Elias’s Forest – by Sarah Erdman

For those of us who live in more temperate zones, the rainforest is a source of exotic enchantment, a world apart where nature hides some of its most fabulous creations. When our boat pulled up to the narrow clearing within tall trees at the entrance to Inkaterra Hacienda Concepción, I remember feeling delightfully overwhelmed by the wild beauty of it all. We were hot and tired from the journey and so excited to be there.

And then the excitement turned into something richer. We met Elias Léon, our naturalist guide, and he led us on our first walk in the forest. With a calm voice and kindness in his face, he taught us how to listen to the forest’s sounds, how to look closer to see the creatures hiding in plain view, how to walk softly so as not to disturb the ecosystem. His love for the forest was palpable and infectious—after all his years in the Amazon, he was still full of wonder, and that made our own sense of awe even stronger.

Elias started working as a naturalist guide when he was 16 years old. His father had taught him and his six brothers to be builders, but he chose instead to work at an eco-lodge, assisting the other guides. He learned quickly, and the owner encouraged him to take a course in biology so that he could become a professional naturalist someday. For several years, he made ends meet working as a builder and then in the gold mines.  But before long he learned English and returned to guiding. When we met him in 2016, he had just come to Hacienda Concepción after eight years at Reserva Amazonica. “It’s just 10 minutes by motor canoe,” he told me, “but I see a lot of different species here.”

Elias loved birds.“Every single day you can see more and more species,” he said as we paddled the lagoon one morning. No one else in my group had come along on the canoe outing, so Elias and I drifted quietly along in no rush at all, watching nightjars and bee-eaters. He told me how his family—10 kids in all—fled to the Amazon from the Highlands when he was young to escape the Shining Path. How working in the mines was dangerous, and it was so hot in the gravel pits he often felt like he was being barbecued. Guiding, he said, was much better work.  The month of May was his favorite time to be in the jungle. “The rains are finished and everything is fresh and beautiful.”

I got the sense that Elias would be happy to paddle that lagoon every day, that he was apassionate man who found peace in the forest. During our three days at the lodge, he told us about howler monkeys and caimans, stinkbirds and macaws, traveling trees and the cleverness of ants. “People should come here to be in contact with nature,” he said, “to understand the importance of this forest for our Earth.” And by the end of our time there, we had begun to understand. He had endowed us with a reverence and respect for the forest he called home. He may no longer be with us, but his legacy remains. For me and so many others, he brought to life a place we had dreamed about, and in his own quiet way, he made us care about it.