Throughout Peru's ancient history, Chaparrí mountain, east of Chicalyo, has been one of the region's most sacred places. The mountain itself, with a prominent buttress and dorsal fin-like peak, makes it an obvious visual landmark. More importantly though, in this desicatted and desolate region, a confluence of rivers and springs offer the parched land a trickle of life, out of which thrives the rare bosque seco, or dry forest. Many animals species thrive here, including pumas, deer, ant-eaters, ocelots, the endangered guanaco camelid, and the threatened spectacled bear. It is also home to hundreds of species of birds, many of which are found nowhere else in the word. Because of this teeming abundance in a largely lifeless region, Chapparí has always been considered a magical place, its fruit forbidden to eat and terrain only open to shamanic rituals, which are still practiced there today. Local legend even says that the mountain once consumed an entire village.
Chaparrí's foreboding reputation can now only be considered a blessing, as the land and it's unique ecosystem have remained largely intact. Chapparí Reserve is one of Peru's most recent preservation efforts, largely the work of the director, Chicalyo native Heinz Plenge, Peru's most celebrated nature photographer. Plenge's work has appeared in a host of publications worldwide, including National Geographic. He now lives on the reserve, and along with his staff and volunteers, is studying Chaparrí's flora and fauna, along the way discovering many species unique to the area.
Chapparí is a private park, formed by the local rural inhabitants when a sudden encroachment of gold spectulators threatened to invade and defile this sacred area. Because of its special and fragile ecosystem, the park limits the number of visitors to just 30 a day, though as it is both new and remote, usually sees far less. On the day a went to Chaparri I was the park's only visitor.
I was also lucky, because on the morning I arrived the staff had released two spectacled bears back into the wild. The reserve has a rescue and release program for some of its endangered species, including this iconic, increasingly rare, and gentle creature, South America's only species of bear. Because the animals were only recently released, and still close to the park's center, Plenge gave my guide and I permission to approach and photograph them. Staff were on hand with pepper-spray for when we were finished, used to instill in the bears a fear of humans and encourage them to make their home deeper in the reserve.
The spectacled bear's gentle (though shy) demeanor has only contributed to its demise as humans have encroached upon its habitat, and has been caught and killed with impunity. One of the bears at Chaparrí was confiscated by police from a local circus, which because it was defanged and its claws injured, can not be released back into the wild. Another was simply found as a pet in someone's home. Many bears are killed for their perceived medicinal value, a believe that exists both in South America and in the Far East (because of their lengthy sexual encounters, traditional concoctions using bear penis are believed to cure impotency.)
I was enchanted by this oasis in the desert, and the people working there to preserve the beautiful host of creatures that thrive there. With any luck I will be able to return before before I leave Peru.