My first experience of riding into the small, infamous town of Tingo María in central Peru, situated on the edge of the Amazon jungle, was being forcefully stopped on the road by people with guns. They held rifles, the barrels resting at ease on their shoulders. Blocking my lane so I couldn’t pass, they clearly were not police, nor military, but instead wore all black with tactical vests. They wanted money in exchange for “protecting” the road. They weren’t asking for much—one sol, the equivalent of $0.33. I gave it to them with a smile.

Rainy days, jungle scapes, and nefarious activity are the norm riding in the Peruvian Amazon.
Rainy days, jungle scapes, and nefarious activity are the norm riding in the Peruvian Amazon.Janelle Kaz

After all, on the Huallaga River, Tingo María is known as the “door of Amazonia” and it was just in 2015 that after 30 years, the “state-of-emergency” designation was lifted from its upper river valley. Long known as a “red zone,” the nearby valley was notorious as the most productive coca region in not only the country but the world. Drug trafficking conflicts, and the guns that go along with them, are therefore not uncommon in this area.

As a woman traveling solo, I’ve come to recognize that having a camera mounted on my helmet has added a bit of safety, as once people notice it, it seems to put them on their best behavior.
As a woman traveling solo, I’ve come to recognize that having a camera mounted on my helmet has added a bit of safety, as once people notice it, it seems to put them on their best behavior.Janelle Kaz

Native to South America, the coca plant contains numerous alkaloid components, the most well-known one of which is the psychoactive component, cocaine. Apparently coca from this region has a much higher content of cocaine alkaloid in the leaves than those of lowland origin. This means fewer leaves are needed to produce the same quantity of cocaine. Thus, Tingo María, situated as a gateway and transportation hub between Peru’s capital, Lima, to the southwest, and the Amazonian jungle city of Pucallpa, to the east, remains nefarious.

Tingo María is situated between the busy jungle port city of Pucallpa and Peru’s capital, Lima, on the Pacific.
Tingo María is situated between the busy jungle port city of Pucallpa and Peru’s capital, Lima, on the Pacific.Map from Google Earth.
Dramatic clouds at sunset in the central Peruvian city of Tingo María.
Dramatic clouds at sunset in the central Peruvian city of Tingo María.Janelle Kaz

I continued along the winding tarmac, only slightly unnerved by the situation. Fronds of the tall, prehistoric fern trees shaded the road, with a kaleidoscope of butterflies in the air, occasionally meeting their demise on my face shield.

Passing through the small town, busy with mototaxis and streets lined with palm trees, I rode across a rusted metal bridge toward the Tingo María National Park. I wasn't looking for trouble. Instead, my intention was to explore what is known as the Cueva de las Lechuzas, the Cave of Owls.

From within the _Cueva de las Lechuzas_, the Cave of Owls, which actually doesn’t contain owls, but nocturnal, echolocating oilbirds.
From within the Cueva de las Lechuzas, the Cave of Owls, which actually doesn't contain owls, but nocturnal, echolocating oilbirds.Janelle Kaz

Funny enough, the birds found within this cave are not actually owls, but oilbirds (Steatornis caripensis). Known as "guácharos" in Spanish, they are the only nocturnal, exclusively fruit-eating, flying bird in existence. They forage at night using echolocation, and have eyes which are extremely well adapted to low light. Interestingly, the eyes of oilbirds contain the highest density of light-gathering rod cells of any vertebrate eye. These photoreceptor cells are arranged on the retina in layers, an organization that is unique among birds but shared by deep-sea fish.

Close up with an oilbird in Peru, the only nocturnal, exclusively fruit-eating, flying bird in existence.
Close up with an oilbird in Peru, the only nocturnal, exclusively fruit-eating, flying bird in existence.Photo by Pablo Quintana.

I parked my bike alongside the river at the cave’s trailhead, making friends with a jovial boatman who assured me he would keep an eye on my bike. I don’t trust most people immediately, but for whatever reason, I trusted him.

After a hike through jungle-covered trails, you arrive inside the cave, and immediately become immersed in a cacophony of strange sounds from the surprisingly noisy oilbirds. Fluttering around in the dark, they utter a variety of bizarre screams, snarls, and snoring sounds, in addition to their echolocating clicks which range between 1–15kHz, a frequency audible to humans.

The Huallaga river and the bridge that connects Tingo María and a dead-end road, leading to an infamous red zone for illicit coca plantations.
The Huallaga river and the bridge that connects Tingo María and a dead-end road, leading to an infamous red zone for illicit coca plantations.Janelle Kaz

The oil comes from the palm fruit they consume; the babies become much fatter than the adults (by up to one-third) before they begin to fly, and thus have been used for everything from flavoring food to fueling torches.

This cave is said to be home to a colony of about 3,000 oilbirds, which the locals initially confused with owls. No one knows just how long or deep this cave extends into the earth, due to the presence of the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum. This fungus makes its home on feces-rich soils of cave floors and releases its spores when disturbed. Spores are inhaled through the respiratory system and settle within the alveoli of the lungs, causing what is known locally as "fiebre de Tingo María," Tingo María Fever. This is more widely known as histoplasmosis or "cave disease." Therefore, footsteps alone can make further exploration of this cave perilous.

The Huallaga is born on the slopes of the Andes in central Peru and joins the Marañón and Ucayali rivers to form the mighty Amazon.
The Huallaga is born on the slopes of the Andes in central Peru and joins the Marañón and Ucayali rivers to form the mighty Amazon.Janelle Kaz

A deep love of exploration and tremendous curiosity for life on our planet usually drives those who care to venture to see it, including yours truly. It seems it was the same for renowned naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who regularly put his life in danger to see and know more of the earth. He first documented oilbirds for science in 1799 in a Venezuela cave, noting their noisy clicks. At the time, no one understood how blinded bats oriented in complete darkness, and curiously, except for the fluttering of their wings, they did so in silence. Had there been collaboration between the scientists puzzling over bat navigation and Humboldt, with his observations of oilbird behavior, the recognition and study of animal sonar (echolocation) would likely have come about at least 130 years earlier.

Heading westward past the Cave of Owls did not feel like the safest joyride to take, and I therefore soon turned around.
Heading westward past the Cave of Owls did not feel like the safest joyride to take, and I therefore soon turned around.Janelle Kaz

Truth be told, standing in that cave with other guácharo gawkers, hearing the clicks and screams of the nocturnal oilbirds, well knowing they should be resting for their nighttime forays, I felt guilty for disturbing them. I didn't stay long and apologized for arriving in their cave in the first place.

Emerging from the jungle and finding the boatman and my bike intact, I tipped him five soles, the equivalent of $1.50, which he was very happy about, fired the bike up and headed off into the warm sunset which was illuminating the surrounding jungle-covered mountains. The light of the setting sun was so beautiful on the river and the lush, mountainside vegetation that rather than immediately heading back to my hotel in town, I ventured westward, riding into the cascading golden light.

Coca leaves are an integral part of the lives of the Andean peoples from both a cultural and traditional medicine perspective.
Coca leaves are an integral part of the lives of the Andean peoples from both a cultural and traditional medicine perspective.Janelle Kaz

The road quickly turned to dirt, and I saw faces noticing me, with gazes that told me I was out of place…more than usual. Having spent enough time alone on the road in foreign countries to read this information, I stopped where I was and turned around.

If coca fields lay farther ahead down this dead-end road, they are not something I want to stumble into. Hopefully there will be a day that the coca plant is revered and appreciated for the medicinal, curative, and stimulating properties it carries, or even perhaps simply enjoyed similar to coffee. After all, the indigenous chew and make teas from the entire leaves, rather than extracting a single alkaloid component. Its entire leaves have been a staple in the Andean lifestyle for thousands of years.

Three on a motorcycle, roads under perpetual construction, and coca fields are standard sightings in rural Peru.
Three on a motorcycle, roads under perpetual construction, and coca fields are standard sightings in rural Peru.Janelle Kaz

Riding back along the charming rusted bridge, with its oxidized bolts and joints, I only felt gratitude for what I had experienced that day. The curvy road led me back into town, passing mototaxis and small engine bikes with two or three people on board.

The Huallaga River bridge at sunset, just beyond the Cave of Owls.
The Huallaga River bridge at sunset, just beyond the Cave of Owls.Janelle Kaz

Our planet is beautiful and wonderful beyond our comprehension. Creatures and their intricate functions within ecosystems lay beyond our wildest imaginations, many still yet to be discovered. I know that we often look outside of our own solar system for possible destinations for humankind to survive, but if we could just open our eyes to what incredible beauty we have within our own atmosphere, perhaps we would be willing to sacrifice more in order to protect it.

Adventuring Peru by motorcycle is full of wonders and surprises around every corner and across every bridge.
Adventuring Peru by motorcycle is full of wonders and surprises around every corner and across every bridge.Janelle Kaz

We truly live on a most incredible planet. Were we to discover the same in a far-off solar system, we would be blown away by what we’ve found. Let’s not take for granted what we have. Let’s celebrate our biological and chemical diversity—audible avian echolocation clicks to the catalyzed reactions initiated by the mechanical throttles of motorcycles included. Let’s figure out a way to make this work for all living beings on this planet.

In the end, we’re all in this together and none of us are getting out alive.

I would like to note that while stopped on the road near Tingo María, I touched my Sena Bluetooth camera to turn down the volume and I noticed the people holding rifles straighten up and act a bit more polite. I’ve since done the same while stopped at a random police check. It seems that when people notice the camera, it puts them on their best behavior. Perhaps this technology serves as an added component of protection for those traveling in remote places.