Child Sex Trafficking and the Illegal Gold Mining Industry in Madre de Dios

Our group met with Oscar Guadalupe and Ana Lucia Hurtado of Asociación Huarayo, an organization based in Puerto Maldonado that specializes in children’s development in Madre de Dios. The topic of discussion was human trafficking (modern slavery) related to the illegal gold mining trade in the region.

Human trafficking is not perceived as a major issue in Peru. According to a recent public opinion poll on organized crime that they cited, more than half of Peruvian respondents were deeply concerned about issues such as assassination and corruption, but only 16 percent believed human trafficking was a major issue for the country. Yet, 0.22 percent of the Peruvian population — about 66,300 people — are estimated to be currently enslaved. Of those trapped in modern slavery, approximately 79.6 percent are women (as of 2009). Although specific figures are unknown, the presenters noted that young girls from rural Andean mountain communities tend to be among the most common targets.

These girls, often as young as 12-15 years old, are told that they will be working in Puerto Maldonado as cooks, waitresses, and sales clerks. But when the car comes to pick them up, they are instead taken away to gold mining communities in the region. Once there, these young girls are forced to work at brothels that service illegal gold miners. A small amount of money is sent to their families each month to maintain the impression that they’re working in Puerto Maldonado. In the brothels, they essentially have no rights, and are forced (at risk of monetary punishment) to follow a number of “rules” regarding their behavior with clients and other prostitutes, as well as their sleeping and eating schedules.

Oscar and Ana talked at length about the efforts undertaken to stop child sex trafficking in Puerto Maldonado. From 2009 to 2013, the local police worked on 173 cases related to this issue. Yet, they also suggested that such efforts were largely ineffective in stopping the child sex trade — in many cases the clients and managers of these brothels were arrested but received minimal to no punishment (it was implied that the police were probably bribed or coerced). In several of the particular cases that we discussed, the girls — now several years older — were eventually reunited with their families. This is in large thanks to the Asociación Huarayo, which, among other activities, operates something akin to a “halfway house” for minors in the region, and has been able to identify victims sex trafficking that pass through it.

Not surprisingly, the mood in the room was rather subdued during this meeting. Our group had read a few articles on this issue before departing for Peru, but actually being there in person, talking with Oscar and Ana about their experiences in fighting to stop the child sex trade in the region was very overwhelming.

We asked a lot questions — pointed but respectful — about the supply side of the issue: didn’t these families know what they were doing; why were they okay with sending their young daughters off with complete strangers; and don’t families that have experienced this warn other families? Oscar and Ana’s responses were articulate, but nevertheless left some of our group deeply upset: these families are poor and desperate for work; members of these families are often disabled and most are completely uneducated; and communication is limited due to poor infrastructure and the extreme geography of the Andes. One upside, Oscar noted, is that some families are now accompanying their children to Puerto Maldonado to ensure that their employment is as advertised.

Our group didn’t get around to asking many questions about the demand side of the issue: the audacity of the miners using these services; the evil of the managers running this horrid industry; and the easy coercion of the local police and government. Aren’t these the real people responsible for these children’s suffering? Perhaps it doesn’t matter — there is nothing Oscar and Ana could say that would make us feel better about why people would allow this industry to prosper. Evil is difficult to explain. Meanwhile, accusing the girl’s parents of some amount of ignorance or wrong-doing is an easy scapegoat that gives us some sense of relief, even if it is a bit misguided…

Ultimately, there are no easy solutions to this issue. Child sex trafficking is a wicked problem wrapped within another wicked problem (illegal gold mining). Any long-term solution to this issue will require stronger efforts by the state and local governments, although most of our speakers agreed that Peruvian government has long been in a state of disarray. In the meantime, the best option we have is to support organizations like Asociación Huarayo who are doing their best to spread awareness and affect local change, saving one child at a time.

– Peter Tierney

The Jungle That Never Sleeps

Day Seven of our trip: After a long day of hikes, birds, and boat rides, we end with a night hike in the jungle surrounding Posada Amazonas. Armed with the incredible knowledge of our guides, Edson and Rodolfo, we embarked on our journey in search of frogs, snakes, insects, caiman, and crossed our fingers for a jaguar sighting. During the day, monkey, lizard, agouti, and bird sightings are common. But at night, when some sleep under a canopy of complete darkness, the colorful tree frogs and insects are the ones who rule the jungle. From grasshoppers, crickets, and cockroaches, to stink bugs, stick bugs, and spiders, the jungle is very much alive. Edson, our fearless leader, pointed out several species of wandering spiders. These spiders sit and wait for their prey instead of creating webs to catch food. Edson told us that the spider pictured below is eighteen times more poisonous than a black widow spider. Needless to say, we all passed by with extreme caution.


Photo: Lindsay Ahlman

The Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It spans across many nations in South America, but its largest areas are in Brazil, Peru, and Columbia. Flying into Puerto Maldonado in the region of Madre de Dios, you begin to see the threats to biodiversity in the Peruvian Amazon. Massive sections of forest are clear cut for illegal logging and gold mining. The illegal gold mining industry has had significant impacts on the environment through deforestation, mercury contamination, and fragmentation. The recently completed Interoceanic Highway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Brazil and Peru led to an increase in illegal mining, especially in the region of Madre de Dios. These illegal activities and unsustainable uses of the land have pushed out species of plants and animals. Cedar and mahogany wood have been logged to near extinction in the region, and animals have been forced out of areas where their habitat has been destroyed. Fish have also been affected by increased levels of mercury, which is used in the mining process. Currently, the central government in Peru does very little by way of enforcement of regulations to suppress these activities. The stark contrast of green forests to the huge brown patches of destroyed forest should lead to an immediate recognition that there is a major problem.

In Madre de Dios, our class engaged in discussions with several individuals and organizations regarding ecotourism. We were active participants in an ecotourism lodge project between Rainforest Expeditions and an indigenous group in the Amazon, the Ese’eja people of Infierno. There are several other ecotourism lodges in the area along the Tambopata River. The focus is on providing tourists with an ‘authentic’ Amazon experience, by which they see and learn about wildlife in a jungle setting. Ecotourism is an alternative way for the Ese’eja people to practice sustainable living and protect their land, while also earning revenues for their community. At Posada Amazonas, the tourism activities include bird watching, hiking and boat trips, visits to the local medicinal garden and a local farm, as well as an opportunity to hike the jungle at night. Most animals are very shy, so despite the time of day, if you want to see them, you must stay still and quiet, and even then it is rare to view certain animals in the wild. Speaking with our guides, we know that there are caiman, jaguars, and anacondas that have been spotted in the area but are very seldom seen during hikes with tourists.

There is something so peaceful about disconnecting from civilization, embracing the silence, and becoming one with nature. During the night hike, we saw and learned about some of the ‘less popular’ inhabitants of the jungle – the spiders, crickets, etc. – that all have a special role in this biodiverse ecosystem. It is important that we value these dynamic relationships between creatures in the jungle. For example, the distinct connection between the agouti and the Brazil nut tree: the two exist in a beautiful symbiotic relationship in which one can not survive without the other as the agouti is one of the few animals that can chew through the thick Brazil nut shell, and then disperses the fruits across the forest floor.

Toward the end of the hike our guides had us all turn off our flashlights. We stood silently for some time just listening to the jungle, the wind through the trees, and the sounds of the insects, and for me the feeling was the definition of serenity. Respect for the forest and all those who inhabit it should not be overlooked or undervalued. The biodiversity of this vast forest needs to be protected from the illegal activities currently posing noticeable threats. The ecotourism projects in the area have shown that the people there can use the land while sustaining its many values for the planet.

– Courtney Ferraro

Indigenous Peru in Flux: Exploring the Interactions Between “Natives” and “Outsiders”

There is a diverse array of indigenous communities in Peru. They vary in their geographic location, languages spoken, traditions, degree of interaction with external communities, and origin. For example, there are an estimated 500 indigenous people who are voluntarily isolated from the outside world living deep in the Amazon rainforest. There are others who live on native title land and who interact with outside people, ranging from government officials to tourists. There are also indigenous people who have left their rural communities in favor of Lima and other cities, generally for access to greater economic opportunity.

The latter half of this course has largely centered around the Ese’eja indigenous community. This community has its cultural and ancestral roots in the lowland rain forests of southeastern Peru (they also have a presence in northwestern Bolivia) and chooses to engage with the government and outsiders. The Ese’eja identify strongly with this place of origin. Interestingly, however, the Ese’eja actually originated in northern Peru and have since migrated south. In Peru, there are two Ese’eja communities, both of which are located in the Madre de Dios: the Bajahua Ese’eja who live on the Tambopata River in the community of Infierno and another group which lives on the Heath River.

The Bajahua Ese’eja, with whom we have been interacting, are very open to outsiders. They accept outsiders settling on their lands, supply certain tropical fruits for export, and also have forged a business relationship with the tourism company Rainforest Expeditions. Certain foreign cultural traditions have also been adopted by the Ese’eja. For example, the tradition of the shaman administering the drug ayahuasca to those wishing to complete a spiritual journey did not originate within the Ese’eja, but rather came from northern Peru in 1986. Since the community role of shaman already existed among the Ese’eja, it was very easy for this tradition to be assimilated.

There have also been two waves of settlements that have taken place since the arrival of the Ese’eja along the Tambopata River, which has led to interesting developments in land rights and what it means to be Ese’eja. The ribereños, some of the earliest immigrants to the Peruvian Amazon who came seeking jobs in rubber, lumber, and gold industries, as well as the colonos, Quechua-speaking settlers from the Andes who came to Infierno in the 1980s and 1990s, both have added a layer of complexity to the cultural makeup of Infierno. Both of these groups have been included in the native land title established in 1976 despite not being the most “native” natives.

Additionally, while both ribereños and colonos often refer to themselves as “mestizo,” forging a linkage with Spanish colonists, many have now also begun to identify as Ese’eja, despite not having the same cultural traditions or geographic origins as the Bajahua Ese’eja. Thus, these “outsiders” have, over time, integrated within the community to the point where they have taken on the mantle of indigeneity. With this, and remembering that the “native” Ese’eja are originally from northern Peru, we see that the conceptualization of and identification with nativeness and indigeneity are not strictly bounded by a rigid definition, but instead are dynamic, flexible concepts that reflect the tensions and synergies found in the process of cultural diffusion.

Posada Amazonas, where we have been staying for the past three nights, is yet another embodiment of sustained, complex interactions between outsiders and the Ese’eja. Rainforest Expeditions, a Peruvian business, forged a relationship with the Ese’eja of Infierno to open an ecotourism operation. Posada Amazonas is marketed towards affluent foreigners interested in, among other things, exploring the Amazon Rainforest, supporting local communities, supporting conservation efforts, and interacting with indigenous people. In the original agreement, the community received 60% of the profits with Rainforest Expeditions receiving the remainder. The operation is governed on the basis of consensus, with decision-making power split 50-50 between Rainforest Expeditions and 150 families of the Infierno community.

The operation generates additional income for the community and has led to the conservation of species important to tourists such as the harpy eagle, which had been hunted by the locals. It also is a platform through which community members can be trained and develop skills, sometimes leading community members to seek employment and higher wages elsewhere. Thus, through the voluntary commodification of Ese’eja culture and environmental resources for consumption by foreigners, there are questions as to whether such an operation erodes indigenous culture by, in this case, empowering some members of the community to depart or by changing their hunting practices or if indigenous culture is actually enhanced through the remembering and demonstration of culture for outsiders through visits to the shaman, exploration of the jungle, and visits to community farms. On this point, there is much debate between community members of Infierno, showing that even among those who predominately identify as Ese’eja, there is disagreement about the value of interactions with outsiders.

In sum, we see that cultural identification with being “native” or “indigenous” or “Ese’eja” is fraught with complications that arise through interactions with “outsiders” and there is not universal agreement as to what these identifiers mean or whether interactions between “insiders” and “outsiders” are harmful, beneficial, or mixed. While the features of this exploration of culture and identity are certainly not unique to Peru or the Ese’eja, this course has provided an excellent lens through which to explore these concepts and complicate held beliefs about the intersection of indigenous peoples, migration, and globalization.

– Andrew Reighart

Fruits of Labor

Jesús shut off the engine and let the boat slide casually onto the bank, as usual. We docked below a rocky cliff. Immediately, dogs charged the river’s edge barking their greeting to the newcomers. Behind them followed a man pushing a rusty wheelbarrow heavy with fresh mandarin oranges.  The land engendered a sense of seclusion and serenity. Scattered, colorful fruit lined our path to the farmhouse where we began our discussion about agriculture in the Ese’eja Community of Infierno in Madre de Dios, Perú.

The conversation highlighted the indigenous peoples’ value of land. Over fifty percent of the 600 community members are subsistence farmers. The original farmers of the community were granted thirty acres of land each, which cannot be sold and remains in the hands of the community, similar to a land trust. This is largely absent in the U.S. We see the percentage of our farmers at a record low – three percent – and stretches of land rapidly turning over to slabs of development.

Settling with a humble income, these farmers harvest on the weekends, lug their produce to the local markets, and sell their goods at extremely low prices in competition with other farmers within their own and other communities. For instance, 100 avocados can be sold for 15 to 20 soles (about five to seven U.S. dollars). We immediately gasp at such a low income, assuming this must be a struggle for the landowner. But when I asked Rodolfo, one of our guides, he said, “they are happy.” At this moment, heads nodded and an ephemeral silence dominated the group. Those prices are unheard of in the States. Although farmers occasionally seek other employment, such as logging or fishing during the dry season, they are generally content with working the land for small profits. Perplexed, we asked why the farmers compete rather than cooperate with each other to improve yields and revenue. But that simply falls outside their interest.

I began to notice similarities between permaculture design and the layout of the farm. Permaculture is an aspect of sustainable agriculture, and one of its many elements is zoning. Zoning involves strategic placement of crops, in which the most attention intensive are located nearest the home. The home was the center, and the crops requiring frequent harvest – sweet peppers, sapote and starfruit – were part of zone 1. The avocado tree, which takes years to grow, was much farther back. And the outermost layer remained untouched, as a wilderness barrier – this is zone 5.

Moreover, the three core values of permaculture were inherent in the system: good for the earth, good for the people, and a return of the surplus. The farm operates outside a protected area but within the biologically rich rainforest. By enabling the ecosystem’s survival, it benefits the earth. The crops feed the community to ensure human existence. And lastly, the surplus is returned to the earth to preserve a continuous nutrient cycle. As we walk around tossing our copasu and cocona peels onto piles of decomposing fruit, we contribute to nutrient cycling.

Sustainable agriculture, in general, aims to uphold holistic practices, which the farm successfully incorporates. An all-organic approach, without biocides or chemical fertilizers, is used. Though slash-and-burn is a controversial practice, the farmers utilize it in a responsible manner. To avoid expanding deforestation, they return to a previously burned plot to re-grow crops after succession has taken its course, and soil has been naturally fertilized.  Moreover, farmers must diversify their crops to maintain an income, which avoids harmful mono-cropping and overproduction.

As we wrapped around the final segment of the farm, I spoke to about these practices, mentioning the obvious elements of permaculture. His response was unexpected. The farmers do not actively integrate permaculture values, he said, nor strategically implement sustainable methods. Rodolfo remarked, “they grow, because they need to grow.” Indigenous peoples’ value of land is directly linked to their survival, and translates into utmost respect and conservation of such resources. Perhaps we miss this link in the United States because we continue to drift from our food production system. It is worth recognizing this inherent appreciation for what sustains life, and a model worth mimicking before we are shocked to realize we simply cannot eat money.

– Brittany Ryan

“Para Arriba, Para Abajo, Para el Centro, Pa’ Dentro”

Posada Amazonas is much more than a lodge focused on ecotourism and profit. Today we learned that the native community of Infierno that runs Posada Amazonas in partnership with Rainforest Expeditions has also developed three distinct side projects, which guests to the lodge can visit during their stay. One of these projects is the Ñape Ethnobotanical and Medicinal Garden in El Centro Ñape on Infierno’s reserve.

The Centro Ñape is an Infierno community organization that produces medicines and other goods, such as dyes, from forest plants. As a part of the community reserve, the garden is a protected area. During our visit, Infierno community shaman Manuel guided us along a trail and explained to us the many different uses of various rainforest plants, medicinal and otherwise. The garden tour included an explanation of the chacruna and ayahuasca plants, as well as the para para and cordoncillo plants. The chacruna and ayahuasca plants are the master medicinal plants for the shaman, as they are the plants that best aid the Shaman in learning, as well as allow for spiritual cleansing and connection. The tradition came to the local shamans in 1986 after two shamans traveled from Northern Peru to teach them their ways. Prior to that time, the spiritual cleansing ritual was much more difficult. So complex was the ritual that nobody follows its original form today. As a matter of fact, the last shaman that was skilled in the original rituals lived about 100 years ago. He began his practice at the age of seven old and died at the young age of 22. It is he, Ñape, after whom the community organization is named.

All in all, it was shaman Manuel’s explanation of the chacruna and ayahuasca plants that helped highlight the importance of the shaman’s spiritual connection to the rainforest. To prepare for a spiritual cleansing using the two master medicinal plants, the shaman cuts 30cm of the ayahuasca plant and mixes it with one kilo of chacruna. He boils the combination in 20 liters of water for eight hours until it has reduced to one liter. The shaman went on to tell us that once one commits to the spiritual cleansing and consumes the mixture, they must diet for three days before and after the cleanse. The diet involves abstaining from papaya, alcohol, red peppers, red meat, and sexual activities. If not followed, the cleansing will not work. However, once about one shot’s worth is consumed, a reaction comes within 15-20 minutes. The effects last for approximately five hours. Before the mixture is consumed in the ayahuasca ceremony, the mother spirits of both plants, as well as other important plants and animals of the jungle, are called in through song, and the shaman controls the ritual. The spirits take the shapes of jaguars, snakes, and other animals to protect the ceremony and ritual. As the shaman made clear, the ceremony must always start with a cleansing. Normally, reactions will include diarrhea and vomiting, as the body attempts to clean itself of bad spirits. Tobacco smoke is then blown on the participants to cleanse the stomach and head at the closing of the ceremony.

The second medicinal plant we learned about was the para para plant, whose name translates to “get up, get up.” The name is suitable for the plant as it acts as a natural Viagra. To prepare it for consumption, the shaman harvests 8kg of the plant in a pot with pisco, honey, and water, and leaves it for eight days. Any man who consumes it then turns to a “lion,” in the words of the shaman, after drinking a shot’s worth three times a day for four days. What was particularly amusing to the class was when one of the tour guides folded a leaf of the Para Para plant to demonstrate its powers. When he let go, it reflected an erection, as it quickly unfolded itself. It’s effects are said to last five days.

Last but not least, we saw the cordoncillo plant, which we were actually able to taste right from the garden. We each chewed a leaf for about five seconds and then spit it out. We quickly realized that the plant acts as a natural novocaine (anesthetic), leaving our mouths temporarily numb. This plant is important to the community, as it is used to relieve itchiness and pain. It can be prepared by crushing a couple of the plant’s leaves and using its drops on the infected area. It’s also useful for snake bites, as one can plaster it over wounds to calm the venom and give one enough time to get to the hospital. Its reaction lasts about three hours.

Once we had finished our tour of the garden, we visited the laboratory and tried several of the medicines, including para para, chuchuhuasi (a jungle “red bull” used to relieve arthritis), and uña de gato (which translates to “cat’s claw” and is said to cure cancer). We all consumed a shot of each medicine, chanting the traditional “para arriba, para abajo, para el centro, pa’ dentro” saying before each shot. This directly translates to, “up, down, to the center, and in,” accompanied with respective hand gestures, symbolizing a toast.

What surprised me the most about our trip to the Ñape Medicinal Gardens was the commercialization of the gardens. What used to be passed down by means of oral tradition is now being perfected and bottled in well-marketed containers for use outside of the community. We even discussed how Bayer, the multinational pharmaceutical company, has patented the use of the cat’s claw plant. This, to me, is controversial. It made me wonder how authentic these “traditions” or customs really are if they are now being bottled and sold. Is it to give us, the consumers, a false vision of a culture that may slowly be getting taken over by larger corporations? More importantly, it made me question the ethics of corporations, like Bayer, who have often practically stolen cultural traditions to make a profit. In my opinion, ethics need to play a larger role in projects like the Medicinal Gardens. The community at least deserves more recognition, or perhaps to be left alone in order to preserve authenticity and culture. If not, this part of the culture might be lost to commercialization and profit.

– Sofia Vega-Ormeno

Tres Chimbadas Oxbow Lake

Having arrived at Posada Amazonas the previous day, we were eager to explore the Tambopata River area, a national reserve Madre de Dios We departed by boat at five o’clock in the morning to the Tres Chimbadas oxbow lake not far from the lodge. After a ten-minute hike from the river, we saw the lake, calmly and quietly lying in front of us. You cannot bear to make a noise that would break the serenity of the jungle. Also, you cannot imagine what you might see when setting out by boat. It seemed that nature was just waiting to amaze us.

Lowland Amazonian soils are largely composed of alluvial deposits. An oxbow lake is a crescent-shaped lake that is formed after a bend in the river gets cut off from the main river through a natural process involving erosion, sediment deposition, and flooding. As time passes, the oxbow lake becomes increasingly distant from the main river (Wikipedia: Oxbow Lake, Meandering river in the Amazon). The oxbow lake we visited was formed at a bend in the Tambopata River.

Oxbow lakes are shallow, generally ranging in depth from 6 feet at low water to 16 feet during floods. Oxbow lakes often become swamps or eventually dry up as their water evaporates and plants such as reeds fill in the lake. ( Meandering river in the AmazonNational Geographic). Oxbow lakes provide habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals in the water and surrounding forest.

Red and green macaws flying overhead are a spectacular sight. There are six species of macaws and 20 species of parrots in the Tambopata region (Rainforest Expeditions). As birdwatcher beginners, the first thing we learned during the visit was how to distinguish macaws and parrots. Macaws are larger with long tails and more colorful feathers, while parrots are small with green feathers. Another difference is that macaws fly in pairs while parrots fly in larger groups. Edson, one of our guides, told us that macaws mate for life.

Around the lake, we saw various types of tropical trees such as hymenaea, wild cocoa, and other trees. In the forest along the edge of the lake, birds continuously welcomed us with beautiful and strange choruses. First, we saw hoatzin, “a large South American bird with blue facial skin, red eyes, brown plumage marked with white above” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). We were impressed by its wheezing sound. Then we saw anhinga, wattled jacana, and other species of birds standing on aquatic plants or tree branches.

In many movies about the Amazon, piranha and caimans are often presented as a threat to humans. However, our other guide, Rodolfo, who is from the local community, said that movies exaggerate. According to indigenous knowledge, piranhas favor only dead meat and there are no cases of caimans attacking people.

Our attempt at fishing for piranha was foiled at first, since everyone lost their bait in less than one minute without even seeing a fish because the fish strike so swiftly. It was therefore exciting when Jing, one of students, finally caught one after numerous tries. This piranha was about ten centimeters long with a mouth full of sharp teeth. The guide held the piranha and moved a leaf close to its mouth. The piranha took a quick bite out of the leaf, leaving its teeth marks.

Apart from the famous piranha, the surrounding areas of Posada Amazonas are also home to four species of caimans: white, black, dwarf, and smooth caiman. The black caiman is the largest and can reach a length of six meters. Another important creature is the endangered giant otter. Giant otters are large (two meters including the tail) and interesting aquatic mammals. It was a pity that we did not see them after ten minutes of patient waiting.

Oxbow lakes in the Tambopata area are some of the most biodiverse places on the earth and are rich in value for scientific research. Furthermore, biodiversity has been at the core of ecotourism as a low-cost product with significant returns. Such a lake can generate economic benefits if well developed, in addition to the value of supporting the local community’s daily life and productive activities (including farming and fishing). One element of “well-developed” benefits mentioned above is sustainability – to balance ecotourism with a healthy environment.

In a nutshell, the oxbow lake is part of the rich rainforest ecosystem which is worth developing for profits but in a sustainable way that doesn’t disturb natural habitat.

– Chong Zhou

Feet in the Mud, Head in the Sky

We went to a new level on our first excursion into the Peruvian tropical forest. We began with a hike that took us further into the communal reserve of Ese’eja Native Community (CNI) of Infierno, which includes 3,000 hectares of forest, lakes and swamps, and is located next to the Tambopata National Reserve. The lush canopy let through minimal sunlight and shielded us from the light rain. My eyes darted back and forth on the trail, what would I see? Excitement mounted with each step along the muddy trail.

I spent a lot of time with my head down while hiking—slowly maneuvering through the mud and climbing over the buttressed roots of fig trees—looking for anything I could find in the immediate vicinity, such as a wandering spider, tailless whip scorpion, or fire ants on a tangarana tree. Only occasionally did I look up to catch a glimpse of an exotic bird glide by (always hoping it was a colorful species from the family Psittacoidea). I wondered, what is a bird’s eye view?

Our Posada Amazonas guides, Rodolfo and Edson, said we were hiking to a tower. I envisioned a 30-foot platform. I was wrong. A small opening exposed our destination, a 120 ft. tall staircase known as the canopy tower. We confidently began climbing as a group. After about 50 feet, each step challenged my fear of heights.

edson canopy towerepiphyte

There are two primary views from the tower, canopy and above canopy. In the canopy, you are at eye level with the crowns of massive trees, like a 300-year-old Brazil nut tree, a protected tree in Peru. It also provides a much better view of bromeliads, flowering epiphytes that festoon the tree branches and trunks. Bromeliads are miniature self-contained ecosystems in the upper strata of a tropical forest. They provide fodder for tropical birds and amphibians like the poison dart frog, and serve as a habitat for countless species of beetles and ants.

The highest platform provides the best view, but offers one last challenge, a small ladder. I briefly hesitated, but pushed forward. Being above the canopy as sunset approached was a sight that could not be missed.

Gazing upon the Amazon forest was awe-inspiring. You don’t want a moment like that to end. The afternoon thunderstorm meant there were clouds rolling over thousands of trees. In the foreground, the Tambopata River gushed light brown water around two bends.

Ten of us stood on the small platform and watched two red and green macaws, the largest of the macaws, circle around the tower and then land on top of a tree with two black vultures. A southern caracara, a bird of prey, was perched on a massive branch within a Brazil nut tree. Rodolfo handed me the binoculars and pointed to one of his favorite species, a white-bellied parrot. These are the interactions you cannot see in the dense understory.

A loud rumble caught our attention, reminiscent of a truck. Edson informed us that it was a tree falling down. Right then I knew the answer to the question: when a tree falls down in the forest, does it make a sound? It does, and it is loud!

– Ashton Harp

cloud forest 1