Amazonian Biodiversity Survey

14 March 2019

Second year Biodiversity and Conservation student Chris Vrettos spent a 'life changing' summer in Peru. The main focus of the trip was a 10 day biodiversity survey in the Peruvian Amazon, but numerous other experiences such as visiting the indigenous Cocama people on route back t

Chris Vrettos, Biodiversity and Conservation

Talking about comfort zones is a tired cliché, but when you exit yours the game changes completely. You regain your childhood curiosity and feel the need to share the excitement of your findings with the world. My trip to Peru in the summer of 2017 was the ‘breaking point’ of my comfortable, bubble wrapped London routine. It is beyond me to condense this life-changing trip in a small text, but I will try my best. 

You start with a long flight from familiar ground (Heathrow airport) and you slowly venture into the unknown with layovers at small Latin-American airports, while the line between ‘business-as-usual’ and something completely new, scary and exciting starts to blur. I find myself in the airport of Iquitos, a small city bordering the Amazon River. It is late at night and there is a celebration of a religious figure and people are crowding the streets. The vibrant Latin-American air of dancing, singing and celebrating life is all around me. I arrive at the hotel to meet my team: A group of high-school and university students from the UK, US and Canada. 

The next morning, visibly proud that I managed to order breakfast using my newly acquired Spanish skills, I join the team as we embark on a boat that for the next two days will be taking us deeper and deeper into the Amazon jungle until we finally reach our station point. There is something humbling at looking at the Amazon River for the first time; besides for its impressive width and its particular brown color, upon first sight it looks plain. Yet, there is something primordial and essential about it. Just like the forest it runs along, it breathes of humanity’s collective heritage. The whole experience is deeply humbling. For the next two days I will be sipping delicious Peruvian coffee, reading books, gazing at the passing villages of indigenous people of the Amazon and marveling at the unique surrounding wildlife, like gray and pink dolphins, sloths and macaws and at night I will be having conversations about life in broken Spanish with the ship’s captain under the stars, surrounded by the sounds of the jungle. 

We finally reach our station point, where we harbor and for the next 10 days, the students split into groups and each group undertakes 2-3 terrestrial or marine surveys per day. Terrestrial surveys consist of transects across the jungle, where we observe and note the presence or absence and behavioral patterns of many animals, like different species of monkeys, birds and ground mammals like squirrels and tapirs. Marine surveys included trips along the river of Samiria, where we observed dolphins, did stomach sampling on caimans and fished piranhas. Important side note: a caiman actually threw up on me during one of the sampling efforts. I can’t even begin to describe the sheer enormity of stimuli in the Amazon rainforest. Although I have a bit of arachnophobia, once I entered the forest my senses got heightened and I felt completely blended into the environment. The heat and the mosquitos might have been daunting, but they ultimately made you even more hyperactive, yearning to breathe in the atmosphere in a sense of constant agitation. 

The stories, the faces, the moments in the Amazon were all unique and I do not want to betray them by containing them with my insufficient vocabulary so I will stop here, only after I describe a final story. On our way back to Iquitos, moving closer to civilization and trying to keep the creeping nostalgia at bay, we stopped at a village of Indigenous people, the Cocama. After a brief tour of their colorful village we gathered in the central square (a big field of grass) to play games with the children. Cautiously acknowledging the banality of this statement, I want to say that the smiles of these children as the games started, their confusion, excitement and innocence, this loud chorus of humanity – they will stay with me forever. 

This takes me to the second part of my trip; three days in Cusco and then a five-day 75-kilometer trek through the Andes to reach Machu Picchu. Cusco is a unique blend of Western tourism, Spanish colonialism (evident through the architecture and cathedrals) and beautiful, welcoming, proud locals that carry wisdom in their eyes, cultivated through their exceptional history. I found myself in such extraordinary situations (for my standards), like when I had a sandwich in an open Peruvian market, having a conversation about tattoos in Spanish with a Brazilian, a Peruvian and an Argentinian. I met so many amazing people that inspired me with their stories of travel, which only reaffirmed my belief; we are all out there on our quests of significance. Human potential never ceases to amaze me. 

The trek to Machu Picchu was not easy. The landscapes were enchanting, but the high altitudes made every breath count. For four days we passed through mountainsides and valleys, a cloud forest and some hot springs. By the time we reached Machu Picchu I was physically and emotionally exhausted, but the mere energy of the place was enough to blow me back on my feet. If you ever decide to visit Machu Picchu, do one of these treks first; do not just take the train straight to Aguas Calientes. The way there is half the experience. 

This trip made me more complete and opened my eyes to the potential that awaits out there. Our existence on this fourth rock from the sun is transient and there is so much that we won’t have time to see. I feel like it is our duty to open our eyes to the world, especially at a time when walls are being erect and divisions cut deep. I am beyond grateful for this experience and I am ready to dive into the next one.