A Week in the Clouds

Posted: November 14, 2014

I looked down at the blue outlines of cascading ridges, and for the hundredth time at the Wayqecha field station, I was stunned by where I was: in the cloud forest on the edge of the Peruvian Andes, at the very beginning of the Amazon rainforest.

The rain from the clouds that swept through the mountains there would make its way all the way to the Atlantic Ocean on the other side of the continent, passing through Peru and Brazil and flowing through tributaries and eventually into the Amazon river. I have seen so many amazing sights in the past two months — monkeys, bats, giant kapok trees, awe-inspiring lightning and thunderstorms, waves of army ants, tapirs, the glittering lights of Cusco, and the ruins of Machu Picchu — but for me nothing compares to staring out the windows of Wayqecha’s dining hall and realizing exactly where I was: at the brink of the Amazon, a place that just a year ago I had no inkling I would ever get to see in my lifetime.

For six nights we slept at the cold height of 2950 meters above sea level, and by day we went on hikes through shrub land and — literally — through the cloud forest on a canopy bridge walk. Along the way we learned about the characteristics of this unique ecosystem, the way it’s being affected by global warming, threats to the forest from cattle ranching in the puna (the grasslands that thrive just above the treeline), and the potential of the cloud forest to mitigate climate change. We also collected field data about lichens, bromeliads, birds, insects, and tree ferns as a field exercise and took a day trip to local farmers’ fields in the towns of Sunchubamba and Challabamba to learn about Andean agricultural practices.

When our week in the cloud forest was over, we wound down the mountain roads back to our home base of Villa Carmen. Since returning to the rainforest, we’ve started taking final exams and working hard on assignments; visited a farm where we got the opportunity to harvest corn and try our hand at milking a cow; and spent the day of Halloween carving pumpkins, running relay races, and face-painting before heading out to the disco in town.All of the boys are blue from head to toe and the rest of us have various designs on our arms and legs thanks to an indigenous dye made from a jungle fruit, which supposedly functions as an insect repellent and natural sun protectant. We’re in the process of planning for a day of environmental education with local schoolchildren and beginning our Directed Research projects.

Life is frequently hot, humid, buggy, and busy with work, but also full of blue skies, laughter, the constant symphony of the forest, walks into town, and the good company of my classmates. As we often say: such is life in the tropics. I wouldn’t want to be living any other right now.