Day of the turtles The evening that the final piece of rescue centre paperwork arrived, I joked to Douwe and Olivia that tomorrow the animals would start arriving. In my defence I think I joked it would be jaguars. Early the next day a rumour was circulating in the nearby village that the ministry was on its way with 20 turtles. 20 was nothing to worry about. But as the day went on the number had risen to 200, a bit more of an issue. Douwe went across to the village to try and contact the ministry, but they’d already left to come to us. With nothing else to be done we waited. I will admit at this point I joked that knowing Peruvians it would be 2000 turtles. I was wrong. When the ministry arrived they had 2 enormous buckets almost overflowing with confiscated baby turtles. Carrying the buckets as quickly as possible to the house, the decision was made to empty the turtles onto the floor of the volunteer house. A landslide of live, dead and semi-live/dead turtles covered the floor and we worked to spread them out before too many suffocated. Of course some were very alive and instantly went running before we could barricade the other rooms. (The last of these was recovered from behind the toilet the next morning and was reunited with his buddies!) With the ministry workers helping we set about getting the live ones ready for immediate release back into the river. The first thing we did was grab the turtles that were still trying to run around and organise them into groups of 10. These were placed into the large buckets 200 at a time. With the first lot ready to go we headed down to the river to do the single biggest release of Esperanza Verde yet. We sent around 1000 of these baby turtles back into the wild on the first go. The ministry had brought some press and cameras with them so videos of Lauren and I looking like we knew what we were doing were played on Peruvian TV for the next week. Lauren even gave an interview, but we’re not sure if it made the cut. Back at the house the process was repeated several times until all of the turtles that seemed fine were released. The other volunteers had finished the afternoon feed at this point and came to help. Of course the stress and the transportation meant that in total around 10% of the turtles were dead on arrival. In the hopes that some still had some life in them we lined them up to make it easier to see if one moved. The turtles had been poached as they were hatching along the banks of a river. Judging by the number of turtles it was a large number of nests. The culprit had been trying to sell them from their house and a group of children from a nearby school telephoned the authorities to report them. This seems a good sign for the future of nature conservation in the area. Some of the last turtles stayed with us for several weeks until they recovered sufficiently to be released. And before we knew it the last of the 3,300 were back in the river where they belong. It goes without saying that I’m no longer allowed to make jokes about animals arriving. Thousands of turtles were a challenge…but Jaguars…
Iquitos is a great place to get on a boat and head off on an Amazon adventure. As Lauren and I had just had an eight month jungle adventure we didn’t really want to spend the money on another. One thing we were interested in however was the Wildlife Orphanage and Butterfly Farm of Pilpintuwasi, just outside of Iquitos.
Getting to Pilpintuwasi was fun and interesting on it’s own. Firstly you have to head to the port of Bella Vista. This small village at the edge of Pucallpa is a market, floating village, fishing port and river boat terminal.
The bustling port could be quite daunting if you’re not well travelled, but it’s really interesting if you stop and look.
We’ve got to admit we were a bit lost as the floating walkways head off in different directions, all to different docks. Of course there are no signs to indicate where to go, and after some advice, that was mostly people vaguely pointing in varying directions, we happened to end up in the right place.
We’d read up online that there were two types of boat, expensive private slow boats or water collectivos. We were looking for one of the collectivos. A boat driver told us he was going to Padre Cocha, the correct destination. We asked the price, got the correct answer and hopped in.
Being alone on the boat we were a bit confused when he immediately set sail. It turns out the collectivos just set off when they have some passengers. So we got a 20 minute private boat ride along the river to Padre Cocha.
From the port it was a nice walk through the village, first heading towards a water tower and then to the end of the road. Here there was a big sign for Pilpintuwasi.
Pilpintuwasi was originally set up by an Austrian as a butterfly farm, but when the owner woke up one morning to find a jaguar cub on her doorstep it also became an animal rescue center. Much like Esperanza Verde locals bring in animals that they rescue and the government drops others off after confiscation.
Today the center has a huge collection of animals, jaguar, ocelot, Capuchin monkeys, marmosets, Macaws, capybara etc.
The stars of the show and the main reason we went are the Red Faced Uakari.
These monkeys are incredibly endangered and are almost impossible to breed in captivity. Pilpintuwasi has a group of them living in release around the center.
So when we first arrived at Pilpintuwasi, before we’d even made it inside, we were greeted by this face. As this monkey was the last animal on my South America “to see” list, I was very happy.
The monkeys run amok around the center, and much like our much missed Willow the Wooly Monkey, their male adolescent enjoyed terrorising the volunteers. He especially liked it when the male volunteers were carrying sandbags, jumping up and down on their backs.
The butterfly farm that was the original inspiration for the project still sits at the center. The guided tours give a great understanding of the lifecycle of these animals.
We were shown lots of different species in the butterfly house, as well as getting to see some of the workers collecting the eggs.
There was a brief surprise when we also found a Kinkajou curled up under some stairs. It had apparently escaped the day before and obviously found somewhere nice to sleep.
Next we were shown the room where the eggs are stored, caterpillars hatched, and crysalis formed. Eventually leading to the new butterflies.
Some of the Caterpillars were huge and it was amazing to see how the chrysalis perfectly resembled the leaves of their favoured plants.
Whilst we went mainly for the Uakari, the butterfly house really was amazing and equally worth a visit. If you find yourself with some free time in Iquitos, we’d definitely recommend Pilpintuwasi as a day trip to get away from the bustle of the city.
After a monkey stole Mr Ducky in Cambodia and a Hawk tried to eat him in Argentina, the couple were naturally quite scared about meeting the resident animals at Esperanza Verde.
With our resident monkeys famed for stealing anything that isn’t tied down, extra caution was required…we didn’t make the same mistake a third time…
Volunteering is something Iain and I spent hours painstakingly researching when we were preparing for our trip to South America. The obvious questions for us were: what type of volunteer project should we choose, where should we volunteer, and how should we begin organising our volunteer trip? It was a daunting task deciding where, not only, to donate our time, but also our money from the thousands of projects out there on offer.
How to choose a type of volunteer project?
For us working at an animal rescue centre, an orphanage/school, a construction project, or teaching English were all considerations. And really we made the final decision by being brutally honest with ourselves. What would we enjoy most and what type of project would we get the most out of? To all the selfless do-gooders out there, this might all sound a bit me me me, but really you need to be enthusiastic about a project to do any good.
The reality for me was: I wasn’t sure I was physically fit enough or skilled enough to be part of a construction project 24/7. Also having never worked with children before I couldn’t promise myself that after a week or so a group of them wouldn’t drive me crazy. I love kids but usually kids that I can look after for a few hours and then give back to their parents. An after our episode with Tannat the stray dog we picked up in Argentina, I’m sure you can appreciate why working with animals became the focus of our efforts. Choose something you love and you and the project will both be happy with your work there.
How to begin organising your volunteer trip? Cutting out the middleman.
When beginning our search online it was easy to be lured in by the glossy websites or middlemen offering “life changing experiences” all over the world. You’ll know ones if you’ve begun by typing “volunteer abroad” into Google. Tempting as the pictures of volunteers holding turtles or the close-up shots of jaguars seemed at first, with prices way over £1000 for 2 weeks these projects were an unrealistic option for us. Despite these companies promising pre-departure support and local orientation on arrival we like many had to question what justified these prices. From a little research and speaking with projects that had once been involved with these companies, usually only a small portion of what the volunteer pays actually goes to the project itself.
True or not, why would you pay £1000 when you can pay a tenth of that for virtually the same experience? We chose a project were we paid a little under £100 for 2 weeks directly into the hands of the project. For that our food and accommodation were included as well as a donation for materials for the project. And to top it off we didn’t have the nagging question in our minds as to what our money was actually paying for. The organisation was upfront about all the costs involved with the project and we could see exactly where our money went.
How to find the free/cheap volunteer projects?
Having ruled out going through ones of the large companies, we had to search a little harder to find and contact the projects themselves. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as adding “free” or “cheap” to your original query in the search engines. The commercial middle-mans still appear…£1000 is cheap in some peoples definitions apparently?! We luckily stumbled across this website which proved invaluable for our search in South America.
Anything but glossy, this basic website offers a list of “grassroots” volunteer projects throughout South and Central America. Simply web-links but it allows you to contact the projects directly yourself.
Not travelling to South America? Don’t worry these websites/lists do exist for your chosen destination; you just have to be a bit more creative with your search. I suggest searching for “lists of free volunteer projects in …” or “volunteering aboard for free blogs”. For most travelling and backpacking, blogs and first hand advice are a vital source of information. Likewise when you’ve narrowed down your choice of project it is worth searching for a few blogs written by people who have actually volunteered there. They might simply have useful advice about getting there or what to pack but they may also help you avoid less authentic, money grabbing organisations.
Which volunteer project should I choose?
As I said before reading blogs on the projects can be really helpful, but here are a few of other tips for choosing the right project.
Read the websites – sounds simple but get as much information out of the website as possible. Read all the information available but don’t be afraid to contact and ask for further info if you cant find what you need. Reading newsletters and updates from the projects can be very reassuring.
Contact multiply projects – I’m not saying email them all, keep to those within your chosen field, but it’s a good idea to contact a few as they may not all have availability for your chosen timeframe. Also a friendly, enthusiastic email response from a real person goes along way to cementing your decision to volunteer. We emailed multiple projects but it was Olivia’s quick, personable response that ensured we were on the next plane to Esperanza Verde.
Talk to other travellers – if like us you were already on the road when you were finalising your decision of where to volunteer, other backpackers can be an excellent source of information. They might for example know of smaller/start-up projects that perhaps don’t have a web presence yet.
Use social media – you will find lots of projects have a Facebook page or perhaps a group set up by ex-volunteers. Most of the projects wont be on review sites, such as Trip-advisor, but it’s always reassuring to reach out to a few ex-volunteers if possible.
There are thousands of projects out there, offering all sorts of different work as a volunteer. Research your project carefully; ensure you know what will be expected of you as a volunteer and what you will get in return. You don’t need to pay a lot of money to have an amazing and fulfilling time. Nearly all the volunteers I have met, whether they volunteered for 2 weeks or 2 months have come away with an unforgettable experience. Good luck with your search and do contact us if you would like any further help or advice.
Although this blog post was created to help you choose volunteer project in any field, but if like us you have an interest in animals you can read more about our experience at Esperanza Verde here or watch the video below.
If you are interested in volunteering with animals in South America then check out our new video about life at Esperanza Verde in Peru. Esperanza Verde is an Animal Rescue Centre and Reforestation Project in the Amazon Basin. It was started 5 years ago and is home to an array of animals. It was also home to us for the past 9 months and we hope this video will give you an idea of what kept us there so long. Sorry for the lack of blogs recently but hopefully this makes up for it.
So if you’re asking yourself “where can I volunteer in South America?” then look no further…
So after much deliberation and a few skype calls to the family to get their opinion – we decided to return to the jungle. For the next 6 months we plan to take a break from life on the road and once again work with the monkeys and all the other wonderful animals at Esperanza Verde. Having fallen in love with life at the project dedicating a bit more of our time and putting off returning to London and potentially getting a “career” or some such scary prospect seemed to us like a no brainier.
So after our break in Cusco and our 4-Day hike to Machu Picchu we made the journey back to our temporary home. This time the once complicated journey didn’t seem so daunting and instead the familiar faces mapped the way. “Bigote” the ferry driver in Curimana didn’t seem to remember us but by the time we got to Bello Horizonte the unforgettable barks of Yarra, the family dog, announced our arrival.
As they were functioning with just one volunteer on our arrival I think it’s fair to say the family were pleased to have us back. Before we knew it was back to work and we were pleased to find the monkeys hadn’t forgotten us. As usual Willow greeted us by jumping on us and pulling our hair…we missed you too Willow…
Mica as ever is gorgeous and inquisitive…
And Jordi is still mischievous and can often be found stealing Yarra’s food when he thinks no one is watching…
In our absence there have even been a few new arrivals…meet Nikita our baby Capuchin who is charming everyone at the project…
As ever life flies by here with lots of hungry mouths to feed and construction of the new house well underway. Internet access is limited but we hope to keep you regularly updated with tales from jungle. The plan is still to continue our travels next year but for now you’ll have to excuse us if we turn into some of those bloggers that just post endless pictures of cute animals…
In the last few months we had considered many times taking a break from life on the road and volunteering, preferably with animals. Finding ourselves in the South American city of Lima and asking ourselves the question “what shall we do next?” it seemed like the prefect time.
We found Esperanza Verde online, loved the sound of the project and pretty much jumped on the first plane to the jungle. When we arrived we fell in love immediately.
Esperanza Verde is a Wildlife Protection Centre based in the Amazon Basin. It is currently home to an array of rescued native animals and the numbers are ever increasing. It was started 5 years ago by Olivia and Douwe, and with the help of their 2 children and an army of volunteers over the years, they have created something pretty special in their little patch of jungle.
Day-to-day life varies and there is never a dull moment. The jobs range from feeding the animals, helping with the construction of new cages, carrying sandbags to assisting with veterinary work. It was rare that 2 days of the week would ever be the same as there is always a new job that crops up to keep you on your toes. Like bathing some baby squirrel monkeys for example…
But of course a day doesn’t go by at Esperanza Verde without spending a good part of it with all the adorable animals. We hope to introduce you to a few more of the residents over the next few weeks but here’s just a handful that stole our hearts.
Here is the resident sloth, Elmo. Raised from a baby and free to come and go as he pleases, the lure of a few carrot sticks and sliced sweet potato keeps him hanging around in the nearby trees.
This is Nakoya the resident baby female Woolley Monkey. Along with Willow and Kamari the two male Woolleys, she enjoys the freedom of the jungle but is always hanging around ready to enjoy her milk three times a day.
And this is the lovely Rincay, a tapir with rare blue eyes. He used to have the freedom to roam but unfortunately kept roaming as far the local village and eating peoples clothes off the washing line. Fearing for his safety he now shares a large enclosure with Pepito, a tortoise, but still enjoys eating the volunteers t-shirts when they are not paying attention…
The aim is with most of the animals to release them back into their natural environments but for a few this isn’t a reality. Many of the monkeys enjoy the safety of the nearby jungle but never roam far from the feeding table. Whereas some, like the Macaws, whose wings are broken and therefore cant fly, must instead enjoy life in the large aviary. But with ample food they happily shout “Hola” as we go about our daily work.
When we weren’t doing all of the above you’d often find us on the construction site for Olivia and Douwe’s house. (They have spent 5 years camping in the volunteer house, poor things!) In just six weeks it was amazing to see the house begin to take shape, going from mere foundations to a structure with floors, a few walls, a roof and a working sink! Before we arrived an Ikea wardrobe was about as far as my construction skills went…but now sawing wood, sanding and (badly!) hammering in nails is all part of day-to-day life.
Life is basic but in our eyes bliss. You’re kept fit and healthy running around after all the animals, the food is local, fresh and plentiful and there’s often a campfire and a few cocktails in the evening. So if you’re thinking of volunteering but not sold on the animals alone, you’ll be sold on the people and the lifestyle.
We hope to keep you entertained with a few more tales from our time in the jungle soon but in the meantime if you’d like to volunteer or simply make a donation then get in contact with Olivia at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the website at http://www.esperanzaverdeperu.com/
After the wet days in the Amazon Jungle and the continuous downpours in Rurrenabaque, our journey to the Pampas was never going to be easy.
Like in many rural areas in South America, the roads around the small northern town of Rurrenabaque are unpaved. What should have been a mere three hour journey along the dirt track turned out to be closer to six. In all honesty we were surprised we made it to the Pampas at all. But we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to attempt the journey…
In three people carriers without 4WD, the journey was more chaotic than our trip across the salt flats! Each car took its turn to get stuck…ours was so deep in the mud, the doors were jammed shut and we had to escape though the windows…
The farm animals and those on horseback trotted by, whilst we dug out the cars with pick axes and a ball of twine as a towrope. I say we…most of us tourists could barely stand up straight in the mud…thank goodness for the experience of our drivers…
Instead we tourists made ourselves useful by playing with this little sloth by the roadside. He really didn’t seem to care as we stood below him snapping away and instead focussed his efforts on his afternoon nap. Way to live up to the stereotype, Mr Sloth.
So was the journey worth all the trouble? Without a doubt! As we eventually disembarked the beaten cars, ourselves coated in mud, we were greeted by the second wildlife encounter of many. Our lodges were a little way up the river and as we waited for our boat to transport us, the playful pink river dolphins made their first appearance.
Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to swim with them, we dumped our bags at the lodge and grabbed our trunks and bikinis and were in the water within minutes…
Despite trying to entice them near to us with all the tricks we’d learnt from watching “Flipper” as children, these dolphins were very much disinterested in us. Instead they were fixated with the plastic water bottle toy our guide had made for them…
Although our pictures do not show this well, they really are pink in colour! As we watched from the boat we could really see the various shades – as the dolphin gets older, the pink intensifies.
As dolphins have been one of my favourite animals since childhood this really was a fantastic experience for me. Swimming with dolphins was certainly on my bucket list. Swimming with alligators and piranhas, however was not. As we travelled back up stream to the lodge our guide took this opportunity to point out the various caimans and alligators along the riverbank and also announced the river was infested with piranhas. Best we knew after our swim I guess…
After a good rest and some wonderful food back at the lodge, on Day 4 we donned our wellies (or rubber boots to some of you) and set off in search of anacondas.
Long story short we failed to find any but we spent a good few hours traipsing through mud, grass and ponds deep enough to almost render the wellies pointless…
Somehow looking back walking in long grass looking for one of the largest snakes in the world seems like a bad idea, but at the time the intrepid explorer in all of us took over…and the ponds didn’t disappoint with other wildlife.
Slightly disappointed not to have found an anaconda but relieved to have made it out of the bog un-constricted we set off once again up the river to see what other wildlife we could find. And wow…we could now understand why the Pampas is famed for the endless wildlife on show.
We literally sat back and floated along, not knowing where to look first…
After seeing the capibaras, caimans, alligators, endless birds, turtles and monkeys jumping tree to tree we finished off the day with a spot of piranha fishing. In a few hours our group had caught 24, enough for a decent dinner.
Then we watched the sunset before returning to eat our catch.
The final day finished on a high. We set off in search of squirrel monkeys and before we knew it they were in the boat with us. I’m not sure who found who more fascinating…
Some admired their reflection in my lens…
Whilst others were clearly in a stand off with the monkey looking back…
When it was time to leave they looked at us blankly as we attempted to encourage them off the boat, but as we pulled away from the bank they elegantly jumped back into the safety of their tree. And with that the wildlife adventure was over.
Sad to leave all the animals behind, that afternoon we made our way back to Rurrenabaque. Thankfully the mud had dried out so the return trip was less eventful than the previous…yet we still managed to bump into this anteater along the way….
This was right before we ran out of petrol and had to flag down a passing car to beg for a loan. Who said travelling is easy…
Once back in the little town we relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon and the next day made our way back to the airport…if you can call it that…
Although our fears of finding a tiny propeller plane waiting on the runway had been quashed on our outbound flight this time we weren’t so lucky!
With just 20 seats and two captains that we could wave at from our seats at the back, the journey started off fine. That is until they announced our plane would be diverted, as there was an “incident involving a plane” at La Paz. As a result we experienced what we can only be described as a hair-raising near vertical landing into Cochabamba. Give me a muddy track and a people carrier any day.
From La Paz it’s actually a simple process to get yourself down to the Bolivian Amazon. There are two options, bus or flight. The bus takes the better half of a day, has a safety record that you’d never mention to your mother and is meant to be one of the worst experiences on the continent. The plane takes 30 minutes and has great views. That’s right…we went for the plane.
Sam and Lauren were initially a bit worried as we’d heard we’d be crammed into a 12 seater twin prop aircraft. In fact we were crammed into a 50 seater jet and shot off towards the rainforest. An interesting fact, going from 4000m above sea level to 0 causes your Pringles tube to implode and crush all of your crisps.
Rurrenabaque airport has recently upgraded to a tarmac runway, the “terminal” is still the same though. I guarantee you’ll be using gate 1 in terminal 1, there isn’t a duty free, there are refreshments but you have to milk the cow yourself.
We’d booked onto a 4 night 5 day combined rainforest and pampas tour and would be departing the next day. After a quick orientation at the office we headed to the hostel for an early night.
We awoke that morning to the type of rain you’d expect in a rainforest. The empty swimming pool at the hostel was now half full, as was reception. We took it in our stride and headed to the boats.
As we headed up river I couldn’t help thinking of Indiana Jones and wondering whether there was a seaplane or rolling boulder around.
The rain abated and the sun came out just as we got to our halfway point. A sugar cane farm. We were handed a machete and shown the best way of chopping down the canes. Next we headed to the press and used a bit of muscle to get the sugar. After adding local citrus to the drink this stuff is far more potent at waking you up than coffee. We also got our first introduction to the biting insects of the rainforest that seem to think our insect repellent was an interesting sauce.
A bit of river wading was of course necessary to get back to the boat.
The jungle lodge really is set in the heart of the jungle, after getting off the boat we waded a couple more rivers and then trekked up to the lodges hidden in the trees.
Our guide Ron was excellently versed on the local flora and fauna and took us off into the rain to explain all the bees and trees to us.
There were of course local plants that will do pretty much anything, from pregnancy tests to painkillers. We did catch on pretty quick though that the majority of the plants, spiders, ants and bugs are just there to kill you.
Ron did warn us to watch where we put our hands, with trees like this you can see why.
Humidity also started to be a problem for the cameras…
After multiple more river crossings and a few more machete sessions we were all feeling like true jungle explorers and were happy to head back to the lodge for some more of the excellent food.
There’s only one solar panel at the lodge and it hadn’t exactly been sunny, so there was enough light for dinner and then bed.
The second day was unsurprisingly wet, so wet in fact that there was no point heading into the jungle to look for animals. Instead we lit a fire, made rings and necklaces out of local nuts and played around with the bows and arrows.
That evening we went for a trek in the jungle. When we stopped and turned off our torches the darkness was absolute, you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. It did give us the chance to hear the sounds of the forest though. We didn’t see much wildlife except an Ocelot and some type of jungle rat, probably the Ocelots dinner, but the walk was still worth staying up late for.
The next morning we jumped on the boat to head back to Rurrenabaque and the next part of our adventure, the pampas.