The Highest Tree House in the Amazon

Every day, empty logging trucks rumble into Puerto Lucerna, a small outpost on Peru’s Las Piedras River, which snakes through the lush Amazon rain forest. There, workers load them up with pyramids of freshly cut logs—cedar, quinilla, and, most important, ironwoods, which are prized for their hardness and rich color. Hundreds of thousands of ironwood trees flowed out of the Peruvian Amazon between 2000 and 2020, many of them illegally logged and extracted from this region, Madre de Dios. A few miles from the port, a narrow line of trees towers over a deforested landscape—a grim portent of what could happen to the rest of the forest.

One morning in May, 2023, a lone truck, piled high with wooden beams, did something curious: it carried its cargo into Puerto Lucerna, against the usual flow of timber. The beams were headed for a remote pair of intertwined trees that measured a hundred and thirty feet tall. There, a group of conservationists from Tamandua Expeditions planned to erect the highest tree house in the Amazon.

On the banks of the river, laborers loaded the wood onto small motorized canoes called peque peques. One boat sank before it even pushed off, but workers managed to recover the wood, and they successfully ferried it forty minutes upriver. Rollin Yvana, an accountant by training who had struggled to find well-paid work in Puerto Maldonado, the regional capital, helped to load it onto a cart. “The path was disastrous,” he recalled. Pushing it through the mud made him want to quit and go back to the city. But he also wanted to see the great tree house finished.

When Yvana and his colleagues reached the intertwined trees, they greeted a global collective of carpenters, arborists, and tree-house builders, known as the Tree House Community. Philipp Klingspies, the group’s founder, was orchestrating the ascent of eighty massive wooden beams, which would support a spiral staircase attached to the trees. Sweaty workers used a pulley to lift the beams one by one. Often, butterflies and wasps hitched a ride to the top; on some days, crew members were stung a dozen times.

When the structure reached about thirty feet, less than a third of its eventual height, it swayed dangerously and needed to be tied to the trees with a thick steel cable, cushioned against the bark with wood blocks and recycled rubber tires. Finally, the staircase was finished. Connected with some eight hundred bolts, it disappeared into the center of the treetop. Now the main platform of the house could be built.

Klingspies and Sava Burow, an expert arborist from Berlin, spent a day in the trees, slicing away branches to offset part of the weight that the house would add. Burow, who once built sets for night clubs, told me that his job was to make “necessary cuts to achieve a stable coexistence of tree house and tree.” Sap spilled out of the stumps, like blood clotting to heal a wound.

Klingspies and Burow had identified a problem with a colossal limb that was supposed to be a main support for the tree house: almost a third of the wood was hollow and soft with fungus. “We knew it was serious,” Klingspies said. He told the leaders of Tamandua that, in theory, they could stick to the original design. “It would definitely be good for maybe five, ten years,” he reasoned, but “that branch doesn’t seem to want to accept so much for that much longer.” In the worst case, the fungus could hollow out the crucial branch until it cracked.

The destruction of the Amazon is already disrupting water cycles, warming the planet, and threatening to drive thousands of species to extinction. Protecting the rain forest is one of the best ways that humans can avert a climate catastrophe: its slow-growth trees can either sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide or, if logged, spew the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. But there is more than one way to shield the Amazon from destruction. One approach, embodied by Tamandua Expeditions, is to “create ecotourism that gets people to appreciate how finite the things that they get to see are,” Mohsin Kazmi, one of the company’s co-owners, told me. In the best case, tourists become ongoing supporters of conservation.

Another approach is embodied by the Junglekeepers, a nonprofit conservation group, which shares most of its leadership with Tamandua and works closely with it. One of the co-founders of the Junglekeepers, Juan Julio Durand, grew up in a community of the Indigenous Ese’Eja people; as a young man, Durand mined gold, felled trees, and served in the Army, fighting insurgent groups in the Amazon. But, in 2005, he and his then partner acquired a plot of land from a government concession, and he started to think about what it would take to protect the forest. He eventually created the Junglekeepers with Paul Rosolie, an author and conservationist from New York. They believed that by attaining the rights to a growing swath of land, they could train locals to patrol and protect it. In their view, they could multiply their impact by focussing on the Las Piedras River, because it was the extraction route for so many protected lands.

After the Junglekeepers started to patrol the forest, Tamandua started to hire the nonprofit’s rangers to help lead its for-profit expeditions. Then, in 2019, Rosolie posted an Instagram video of himself standing in front of burning trees, during that year’s widespread Amazon fires. “Welcome to the fucking Anthropocene,” he said. The video went viral, a nonprofit pledged more than four million dollars to the Junglekeepers, and the organization expanded to patrol fifty thousand acres. Meanwhile, Stephane Thomas, a Bay Area software-development manager who moonlights as a conservationist, joined as a co-director of both organizations.

A pandemic pause in Amazon trips left Tamandua in bad shape. By the spring of 2022, trails were overgrown, running water was nonexistent, and there were holes in the roof of Tamandua’s operations center. Starting trips again would be so difficult that Rosolie suggested a pivot. “We should build something that has international recognition, like the world’s tallest tree house,” he told his colleagues. He knew nothing about building tree houses.

“Let me take care of a few details,” Thomas told Rosolie. The idea sounded far-fetched, but Thomas drew up a budget; he proposed to cover it with his savings, and to manage the construction from start to finish. “He was the one who willed the tree house into being,” Kazmi told me.

Durand was skeptical at first, but he liked the idea of drawing new attention to the Amazon. “You’ve got to show people there are things happening,” he said, in part so that locals will join the effort. Soon, the group began planning the tree house on land he owned. With luxury accommodations such as solar panels and a full bathroom, it would cost more than a hundred thousand dollars to build; Tamandua planned to rent it out for up to two thousand dollars a night, attracting wealthy tourists—and potential funders of conservation—to a vulnerable, defendable part of the Amazon.

That summer, Tamandua asked the Tree House Community to join the project as their builder, and Klingspies, as the organization’s founder, travelled to the Las Piedras basin. He and Rosolie climbed a tree and looked out over the canopy; a towering ceiba, also known as a silk-cotton tree, caught their attention. But Klingspies worried that its height might attract lightning, and he knew that ceibas heal slowly.

Then they saw a curious pair of trees: a white quinilla that had been engulfed by a parasitic ficus tree, known as a strangler fig. The strangler fig looked as if it were part cooled lava, part web; the quinilla was still alive inside, its branches reaching out for sunlight. “It’s like a composite material—you have this hardwood core and a much softer, more flexible outer layer,” Klingspies told me. “Two perfect trees fused together.”

When Victor Quio Trigoso, then a boat driver for the Junglekeepers, first heard about the tree house, he and his wife laughed at the “crazy gringos” and their plan. He had profound respect for his organization’s work, however. Quio had once cut down trees for a living, until Durand persuaded him to join the conservation effort. “He gives us the option of being able to work in a different way. . . . to see our forest in a different way,” Quio told me. And so when Durand sent him a text, asking him to start working on the tree house, he agreed.

At first, Quio helped salvage wood for the tree house, but soon Durand called off the search and sourced stacks of newly cut wood from a sustainable lumberyard. These arrived so far ahead of construction that, by the time eight builders from the Tree House Community got there, the wood was covered in a thick layer of slime. “Most carpenters around the world would give anything to just get one of these beams,” Klingspies told me. His team had hundreds of pieces, but the wet wood kept gumming up power sanders and slipping out of people’s hands. In the end, it had to be exchanged for clean wood.

Klingspies, who lives in a multilevel tree house in an intentional community called Auroville, in India, discovered more issues during his first days on-site. When he climbed the tree to take measurements for the first time, he realized that he’d have to make adjustments to his meticulous design. “Every day is a big decision,” he told me. He also noticed rotten fallen chunks of quinilla near the strangler’s base; the host tree was slowly dying, and the strangler fig was already sending roots into part of the quinilla’s hollowed-out center. Klingspies and Burow, the arborist, trimmed strategically around the host tree’s living branches, helping it to get more light. All they could do was hope that it would continue to grow for a while longer.

When Klingspies discovered the extent of the fungus in the load-bearing branch, he initially thought, This is going to be a terror. He came up with yet another design change: the tree house would be split in two so that the load could be distributed on both sides of the tree.

One day last summer, Yvana, whose muddy journey through the forest had made him consider quitting, climbed the tree house’s skeletal staircase. He stood at its highest point, about a hundred and ten feet up. A strong wind blew and the tree swayed, pulling the structure along with it. Yvana was scared, but his resolve was renewed. “The hardest was over,” he told me. “After that, it got easier.” In the weeks that followed, the construction work started to feel a bit like summer camp. With the staircase out of the way, the rest of the structure came together smoothly.

Last July, I flew into Puerto Maldonado and hopped in a van alongside Durand and his colleagues. Together, we drove down the Interoceanic Highway toward the heart of the rain forest. In between naps, Durand told me about the ups and downs of the build. As we turned down a winding red-dirt road, I thought about how this beautiful route helped the Junglekeepers do their work, but also enabled deforestation. At one point, we pulled over so that a flatbed trailer, piled high with wood, could drive past us.

The first time I saw the tree house, it reminded me of an optical illusion. It was hard to tell whether the staircase was leaning on the tree, or vice versa. I heard a buzz of machines up above; fine sawdust fell to the forest floor. I’d seen a strangler fig before, but never juxtaposed against the straight, geometric lines of a hundred-and-ten-foot structure.

In parts of Latin America, strangler figs are known as matapalos, or tree killers. A matapalo spreads when its seeds land on the branches of a host tree, then sprout and attach roots in moist areas. As the host tree grows, the matapalo’s roots slowly stretch downward, multiplying and spreading until they reach the ground. The trees live together for a time. Then, assuming that the matapalo doesn’t grow so fast that it topples over, the host tree loses access to sunshine and nutrients and dies where it stands. I thought about the way that humans treat the Amazon rain forest. At best, our relationship could be symbiotic; at worst, parasitic.

One afternoon, I climbed the stairs with Durand. We walked around the tree house’s deck and took in the view. Gazing out into a thick forest, it was difficult to fathom that we were there because everything around us could one day disappear, or be irrevocably altered. It was too vast, too lush, too alive. The tree house is a tool for conservation because it’s in the middle of something that we’re losing, but still have the power to save.

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