The reason we had been rushing through Colombia and Ecuador was because we had committed to spending 2 weeks helping at a small animal shelter in northern Peru.
That shelter was Asociación Humanitaria San Fransisco De Asis, in Colan, a small beach town an hour away from the regional capital Piura. It’s run by Rosemary, a caring and inspiring lady.
Although born in Peru, she lived most of her life in South Africa, returning in the 1990s. Appalled by the amount of stray animals and the shocking treatment of them, as well as a huge lack of education and vets facilities in the area, she started her animal shelter.
By all accounts it started off a long way from the shelter we arrived at. Over the years she has put together a large complex with an enclosed garden, several accommodation buildings and a well stocked vets surgery.
Currently it houses 9 dogs, 40 odd cats and 2 tortoises, but also provides veterinary care and neutering to locals who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. Rosemary funds this through volunteer vets and medical supplies from charity grants.
Arriving in Colan was a bit of a shock. We’d spent the night in Piura, which was like any other South American city. We knew Colan was a lot smaller, but nothing prepared us for the sight of the town as we turned off the main road. It was essentially a desert.
Our colectivo dropped us near the beach and we made the short walk 2 streets back to Rosemary’s. We knew we were in the right place when dogs started to bark as soon as we rang the bell, and we were soon greeted by Rosemary herself.
After showing us to our rustic room, we settled down to a homemade lunch and Rosemary went over what our duties would be for the next 2 weeks. These included walking the dogs, cleaning cat cages, and keeping the beautiful gardens tidy by picking up beans from the trees. As the weeks progressed we ended up doing a lot more, such as replanting cactuses and repairing fences.
We knew before we arrived that this was very small scale volunteering, and that although it was an animal shelter, we might not be with them the whole time. We were fine with that, and spent plenty of time with the animals every day.
A day always started by waking at 6.30am for dog walking to start at 7am. This was tough to start with as we were not used to early mornings! But it’s essential as the intense sun means if you went any later it would be too hot for both humans and dogs.
Between us we had 6 dogs to walk, so we did 3 at a time until the second week when another volunteer, Holly, joined us and we could take them all at once.
It didn’t take long to discover their personalities. There was mischievous Princesa, who lived up to her name and demanded attention. There was Montana, a great looking dog with the softest fur ever. And Beckham (yes, named after David), an old male dog who wasn’t the quickest on his feet anymore but was so well behaved and loving.
From there we would grab some bread from the bakery for the day and settle down to breakfast. Our first task would be to socialise with some of the shyer cats before letting them out for the day, then we’d tidy all the cages.
Rosemary pays several locals to help around the shelter, and while they do things like feed the animals and pick up poop just fine, the Peruvian attitude towards animals means they just can’t get their heads around things like making a bed comfortable for cats – that’s where we came in.
After this we’d get on with whatever else needed doing – keeping the garden tidy, fixing things, tearing newspaper for compost and trimming Princesa – this was a constant battle as she hated having her fur trimmed but she absolutely had to due to the heat and the fact she almost died last time she was put under by a vet to be shaved.
By 1pm the heat usually became unbearable and that is when we stopped work for the day. Usually we’d take a siesta through the worst of the heat, then go down to the beach or walk for 20 minutes to a nearby resort to swim and drink pisco sours. It was a nice life, we worked hard but we got plenty of time off.
In the evening we would all sit down to a delicious home cooked dinner with Rosemary and chat about her life and Peru in general. It made us appreciate the immense challenges in running a shelter here but also her efforts (sometimes in vain) to educate locals about animal welfare and the importance of sterilising their dogs. She also runs into issues with complaints from locals as well as fines and pressure from local government.
For someone who just loves animals and wants to help them, it’s ridiculous what she has to put up with, a lot of people would have given up a long time ago. This small part of Peru has a lot to thank her for, even though they usually don’t.
Our 2 weeks at the shelter flew by, and had Rosemary not been going abroad and not been taking volunteers for a while, we would have certainly extended our stay there. I have to admit I had a tear in my eye as we walked away for the last time…
Of course we couldn’t write about an animal shelter without showing you our favourite animals! We loved all the dogs and cats at Rosemary’s but we did have a few favourites…
China – pronounced the Spanish way as Chee-na, was a lovely old girl with the most adorable eyes, and a tendency to lick to show her affection – legs, arms and even your face if you didn’t get out of the way quick enough!
Darwin – still a street dog at heart, Darwin was a joy to walk because he walked himself! He followed us around on walks, with an occasional stop to eat garbage. Because of this he needed regular baths, but he was a lovely loyal dog.
Kit & Kat – these 2 cats were former pets owned by expats who had to move home, it was easy to tell they were as they loved affection. One of them would often barge his way into our bedroom and go to sleep on our beds!
Snowball – One evening we heard some mewing outside, went to investigate, and found someone had dumped this tiny kitten outside to fend for itself rather than have the balls to knock the door. Luckily it was unharmed and we spent the next week feeding it 5 times a day and caring for it as if it was our baby. She/he was doing well when we left.
Girly – this little puppy actually had nothing to do with the shelter – she was a street dog but due to her age Rosemary couldn’t take her in as she would have terrorised the older dogs and chased all the cats. She would come on the dog walks with us every day, follow us to the beach in the evenings and rush up for a cuddle the minute we stepped outside. Loved this little pup.
If you fancy volunteering at Asociación Humanitaria San Fransisco De Asis, and we really hope you do, you can contact Rosemary through her website here.
There is a charge for volunteering there, but this mostly covers your accommodation and meals – after all it’s a charity so you need to pay your way. For us it cost roughly $150 per person per week, which was a lot less than we’d usually spend, and allowed us to save a bit of money at the same time as helping the animals!
If you want to just visit Colan to stay and not volunteer, there are a few guesthouses and hotels though it is a highly seasonal town – when we were there it was almost totally devoid of tourists. But it’s an interesting traditional Peruvian seaside town – just be prepared that it is basic. There are restaurants, and a few very limited local shops but little else. No ATMs or a bank of any sort for that matter. We actually ended up catching a colectivo to Paita, the nearest large town a few times, to buy supplies from Plaza Vea and stock up on cash.
For a price, resort style accommodation, food and swimming pools are available at Playa Colan Lodge (where we went swimming) and also Sunset Bay resort. Both were quite a way from the town, with lots of posh holiday homes en route. It was a long way from how the local residents lived – Colan is a poor town and lots of them live in pretty basic conditions.
There is a sight worth visiting in the town – the church, it’s the oldest in the whole of South America!