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Peru – Enter the Forest

Written by and photos courtesy of Dael Sassoon

One thought kept echoing in my mind since the first day of the expedition: I don’t want to leave. Considering I only stayed in Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve for two weeks, the Amazon didn’t take long to steal my heart. I believe a piece of it is still there, surrounded by the towering trees and their magnificent roots, shaded by the oversized leaves and hidden within the solemn silence of the forest.

I clearly remember entering deeper and deeper into the rainforest as our bus drove along the road from Iquitos to Nauta on the first day. From an urbanised city, the landscape slowly closed up, and the trees began growing and becoming increasingly diverse. But the greatest change happened when our rubber-boom-era boat, the Rio Amazonas, crossed the line between the white waters of the Rio Marañon and the black waters of the Pacaya-Samiria flooded forest. From a wide river with numerous boats carrying crops and chickens, the channel suddenly became extremely narrow and the forest enveloped the Rio Amazonas. As we navigated along the river, more and more animals began appearing – Pink river dolphins were one of the first sighting, and it felt as if we were encountering those magical, mythical creatures you hear about only in ancient legends. There were large birds soaring high in the sky, sudden movements in the canopy branches, ripples in the dark waters surrounding us. We were all ready to try capture it all with our cameras and smartphones before it would disappear in front of our eyes.

Of course, nothing will beat the first time we actually went inside the forest. It is completely different than looking at it from the deck of a boat. As you leave the campsite and enter, the sound of the boat’s engines and chatter of people slowly dissipates and muffles. You become enveloped by the unimaginably wide tree-trunks, leaves that are as big as yourself, and a canopy so tall it hurts your neck to gaze at. The vegetation is so dense that it absorbs every other sound, and you can’t even hear the people walking at the other end of the single file. What you hear instead are the occasional screeches of a macaw, or the long and deep roars of the howler monkey troops. From within, the forest is very dark and shaded, but the sun always finds a way through the canopy and shines between the branches like beams which hit the forest floor with the warmest and most welcoming light. It took me a while to process all of this the first time we walked through the forest, and only when I finally got over the immensity and overwhelming beauty of it, I began to understand how truly alive the Amazon Rainforest is.

Everywhere are armies of tiny black and red ants rushing along the ground, spiders hanging in webs between the branches, millipedes crawling on fallen trees and small understorey birds whizzing past or perching within the dense vegetation. Trees that were standing a couple of days before, now were resting on the ground and opening up space for new colonizers. The dark and decomposing soil continuously replenishes the forest with nutrients, which in turn feeds dead leaves and wood back into the ground. The rainforest is a hectic ecosystem, and one can feel it under their own feet when walking through it.

Of course, as Pacaya-Samiria is not only a mere forest, navigating through its narrow channels in order to carry out surveys was something I enjoyed beyond reason. Catching Piranhas with handmade fishing rods, being followed by Pink and Grey river dolphins, seeing sloths and toucans high up in the tree branches, trying to spot the shining eyes of caimans at night – these are not experiences I will easily forget.

Needless to say, I will miss Pacaya-Samiria. I will miss waking up in the morning, on top of the Rio Amazonas’ deck, and hearing the guides preparing the long survey boats for the day. I will miss walking outside my room and seeing a green wall of trees reflected like a mirror in the still, dark waters of the Samiria river. I will definitely miss the eggs and rice for breakfast, accompanied by a surprisingly pleasant mix of quinoa seeds, cinnamon and milk. Mostly however, I will miss all the wonderful people I met. The research assistants, dissertation students, staff, the local biologists, the Cocama guides – they have all played part in making the trip as unforgettable as it was.

Thanks for the amazing experience, and to whoever is reading this, please go to Peru and stay there as long as you can!

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