped for lunch in the town of Paucartambo. This town was still in the mountains, but soon after leaving town we began to lose elevation and head towards the rainforest.
The ride just got sketchier and sketchier. Here we were, driving on the side of a canyon with a drop off of several thousand feet. After 2-3 more hours after lunch, we past the sign for Manu National Bioreserve, and entered the rainforest. The views here are incredible. High cloud forests, mountains filled with incredibly large trees, partially covered in clouds. Waterfalls were gushing off the side of the road. It was a fantastical view.
And then it began to rain. Not just rain. Torrential downpour with lightning seemingly very close to us. Unpleasant due to the fact that our luggage was getting soaked, but it did add to the mystery of entering the jungle.
Finally, we arrived to the town of Chontachaca. Although we arrived in the midst of a violent thunderstorm, days later would reveal stunning views from the road.
Chontachaca, along with the other towns we visited in the area is in the region of Kosnipata. Chontachaca isn’t even a town really, it’s more of a collection of 10-15 homes. It’s not even on google maps. Chontachaca is the home of Jose and his wife Pilar. During our time at Tierra Linda I didn’t have a chance to meet Pilar, but I did get a chance to speak with Jose.
Jose is a retired biologist from the island of Mauorica off the cost of Spain. Jose has long white hair with a complementing beard, speaks English with a thick Spaniard accent, and reminds me of the Dos Equis commercial…the most interesting man in the world.
Jose was quick to welcome us inside his home. And he was also quick to show us part of his prized collection of butterflies and insects. Jose says he has collected more than 10,000 butterflies and insects from all around the world, and I sure believe it. Jose has everything from tiny beatles to large insects more than 10 inches long. Jose has an incredible insect collection, some species that are very rare as well as many endangered species. He has some butterflies that are worth thousands of dollars.
Jose has now lived in Chontachaca for 7 years. It appears to me that this is his retirement project, and it sure is a cool one. Apart from the beautiful one story house he already had built, he’s also in the midst of building a butterfly reserve and museum for tourists, along with a pool for himself. The Tierra Linda project is a joint project between Jose, and Pablo. Their vision for the area is that of a sustainable development area. This area had previously clear cut for logging. Their hope is to help regrow the forest and to also track and encourage the resurgence of plants and animals previously nearly decimated by the clear cut. Pablo and Jose own more than 100 acres of land. Pablo, along with his “jungle” dog named Inti, runs the day to day actives of the reserve.
Pablo is a young guy in his 30s from Barcelona and has been living and working at Tierra Linda for the last 4 years. He had a degree in electrical engineering and previously worked as one, yet ironically now lives without electricity. Pablo has an incredible sense of humor for someone who’s lived in the woods for four years.
The actual site of Tierra Linda is a little more than a mile and half into the jungle from the main road. To get down to the site from Jose’s we either walk or pile into Pablo’s pick up truck for a very uncomfortable ride into the jungle. After the walk you then have to cross a small river in order to get to the site. The water is crystal clear, cold enough to relieve you on a hot day, but tolerable.
The small stream you have to cross.
The site it’s self is impressive for the middle of the woods, and in such a peaceful area.
There’s a main house for cooking and hanging out, along with a bathroom building, small shed, bunk rooms, as well as a greenhouse area.
The main house also makes for a great place to play rainy day ping pong. In the background you can see the cooking area.
The site has direct access to the river and miles of trails that Pablo has built over the last few years. He’s also been growing pineapple, avocado, papaya, different kinds of pepper, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and bananas. Besides pasta and soup, all the produce we’ve eaten here either comes directly from the garden, or from the market in the local town. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so healthy in my life. I’ve been eating vegetarian the last two weeks, I never have before. But with all the fresh food I’ve honestly enjoyed eating vegetarian.
The site is peaceful. Throughout the day it is easy to see colorful butterflies, hummingbirds, and an assortment of birds. The smoothing sound of the rushing stream puts you to sleep very easily.
And you of course can’t forget about the crazy insects. Everything from ants 2 inches long to bugs shaped like dead leafs. Word of advice: Amazonion wasps are the real deal. I saw thousands of insects in the jungle, all doing their respective role in the ecosystem. After witnessing their abilities here in the jungle I really do understand that insects are the basis for the worlds ecosystems. One night I watched leaf cutting ants carry leaves 10x the size of them, over a small stick. Honestly just incredible to watch. So many moving parts in an ecosystem that we rarely realize are going on.
Insects in this area have also been part of the local economy. Butterfly hunting is an unfortunate practice that has heavily declined the butterfly population in the area. The most common butterflys can be sold for about $3 each, but the rarest ones can be sold for thousands of dollars. Butterfly hunting is very lucrative in the area, considering you can make up to 2.5x more than a job in town (average per day). Jose and Pablo have been encouraging people in the area to stop this practice.
It’s hard to see animals at Tierra Linda but they are all here. Early morning or late at night far in the jungle is the way to see them. Jaguars, pumas, spectacled bears, tapirs, ant eaters, armadillos, poison dart frogs, smaller rodents, an assortment of monkeys and venomous snakes, have all been spotted here.
The best I saw was a small mammal the size of an otter, a rodent about the same size, a few frogs, and a beautiful green lizard.
The whole time I was at the jungle I was searching and searching for a poison dart frog. Finally, on the last day, as we were hiking out to the main road, I found one! I was so incredibly happy to find this majestic creature.
Trust the process.
Everyday we spent between 3-6 hours working somewhere around the site. This could include machete work to clear new trails or clean overgrown trails.
“Yes I went to the Amazon and played with a machete for two weeks”
Also included rebuilding broken walkways
Creating beetle traps to track and identify them.
Among other things: birding and recording the species, planting native plants in the forest, reforestation (saplings bought in town), and planting fruits around the site.
Volunteers at Tierra Linda stay anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months. One German volunteer we met (also taking a gap year) is in the middle of a 6 month + stay at Tierra Linda. He’s loving it. I wouldn’t have minded to spend a few more weeks in paradise myself.
Before I talk about the local towns let me explain the layout of the National Park and bio Reserve.
The Kosnipata area is considered an area of the Manu National Biosphere Reserve.
Manu National Park was founded in 1973 while the entire reserve was founded in 1980. There are three areas of the Manu Reserve, the largest being the core area of the National Park, which is closed off to the public. Only scientists have occasional access. The closed off National Park area is home to several thousand native Amazonians, some of whom are voluntary no contact tribes. Just the closed off National Park area has an acreage of more than 4 million 240 acres. About the size of Switzerland.
There are at least 5 Amazonian indigenous groups recognized in Manu. Some of these groups are seen in western dress, while others live in isolation. There is a native community near the town of Pilcopata. The people living there wear western dress and live with electricity.
This community is called Santa Rosa de Huarcaria and can be seen on the map below.
The buffer zone or reserved zone is the area to the top right of the map, this is considered an area for low impact tourism and scientific research.
The last area, which is called the transitional zone, is used for human activity. Agriculture, sustainable development projects. This area also includes real towns and is the region we’ve been in. Much of the cultural or transitional zone is now secondary forest. This area was heavily logged in the 1970s, little of the primary forest remains. The wording is different for each zone depending on who you ask, but the main idea is the same. To read more about Manu, click here.
The arrow points to about where we are, just south of the town of Patria.
Only a part of the total animal and insect population has been discovered in Manu. In the Manu Biosphere Reserve, 1307 butterfly species, 136 dragonflies, 50 species of snakes, 40 lizards, 6 turtle species, 3 types of alligators, 210 species of fish, 222 species of mammals, and about 1,000 species of birds have been recorded. And of course more species are to be discovered.
The amount of biodiversity in this Reserve is absolutely incredible. It’s been recorded that 300 different species of ants were once found in the same tree. There about 20,000 recorded species of plants and trees.
The closest real town is the town of Patria. Patria is about a 25 min drive from Tierra Linda and about a 2-2.5 hour walk. It even has WiFi! Patria is a town of several thousand. This town was populated after the outburst of logging in this area in the 70s. The people living in this area are mostly of Andean descent.
Patria is a mafia town. It’s known in the area that the mafia/drug cartels run the town and have the police on the pay roll. The town’s “discoteca” is a known brothel, and while I didn’t see this, a few weeks ago Pablo and a few volunteers saw men holding their revolvers causally walking down the street. There is lots of coca leaf and cocaine production in the area of Patria. Deep off the main road there are men with large automatic weapons guarding the coca plantations. It appears as though the Peruvian government is turning a blind eye. There is one official road from here back to Cuzco, the authorities do check the cars driving back to Cuzco. Pablo thinks there are two other unofficial roads heading hack to Cuzco.
Still, walking down the street in the day, you don’t see evidence of the mafia. It just seems like a peaceful jungle town. Everyone was incredibly nice and people seemed relatively happy. I really enjoyed being able to walk around town, speak to people, and do some photography.
Patria is also where volunteers from Tierra Linda teach English to about 20-30 local children for a couple hours every Friday. I really enjoyed doing this. We sat outside at a local restaurant teaching 9-12 year olds. They were very eager to learn. It was an enriching experience for myself to translate words from Spanish and have them learn something new.
The next closet town is Pilcopata. Pilcopata is another town of several thousand, and is even marked on google maps. Pilcopata is a bigger town than Patria, and there is more to see. There is a large river right by town, it is incredibly beautiful. Pilcopata is also home to the Villa Carmen biological reserve, which contains more than 30,000 acres. There is also an animal shelter just outside of Pilcopata that we visited. We had a great Sunday afternoon letting the monkeys climb all over us.
According to some of the locals I spoke to, there is mafia activity in Pilcopata, but not as much as in Patria.
Because Pablo has a projector, we had the opportunity (twice) to go to Pilcopata and watch the Peruvian men’s team in the World Cup qualifying matches. Both matches ended in ties, but it was very cool to be able to watch the matches with the locals. Pablo set up the projector at his friend’s restaurant.
On the way back to Cuzco we had a bit of excitement on our van. Peruvian police regularly check the contents in cars headed on the main road to Cuzco. They are mainly looking for coca leafs. You’re allowed to travel with a small amount of leafs, just not several kilos worth. In our van the police happened to fine a very large, vacuum sealed trash bag of a large amount of coca. The cops promptly took someone off our bus (probably the owner of this bag) inside the small shack for questioning. It was competitive bizzare.
It’s a big world out there.
I really enjoyed my time at Tierra Linda. It was a great opportunity to contribute to conservation, and also to be able to see one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.
Emil and I are now headed to Puno and Arequipa, as well as Colca canyon for this week. Towards the end of the month Emil and I have two climbs coming up. We’re stoked. Going to be a great next few weeks
Tomorrow we’re doing a tour of the floating islands in Lake Titicaca.