Inti Wara Yassi: Day 1

Villa Tunari Travel Blog

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Villa Tunari is a beautiful three and a half hour bus ride from Cochabamba. The bus wove its way through steep jungle-covered hills shrouded and mist and my clothes (which had been comfortable in the Cochabamban morning) began to cling in the increasing heat and humidity. Despite my repeated instructions to the bus driver to drop me off on the far side of the Espiritu Sanctu bridge at the end of town, I was unceremoniously disembarked in the centre of town. I received directions from a friendly security guard and walked along the narrow muddy shoulder to the end of town. The Espiritu Sanctu bridge is nicknamed the death bridge by some at Inti Wara Yassi. The bridge is not particularly high or unstable looking but there has been no allowance for pedestrian usage. If two vehicles are passing on the bridge, a pedestrian has about 30 cms of leeway in which to cling to the railing. Unfortunately, everyone at the park has to walk across this bridge anytime they want to go to town and the people staying in the economy accomodation (this would be me) have to use it even more.

The instructions on the website said that there would be a cafe after the bridge where I could check in but I never saw it. Carrying my backpack, I walked right up some steps and into the park where I was confronted by a bear up a tree. For a minute I was totally confused. I certainly didn´t expect that the first animal I would encounter in a South American animal park would be one that I encounter in my home city on a regular basis. The bear´s minder, a mud covered Australian, pointed me in the right direction.

I arrived in Villa Tunari around 11 am and since the people in charge would not return until late in the afternoon I was let loose in the park to explore. Not 30 m into the park I encountered my first monkey. It batted its little eyes at me and climbed up on my shoulder. I thought it was extremely cute and tried to take a picture. The monkey reached for my camera and I managed to stash it safely away.

Inti Wara Yassi is not a zoo. It is a place where they rehabilitate animals that have been abused and try and release them back into the wild. If this is not possible (as is the case with the cats) they try and make life as comfortable as possible for the animal. As a result, tourists can only visit the birds (mostly huge parrots) and the capachin monkeys. The capuchin monkeys can be quite aggressive and when I arrived the big topic of discussion was Boody,a monkey that had been raised as a professional thief and had a tendency to be overly aggressive. While I was at the monkey park chatting with some of the volunteers, one of the Bolivian volunteers ran past with a split ear streaming down with blood. Boody had climbed up on him and taken a big bite. I decided that it was time to head back down to the cafe and spent the afternoon listening to the conversations of the various groups that came down for their lunch breaks. The monkey people liked to discuss the relationship dramas of their monkeys, the small animals people griped about cleaning cages all day, and the cat people (when they finally arrived at the end of the day...they don´t get a lunch break but tend to finish earlier) about who´s cat was the most attractive and if their cat jumped them that day. These people definately wear their scratches and their bruises as badges of honour and I liked everybody instantly.

I was assigned to work with the Puma (read Cougar)Gato and an Australian girl name Callie. Gato was the first cat that was brought to Inti Warra Yassi. He was rescued from a circus that was passing through town. He was badly malnourished and his back legs had been broken so that he could sit up on his hind legs like a bear. He was unable to walk but he has been rehabilitated and now walks without much difficulty.

The accomodations are pretty basic but with an evening of repair work I think my room can be made very liveable.

Everybody who worked at the park went out for dinner to the same restaurant because some longtime volunteers were leaving and someone was having a birthday. The restaurant ran out of bread and ran all over town trying to find more before giving up and serving their hamburgers sin pan (without bread)

The different animals of the park have different scheduals. Cat people start work at 9 in the morning (but congregate long before that at the cafe where they scarfe down as much food as possible and order sandwiches for lunch time).

Callie and I collected Gato´s food (1.4 kg of chicken) water and straw for Gato´s bed and headed off through the park. Gato´s cage is accessed by a 20 minute walk up a steep, muddy jungle trail from the spider monkey park. On the way up the hill we were a bit unnerved to notice that the Alpha Male Capuchin Monkey (Heffa) was following us and we were relieved when he disappeared. Already muddy and sweating, we crested a hill and saw Heffa sitting on a branch near the trail ahead of us but he wasn´t alone. There were about 10 monkeys (including the infamous Boody) surrounding us. The monkeys had organised an ambush. The whole thing reminded me of a mob hit. The henchmen monkeys bared their teeth at us aggressively while the Don Corleone monkey sat calmly in the background and supervised. Callie told me to take off my backpack and stick it in the sack with the chicken while she put her back pack in the other sack. The monkeys continued to inch closer and closer and it became quite apparent that we were going to be attacked if we didn´t give up the bounty. She told me to drop the sack. Instantly the monkeys were in the bag opening the chicken and all the zippers of my backpack, there was no chance of retrieval. We decided to get out of there while Callie still had her bag and some food for the day and come back in ten minutes to see if we could salvage anything. We continued on to Gato´s cage and the volunteers in the monkey park saw the monkeys walking around with chicken in their mouths. I wasn´t too bummed about the back pack. In fact Callie was much more disgrunted about the whole affair than I was. I realised when I came to South America that I had to accept the fact that anything I owned might get stolen and I was too excited about meeting Gato for the first time to dwell on it to long. Once we reached the cage I returned to the scene of the crime but there was nothing there to suggest that there had even been a struggle. I returned to the cage empty handed.

Gato is a lovely Puma. He is getting on in his years and doesn´t really have the energy to jump his handlers very much. He has been a bit stressed recently because in the last few weeks he has had many volunteers come to work with him that didn´t work out for one reason or another. The inconsistancy isn´t good for him and he has begun to pull out some of the hair on his tail. Our job as handlers is to feed him, clean his cage, and take him for a long walk through the jungle. Each cat has different trails that they run. The trails are not flat, dry, gravelled paths but spectacular forest trails which wind up hills, through streams and jungle deadfall. I am not ready to hold the leash yet so I mostly walked behind and chatted with Callie or made sure that the path was clear of other cats or humans. It was very hot today and Gato had a difficult time adjusting to the heat. He plopped down panting in any puddle he could come across. Later in the day when he was resting at his viewpoint, I ran down to the cafe and procurred some more chicken while I regaled the other volunteers with the biggest drama story of the day ( slightly outclassing the story that Boody the bad bittingmonkey had finally been captured).
I headed back up the hill to Gato´s cage with the Vet but we got lost and took almost 45 minutes to find Gato´s cage. It was quite entertaining. Once Gato had recieved his food, Callie, Luis and I headed down the hill. Halfway down we found my back pack. It was unscathed but completely empty. The remains of my first aid kit were scattered all over the trail but the only other thing we found was my hat. Gone were the keys to my room, my leatherman, my fourth pair of sunglasses on this trip and a sweater. I was a bit disappointedabout the knife (although it may still show up at some point) and the keys but I was glad that in your first week on the job cameras are forbidden and that I didn´t have any of my money or documentation with me. I was amused by the fact that the first robbery of my trip was conducted by monkeys.
At theend of the day it began to pour with rain. I think that drying things here will be a real problem. I cut the padlock off of my door and bought a new one in town, along with a plastic rain slicker and rubber boots. We are headed into the rainy season and there is no point destroying my nice raincoat.
Despite all of the drama of the day I already really love this place. The people all seem lovely and genuine and the forest is filled with beautiful plants and butterflies. I finished the day scratched,covered in mud, and drenched to the sounds an awful lot like the way I finish most orienteering races!
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Villa Tunari
photo by: RainyDayToast