Volunteer work in Peru’s rainforest, or how I learned to use a machete

This post also appears on Villa Carmen Biological Station’s blog. They’d asked us to write an entry on two weeks we spent there in November as volunteers and learning about research. The station, which is run by the Amazon Conservation Association and La Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica, is in Pilcopata, Peru.

Dawn at Villa Carmen.

Dawn at Villa Carmen.

The main tool I use at work is a keyboard, not a machete. My wife and I have never grown plantains in the jungle. We own a cat whose migrations from our sofa to her food bowl have taught us very little about tracking her distant cousins, jaguars and pumas.

For all these reasons, I began to doubt whether we’d be of much use to a biological research station in the rainforest, just as we arrived at one for a two-week stay as volunteers.

To be sure, we were excited to get to Villa Carmen. We stumbled upon the wildlife refuge and research facility online while trying to decide the next step in a trip across Peru. It looked like a busy hub of scientific research, conservation work and sustainable agriculture in a stunning setting – a lush section of the Amazon River basin bordering the massive Manú National Park.

The villa wanted volunteers, and this seemed like an ideal opportunity. It was an economical way to travel. We’d be able to learn a lot about topics that interest us both, get to know some people and see a difficult-to-reach part of the country. And hopefully, we could contribute something in exchange.

Nicole, the villa’s volunteer and research coordinator, promptly replied to our emails with an enthusiastic invite and a list of projects that needed some help. We were sold.

Yet the bumpy, occasionally-terrifying, six-hour van ride to Villa Carmen rattled loose some second thoughts. Did a journalist and a teacher have skills or knowledge that could help the station in a meaningful way? Had we signed up for the kind of feel-good volunteer program where we’d pose for pictures, holding shovels, without really doing much of lasting value?

Two weeks later, I hope our aching muscles, new callouses and still-healing puncture wounds from wild bamboo are all evidence that we did some actual work while at the station.

Our professional skills indeed weren’t much help, but Nicole didn’t need us to be plant biologists or entomologists, either. She mostly needed us to be willing to learn on the fly and jump into a variety of projects as needed, whether operating power tools, hiking with a backpack full of batteries or staking tomato plants in the garden.

Tortoise home makeover

Hard stares

One of six yellow-footed tortoises at the station.

One item we helped cross off a long list of projects that the busy station workers had little time to tackle: Creating a new home for six yellow-footed tortoises, a threatened species.

The station inherited them from a previous owner, whose variety of unusual ventures on the property at one time included a small zoo. The tortoises, now accustomed to a steady diet of kitchen scraps, are unlikely to survive in the wild and still live at the villa.

The concrete pit where they had lived for years seemed cramped and depressing. That may have taken a toll on the tortoises: Despite sometimes being brazenly and noisily amorous, the eggs they laid in the shallow sand at the bottom of the tank never hatched.

Working with other volunteers, we crafted a new, roomier enclosure, complete with ample grass and plants to chomp, as well as sandy, shady areas that hopefully will yield hatchlings one day. We cut, sanded and stained scrap lumber and cane stalks to use for planks and posts, built and installed a fence, and dug and lined an in-ground wading pool.

Reptile reactions are difficult to read, but when we left, the tortoises seemed to be enjoying the shade and newfound space to roam.

Jaguars on film

Puma on the prowl

A motion-activated camera captures a puma on a path we hiked. Via Villa Carmen.

We also contributed to ongoing projects, such as marking hiking trails and maintaining the station’s system of motion-activated cameras used to monitor and track wildlife. Both jobs required crossing the swift Pini Pini River for two lengthy hikes into the reserve.

These trips were not always easy, but hacking through fallen bamboo, scrambling up muddy embankments and enduring assorted insect bites and stings yielded rewards. On our first trip, we reached a beautiful section of the reserve coated from the ground to the tops of the trees in spongy moss, followed by breathtaking views of the valley from the top of a ridge.

On our second trip, I stood beneath the largest tree I’d ever seen and listened to the roars of a jaguar that was, thankfully, a good distance from the trail. Later, we dunked under a pristine waterfall after a long, hot day of hiking before camping overnight.

When we got to each camera, we swapped full memory cards and dead batteries for fresh replacements and tried to get out of the way to avoid too many snapshots of North American humans. We returned with new photos of jaguars, peccaries, armadillos, wild dogs, pumas and other wildlife to add to the station’s collection.

The new trail markers we added also will help researchers navigate the property and note important sightings.

Farm science in the rainforest

Plantain genebank

The station’s plantain genebank.

Researchers, however, gave us much more, generously letting us peek at their work and sometimes even play a small part in it.

We spent a day tagging along with one of several students from Costa Rica’s EARTH University, who were working on agricultural projects. We learned about his efforts to create a gene bank, or a collection of different species of bananas and plantains, at the station.

We helped him clear an abandoned plantain plantation on the property while learning about the varieties of fruit that continue to grow there. We also learned about organic farming, gathered seedling samples and harvested plantains later used in the villa’s kitchen.

Visiting researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and University of Florida also let me tag along with them as they set up fruit fly traps, part of a project to study South American species of the pests in order to learn how to better protect crops at home.

Life in Pilcopata


Anneke meets a capybara at Dos Loritos.

In our down time, we had plenty of chances to enjoy the reserve. With other volunteers, we hiked on our own, went birding with a visiting guide and checked out a 1940s Russian plane left behind by a short-lived airstrip on the site. Anneke, my wife, also toured a nearby indigenous community with a film crew shooting a promotional video on the station.

Nicole took us on trips to Pilcopata, the small town nearest to the station, for everything from ice cream to swimming to celebrating a staff member’s birthday at the local disco. We also visited Dos Loritos, a nearby wildlife rescue center, to meet a sloth, a capybara and two very friendly monkeys.

We were lucky to work with enthusiastic and talented fellow volunteers, as well as staff, students and researchers who made us part of day-to-day life at the station. Playing cards or swapping a few new words of Spanish or English often were highlights of the day for us.

We got to do all this while surrounded by misty ridges, raucous macaws, frogs as tiny as nickels and toads the size of my face. Could we ask for much more, except a way to use my newfound machete skills when we head home?

Of course we didn’t alter the course of rainforest conservation or dramatically transform the reserve, but we helped get a few things done. Hopefully, our small contributions are among many that sustain the station over time and help make it a vibrant, exciting place.

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