Archive for the ‘Trip Blogs’ Category

Ever Closer to the Ultimate Sustainable Guesthouse

A lot has happened since the last post, way too long ago; hundreds of trees have been planted, scores of volunteers, researchers and eco-tourists have passed through, and, for the second year, the fifth and sixth graders from the community school spent the night at the camp enjoying a program of games and environmental education.  More on those experiences later.  This brief post highlights some of the recent progress to bring the site to complete self sustainability. 


Situated on the Mazan River, there is never a lack of water.  The Mazan is classified as a “whitewater” river, one carrying significant suspended particles.  The three predominant classes of Amazon Basin rivers are whitewater, blackwater and clearwater:  blackwater is high in tannins and appears black;  clearwater is nutrient poor and is clear.  Whitewater?  It’s brown.  Despite the muddy appearance, clothes washed in the water are as clean as anywhere else.  Yet, some folks reel at the color, so we’ve installed a massive rainwater collection system with a capacity of 5000 liters (1300 gallons).  The elevated tanks provide more than enough pressure for the kitchen, shower and bathroom, and a 12 Volt pump taps the reserve if necessary.


Muddy river water on top and potable water below.


More than a thousand gallons of rainwater, and rarely a need for a pump.

For secure potable water, it’s passed through a ceramic filter that can handle even the muddiest river.

The first solar panels were installed almost two years ago, and now we have a system of six 100-Watt panels charging six batteries to provide 24/7 lighting and 110 and 220V electric service.


12 Volt LED’s connected directly to the storage batteries provide the most efficient bright light. The pull-chain doll is made of native plant fibers, seeds and natural dyes.


Electric control center: solar panel controller, inverter and batteries.



Designing an infrastructure that runs with no toll on the environment is easier than providing a consistent and sustainable source of food.  While there is no lack of land to farm, “slash and burn” wastes the soil quickly and the forest will never return to its proper balance.  About 70 percent of the 540 acres on the site is primary rainforest, and of the remainder, 20 percent has been set aside for reforestation.  About two hundred fruit trees, as well as sugar, bananas, plantains, coffee, yucca, watermelon and passion fruit vines have been planted in the remaining land.  This said, not all of the plantings are success stories.  There is a constant battle with leaf cutter ants; the buggers can remove an entire tree in one night.  We also learned a painful lesson when we misjudged the high water mark and were hit with a 50-year flood, losing many trees and most of the coffee.  We’ve since moved to higher ground.


Star fruit – started from seed four years ago. Although it’s an import, it does well in the soil.


We’re not quite sure what this bowling ball sized fruit is. The trees are leftovers from a prior owner.  It is unique and delicious!



Anona (Rollinia mucosa) is an Amazon gem, taste of vanilla custard, that will never be experienced elsewhere.


The two guardian families who live on the property net enough fish from the river for daily protein needs, this, supplemented by a dozen or so chickens or ducks from time to time. In the long term, chickens underfoot may be a stretch for some guests, but for the time being, I’m delighted to have them snapping up spiders and the grasshoppers that munch on the young seedlings.

We have come very far in a short time in providing a modicum of comfort in the rainforest at minimal or no cost to the environment.  There is much more to do!



Teachers Connect to the Amazon and Bring the Experience Home

Project Amazonas’ inaugural teacher institute, Hands-on Amazon for Educators, was held in Iquitos, Perú and at the Santa Cruz field site on the Mazan River in July 2012.  The enthusiastic teachers from five states hooked up in the Upper Amazon to embrace the opportunity to bring the rainforest and its people back home to their science, social studies and English classrooms.  Course leaders were tropical biologist Devon Graham, Ph.D. and science teacher Don Dean.

Miscellaneous jungle meat, here, mostly yellow-footed turtle parts

Houses showing water line

The experience began and ended in Iquitos, Perú, a fascinating place: founded by Jesuits in 1750, the most inland port in the world with access to the sea (3600 km from the Atlantic); the largest city unreachable by road; shaped by the rise and fall a rubber boon.  The rapidly-growing city reveals its unusual history in a mix of modern conveniences and deeply-rooted jungle folklore and culture.  Iquitos lies on the flood plain of the Itaya River near its junction with the Amazon.  The remnants of the rubber boon at the turn of the 20th Century are evident along the Melecón: former houses of rubber magnates and social clubs on the riverside boulevard, many with their 100-year old porcelain tiles still intact.  Juxtaposed is the sprawling district of Belen, where more than a hundred thousand people live hand-to-mouth.

In a morning visit to the Belen Market, the group was introduced to this strange juxtaposition of rich and poor, rainforest foods and tradition, cheap imported fabric and plastic.  A walk through the sprawling alleys is an assault on the senses.  In 2009, a survey of the market (Paredes and Mejía) counted 89 types of fruits, 56 types of fish, and 60 types of “bush meat” from animals (including turtle parts, armadillo, woodpecker, monkey, peccary, tapir and sloth) extracted from the neighboring forests.  Add to this a huge variety of medical plants, concoctions and a healthy dose of superstition.  The consumption of bush meat, as well as an increasing tourist desire for souvenirs (blowguns adorned with scarlet macaw feathers, monkey skulls, etc.) has taken a significant toll on the wildlife.  The teachers descended the short distance to the flood plain where families live alongside the squalor, plastic waste and riverlets of fecal-contaminated gray water – adults and children playing soccer and volleyball (very popular and played quite skillfully), little ones running and playing.  Surprisingly, one does not notice a degradation of health despite the unsanitary conditions.  In the dry season from May to October, the alluvial fields support beans, squash, watermelon, rice, cucumber, local maize and other crops.  Some of the houses are built on logs that rise with the water, but most are plugged into the mud, and life in the rainy season is a daily matter of laying out planks and moving possessions and sleeping quarters higher and higher, like a swimming dog trying to rid itself of fleas.

Home remedies and folklore.

Before leaving the city for the field station, the teachers visited Pilpantuwasi, an animal sanctuary and butterfly “farm”, and well as the manatee rehabilitation center of IIAP (Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana), two champions of research and preservation.  Expat Austrian Gudrun Sperer spent seven years researching neotropical butterflies and parleyed her passion into a large reserve and education center, meticulously cultivating the specialized plants needed for each species of butterfly.  At IIAP, the gorgeous plump animals take water lettuce from the hand.

The trip to the wild begins at the small port of Bellavista on the Nanay River where it meets the main branch of the Amazon.  The Nanay is a blackwater river, low in nutrient and high in tannin, while the Amazon is a whitewater river, muddy brown in appearance due to suspended sediment.  The commercial ports are closer to town; Bellavista serves more for personal transport and day trips, and is a great place to grab some fresh grilled fish.  Fresh, as in caught within the hour.  It’s a 40-minute speedboat trip down the Amazon to an isthmus that leads to another small port on the Mazan River.  Upon arrival, the group is descended upon by a dozen or so “porteros” – men and boys clamoring to haul your stuff to their motocarros, motorcycles with a cab seating three and basic multi-purpose transport vehicle.  On the bank are all types of miscellaneous people and things to be transported one way or the other, heaps of bananas and plantains, a reluctant, squealing pig.  A ten-minute motocarro ride along a narrow scenic road brings the group to the Mazan River, where, after stocking up on water and last minute provisions (which might include adult beverages), they board the boat for the field station, another 40 minutes up the Mazan River. 

The evidence of pervasive logging, legal or otherwise is obvious: lumber mills spewing sawdust into the river, plastic tents and families atop log rafts floating downstream.  Legacy trees are felled to supply the needs of Iquitos as well as for export as raw timber for building material, furniture, pulp or veneer.  The teacher keep a watchful eye for pink dolphins and river otters.  Along the river, families tap the land with slash and burn subsistence farming and live in “tumbos” constructed of palms and other local materials.  Despite the appearance of civilization, less than a kilometer behind their homesteads lies the primary rainforest.   Another twenty minutes to the field site.

Always willing to take one for the group, Devon demonstrates how ants protect their nests.

The 600+-acre tract is owned and managed by Project Amazonas and bounds another large area of untouched rainforest.  The site is frequented by rainforest enthusiasts of all types: herpetologists, tropical fish collectors, bird watchers and researchers.  Joining the teachers on the course at the field station were two medical students from England and a post-graduate sociology collegiate from Tulane University.    Toward the end of the four-day visit, Dr. Marty Condon of Cornell College, whose team was researching interactions between insects and wild cucumber flowers set up shop at the field station.  Food at the field station was prepared by Iquitos’ own Danillo, master chef.

At the field station, the group explored the rainforest on guided walks led by Dr. Devon Graham.  Devon is accustomed to probing nests of social insects, tarantula holes, grabbing snakes, whatever – his knowledge of the rainforest is long and deep, so he’s not afraid to make a point for the purpose of education or entertainment.  None of the bites have been life threatening, so far, although the area is known for its venomous bushmasters.   Devon has a profound knowledge of plant families, although he would say that his expertise lies in birds and fish.  Although the area has among the highest diversity of plants and animals in the world, the best viewing comes with a little patience and stealth rather than noisily trudging through the forest, machete in hand.  Rest for a while near the clusters of heliconia in bloom and the hummingbirds and other friends return.  Nighttime hikes are the most productive.

A blue and gold macaw startles Sherry.

Butterflies are specialized for niche plants.

In keeping with the spirit of the mission of Project Amazonas to preserve and protect the rainforest and its people, the course participants eagerly planted seedlings of high-quality woods and fruit trees: kapok (Ceiba spp.), marupa (Simarouba amara), wild Amazon grape (Pourouma cecropiaefolia) and passion fruit among many others.  Coconut palm and coffee were also planted; although not native, they are mainstays of the tropics and part of another initiative to make the area completely self-sufficient.

When teachers and children meet, foreign cultures don’t matter, there is no language barrier; all boundaries dissolve.  In addition to exploring the jungle flora and fauna, the time spent with youngsters was precious. Our visit to the school in Santa Cruz happened on Peru’s Independence Day and the children were dressed for the festivities.   The teachers from the institute (who just showed up without invitation) were welcomed by the mayor and town elders, who offered the traditional masato toast (fermented yuca, an acquired taste, or not!).  The village of about 100 families sports a school for kindergarten through high school for students, whose daily commute can be up to an hour by boat, no public transport available.  Despite the Spartan furnishings, the similarities between their classrooms and their American counterparts are stunning: posters on the environment and systems of the human body, alphabets illustrated with animal pictures, classroom rules.

Village school – not so different

While waiting for our return boat at the school, Donnamarie Polak, a fifth grade teacher from Ohio, urged the children to bring her one of their school books.  The children were spellbound listening to the gringa read to them.  Although the pronunciation was unique, they hung on every word.

No language barrier: Santa Cruz family enjoys a picture puzzle with British medical student Eleanor and Donnamarie.

Sherry, the lone English teacher and who had been coerced by her science teacher colleague to join the trip, inspired everyone in evening sessions of “Jungle Haiku.”  After the course, most of the teachers took advantage of the travel opportunity and headed to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, just two of the many, many gems in Perú.

So, the experience left the teachers richer and excited to bring to bring the lessons home.  The rainforest is under attack, shrinking in size and diversity at an alarming rate.  Now is the time to apply the lessons in our classrooms.  It’s not certain will benefit more: the teachers, the local children or the investment at home in the diversity and future stewardship of the rainforest and its people.

The next teacher institute is scheduled for July 17-24, 2013.  The course carries four semester undergraduate or graduate credits.  If you’ve got a sense of adventure or know someone who wants to bring the rainforest and its culture to the classroom, please visit         or contact

Draft Heliconia Survey – Call for Comments

In February 2012, a team of two Americans and three local assistants visited Project Amazonas’ Santa Cruz field site to work on the fruit diversity project and to perform various exploratory and maintenance tasks.  The site is on the Mazan River, forty minutes upriver by powered canoe from the port of Mazan and about two hours from Iquitos, Perú.  During the trip, Minnesotan volunteer Jake Schultz did a brief survey of Heliconia along two paths that trace old property lines on the site, running from the river to the main station.  More specimens remain to be found and identified on the many trails.

The purpose of this preliminary blog is to document some of the species and varieties of Heliconia of known provenance in the Upper Amazon and to invite more knowledgeable devotees to improve the scholarship by identifying the varieties.  The photos are in two parts: the first group are in situ in both old growth forest and secondary growth forest.  The second group of photos are of plants acquired from a local collector (who provided the names) and were planted on the site around the buildings or on a new nature trail on former agricultural land to keep them separate from the natural forest.

Comments and advice are welcome – please help identify the varieties!  This post will be expanded and updated after comments.

Part I: Prominent Native Heliconia on Two Trails

Many thanks to Jake for the photos.  Jake is trained in sustainable farming techniques, and in addition to documenting some of the Heliconia, he shared his culinary and medical skills during the trip.

H. 986

Heliconia 644

Heliconia 643

Heliconia 638

Heliconia 631

Heliconia 628

Heliconia 626

Heliconia 606

Heliconia 601

Heliconia 595

Heliconia 594

Heliconia 592

Heliconia 565 - planted at upper field station


Part II:  Plants Introduced February 2012


Heliconia bihai “Lobster Claw II

Heliconia psittacorum "Opal Cream"


Heliconia psittacorum "Sassy"


Heliconia psittacorum "Strawberry and Cream"


Heliconia psittacorum "Guyana Red"


Heliconia bihai x H. stricta


Heliconia psittacorum "Fire Opal"


Heliconia stricta "Tagami"


Heliconia psittocorum "Golden Adrian"


Most common H. planted in the city proper. Takes full sun. Planted in front of the Taj.


Alpinia purpurata "Pink"


Alpinia "Kimi Red"


Zinziber spectabile "Maracas"


Etlingera Venusta "Red"

End of post – will be revised after comments.

28. February 2012

Don Dean, Project Amazonas

Building a Cornucopia Amazonica

Building A Cornucopia Amazonica: A Trip To The Frontera In Search Of Fruit


The rapido leaves early from a small pier called Heuquito.   By 5:30 a.m., the Peruvian DEA dogs have already sniffed your luggage and you have settled into a personal claustrophobia for the next nine hours.   Vendors, many of them young children, board the boat with last- minute provisions: water, fruit, bread, sweets – everything at twice or more the street price.  You might think you’d experience National Geographic scenery, splitting schools of pink dolphins and flocks of scarlet macaws.  Not.  It’s more like driving through Pennsylvania; it gets old fast.  Hours of trying to find new ways to stretch.   After a while, the guilt dogs you until it’s no longer socially acceptable to ignore your neighbor despite the desire to withdraw and sleep; you have to make the reluctant embrace, however clumsy the language.   Now you’re stuck with it – chit chat or whatever in a language and culture that’s not in your comfort zone, becoming ever so more richly rewarding.  ‘Nuf said.

Immediately upon arrival at Santa Rosa, you’re checked out of the country and officially become a citizen of nowhere.  Fare payable in three currencies, colectivos ferry you across the river to Tabitinga, Brazil, or to Leticia, Colombia, where you need to check in and become legal again.

So why make the trip?  For anyone, it’s worth the while just to admire the differences among the three cultures.  Leticia is a tidy little city with a good infrastructure (mostly reliable water and electricity), while the smaller Portuguese-speaking Brazilian town of Tabatinga hasn’t gotten there yet.   Santa Rosa, on the Peruvian side, is simply a way station – the end of the line, bleak.   Many rugged travelers use the tri-border to exchange travel comfort and time for the expense of air flights.  In my case, it’s all about fruit.

My “plaything” is a nursery of tropical fruits, aspiring for the most diverse representation of native and other tropical fruits in a single place, anywhere.  The site is “Parcela 52”, in the village of Santa Cruz, upriver from the port of Mazan on the Napo River.  The 20-hectare parcel is co-managed with Project Amazonas, a Peruvian-American non-profit organization that focuses on humanitarian, educational, research and conservation work in the Peruvian Amazon.  The nursery is on the riverine half of the lot, land that had formerly been cleared and used as a homestead, while the upper portion is primary rainforest, and which adjoins a large reserve owned and maintained by Project Amazonas.  Having exhausted the fruits available in the titillating Belen market (GO THERE!), it was time to expand the search.

For the most part, the fruits in Iquitos are similar to those available on the tri-border, however, as with many fruits, they are extremely varied, even within the same species – not surprising to see the same mature fruit from marble- to softball-sized, for example.   Of course, the markets in both Leticia and Tabatinga abound with fresh victuals, not surprisingly, local fish and fruits on all sides of the border.  Practicality and civility impose a basic order in developing-world markets, yet the atmosphere remains electric.

Leticia fruit market

The border area features star fruit (carambola) and maracuyá (a sweet, yellow passion fruit) in higher proportions than found in Iquitos; also, copoasú, similar to cocoa but with a coconut shell and a rummy taste, was more available.   Perhaps it has to do with local preferences, or possibly different harvest times.  One of the prevalent myths held by Northerners is that “if it’s summer here, then it’s winter down there”, not taking into account that this only pertains to a small percentage of the world’s population, and that the Amazon is not actually “down there.”  The tropics do indeed have seasons, more importantly marked by rainfall than by temperature, and this has a significant effect on the fruiting cycle.

Two fruits new to me were naranjilla (Solanum quitoense), a tomato-like thing that tastes like an orange, and borojó (Borojoa sorbilis / Rubiaceae), a cousin of huito, with a chocolate-brown pulp and not quite as sickeningly sweetly pungent.  I carefully dried all the seeds, and, expecting the usual customs form on the return trip “are you carrying any fruits, seeds, or animal products?”, tucked them away in discreet crevices in my suitcase.  After finding a hatchet to open the copoasú (later learned to simply drop it from a height), I passed on bringing back the seeds – I had never tried to clean them before, gummy stuff with a pleasant taste redolent of rum but the seeds just won’t give up their stringy pulp – probably they are adapted to germinate better after having passed through the intestinal tract of a large mammal?  I chose not to prove it.

Return trip started at 2:30 a.m., walking the planks to the dock at Tabatinga in a downpour, best to hire surer-footed portero who carries stuff for a living, and then waiting forty minutes for enough passengers to justify a ride across the black Amazon.  Generators on the Peruvian side are off for the night.  With the fifth passenger, a well-seasoned fellow captains a small covered boat across in the dark, using a searchlight to look for debris, destination, or others in the blind.  Good to be out of the rain.

Gringos have to walk to the national police office and bang on the door to wake up the officer.  If you’ve properly stamped yourself in and out of Colombia or Brazil, you fill out the immigration form in the light of a single candle and get back on the boat.  If your passport is not properly stamped, that’s another story – been there.  No customs inspection at Santa Rosa; that happens two hours later in Chimbote.   There, still dark and raining, the corpulent customs officer has absolutely no interest in the inconvenience, nor the facility to climb the roof and slither under the plastic cover to look at luggage.   The sneakiness was in vain.

Back to the nursery.  Before this project, there was already a good variety of mature and producing indigenous fruit trees, although it will be several years before the new trees come to fruition, so to speak.   The families of the caretakers, on a monthly rotating schedule, send their young boys to scale the trees for caimito, uvilla, arazá, cacao, macambo, shimbira, charichuelo, and others.

The idea is to make the place available for serious research, serious pleasure, or anything in-between.   Project Amazonas ( collaborates with universities to provide opportunities for research and travel with college credit (, as well as adventure and pleasure trips, anything from searching for undocumented species, reforestation, catching tropical fish, or just bringing the Amazon experience home.

Iquitos is a treasure, the most accessible gateway to the Amazon. Coming soon Part 2 – a guide to some common fruits of the Upper Amazon.

Building A Cornucopia Amazonica: A Trip To The Frontera In Search Of Fruit
August 2012
Don Dean