By Landon – 3rd year student
Because of Quests dynamic block schedule, we take only one class at a time. This opens up several opportunities to do classes in different environments, instead of the usual inside classroom. One of these opportunities opened itself up to me this past fall when I was able to attend “Biodiversity of Peru” a class that took me into the center of the Peruvian Amazon.
Heading out from Cusco, we drove Northeast over the Andean mountains until we reached the entrance to Manu National Park.
Once inside the park we stopped in the Puna region (the ecosystem at the highest elevation in the Amazon). We spent the day doing birds counts, looking for mammal tracks, and taking in the views.
Our tutor, Thor, is a bird specialist which means we spent a lot of time looking at birds. I mean, A LOT of time looking at birds. Here is him sneaking through the bushes at a high elevation lake, looking for… guess what… BIRDS.
Over the next few days we descended down the Manu road into lower elevations of the Amazonian basin. We stayed a few nights in the Cloud Forest, looked at a lot of birds (including the beautiful and elusive cock-of-the-rock shown the next picture), and helped with an experiment that was looking at the micro-ecosystems that are found within Bromeliads.
Some of the other highlights of the region include seeing Woolly Monkeys from across the valley, the Oropendola birds (notice the two fighting in the bottom right of the image below and their hanging nests in the background), and again all of the fantastic views.
The next day we were on the Manu road again (shown in the above image on the mountain on the left hand side). This time we went straight to the jungles base, into the lowlands.
Once in the lowlands we boarded a boat and rode up the Madre de Dios river into the center of the amazon. We had several stops along the way, including the Crees research station that was participating in several studies, focusing on the conservation in second-growth forests.
As we moved further into the Amazon we did an environmental survey focusing on human impacts on the Amazon. We counted bits of trash in the river, as well as farm land or banana groves. We were in the boat for 10 hours that day and every hour we saw more amazing things. Slowly the human settlements and disruption disappeared into the distance as well as the mountains that we spent days travelling down. The trees started to get larger. From the boat it felt like we were explorers, our eyes the first to lay on the beautiful area.
We finally arrived to our final destination, Cocha Cashu Research Station in the center of the Peruvian Amazon. Visitors are usually not allowed into this part of the park, the only people that are allowed to go are researchers and classes, and even then very few have the opportunity to go so far into the amazon. Cocha Cashu, named after the lake it is situated on, is beaming with life. In the lake there are the formidable Black Caiman, they can grow to be larger than 5m (16 ft) and have been known to take down fully grown humans. Sharing the waters with the giant reptiles are freshwater rays and eels as well as giant otters (see attached photo).
We spent almost a week there, each doing “mini” research assignments. Some of us looked at ant populations looking at pheromones trails or biomass moving capabilities. Other looked at primates and spent their days in the woods chasing down the elusive mammals. One group looked at the Oropendola birds that I mentioned earlier, studying their behavior and mating practices. Others yet did surveys of the land or calculated fungi presence in living and recently fallen trees. The ability to study something in the field truly is one of the most incredible experiences. Nothing you can do in a lab or a classroom ever truly comes close.
The flexibility that being on the block plan allows really is a game changer, it allows the student to take full advantage of every opportunity that comes their way. Because field courses often need to take place in chunks of time, a traditional semester model can’t support them the same way Quest can.