We slowly approached the wooden dock on the beach. “Bienvenidos a Padre Cocha” read the big white letters on the hill. 20 foot collectivo boats lined the shore. People got on and off, carrying groceries and cargo they had purchased in Iquitos. Others stood still, staring and laughing at me as I tried not to lose my balance stepping onshore with two backpacks. I looked around, feeling confident, yet nervous at the same time. I knew nobody on this island, and tomorrow I would begin a month-long volunteering stint at an animal rescue. After an emotional goodbye with my friends from our Amazon boat trip, I was ready to start this new chapter.
The sun was going down as I started walking down the dirt-ridden “road.” Motorcycles and tuk-tuks flew by, but no cars, because the streets are nothing more than large sidewalks. Children played soccer in the town center. People washed their clothes from the shore in the river. I followed the main street, walking past the small wooden homes with tin roofs. I anxiously smiled and waved “Hola” to my new friends, until I finally arrived at my new home: The Bungalows.
The next morning, I woke and walked twenty minutes to my new job, at Pilpintuwasi. Pilpintuwasi is a Quechua word for “Butterfly House,” because that’s how this place started. The owner, Gudrun – an eccentric, older woman from Austria – moved to the island 30 years ago, and began researching and creating her own butterfly farm. Once the locals started learning of her efforts and care for wildlife, animals simply started showing up on her doorstep. Sometimes it was from concerned citizens of Iquitos, sometimes from tourists, and others were dropped off by the Eco-Police. When I arrived on day one, we had eight volunteers – but within the first week, we were down to just four: Max, from Germany; Joanna, from Austria; Sandra, from Bolivia; and myself.
The Animals of Pilpintuwasi:
>> Butterflies: There are 23 species of butterflies in the butterfly house at Pilpintuwasi. My two favorites were the Blue Morpho and the Owl Butterfly.
>> Pygmy Marmosets: Pygmy marmosets are the smallest true monkey species in the world. The first two at the rescue had been confiscated from tourists at the Iquitos airport, and the other six had been born in the rescue. I was lucky enough to be around while two were born – which means I was able to see the babies of the smallest monkeys in the world.
>> Red Uakari Monkeys: The red uakari monkeys are the most endangered monkeys in South America. There are 8 that live at Pilpintuwasi, and they are all uncaged, except for one (we will get to him later). They roam freely on the property, and sleep inside Gudrun’s house every night. They constantly break into the registration area to steal the tourists’ cameras, water bottles, and wreak havoc in our employee hut.
>> Howler Monkey: Ali, the lone howler monkey, also roamed the property freely and uncaged. Every day around noon and four, you would hear the deep rumblings of Ali howling through the jungle.
>> Capuchins: Capuchins are the smartest monkeys in the world. They are commonly used in Hollywood, and have been seen in movies such as The Hangover, Night at the Museum and Pirates of the Caribbean. Two of our capuchins had been raised as pickpockets in the streets of Iquitos before being brought here.
>> Woolly Monkeys: We had several fully grown woolly monkeys that were only maintained by the full-time employees, but my favorite animal in the entire place was Nico. Nico, and his brother Kai, were dropped off at 2 months old and were very fond of humans. Nico, although a nightmare if you actually needed to get work done, was too friggin’ cute to handle. He would break in during tours, and I would have to (get to) lead the tours with him riding on my head. About three weeks in, the Eco police dropped off six baby woolly monkeys who had lost their parents to poachers. Every hour, the volunteers would take turns playing the parental figure. We would go into their hut, and sit completely still on the floor while they clung onto us – peeing and pooping all over our clothes. But I mean.. who could get mad at that face?
>> Parrots and Macaws: There were 5 Peruvian parrots and 4 macaws, including Pepe. I somehow left without a single photo of them.
>> Ocelots: Ocelots are beautiful creatures. We worked with Findus (adult male), Harry (adult female), and Dahlia (young female). The volunteers raised money during our stay to build a pool for Findus, where he would be able to go fishing and take dips. Max and the full time workers were able to finish the pool after I left.
>> Jaguar: Pedro is the sole jaguar at Pilpintuwasi, and was the second animal to arrive there. One morning, Gudrun is running a butterfly farm, when she opens her door to a wooden box on the porch. A four-month old, malnourished Pedro is inside. Shortly after, an American woman volunteered to pay for Pedro’s cage, stay, and food. Ten years (and many thousands of dollars) later, she is still holding up to that promise.
>> Two & Three Toed Sloths: Although adorable and incredibly slow-moving, sloths can actually be pretty aggressive if they need to be. Some of our sloths were friendly and had no problems, but others were not as fond of humans and would try to swing at you and cut you. They are also very strong swimmers, which is how they often escape predators.
>> Tapir: One of my favorite animals at the rescue was Chubolo, the tapir. Tapirs are extremely endangered and often hunted for meat, by animals and humans alike. Chubolo was used as a pet to attract tourists on a floating bar outside of Iquitos, and had been brought in by the Eco-Police years before. I stumbled upon tapir meat in the street market of Iquitos, but opted not to eat it because of my love for Chubolo.
There is a huge problem in Iquitos of poachers selling animals in the Belen street market. A lot of these animals are endangered, but still being hunted for meat, fur, and pets. They tell tourists that their parents had been killed and they found them stranded. They tell you that you will be saving a poor baby animal’s life, but in reality, you are simply funding these poachers to go back out and kill more animals. On more than one occasion, we had people report mistreated animals or even show up at our doorstep with them. If you see this, please report it to the local police.
Although we were volunteers, we still worked hard six days per week. We also happened to be there during tourist season, which are the busiest two weeks of the year. Our duties included, but were not limited to:
>> Monkey Toys: Every day, the volunteers would make monkey toys for the capuchins. Capuchins are the smartest monkeys in the world, so these toys would be an attempt to stimulate their brains and give them “challenges.” I say “challenges” because it would take us about 5-10 minutes to make one toy, and it would take the capuchins about 10-15 seconds to tear it apart, and get the prize. It was far more challenging to create the toys. Maybe they were actually to stimulate us..?
>> Monkey Balls: Each morning, we would make protein balls, and hand feed them to the capuchins, pygmy marmosets, woolly monkeys, macaws, and more.
>> Pepe Time: Pepe is one of six macaws at Pilpintuwasi, and had a rough childhood. He is picked on by the other macaws, so it was necessary to hand feed him and give him special attention throughout the day. Pepe is a bit of a diva, but I liked him
>> Fishing: Ashley, Max, and I would take turns going out on the small pond to fish for the coatis and ocelots. Our rod was a stick and piece of string, and our boat had a nice big hole in it.
>> Dahlia Time: Dahlia was a 9 month old ocelot, who had been dropped off with a broken hind leg. Although she mainly lived in Gudrun’s house, one lucky volunteer would take her outside for an hour per day to massage her leg and play. By the end of the month, she was spending all day outside, but still sleeping inside.
>> Ocelot Enrichment: In order to keep the ocelots stimulated, we would apply unique smells around their cages. This would include fruits, leaves, lip balm, chicken poop, and more.
>> Greg Time: Greg is an endangered red uakari monkey. He was caught in a net when he was young, and kept at a zoo in Lima. In his time there, he was treated poorly and often sedated upon entering his cage. Because of this, we wanted to re-introduce him to humans by spending two 30-minute shifts per day in his cage. More often than not, this would lead to him climbing up on you, and literally fucking your head. I was not a fan of Greg, or any of our time together.
>> Uakarai Rooms: The 7 red uakaris (not including Greg) that roamed freely on the property had two private rooms inside Gudrun’s house. The rooms have shelving, hammocks, and trees inside of them. At 3 pm every day, we would decorate the rooms with fruits, nuts and more in the specific ways that the monkeys liked them. You would never believe how picky a bunch of endangered wild monkeys that sleep inside a house could be.
>> Tours: The volunteers would give tours to incoming tourists from all over the world, telling the backgrounds and history of the animals, as well as their individual stories of how they arrived at the rescue. The tours lasted about 45-60 minutes, unless you were with Max, which could last up to 2.5 hours.
Life in Padre Cocha:
I looked forward to living on this island just as much as I looked forward to working in the rescue. I have been traveling for the better part of the last two years, but I have almost always been on the move. I was happy to be somewhere consistent for a while. I was excited to live in a small village. I was excited to make friends with the locals, and become a part of their community. I was excited to learn about the people, food, and culture in the Amazon. I welcomed a life without wifi or any outside communication. I looked forward to the challenge of being forced to speak Spanish. I was excited for what was to come.
I immediately felt welcomed after meeting Omar and his wife – the owners of a small market and the infamous Black Bar. Omar and his family were kind, generous people. With no dinner restaurants on the island, I was invited to join him and his family, where we ate whatever weird Amazonian fish they had caught that morning. I enjoyed many dinners with Omar throughout my stay in Padre Cocha, and this sort of hospitality was displayed every day. I always felt welcome no matter what the occasion: family dinners, birthday parties, discotheques, soccer games, fishing trips, etc.
The people in Padre Cocha are tough. They work long days in difficult conditions, and have very little (in our standards) to show for it. Their homes are small, generally just one or two rooms – that sometimes sleep up to ten people. They live with no wifi, little internet, and often no TV. They find other things to keep themselves entertained. They play soccer, listen to music nonstop, dance, play games, and drink. I watched kids run down the street with a stick attached to a wheel. Families of ten laid together in the street, playing board games before dinner. They find happiness in the intangibles, and don’t need the materialistic things we take for granted. They have their homes, friends, and families, and that is all they need. It helps you take a step back, and appreciate what is truly important in life.
Food options were extremely limited – with one single restaurant (that’s only open for lunch), and just a few mini-markets. Breakfast was typically egg sandwiches that were purchased off the street. For lunch, we would go to Sergio’s, which was delicious and just down the street from Pilpintuwasi. If you ever somehow find yourself in this area, stop in and eat here. Dinner was mostly pasta with any vegetable that I was able to find, or Juane – a typical Peruvian jungle meal consisting of rice, meat, olives, and a hard boiled egg wrapped in a banana leaf.
There were daily soccer games across the town. One field was reserved for the adults, and several smaller areas would be filled with the children. The goalposts were handmade, and there was rarely a net. I was invited to join the adults for a game, which quickly made news across the town. I did my best to compete with the barefoot players around me, but they are damn good. I was the butt end of many jokes that I didn’t understand, but I was invited to come back and play again despite my team always losing.
There was no wifi on the island. In order to reach out to our families or friends, we would need to take a 20-30 minute collectivo boat to Iquitos, and then a 15 minute bus to the gringo section of town. I was fine with this. I needed a disconnect at this point, so it came at the right time. It’s also tough to complain about this for one month, when everyone around you lives it every day.
One thing that bothered me was the lack of education about the river. I am not saying this is their fault, but the river that everyone survives off of – providing food, baths, laundry, and much more – was often getting trashed. We would constantly witness children and adults alike, throwing anything from a bottle to an entire bag of trash into the river. We would take it upon ourselves to try and tell the kids how harmful it is, but it was always a completely new and foreign concept. I did meet people from a non-profit group working on educating the villages, which is very admirable work.
Despite working with these incredible animals, and living amongst the wonderful community of Padre Cocha – this was probably the most difficult place for me to become adjusted to. The humidity alone is outrageous. “Mucho calor,” the locals would tell me every single morning. “Yes, I know it’s fucking hot,” I would think back to myself. As if the heat wasn’t enough, the mosquitos added an entirely new factor. It’s not like in California, where you just wear tank tops and shorts when it becomes hot. No matter how hot it is, you need to dress like it’s winter to avoid being ridden with mosquito bites. Even if they weren’t biting me, I would still be in a mental panic, slapping myself all day. The locals would laugh at me while I would complain, telling them I don’t understand how I could possibly get mosquito bites on my “Culo“(butt) – which I only even know from that terrible song. But, uncomfortable was what I was looking for. I wanted to be entirely out of my comfort zone, and that is exactly what I got.
After my month-long stint at Pilpintuwasi, I met up back up with Melanie – a friend from Futaleufu, Chile. We spent a few days in Iquitos, and then took a four day guided tour even deeper into the Amazon – before it was my time to venture out of Peru:
Things I Will Miss:
>> Being Tall: I’ve never felt as tall in my life after spending three months in Peru.
>> Having the Only Beard in Town: Soon, I will be in the USA where it’s “cool” to have a beard again.
>> Cheap Peruvian Food: Peruvian food can feel pretty repetitive, but it’s hard to go wrong with an enormous soup and meal for $1.50 USD.
>> Working with a Monkey on my Head: I never thought I’d have a job where I could do this, but giving tours with Nico riding along always kept me smiling.
>> Tuk-Tuks: Tuk-tuk rides are always an adventure.
Things I Will Not Miss:
>> Roosters: In the movies, the lone rooster sits perched on a fence, giving off one crow as the sun rises. In real life, there are many roosters, which begin crowing simultaneously from 4 am to 3 pm.
>> Cold Showers: It’s been two months since I’ve had a warm shower.
>> Mosquitos: Holy shit. Fuck mosquitos.
>>Rice: I get it. You guys like rice.
>> Despacito: I would club a baby seal if it were promised that this song would be eliminated from the world.
>> Vicious Street Dogs: During the days, the dogs in town are nice and friendly. As soon as the sun goes down, run for cover. Every single dog will bark, growl and chase you away. Do your best not to show fear.. or go out at night.
>> Bumping My Head on Fucking Everything: Minimum 3x/week, I would crush my head on some ridiculously low door.
>> Enormous Frogs: I have never seen frogs this big, and their favorite hiding place was with all of my dishes. You never knew what was going to happen when you opened the cupboards.
>> Spiderwebs: There is nowhere inaccessible for spiders in Padre Cocha. You may be in your own doorway or the middle of the street, but you will somehow find yourself entangled in a web.
>> “Chaaaaaange”: Peruvian soles are about $/.3 soles per $1 USD, which would create a lot of change. When $/.5 soles is the price of your lunch, you’re always walking around with a pocket full of coins.
>> Being Covered in Pee and Poop Every Day: Between Pepe, Nico and the other baby woolly monkeys, we were constantly being number one or two’d on by days end.
Things I Looked Forward To:
>> Vegetables: Vegetables are extremely limited on the island. My dinner often consisted of pasta with onions and carrots, which is not ideal.
>> Wifi: With no wifi on the island, we would return to Iquitos every Monday to let our families know we are alive.
>> Iced Coffee: Nothing like a boiling hot coffee on a humid, 90 degree morning.
>> Cars: I haven’t seen a car in 6 weeks. There are strictly tuk-tuks and collectivos in Iquitos.
>> Loofah: I can’t wait to feel clean again.
>> Toilet Seats: There are toilets in Peru, but for some reason, they simply choose not to install the seat on top. You just.. sit on the underneath part.
>> The Pink Dolphin Story: The locals told a story that the pink dolphins that live in the Amazon basin are magical, for lack of a better term. Every Saturday night, the dolphin turns into a beautiful gringo man, who goes straight to the local discotheque, to seduce the most beautiful woman in the village. The man naturally wears a panama hat to cover his blowhole. He would bring her back to the beach to make love – but when his foot touches the water, he turns both himself and the woman into pink dolphins. They believe that some of the pink dolphins may have been humans in the past, and this is why they do not hunt them today. However, if a pink dolphin is captured by a fishing net, they will be forced to kill it because they are afraid of its powers. After hearing this story, we realized that our German coworker Max (who always wears panama hats) was the pink dolphin all along..
>> Max Catching a 6-foot Snake: Max was a fucking riot. Always dressed like Indiana Jones – whether we were at work or in a club – he was ready for action at any moment. So when a 6-foot snake appeared under Gudrun’s house, I interrupted his tour to let him know we needed help. Without saying a word to his group, he sprinted off (and so did I) to grab his equipment and wrangle the shit out of this snake. I stayed in the distance and took pictures. Fuck that.
>> Kai Operations: One morning, we noticed Kai – a three month old woolly monkey (and Nico’s brother) – seemed upset. Upon a closer look, his foot was about three times its normal size and clearly infected. We were forced to quarantine Kai – and for ten days, we would have to blindfold him, hold him down, give him shots and gently squeeze the blood and pus out of his foot. He was terrified of us for a week afterward, and would scream anytime we came near him, but he is 100% healthy today.
>> Moving the Entire Port and Floating Bars: Every year at this time, the river drops about 5 meters (approximately 15 feet), and the community has to get together to move the port. They manually tow the docks about 200 meters downstream in order to reach a deeper spot. This is their only way to get back to Iquitos. The electrical wires rest on handmade sticks, and also need to be moved so the port could be lit (see below). The entire community works together to complete this, and Max was able to save the day when they had no electricity for the first day. In about six months, they will need to move everything back to how it was.
>> Manatee Rescue: On one of our days off, we took an adventure several hours away to a manatee rescue center. At the center, owned by the Nashville Zoo, we learned about their goals to release their several manatees to the wild.
>> Game of Thrones (Gringo Domingo): Sandra, a volunteer from Bolivia, lived with a man who somehow managed to have HBO. He was a kind man, and every sunday we would hold “Gringo Domingo,” where he would allow us to buy popcorn and watch Game of Thrones.
> Friends: To Joanna, Max, Ashley, and Melanie – It was such a pleasure sharing this experience with you. I can’t imagine having done it any differently. I hope all of you continue your travels safely, and I will hopefully see you soon!
For information on how to get to Iquitos, or take a guided jungle tour, check out my previous post: I’m on a Bost (How to Get to Iquitos)
If you have interest in volunteering at Pilpintuwasi (or visiting Iquitos), send me a message and I will be happy to introduce you to the volunteer coordinator, or answer any questions you may have. Full disclosure: they request a minimum of a month-long stay and you will still need to cover your housing, although it is very cheap. The volunteer coordinator will send you options for housing, but my recommendation is “The Bungalows.”
As always, thank you for your time. This was a long post, so if you made it this far, know that you are truly appreciated.
I wish you the best in your day, year, travels, and life 🙂