Volunteer Program -
Traveling to Peru
How do I get there?
You will have to make your way to the town of Puerto Maldonado, located in Peru’s Madre de Dios Department. There are two ways to get there: overland (i.e., by bus) or by air. A bus from Lima will take about 30 hours or more, from Cusco about 10 hours; a direct flight from Lima is about 1.5 hours. The Puerto Maldonado airport (PEM) is serviced by Latam, Avianca, and Star Peru, each of which have multiple daily flights to and from either Cusco, Lima, or both. You may be able to fly directly to PEM from your home city, with a layover in Lima; you might also find it more convenient or cheaper to purchase your flight to Lima, and then a separate flight onward to Puerto Maldonado. Note that Latam and Avianca are the most reliable airlines, but charge higher rates for foreign (i.e., non-Peruvian) travelers. If coming by bus, we recommend either Tepsa or Movil Tours; these are the most reliable companies that have service to Puerto Maldonado, and both have excellent safety records.
Do I need a visa to enter Peru?
Citizens of the United States do not need to apply for a visa to enter Peru for stays of 90 days or less. Rather, 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. Once you have entered Peru, make sure to keep the small white slip of paper that the immigration officer gives you (‘Tarjeta Andina de Migracion’ or ‘Andean Migration Card’), as you may be fined if you can not produce it upon exiting the country.
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. 2016 was about S/. 3.40 to US $1, and this has been stable for several months. ATMs are widely available in most major Peruvian cities, including Puerto Maldonado, many of which dispense either soles or US dollars. You will receive a slightly better exchange rate at a currency exchanger (available in Cusco and during business hours in Puerto Maldonado) than at an ATM when withdrawing soles. We recommend that you avoid changing money at airports, as the rate will be very poor.
How much money you will need while in Peru will depend on how often you leave the field site (all food and lodging is covered for the entire duration of your stay, 7 days per week, although you are free to leave during weekends to explore the region if you wish), as well as your taste and spending habits. Transportation from Monterrey (a short walk from Finca Las Piedras to the highway) to Puerto Maldonado is S/. 12. As a rule, you can eat at a fancy restaurant in Puerto Maldonado for about $10 (S/. 30-35); cheaper places (e.g., set lunch or ‘menu’ restaurants) will obviously be much less, usually from S/. 6-15. Prices for hotels also vary – backpacker hostels may charge S/. 25-30 per night, whereas nicer hotels will charge as much as S/. 200-300 per night. Mid- to high-end tourist lodges might be as much as $100-300 per person, per night, less for cheaper tours (day tours can be as little as S/. 60-100 per person, but prices vary by destination and activities).
What’s the weather like in the Amazon?
We are located in the lowland Amazon rainforest. You should be prepared for periods of blistering heat when the sun is out, and intermittent, torrential rain when storms pass through. Summer (May through September-October) also brings periodical ‘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 Fahrenheit), so you should be prepared with a change of warm clothing. The rainforest is an interesting, if bizarre place during one of these cold spells, but you’ll want to be prepared for it!
What clothing and gear should I bring?
We will provide all of the gear and equipment that will be used for our field activities (e.g., collecting equipment, tree climbing gear, etc.). Towels, bedding, and mosquito bed nets are also provided. Everything else is your responsibility. Please see our recommended packing list for a complete list of what to bring with you to Peru.
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. Nevertheless, we take the safety of our volunteers very seriously, and offer a number of recommendations to help ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable visit.
Perhaps the greatest nuisance to humans in our region is posed by biting insects, especially mosquitos. Although they are not very common, especially outside of the rain forest, these insects are the vectors of several rare, but potentially serious, tropical diseases.
Malaria is rare in our area, but does occur. It is more of an issue in larger towns, though, since at remote sites such as ours there aren’t enough people to serve as constant reservoirs for the disease. However, it is your decision as to whether or not you will take a malaria prophylaxis, and you should discuss this with your doctor.
Dengue is slightly more common in the region in general, especially in Puerto Maldonado, where there are many potential reservoirs and Aedes aegypti – the mosquito that transmits the disease – is more common. There is no vaccine for dengue, but there are treatments. However, as with all insect-vectored tropical diseases, avoiding insect bites is your best protection. Although it can be unpleasant, DEET is very effective at keeping these and other biting insects from biting you and transmitting the disease in the first place.
Zika. This disease has received much attention in the news lately, and has infected large numbers of people across Latin America. Although the symptoms of infection with the virus are typically rather mild (e.g., fever, rash, etc.) and only about 20% of those infected exhibit even mild symptoms, there is a possible link between infection during pregnancy and a condition known as microcephaly in newborns. We know that the Zika virus is transmitted by A. aegypti (the same mosquito that transmits dengue), but much of the rest of the disease’s biology remains a mystery. We follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, and recommend that women who are pregnant, or who may become pregnant during or soon after their stay in the Amazon, exercise extreme caution while in Peru. The CDC has a very informative webpage regarding this disease: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/index.html.
Do I need any vaccinations?
We recommend that all travelers to the Amazon region have their updated Yellow Fever vaccine, as well as all other standard vaccines and boosters (e.g., hepatitis, typhoid, measles mumps & rubella, tetanus, etc.). Please note that we do not intend to dispense medical advice here; any medical decisions you make, including those regarding vaccinations or other health precautions, are between you and your travel doctor.
How can I stay safe in Peru?
As with anywhere else in the world, you should exercise caution and common sense while traveling in Peru. Don’t walk alone late at night in larger towns and cities, for instance, and avoid ingesting substances from people you don’t know and trust. In addition, you should try to travel only with official taxis or shared ‘colectivos,’ as unofficial ‘pirate’ taxis (just unmarked cars) have been implicated in robberies. This is more of a problem in larger cities, such as Lima. Although violent crime directed to foreigners is relatively uncommon in Peru, it is not unknown, and a good dose of caution will help you to avoid any trouble.
Petty crime, especially opportunistic thievery, is more common in Peru than violent crime. Don’t leave valuables (cash, cell phones, tablets, wallets, etc.) in visible or easily accessible, public places at hotels or hostels; instead, check these with your hotel’s safe deposit box or put them in a locker. Also be careful when traveling on long-distance buses—leave your backpack in the rack above your head while napping and you might wake up to it missing. Wallets in back pockets are also easy targets for pickpockets, especially in large cities. Finally, when in doubt, ask at your hotel which parts of the town or city you should avoid, and at what times, and heed their advice. The vast majority of visitors to Peru have a safe and healthy visit, and with a bit of good judgment you will likely have the same experience.
At the Field Site
Where is the field site, and what’s it like?
The Alliance for a Sustainable Amazon’s Volunteer and Internship Programs are based at Finca Las Piedras, a 54 hectare property located in Peru’s Madre de Dios Department. The Finca is about ½ hour by car north of Puerto Maldonado, the regional capital, along the Interoceanic Highway that connects the city with Cusco in the Andes, to the west, and Rio Branco in Brazil, to the northeast. The area is a mosaic of agricultural fields, pasture, and rainforest, including extensive Brazil nut concessions and numerous protected areas.
The property itself is covered mostly in rain forest, and is situated at the limit of the agricultural frontier in Peru; to the east the forest extends, essentially unbroken, for hundreds of kilometers into Bolivia. The opposite border of the property is formed by a small stream that flows through an ‘aguajal,’ large a stand of Mauritia palms, where there is a platform built at a pleasant swimming hole. Between the aguajal and the rainforest are pastures, abandoned fields, and our numerous agricultural plots.
What’s a typical day like in the field?
A volunteer’s day typically starts early at Finca Las Piedras. We begin at sunrise to take advantage of the cool morning hours, but also because days are shorter in the tropics than further north—no long, lazy dog days of summer here! For those studying birds as a volunteer, the day starts even earlier, as many species are up even before it’s light to start foraging. Still, others, particularly those electing to study our many reptile and amphibian species—the majority of which are active only after dark—will be out at night and often require a few extra hours to rest in the morning. Meals are taken on a fixed schedule, and prepared by our local chef, to maximize our time in the field. Field work is usually conducted in the morning, unless an afternoon session is also required (e.g., for biological monitoring); afternoons are typically spent working around the main house doing chores, tending to the plant nursery, etc. After the day’s activities—whether it’s biological monitoring, working in the organic agricultural plots, or improving our green infrastructure—volunteers are free to lounge around, read a book, or just take in the sounds of the jungle at night. You may also join in on weekly reading discussions, lectures, or other activities that we have ongoing as part of our other programs (e.g., the Internship Program). There’s always something interesting happening at Finca Las Piedras!
What is there to do in my free time?
On weekends, volunteers are free to stay at Finca Las Piedras and explore the property’s 35 ha of protected rainforest, dabble on the farm, or simply catch up on reading in a hammock (your fees cover food and lodging for 7 days per week for the entire duration of your stay). For those wishing to get out and explore, however, Peru’s Madre de Dios Department, in which we are centrally located, is among the world’s premiere destinations for ecotourism and nature travel – the region is home to enormous expanses of pristine rainforest and other tropical habitats, as well as a dizzying variety of plant and animal species that inhabit them. Highlights include the nearby Las Piedras watershed and the Tambopata National Reserve, both of which are home to abundant wildlife populations and boast world-class opportunities for absolute immersion in wild nature.
We are also an overnight bus ride from Cusco and the Sacred Valley, home to the world-famous Machu Picchu ruins and a large number of other important cultural landmarks. Refreshing montane forests, bursting with unique plants and wildlife, are also within easy reach.
Our staff is happy to assist volunteers to plan travel either before or after their program, or during weekends. We encourage everyone to get out there and explore!
What’s the food like at the field site?
Three healthy meals will be served each day at the field site in the common dining hall (the ‘comedor’). Meals are prepared by our chef using fresh, local ingredients, many of which come right from our very own fields! Meals reflect both general Peruvian and regional (i.e., Amazonian) cuisine. Hot water for coffee and tea, as well as snacks, will be available at all times.
We are also happy to accommodate any special diets or food restrictions (allergies, etc.) with advanced notice.
What is phone and internet service like?
There is good cell coverage in Puerto Maldonado, decent coverage in smaller towns (Monterrey is the closest small town to us, and there is coverage), and limited reception at Finca Las Piedras (only with Claro). Internet is widely available in Puerto Maldonado, as well as smaller cities that lie to the north and south of us (Planchon and Alegría), at internet cafes.
If you wish to make or receive calls while in Peru then we recommend that you discuss international rates and plans with your home service provider. We are also happy to discuss options for purchasing cheap phones or cell/data plans (pay as you go or ‘chips’) with local carriers as well. Make sure you mention this early so we can go over options.
How do I do laundry at the field site?
There are laundry facilities in Puerto Maldonado that can wash and dry laundry for a fee. At Finca Las Piedras, however, 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 Puerto Maldonado before you arrive.