Paddington is a very polite little bear who comes from ‘Darkest Peru’. The Brown family found him on Paddington Station in London with a tag around his neck saying ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you.’ – so they did.
Paddington wears a blue duffel coat and a large black hat under which he hides his marmalade sandwiches; much to the amusement of generations of British children.
Growing up, this was my entire knowledge of Peru: it’s where Paddington comes from, and there is a place in the jungle called Lima where Paddington’s Aunt Lucy lives. I thought Peru was full of bears in blue duffel coats.
When I go to the UK, people always ask me if I’ve seen Paddington and I have to regretfully reply no, I haven’t – until now that is!
If there’s any real bear that could possibly be Paddington, it’s the Spectacled Bear – or sometimes called the Andean Bear. And Chaparri Reserve and Bear Rescue Center is the best place to sport the bears in their natural habitat.
Chaparri is accessed from the city of Chiclayo on the north coast of Peru. The area is famous for the rich remains found in Moche tombs, but more on that in another posting.
Chaparri Nature Reserve is not easy to get to. They said I could get to the nearest town by bus and then the guide would accompany me from the park office. Didn’t happen to mention that the park office and the reserve were more than an hour apart on a road that looks impassible, but the trusty motor taxi managed to bump and shake all the way to the lodge. Our guide for the visit was, a very keen and knowledgeable student, was trying to give me lots of information all at once about the environment and where the water comes from, while I tried to focus over the noise of the motor taxi and stop O from being flung out of the side.
All the trouble of getting there and the hassle of the city, however, left as soon as we reached our room. There’s nothing and nobody. Lots of birds and that’s about it. You really do feel instantly comfortable and relaxed as there’s not much to do apart from look at the wildlife. Elizabeth came to ask what we wanted for dinner. I wondered what would happen if I asked for some exotic spread here in the middle of nowhere but just said I’d have whatever was available. She made a special soup for O, so happy all round.
After a short rest to get the vibrations of the bike out of my bones, we went for a walk as it was getting dark. I asked about our chances of seeing bears. The rescued bears who are in enclosures – fairly good ; a wild bear…you’ll be lucky.
There’s lots of birds – big ones, yellow ones, one was definitely a woodpecker. Our guide explained about the park and its special role in rehabilitating bears and we walked along as it was getting dark …and there she was – a wild bear. Blocking the path, not too happy to see us and in no way letting us get past. So not what I had expected. I thought if we saw a bear it would be from a distance as it scurried off in fright – they are know to be quite shy after all.
Our bearess was having a good chomp on a pile of insects when she saw us. How on earth do people stand up to grizzlys? She’s only about my height but she looked annoyed and it didn’t help that the guide didn’t want to get any closer either. We turned around and went back.
Chaparri used to be a place where people went to hunt bears and deer, and is now the only place in Peru where bears still live in dry forest – there are other bears living in cloud forest but the dense vegetation makes it difficult to spot them. Heinz Plenge used to be a hunter in the area but in a radical career change to found a reserve and protect the bears instead. In the restaurant, you can flick through old photos of him as hunter with his killed deer.
Chaparri has had immense successes in increasing the number of wild bears in the area, including the birth of Pierre in the last year. As well as protecting wild bears, the reserve also has a programme of rehabilitation for bears previously held in captivity.
Where possible, bears previously kept as pets or treated horribly in circuses, are gradually reintroduced into the wild. Cuto, unfortunately, can’t be reintroduced. He was a dancing bear in a circus. In his previous life, Cuto would be forced onto a metal plate with a fire underneath. It was his burning feet that made him jig up and down and appear to dance for the spectators. My guide told me that when he arrived in Chappari he still instinctively danced when he heard music. Cuto’s teeth and jaw were so damaged in the circus that he wouldn’t survive in the wild, so lives happily in a large enclosure in Chaparri.
Cuto’s age and bad teeth didn’t stop our wild bear from having a crush on him though! She was still there the next day, outside his enclosure waiting for the old bear to wake up. A crush, our guide said, was the only reason why the bearess would be hanging around for so long, and be so protective as to stand up to us – to defend her bear man.
This time she ambled over to take a look at us and went back to hunting for grubs. We tentatively moved closer but she was surprisingly agile and standing straight up, stuck out her tongue at us. We took a detour and left her to pace the fence, gazing longingly at Cuto.
So there we have it – yes I did see a Paddington in Peru.
More stuff about Spectacled Bears
What’s with the glasses?
No, they don’t wear specs but they have whitish or yellow rings around their eyes that make them look like they are wearing glasses. These markings are unique like a fingerprint.
Do they like marmalade?
Well yes, fruit is the main part of their diet. Plus a tiny bit of honey – so that bit is true. They are also partial to a bit of fish.
Are there still bears in circuses?
It is now illegal in Peru to keep bears in captivity – in circuses or as pets. The film “Manos and Garras” by Bernie Peyton is the story of Yinda the bear, taken to Chaparri by her owner who then stayed on the reserve in a tent until Yinda her pet was happy to go off and fend for itself.
Where else can I see the Spectacled Bear?
There is a chance to see the bear on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, or in the small sanctuary in the grounds of the Pueblo Hotel near the site. In Ecuador communities are working to preserve the cloud forest habitat of the bears in the north of the country.
We went to Chaparri to see the bears but really appreciated the calm, relaxed atmosphere, the great guides, and the myriad of other animals, birds and reptiles. You would never believe for example that the White Winged Guan is critically endangered from the way it hops about the kitchen roof. Please contact me if you would like any more information on Chaparri or the bears.