Perico points down at the ground a few meters away from our feet: “Look, it seems there was a party here last night. It was probably a skunk who came to dig a hole and was hunting around for worms.”
The prospect of a skunk party is one of the least unusual things that I came to learn about on my visit to Milpuj, a private conservation area of just over sixteen thousand hectares in the Utcabamba Valley near Chachapoyas in northern Peru. Run by the affable and knowledgeable Perico and his mother Lola, the place has a wonderful history: having inherited the land from her parents, Lola escaped Lima to come build a house and live here – and she hasn’t left since.
Just 10 kilometres away is the steadily growing concrete town of Nuevo Tingo, the access point to Peru’s rising star of archeological tourism – the mountain-top citadel of Kuélap. Yet sitting on the porch of Milpuj, surrounded on all angles by dense, pristine vegetation that includes the rare, thorny tara tree, it feels blissfully away from the ever-increasing hustle and bustle that you see further down the valley.
The serenity and biological diversity found in Milpuj is what most appeals to the tourists who find their way to Perico and Lola’s door. As we sit down to drink a cup of coffee grown, roasted and ground on the premises, Perico explains the response most have upon arriving here: “Some of them want to get involved. They like you to tell them about the biodiversity, the legends. They love to know about the plants with medicinal properties.”
I certainly do and Perico doesn’t disappoint. A self-taught botanist, he admits to not knowing anything about nature before joining his mother to run the conservation area. “I studied industrial engineering,” he tells me with a smile. Gesturing to the forest outside, he continues “this is a world that I’ve only learned about ever since moving here.”
Admittedly, he’s had plenty of help, with numerous specialists coming to research the dazzling array of flora and fauna that inhabit this terrain – but it’s clear that Perico has soaked up the knowledge like a sponge.
As we wander a section of the two-kilometres of trails that they’ve carved out of the forest, Perico stops every few metres to enthusiastically point out a new treasure. There are the 1500 trees that have been planted following an “adopt a tree” project that they implemented, many being bought by people from Lima, as well as further afield. Scattered throughout the forest, these trees have the name of the donor painted on a stone lying next to each one.
Further along, we stop at a bromeliad, clinging somewhat impossibly to the branch of a tree, its roots wrapped snakelike around the bark. Eagerly Perico teaches me how the centre of the bromeliad has an entire new world inside it. By capturing rainwater, the plant creates an environment in which insects, snakes and amphibians can thrive. Most excitingly, some of these can be quite unusual. “When we conducted the biological inventory, we found a new species of frog, a type of glass frog,” Perico informs me, as we peer between the maroon leaves of one such bromeliad.
But it’s not just the animals here that are fascinating. There are also 50 medicinal plants that I’m told can treat up to 20 types of illnesses, many used by the local Shamans who are still resident, albeit somewhat secretively, in the local area. Perico refers to the path as a “pharmacy”, pointing out a plant called muña, which is similar in flavour to bitter mint and known for its digestive properties and usefulness for dulling the effects of altitude. But it’s also a natural insect repellent and one that was used “in the time of the Chachapoyas people to rub the skin of their mummies.” Perico grins at my shocked face. “The muña helped to protect them from insects.”
The last 18 years have seen Milpuj go from strength to strength. Lola recounts proudly how she was the first woman in the Amazonas department to start a conservation project. Perico chips in: “Our philosophy is to show to everyone that it’s possible to live alongside nature in a positive, friendly way.” They’ve clearly been successful in doing this: now people come from as far away as Lima and even abroad to consult them on matters of ecological conservation.
More recently, they’ve opened up the reserve for tourists, seeing how this can both benefit the local community and provide a unique experience for visitors. They now work with a teenage girl from the local village, who they’ve trained up as a guide for when tourists come to stay and who has become an important part of the project as they’re keen to involve local people.
Facilities for tourists are in comfortable ensuite bedrooms accessed along a stone porch, a few metres from the main house. The row of bungalow rooms was built in the same style as those at nearby Kuélap and I stop for a moment to admire the huge fossils visible in many of the rocks. Home-cooked food, the vast majority of which is grown onsite, is available, and helping out with their bees, who supply delicious honey made from the flowers of the tara tree, or working in the orchid garden, are all activities available for guests who want to get their hands dirty.
For others, relaxing on the porch to the sound of birdsong and the flit of hummingbirds or wandering the trails in the company of the best guides, Perico and the two friendly dogs, are alternative options.
Either way, as I take my leave of Milpuj and its hosts, I’m not surprised when Perico tells me how “when tourists come here, we don’t really consider them tourists.”
Lola, as she often does, finishes off his sentence with “instead, they’re part of the family.”
“Yes, we consider them part of the family,” Perico finishes with a wide smile.
About Steph Dyson – Worldly Traveller
Steph Dyson is a British travel journalist based in Santiago, Chile. She’s updated and authored a number of guidebooks for Rough Guides and Moon, and writes about beyond-the-beaten-trail adventures and experiences in South America on her website Worldly Adventurer and online for publications such as World Nomads, Go Overseas and Transitions Abroad.