The 'bosque seco' of the Northern coast.

The 'bosque seco' of the Northern coast.

Peru has a coast which is, for the most part, complete desert. Despite this, the bulk of the population live in this environment. Those who live outside of the major cities make their living by fishing, through irrigated farming and by providing services to these communities.

Chiclayano Fishermen ready their boats on the coast of Northern Peru

Patches of irrigated green land punctuate rolling sand dunes and rocky crags. Here, some of the earliest settled civilisations on Earth established themselves: cultures such as those which left the huge the Moche and Caral complexes. Traditional and new approaches to agriculture now run side by side. The areas around the major Northern cities - such as Trujillo and Piura - are now extensively irrigated with modern drip-feed techniques, and greenery is climbing the hillsides. Elsewhere, as shown here, irrigated land exists as green enclaves in a sea of sand, often using canals established by ancient civilisations.

Irrigated land makes a green patch in the Peruvian desert.

As one goes North, however, the strength of the Humboldt current lessens and the sea warms, bringing with it some small amount of rain. Tough acacia trees - algorrobo - begin to take a hold. As this environment rises into the Andes, a unique ecosystem known as the 'bosque seco' develops. This is astoundingly rich in wild life: astounding, because the area may go for years without significant rain. Life relies upon small springs and seepages, yet a population of animals as large a condors and spectacled bears thrive within it.

The bosque seco of the Northern Peru foothills

The plant life of bosque seco consists of cactus and hardy shrubs and trees, interspersed with ephemeral grasses and flowering plants that explode into life when the infrequent rains fall. In the aftermath of an el Niņo season, when the sea becomes warmer and rains fall in abundance, the hillsides are bright with flowers. The hills that rise to around 1000m support a unique ecology, based on a mixture of condensation from the frequent night mists and the infrequent rains. Run-off from this keeps the animal population alive during the times of drought.

Horses provide the traditional means of tranportation in rural Northern Peru

Local communities have lived in balance with the bosques seco for millennia. They are 'mined' for herbs, including many that are important to the thriving shamanic tradition of the region. The common San Pedro cactus, for example, is still used as a hallucinogen in divination. A land snail is impaled on the thorns and allowed to desiccate for two weeks. It is then eaten, dry, having absorbed the relevant chemicals from the cactus. The result is a period of florid hallucinations - or revelations, if you prefer - which last for 3-5 hours.

A rural Peruvian parking lot

Population growth, mobility and rapid change in employment has mean that pressure has increased on these fragile lands, and many have been either felled for firewood or scarified by over grazing. Hunting with modern weapons - and by urbanites after a day's sport - has had a particular impact on the larger animals in the region. The hills of the bosque seco are not truly a part of the Andes, and are best seen as desert islands than as its foothills. Animals have, therefore, no place to retreat.

a hawk swings in front of one of the coastal hills making up the bosque seco: Peru

Rural Peru has a major tradition - and a growing social movement - that revolves around the community. The 1979 Reforma Agraria broke up the haciendas which once dominated the land and gave communities collective rights over the land. Public land is held by the state, but the local communities feel that they have the rights to its exploitation and they take active measures when these are threatened. Conservation measures are therefore difficult, even where funds, organisation and the will exist. Chaparri is, however, a unique experiment through which the community is brought to value the natural environment. The land has been dedicated by the community to a private reserve, to which limited numbers of visitors are welcomed. Funds so generated are administered by the community for its benefit, with specified proportions going to health, schooling and similar projects. The local Ronda Campesinos - effectively, a one of many vigilante groups set up in the lawless period after the Reforma Agraria - defends the reserve against invaders, hunters and those who graze animals inappropriately.

A wild Peruvian turkey looks for food in the dry scrub

Chaparri is a unique experiment in Peru, which is now attracting around 3000 visitors a year, a much smaller proportion of whom stay in the rustic but comfortable surroundings. It is a silent place, through which wild animals roam at will. The dog fox shown below had semi-domesticated himself, and would accept food - preferable boiled eggs - from one's hand. His tiny mate - 15 cm long, about a kilo in body weight - was far more shy. Eleven species of humming bird thrum around in the dusk, and bath in the stream at dawn.

Rufo is a Peruvian dog fox

The streams that run off the central mountain support a tangled mass of trees. The bulk of the large animals tend to concentrate themselves in these areas. Deer are relatively abundant, and the species can easily be recognise on ancient Moche pottery. They are hunted by cougar, which can (if you are exceptionally fortunate) be observed drinking at nightfall. Deer and bears co-exist, the spectacled bears living higher up the mountain but descending to visit their favoured fruit trees when these are in season. The higher regions are seldom visited, as the climb is arduous and water non-existent to those who do not know where to look. Tilsandias, bromeliads and even a few drought-tolerant orchid species are to be found growing, and condors and other raptors nest in the higher reaches of these ranges. New and unusual species are still being discovered: a recent finding was a weird-looking arboreal armadillo, for example.

A deer shelters amongst algorrobo scrub in a dry stream bed: northern Peru

The spectacled bears are the largest of the wild animals in the region, and exist under great pressure from humans. Bears are intensely territorial and need a large expanse in which to roam. They also need to eat a large amount in order to support their great bulk, and both of these predispositions tend to bring them into contact with humans. Bear skin was and is prized for its quality as leather, and the meat is eaten with relish. Chaparri has a program of bear study and rehabilitation under way, with animals that have been rescued from circuses and private collections being introduced to the wild.

A Peruvian spectacled bear peers from a tree

The spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) gets its name from the white patches which surround its eyes and muzzle. Males bears reach 2m in length and may weight 175 kg, whilst the females achieve 60-70% of this size. They are primarily vegetarian but have formidable claws which they can use in self-defence. Andean legend speaks of were-bears, apparent humans who become bears under stress, or who seduce women and carry them off into the forest. The species is distributed across the North-East shoulder of South America, and is everywhere under threat.

A closer view of the Peruvian spectacled bear: north Peru

The sun setting behind the Chaparri massif creates extraordinary fans of shadow, sweeping across the sky at a rate which it is easy to see with the eye. Vultures - gallinasos - are present almost anywhere in Peru where there is water. These have gathered in the hope of a feed from the remains left by condores, which sweep down from higher ground to range the sea coast and remoter agricultural areas in search of carrion. Here, however, Chaparri has its own condor introduction program, similar to the bear-related activity described above - and the vultures know that they are onto a certainty.

Peruvian vultures gather in the cactus scrub as the sun sets

Returning to the road at Chogoyape, one can pick up the road which runs from Chiclayo and Ferreņafe due West into the Andes. One rises quickly from the bosque seco into a wetter but even more remote area, characterised by miniature acacias weighed down by bromeliads. The view back to the coast suggests the progressive increase in rainfall as one leaves the desert and heads inland.

Looking back towards the coastline from 2000m in the Northern Peruvian Andes

In two hours, one crosses a 3000m pass and drops down into dense greenery, forest and cultivation at Cutervo, a charmless town with very beautiful surroundings, including a national park. The area is thick with orchids.