First Impressions of the Peruvian Amazon

August 9, 2019

By Annie Lee ’22, Fernanda Machicao ’22 and Arabella Chen ’22

Bass Connections team members in Peru.
Our team: Jackie, Arabella, Annie, Fernanda and Melissa (Simon not pictured)

Greetings from the middle of the Peruvian Amazon! We write to you from a boat docked on the shore of the Madre de Dios River – a tributary of the Amazon – as we prepare to hike to our first oxbow lake. We pause before heading out to collect water and sediment to reflect on our first few days in Peru.

We’ve been sailing up and down the Madre de Dios River in the Madre de Dios region of Peru to locate sites where we can collect water, sediment, tree core and spider samples as we trace the impact of artisanal and small-scale gold mining on the environment. Gold mining is abundant along the river’s banks and the choice method for extracting gold utilizes mercury. This mercury leads to the contamination of the ecosystem, as the mercury moves from soil and water into invertebrates and larger animals – hence our different samples.

Precipitation and sediment collection (guy in orange is Simon).
Precipitation and sediment collection (guy in orange is Simon)

We came in briefed on the project and the general conditions of the Amazon. Peru has met most of our expectations so far but has also thrown at us some surprising twists and turns. Here are some of our experiences so far.

The weather: We stepped off the plane in Puerto Maldonado – our first and only city – and were immediately hit with a blast of hot, humid air. In the region’s year-long summer-like climate, we have only gotten progressively sweatier since. (And working in long sleeves and pants all day, every day, does not help.)

The bugs, the insects, the infamous mosquitos (a.k.a. the reason why we have to wear long-sleeved everything): We thought we were ready for the bugs. We weren’t. Over the past few days, we have eaten, snorted and squashed an endless stream of insects who seem very bent on trying to eat us. One particular site in the rainforest where we were collecting samples had a lot of ants with an uncanny ability to bite our necks. The bites burn. They hurt. I, Arabella, also got stung by a wasp. It also hurt. (But we’re all okay now!)

The lovely twists, turns and surprises!

The weather, again: We said it was hot and humid. And it is, but we have been bundled up in all of our sweatshirts, rain jackets and tarps for the past few days. We have been hit with a friaje, a cold front that follows rain during the dry season and lasts for a few days. The cons: We hide under tarps in the boat to block the wind and all look like little bowling pins with only our eyes sticking out, the showers are freezing cold at night and there is no stargazing. The pros: We don’t sweat anymore, we don’t really need to shower and NO BUGS! (We’re ecstatic!)

Peruvian food and a Bass Connections student team member.
A yummy mixed cabbage salad with lomo saltado and rice at Los Amigos; one of the bird species we saw

The food: Peruvians can cook. We’ve been eating huge portions of rice, chicken, lentils, beans, vegetables, soup, desserts and a million different fruits. (The mangoes and passion fruits are amazing.) Our excessive consumption of food is justified though, considering we hike about three million miles a day. 

The wildlife: This is probably our favorite. You read about the Amazon as a little kid and talk about it in all your science classes because of its famous biodiversity. But it’s hard to picture what that biodiversity actually entails. We have finally begun to grasp this from our stay for a few nights at the Los Amigos Biological Station. The station is about 450 hectars in size and is under the protection of Conservación Amazónica, a private entity that protects and manages the preserve. In its 450 hectares, there are about 600 bird species and a plethora of other exotic organisms. Over the course of three hikes, we have encountered emperor tamarins, capuchin monkeys, caimans, turtles, various types of weird fungi, insects with varying degrees of shininess and birds ranging from the green and yellow macaw to the green ibis. All these are found under the thick canopy of the rainforest. The trees themselves are equally diverse; there’s the walking palm with its multiple roots (so it can move, searching for sunlight), trees with spikes to prevent large animals from eating them and trees that shed their bark to prevent vines from attaching.

The mining: We came in knowing that there was a lot of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in the region we would be in and that it comprised a large part of the local economy, but we didn’t realize the scale of it all. Mining is illegal here, so we thought the sites would be tucked into the forest and somewhat hidden. But the sites are in the open, visible to anyone passing on the river, due to the lack of government enforcement. It’s romantic to think of the Amazon as a tranquil, untouched swath of rainforest, but in the region where we are, we cannot go five minutes without seeing a mining site marked by piles of rocks and sediment and topped off with abandoned mining equipment.

Our boat by day and at sunset

Though we have only been in Madre de Dios for a week, we have already come to expect the unexpected. Our days are unpredictable, but we look forward to the excitement that comes with surprising views, wildlife and experiences. It’s surreal being in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon immersed in the rainforest. We might be labeling water samples as a huge iridescent butterfly flies by. Or we might be catching spiders in the dark and look up to see the Milky Way and shooting stars lighting up the sky. And the sunsets are out of this world. We are excited for the weeks to come – to see more amazing sites and to understand more about the effects of mining on the Peruvian Amazon.

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