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Amazonian ABCs

Fundamentals of rainforest ecology in the Peruvian Amazon

July 30 - August 12, 2020

Course Overview

The Amazon is both the world’s largest rainforest and its most biodiverse, home to countless species of plants and animals ranging from jaguars and anacondas to towering emergent trees and perhaps millions of species of insects and other invertebrates. The overall goal of this course is to explore Amazonian biodiversity, as well as how so many different interacting organisms form a functioning ecosystem. Students will learn to identify key groups of plants and animals, study some of the fundamental ecological processes that underlie the functioning of tropical ecosystems, and examine the anthropogenic threats facing the Amazon. The course is held at two biological research stations located in the remote southeastern Peruvian Amazon, including the world-famous Tambopata National Reserve and a site bordering extensive concessions for the extraction of Brazil nuts, the Amazon’s leading non-timber forest product. The course instructors have >30 years combined experience teaching and conducting research in the Neotropics, and will lead students through lectures, guided reading discussions and, of course, plenty of field-based activities designed to develop skills in field ecology and natural history. The Amazonian ABCs course offers an excellent opportunity for those interested tropical ecology to explore hyper-diverse Amazonian ecosystems, study the dynamics of tropical plant and animal communities, and to immerse themselves in one of the most remote, beautiful, and biodiverse places remaining on Earth.

Course Details

Course credit equivalent

3 semester credit hours/5 quarter hours


  • Malinowski Biological Station (Tambopata National Reserve)

  • Finca Las Piedras


July 30 – August 12, 2020

Registration & payment deadline

July 3, 2020


Varun Swamy, Ph.D.

Geoff Gallice, Ph.D.

Course fee


Immerse yourself and study abroad in the Amazon – the largest and most biodiverse rainforest on Earth

Course Highlights

  • Explore a variety of Amazonian habitats including terra firme & floodplain rainforest, rivers, oxbow lakes, and palm swamps

  • Plant biology and field botany techniques, including identification of plant stem, leaf, and bark characters

  • Insect identification to order and family & field collecting techniques

  • Visit an active concession for the sustainable harvest of Brazil nuts

  • Camera trapping for medium to large rainforest vertebrates

  • Collecting and preparing botanical vouchers

  • Bird survey and identification skills

  • Application of field techniques learned to ongoing research projects

  • Use of tech platforms and citizen science to document biodiversity (iNaturalist)

  • Visit to a macaw & parrot clay lick in Tambopata National Reserve

Learning Objectives

Some things you will have done/be able to do at the end of this course:

  • Tell the difference between terra firme and floodplain forest if you were brought blindfolded to either habitat

  • Explain to a thawed-out iceman the ecological ramifications of overhunting ancient gomphotheres

  • Say 'festooned brochidodromous venation' with conviction and/or nod in apprecitation when you hear it

  • Have a burning passion for Amazonian insects and be able to identify many of them to order and family

  • Enlighten your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner as to exactly how climate change is affecting plant community composition in the Amazon

This course is offered in collaboration with:


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Varun profile pic_ed.jpg

Varun Swamy, Ph.D. – Lead instructor

Varun is a tropical forest ecologist with over 16 years of experience conducting ecological research in the lowland rainforest of the Madre de Dios River Basin in the Peruvian Amazon. His first visit to Peru and Madre de Dios was in 2003 to begin his doctoral dissertation research, and he now calls the region home. His research examines the long-term influence of plant-animal interactions on the composition, diversity, and structure of the plant community in lowland Amazon forests, particularly the role of large native vertebrates such as spider monkeys, tapirs, and white-lipped peccaries. The overall goal of his research is to provide a rigorous ecological evaluation of the long-term impacts of anthropogenic influences on the composition and structure of Amazonian forests, which will benefit conservation, restoration, and management efforts directed towards these ecosystems.

Download Varun's CV here.


Geoff Gallice, Ph.D. – Co-instructor

Geoff first visited Peru's Madre de Dios region in 2012 to gather data for his doctoral dissertation on the macroecology of clearwing butterflies. Since then his research interests have expanded to include butterfly evolution and natural history, and today he oversees a major effort by the Alliance for a Sustainable Amazon to document the diversity, distribution, and biology of all butterfly species in SE Peru—no small task given that this is the most biodiverse area on Earth! In addition to his research interests, Geoff is also active in applied conservation, leading initiatives throughout SE Peru to document and understand patterns in biodiversity as well as the human activities that threaten it, recover degraded lands through reforestation and agroforestry, and deliver high-quality environmental education to the region's kids. Finally, Geoff is a committed educator, teaching at the Potifical Catholic University in Lima and leading field courses in entomology, ecology, and conservation throughout Peru and Latin America.

Download Geoff's CV here.

Course Itinerary

Day 1. The team meets in Puerto Maldonado, the small but bustling capital and economic hub of Peru's Madre de Dios region, in the country's southeastern Amazon. From here we'll travel by land along the Interoceanic Highway to Finca Las Piedras (FLP), our first field site. At FLP we'll cover teh basics of health and safety in the rainforest, go over academics, and get to know the group.

Days 2-4. At Finca Las Piedras we'll first get acquainted with the rainforest, explore different Amazonian habitats, and meet some of its key plant and animal groups. The group will learn how to identify Amazonian insects and plants, set up camera traps to study elusive rainforest vertebrates, survey rainforest birds, and be introduced to methods used in field botanical surveys and ecological study. Field-based learning will be supplemented with lectures and group reading discussions from the primary scientific literature.

Day 5. Today we travel by land and then boat to the Malinowski Biological Station, located in Peru's Tambopata National Reserve. Along the way keep an eye out for jaguars, which are often seen mating along exposed river beaches during this time of year, as well as other abundant wildlife! The park rangers will greet us and discuss not only the rules for living within the protected area, but what they are doing to safeguard Tambopata's nearly unmatched biodiversity.

Days 6-9. In Tambopata we'll have the opportunity to put our newly-acquired field skills to the test. Students will spend time conducting field-based activities in a variety of rainforest habitats, including terra firme and floodplain rainforest. We will also conduct river-based surveys for wildlife that is otherwise difficult to observe, and visit a clay lick along the Tambopata River—a place where macaws and other parrots gather in large numbers to eat salt-laden clay—one of the region's great wildlife spectacles!

Days 10-12. Time to head back to Finca Las Piedras. Once we're back at base camp we'll conclude several field activities to compare findings with those from Tambopata. Students will also apply their field botanical and plant ecology skills and knowledge to a long-term rainforest dynamics study in FLP's permanent forest plot.

Day 13. Travel from Finca Las Piedras to Lago Sandoval, an oxbow lake of the Madre de Dios River located at the opposite end of the Tambopata Reserve from Malinowski. Lago Sandoval is home to a variety of Amazonian wildlife that is completely or mostly restricted to this type of aquatic habitat in the Amazon, including endangered giant otters, the world's largest otter species that is not easily observed elsewhere but which is thriving here. As we paddle the lake in small canoes also keep an eye out for an incredible diversity of wading and aquatic birds, enormous black caiman, and lots of monkeys in the surrounding rainforest. At the end of the day we'll have a group dinner to reflect on our experiences and say goodbye.

Day 14. Course concludes, return flights home or onward independent travel in Peru.

What's Included

The course fee covers all course-related local transportation and all accommodations, including transfer to and from the airport (or bus terminal) in Puerto Maldonado, all overland and river travel in Tambopata, all lodging (Finca Las Piedras, Malinowski Biological Station, and hotel in Pto. Maldonado), and all food (3 meals per day) except meals in Pto. Maldonado. All field equipment related to course activities are also provided.

What's Not Included

The course fee does not include meals in Puerto Maldonado, international or domestic airfare (i.e., from your home country to Lima, and then on to Pto. Maldonado), or personal expenses in Peru (e.g., souvenirs, alcoholic beverages, etc.). Personal gear and equipment, binoculars, field notebooks, field gear such as headlamp/torches, etc., are not provided. There is no wifi or cell service in Tambopata.


The field sites offer rustic but comfortable accommodations, including beds with mosquito nets in shared rooms or dormitories, shared cold showers, and study and work space. Meals are prepared by the field station staff and eaten as a group on a schedule to maximize time available for field studies.  The final night of the course will be spent at a mid-range hotel in Puerto Maldonado.

How to Apply

Joining the Amazonian ABCs field course is easy! Just follow the following four simple steps:


1. Make sure you meet the eligibility requirements (See FAQs).

2. Fill out the form below. Once we receive it we'll send you further instructions.

3. Pay the $150 deposit to reserve your spot on the course. Please read our Terms & Conditions and Cancellation Policy before making a payment.

4. Return all follow-up documentation and pay your full balance by July 3, 2020.


Apply Now!

  • Am I eligible to participate?
    In order to join the Expedition you must 1) be at least 18 years old (unless accompanied by a parent or guardian); 2) have proof of medical and travel insurance that covers you in Peru; 3) be in excellent physical condition; 4) have a valid passport or ability to travel to/within Peru. No formal training or education is required; we invite people from all background to assist our biodiversity surveys. However, a healthy curiosity for tropical nature, a positive attitude in the face of challenging field conditions, and a willingness to work with people from a variety of backgrounds to achieve a common goal are essential. Please note that if you plan to join the mammal team, and wish to handle mammals (bats only), then you will need to provide the ASA with proof that you are up-to-date on your rabies vaccination, or that you will be by the time the Expedition begins.
  • How do I get there?
    The Biodiversity Survey begins and ends in the city of Cusco, located in the high Andes of Peru’s Cusco Department. There are two ways you can travel to Cusco: overland (i.e., by bus) or by air. A bus from Lima usually takes just over 20-25 hours; a direct flight from Lima is about 1 hour. The Cusco airport (CUZ) is serviced by Latam and Avianca, both of which have daily flights from Lima, but you can also purchase flights through international carriers that are operated by one of these local airlines. You might find it more convenient or cheaper to purchase a flight to Lima from your home city, and then a separate flight onward to Cusco. If coming by bus, we recommend either Cruz del Sur, Movil Tours, or Tepsa; these are the most reliable companies that have service to Cusco and they have the best safety records.
  • Do I need a visa to enter Peru?
    Citizens of the United States do not need to apply in advance for a visa to enter Peru for stays of 90 days or less; a visa will be granted at the international airport in Lima upon entering the country (or at the border with a neighboring country). Requirements for citizens of other countries vary, and we recommend that you check these with the website of your country’s embassy in Peru.
  • What about money in Peru?
    Peru’s currency is the Nuevo Sol, usually referred to simply as the ‘sol’ (plural ‘soles’). The exchange rate as of Nov. 2019 was about S/. 3.30 to US$1, and this has been stable for several months. ATMs are widely available in most major Peruvian cities, including Cusco, many of which dispense either soles or US dollars. You will receive a slightly better exchange rate at a currency exchanger (available in Cusco) than at an ATM when withdrawing Soles. We recommend that you avoid changing money at airports, as the rate will be fairly poor. How much money you will need while in Peru (and not on the Expedition) will depend on your taste and spending habits. As a rule, you can eat a meal at a fancy restaurant in Cusco for about $10-20 (S/. 30-65); cheaper places (e.g., set lunch or ‘menu’ restaurants) will obviously be much less. Prices for hotels also vary—backpacker hostels may charge S/. 30 per night, whereas nicer hotels will charge as much as S/. 200-300 per night; high-end tourist lodges in the jungle might be as much as $100- 300 per person, per night.
  • What's the weather like?
    The expedition begins in the city of Cusco, where temperatures are generally mild during the day and cooler at night (average high in January 11°C (52°F), average low in July 7°C (45°F). During summer months (June-August) temperatures can drop below freezing, especially at night, so make sure to bring one change of clothing to keep you warm before heading to the jungle. The expedition base camp is located where the Andes mountains meet the Amazon basin. Days can be hot when it's sunny (35°C/95°F) or cool if it's cloudy or raining (20-25°C/68-77°F). Evenings generally are cooler than days. Summer also brings ‘friajes,’ which are cold snaps resulting from a cold front moving north from Patagonia along the Andes mountains. Temperatures during friajes can drop below 10°C (into the 40s F), so keep your set of Cusco clothes handy just in case. Although we’ll be in Manu during the region’s dry season, it can still rain any day of the year, so you should also be prepared with rain gear.
  • What kind of clothing and gear should I bring?
    We will provide all of the gear and equipment that will be used for our field surveys (e.g., collecting and surveying equipment, etc.). Everything else is your responsibility. The Expedition involves camping in the rainforest, thus there are several items that you will have to bring with you in addition to your clothes, toiletries, etc. Each team member must have a tent (or arrange to share one with another participant), a sleeping pad, and a light sleeping bag or something else to sleep with, as well as several other items. We will provide a complete packing list once you've paid your deposit and recieve the Full Expedition Description.
  • How do I stay healthy in the rainforest?
    Despite some of the stories and exaggerated tales from past explorers in the Amazon, the rainforest is not as dangerous or scary a place as many people think. Today, the vast majority of visitors enjoy a completely safe and healthy stay. Nevertheless, we take the safety of our team members very seriously and offer a number of recommendations to help ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable time in Peru. Perhaps the greatest nuisance to humans in our study region is posed by biting insects, including mosquitos and biting sand flies. These are also the vectors of several rare, but potentially serious, tropical diseases. Malaria, Dengue Fever, the Zika virus, Yellow Fever, and Leishmaniasis are all rare but present in the Amazon. We recommend that you discuss your travel plans with your medical doctor for specific recommendations of which vaccinations and/or prophylaxes to take.
  • What's a typical day like in the field?
    Most days start early (e.g., breakfast at 6 or 7 am), so that we can make the most of the shorter tropical daylight hours for surveying biodiversity. Those on the bird team will typically be up earlier, since bird activity peaks just after first light; herpers will be out until late on most nights, so will require a bit more time to sleep in. Lunch and dinner are generally taken together as a group, around 1pm and 6pm, respectively, and field work is conducted in between meal times. We take meals very seriously—surveying biodiversity in the rainforest is hard work!
  • What's the food like in the field?
    In Cusco we’ll have a wide selection of restaurants to choose from, ranging from local Andean and Peruvian cuisine to international fare, and spanning all budgets. At the expedition base camp at Pantiacolla we will have three healthy meals daily, which will be prepared onsite and served by the expedition chef. Meals are always produced with fresh, local ingredients, some of which come right from the fields outside of Pillcopata. Hot water for coffee and tea, as well as snacks, will be available at all times. We are happy to accommodate any special diets or food restrictions (e.g., allergies, etc.) with advanced notice.
  • What is phone and internet service like?
    There is good cell coverage in Cusco (discuss international rates and plans with your home carrier), and limited reception at in Pillcopata, as well as somewhat-reliable WiFi at all of our hotels. Once we depart for Pantiacolla, however, there will be no cell or internet coverage. This Expedition is a time to disconnect and immerse yourself in nature!
  • How do I do laundry?
    Cusco has tons of cheap laundry services available. In the field, we wash clothes by hand. We recommend that you bring laundry soap (preferably biodegradable) with you. Otherwise, you can purchase soap and/or detergent in Cusco or Pillcopata.

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