By Leah Smith, SEEtheWILD Intern
I am a graduate student in the Global Field Program (GFP) and am required to participate in three Earth Expeditions (EE) field courses located in conservation hotspots across the globe. My most recent experience was in the Peruvian Amazaon, where I joined more than 20 other students, instructors, guides and experts at the Casa Ita research station along the banks of the Madre de Díos River.
While our itinerary was planned far in advance of our arrival, we were still blessed with the unexpected on a daily basis. While participating in a lesson to learn how to identify and count birds by their calls, we were interrupted by noises high up in the canopy. Expecting to see a bird or monkey, we were delighted to see an arboreal anteater (Tamandua tetradactyla) searching for breakfast high above our heads. Needless to say that our lesson was put on hold for a few minutes as we gazed and awed at this, dare I say "extremely cute", creature until it ambled higher into the canopy and out of sight. The best thing about this experience is that it was okay for the entire class to be distracted by something wonderful and our distraction only helped to enhance our experience.
One evening, while hanging out in the common room, our guides beckoned us outside. A rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria) had ambled into our camp. It was a gorgeous snake and it allowed us to take many pictures before sliding off into the night. This moment was completely unexpected, yet it still resonates in my memory as one of my favorite moments of the trip.
A few days into our Amazon experience, we got up very early and traveled down river for an hour or so. We exited the boats at a rather non-descript section of the river bank. An informative, wooden sign told us that the property that we were entering was nationally protected land, the famous Tambopata National Reserve.
We began to walk down a well-worn path and onto a well-maintained boardwalk that stretched over an expanse of marshland. Above our heads, howler monkeys followed us high above by moving from branch to branch. For many of us, it was the first time we had seen an primate in the wild and this experience was almost surreal. They were much larger than I had expected, deep red, and very graceful for their size. I was mesmerized and could have watched them for hours, but we had a long journey to complete to reach our destination, the amazing Lake Sandoval.
Lake Sandoval is an oxbow lake, formed when a tight bend in the river becomes blocked which causes the water to back up and form a lake. Over time, the lake will become cut off completely from the rest of the river and form a natural lake. According to the sign and the start of the path, we had four and one half kilometers to hike before reaching our destination. However, it would not be an easy hike. The path was covered in mud in many places and this mud was very sticky. Several of my travel companions slipped in and lost a shoe or boot in its muddy grasp which required quite a bit of finesse to retrieve.
However, in spite of the heat and the difficult terrain, there were amazing sites around every bend: Giant ceiba trees with trunks that looked like they were formed from cement and tops that stretched unbelievably high; the glorious morpho butterfly whose deep blue color stood out in stark contrast to the crimson hues of the muddy trail; and the endless calls of birds that watched from the trees high above our heads.
By the time we reached our final destination or at least, what we thought was our final destination, we were hot, tired and dusty, yet we were in for another amazing surprise. What awaited us was like something from a story book. In a shady corner of the trail, across from a tree full of tiny, chattering monkeys, alongside a sturdy dock, were long narrow boats, each with its own “boatsman” waiting to take us to our hotel where we would spend the night. Throughout the hours of the hike through the jungle path, I had no idea that our hotel was located across the great lake and a lovely boat ride awaited us to take us there. Even though this was technically planned in advance, it was unexpected to me and what a joy in turned out to be!
We entered our boats and quietly began to make our way through the shaded, jungle mangroves. All of a sudden the jungle undergrowth cleared and before us stretched the magnificent waters of Lake Sandoval. It was an awe-inspiring sight. To the right we saw the palms that are home to the most famous birds of the area, the macaws. You could hear their chatter as the wind carried it across the smooth water as to our left a huge shore bird took flight without making a sound. It seemed as if we had entered paradise.
I would love to tell you all about our amazing experience at Lake Sandoval, but that story warrants a blog entry of its own. There were so many amazing experiences throughout my time Peru that I will highlight in future blogs, but the lesson I learned from this adventure is one of the most valuable of my life: "Don't get angry or frustrated when your carefully laid plans are interrupted. Enthusiastically embrace the unexpected and enjoy the moment. You never know when an unexpected moment will turn out to be your favorite memory."