Cusco captured my heart. It was a vibrant city pulsing with new and old. Saying goodbye was truly bittersweet and we sensed that we would miss this special place. Our last day in Cusco we treated ourselves, via my parent’s gift, to an incredible healing massage at Holistic Healing Paramatma. It was the perfect way to relax and unwind after our rigorous trek. We also randomly walked right into our friends from the trek, Suellen, Tiama, and Frances. If you ever doubt that the world really is a small place, travel! We picked up 10 kilos of clean laundry, and made our way back to our B&B to finish packing. An Uber picked us up outside and drove us to the airport. Looking out the window I took in every last bit of Cusco I could and stored it in my memory bank. Once we were at the airport and standing in the long checkin line, Andre asked me a question that seriously altered the rest of our entire trip… “Where’s the camera?” My heart literally stopped and my stomach sank as I realized I left it in the backseat of the Uber. I dropped everything and ran outside toward the exit, but the driver was long gone. We did everything we could to try and retrieve the camera. We used the Uber app to contact the driver, but our cell service in Cusco was so bad that each time the phone tried to connect us, the call would drop. Andre even found the driver on Facebook and sent him a message, but because of Facebook’s settings, if you aren’t friends with someone, your message is sent to an “other” folder where it’s almost never seen. Though despair and shock filled my being, I continued to hold out hope that there was a chance we could get it back as the checkin line inched forward.
Amidst the gloom, Andre approached me, held me tenderly and said, “I forgive you.” I couldn’t even forgive myself, but his words were like medicine to my soul. My faith dwindled as we reached the front of the line, checked our bags, and walked toward the gate. Not only did we lose the camera, but we lost an important interview too. I felt absolutely devastated and like I was stuck in a nightmare that was actually reality. How could I be so irresponsible?! Why didn’t I have the camera around my neck?! Why didn’t I look back to double check that we grabbed everything?! So many questions and regrets came up and all I wanted to do was turn back time. Andre was my true champion and gave me the encouragement I needed to move on. The camera was gone, there was nothing else we could do but focus on the positive, and not let it bring us down.
The next step in our adventure was flying to Iquitos, Peru with a layover in Lima. Oy, back in the Lima airport. We finally heard back from the Uber driver, and unfortunately the camera was nowhere to be found and had been stolen out of the backseat. FML. Our flight to Iquitos was delayed, so not only were we already bummed out from losing the camera, but we had to sit in the Lima airport until 10:45pm while screaming children ran amuck around us. It was a long day.
Iquitos is the largest city in the world not accessible by car, only by boat or plane. The city is LOUD and buzzes nonstop with the sound of mototaxis, their version of a tuk tuk. Our poor airbnb host had to wait up until our arrival at around 1:30 in the morning. The next day we arranged to meet the owner of the Monkey sanctuary at his office around 11am. We were warmly greeted by Gilberto and his dog Nysha, one of his rescue animals. Nysha was a beautiful, though unidentifiable mix who was certain she was a lap dog despite her size. Gilberto was a happy, friendly man who’s love for monkeys has grown into a passion to protect and care for monkeys, and really any animal in need of love and care. While we were sitting in his office, some people came by with a stunned Kingfisher that had flown into a storefront. Gilberto is quite known in the area because of his sanctuary, and now receives many different types of injured animals. He was kind enough to walk us around Iquitos in search of rubber boots and also show us where we’d be catching a boat the next day to “La Isla de Los Monos.”
Since we were a week away from our Ayahuasca retreat, we had to stick to a strict diet that included the following restrictions: no salt, no sugar, no oil, no red meat, no pork, no dairy, no spinach, no spices, just to name a few. It’s really the no salt that is the biggest challenge. Food without salt is so bland and it sure takes the experience out of eating. The main reason for this strict diet is to avoid eating anything contraindicated with the medicine, but also part of it is like an offering that you make to Aya to show your respect and sincerity toward your healing. Fortunately, since Iquitos is practically a plant medicine hub, most restaurants cater to this special diet and include an “Aya friendly menu.”
Personally, we weren’t that big of fans of Iquitos. It’s a rather dirty city where people sadly throw their trash out in the river and on the streets. We also heard about a floating market called Belen market, but we decided not to go because there’s a dark side to Belen. It’s known for not being all that safe due to pickpockets and corrupt police, and half of the market is a black market where they sell illegal goods, especially animals and their “parts.” Things like turtles, jaguars, monkeys, crocodiles, pythons, and even endangered river fish are some of the victims of this black market. Not a place we choose to support.
The following day we got up early to catch our boat to the La Isla de Los Monos, or as I like to dub it, LIDLM. At first we were told we were their only volunteers for the week, but shortly thereafter we received news that we’d be having 3 more volunteers joining us. We got to the dock and approached the boat we’d be taking down the Amazon. It was about 20’ long, loaded with crates and bags of food, full of people, in short it looked like it could possibly sink, and Andre said, “I don’t have a very good feeling about this.” There wasn’t much of a choice though, so we cautiously stepped on board. The boat ride was actually quite refreshing. It felt cool and invigorating to have the wind in our faces coasting across the water. The Amazon is impressively wide and a milky brown color which makes it impossible to see what’s in there.
The river is life for the people and they rely on it for nearly everything. Unfortunately though, it’s treated like a dumping ground, and a lack of education and awareness has lead to its decline. After 40 minutes or so, we arrived at a dock in a town called Mazan. As we got off the boat I was stunned to see heaps of chickens and ducks all tied together in a pile on the dock, and there at the edge of the pile was a turtle upside down, locked within his own shell by a wooden rod and string. I have a deep fondness for turtles (well all animals) and seeing this just crushed me. As we waited for our ride to the monkey island, I cried thinking about the eminent fate of this beautiful creature. Then it occurred to me, “Cuánto cuesta?” How much for the turtle? The “owner” was a woman waiting on one of the boats. She wanted $20 for the turtle. I was able to bargain down to about $15 and took the turtle into my own hands. At least 3 men on the dock all worked together to remove the wooden rod wedged in the turtle’s shell. After about 10 minutes of yanking, hitting, pulling, and pushing, the rod came free.
Our next boat arrived and we climbed aboard with the turtle safely in my arms. Unfortunately, this situation, though it felt like the absolute right thing to do at that time, is a double edged sword. Purchasing wildlife from the illegal animal trade is a vicious circle. It fuels the industry and desire to capture the animals in the first place. But I knew that either I buy this turtle and let it live, or it becomes turtle soup and a decorative bowl. I’m sure that in most scenarios it’s case to case, use your best judgment, but I recommend staying away from places that exploit animals, or sell animal products for profit. We saw so much jewelry made of jaguar teeth, claws, snake skin, monkey teeth and bones. A general good rule of thumb while traveling, if it’s made out of something that was once living, it probably wasn’t acquired ethically.
25 minutes later, we stepped ashore at LIDLM and were immediately greeted by the family that lives there. They seemed happy to hear that I rescued the turtle and told me to just leave him in the yard. The monkeys gathered round with curiosity at the turtle and the new humans, us. It didn’t take long before we had monkeys crawling on us and cuddled up within our arms. I decided to name the turtle Nelson, and after about 5 minutes on the safe grass, Nelson came out of his shell, free as can be. Eventually he wandered off, never to be seen again. I hope he’s safe and happy, where ever he is.
The other volunteers arrived a little later. It happened to be a couple, she from England and he from New Zealand that had spent a few months the previous year volunteering on the island, and his mum. We were so fortunate to have them there at the same time as us. Not only did they speak quite a bit more Spanish than us, but they also new everything about the monkeys at the sanctuary and were able to quickly teach us the ropes. It made for a much easier and more company filled time to have them there with us.
Life on LIDLM is very rustic; up with the sun, down with the sun, no electricity so all food is prepared over an open flame, and phones and things can only be charged if they’d turn the generator on for a short period of time during the day. We’d typically get our day started around 6am sweeping everything and cleaning the monkey poops off the deck - usually with a baby monkey clinging to our heads at the same time. 8am was breakfast which was prepared by Gilberto’s sister. We usually had 1-2 eggs, bread, tea, and either bananas or mandarins. There were a couple other accoutrements, but due to our strict diet, our options were limited. Gilberto’s sister was so kind to prepare all our meals without salt. After breakfast, our role was pretty much just to hang out and play with the monkeys and wait until tourists arrived so we could show them around the area. The sanctuary houses about 18 monkeys in total. Most of them Wooly monkeys, about 5 Spider monkeys, 1 baby Howler, 1 Titi, 1 Saki, and 1 Tamarin. There are approximately 250 monkeys on the 450 hectare island that have been released by the sanctuary or have even self released themselves when their ready. Occasionally we would have groups of wild Tamarins come down to enjoy some fruit, or wild Titis hooting nearby.
At first, learning all the monkey’s names and trying to identify them seemed near impossible, but quite the contrary. You begin to pick up on physical subtleties and personality differences rather quickly. A majority of the monkeys are babies ranging from approximately 5 months old up to a 9 year old adult Wooly. Baby Wooly monkeys will usually spend the first 2 years of their life attached to their mom. Sadly, the killing of monkeys is still legal within the indigenous communities, and when a mother monkey is shot from the trees, it falls with a baby still clinging to it’s back. This baby, if it survives the fall, is then usually put in a cage and sold on the black market for 30-40 soles, or about $10-12. People will buy them as pets, but most often the monkeys are not given the proper food and care they need. Some have been found and rescued wearing harnesses and leashes that have left permanent scars. When you volunteer here, you become a surrogate mother. The very young babies will cling to you like they would a mother, and will take comfort in your warm embrace falling asleep in your arms.
The Titi monkey was Andre’s favorite. His name was Adrian. Titi monkeys are extremely cute, great leapers, and will mate for life. Since Adrian doesn’t have his mate yet, he would bond with us by showing signs of affection like howling with us, grooming our hair, and smacking his lips - meaning he likes you. It occurred to me one day when Adrian was grooming Andre that I bet he would like to be groomed too, so I started pretend grooming him back. He loved it! He’d become almost catatonic and even started purring. After a while, he’d roll on his back exposing his rust-orange tummy for belly rubs. Such a ham!
One of my favorite monkeys, I feel bad choosing favorites because they’re all adorable, was Pioho, a Saki monkey. Pioho was more of an independent gal and wasn’t all that social. She arrived at the sanctuary a year prior with horrible burns on her hands and feet. It was unknown how she got so burned. She was unable to walk or feed herself, and during her rehabilitation spent most of her time in hiding. About a year later, she’s out hanging and playing with the other monkeys, and on the rare but treasured occasion she’d let me pet her. She was a gorgeous creature, though somewhat awkward agility wise, but it just added to her cuteness. Variations of Saki monkeys are critically endangered. Since Saki monkeys feed on toxic nuts and berries, their meat is toxic, and instead they suffer the threat of being killed simply for their tails which are used as dusters believe it or not.
The only downfall of this place was the mosquitos; clouds of them. My first day there, I took off my pants at night to reveal at least 200 bites all over my legs! I should have taken a picture. Something in my blood really attracts the mosquitos. Over the course of the week I came to the theory that they can sense where you’ve already been bitten, and so they bite you everywhere else. The mosquitos even bite the monkeys, so they’re constantly scratching themselves too.
Toward the end of the week, 2 more volunteers arrived. They were a couple that we had run into at Karma Cafe back in Iquitos. I actually recognized them from the Salkantay trek! They were in a different group, but I saw them along the way. We said hi to them back in Iquitos and told them about the sanctuary. They ended up rearranging their plans and decided to come volunteer for a few days. This was Love Set Run in action! Our goal is to inspire others to give back, and here was actual proof of that working. It was also a coincidence that this couple used to live in Barcelona which happens to be the next stop in our journey…cue It's a Small World theme song…
It wasn’t until our last day volunteering on Friday when we actually had some serious work to do. How the sanctuary gets it’s water and power is from a well that pumps water from the river into a tank that’s 4 stories high, which then get’s filtered into another tank, that’s then pumped via a generator to the faucets. During our week there we ran out of water at least twice. On Friday, something snapped in the generator which meant that we all had to take turns filling up buckets of water from the river, carry it to the water tower, climb up 4 floors via wooden ladders, and pour the buckets into the tank. It took about 7 of us making approximately 10-15 trips back and forth each to fill the 1,100 liter tank. Andre did his part all with a monkey on his head. This of course coincided with tourists visiting and deliveries arriving.
The next day, Saturday, was our farewell to LIDLM. Again another bittersweet moment. We’d grown close not just with the other volunteers, but also with the family living there, and now all these monkey friends too! We hopped on a boat, pulled away, and already began missing Adrian and the cuddly monkeys. As we approached Mazan, the town where we rescued the turtle, a cloud in the shape of a turtle appeared overhead. I took it as a good omen from the turtle spirits.
The sanctuary is completely funded by donations, volunteers, and daily visitors. If you're interested in donating to the sanctuary or would like to "adopt a monkey" please visit the website: www.laisladelosmonos.org
Our next adventure would take us an hour and a half outside of noisy Iquitos to the Rainforest Healing Center: Chakra Alegria de Amor, for our week long Ayahuasca retreat. This to come in Part 2.