A tour of the Ecuadorian Cloud Forest
BUD COLE/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Waterfalls in the El Pahuma Orchid Preserve.
I am not a world traveler, although I definitely enjoy seeking new and unique travel destinations. A recent tour to the Cloud Forest in Ecuador followed by a week in the Galapagos Islands was beyond all my expectations. It was truly different than anything I have ever experienced.
The animals in the forest and the islands had little if any fear of the humans who had journeyed far from their homes to observe the many endemic wildlife species that are found nowhere else in the world. The animals were so close that you did not need a two foot long heavy lens or a tripod to take photos. Hummingbirds, trogans, toucan barbets, jays, lizards and many other forms of wildlife of the forest and the sea lions, iguanas and unusual birds of the islands didn't move if you approached. The birds would land right next to where you were sitting giving a great view of that special Kodak moment. I was using an Olympus digital SLR camera, but to say an Olympus moment would lose its meaning when compared to the well known Kodak ads on TV.
We flew out of Phiiladelphia, eventually arriving in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. We arrived in Quito an hour later than expected, which was amazing considering our journey was one to remember. We had to get on and off airplanes that were not working or could not travel to Quito for one reason or another, plus we connected through Atlanta not Miami. I was amazed that despite our travel problems, arriving on a different airline and arriving later than scheduled, there stood our smiling guide, Christian, holding up a large card with our names. It was almost midnight, but the presence of the guide gave us confidence that the service in Ecuador was going to be very good. And it was excellent throughout the entire two weeks. The only major problem was that Bev's checked bag did not show up at the baggage pick up area. She did not have her warm clothing and her hiking boots. Hopefully, the bag would be delivered to Bellavista Cloud Forest Preserve where we would be staying for three days.
After a good night's rest and an excellent buffet breakfast at the Quito Hilton Colon Hotel, Christian met us in the lobby to begin our private tour into the Cloud Forest. We stopped at the monument marking the equator and then drove down into the Cloud Forest. Yes, drove down; I had been telling everyone at home that we were flying into Quito and then going up into the Andes Mountains to the Cloud Forest. Even though I studied our itinerary and a bit of Ecuador's history I did not realize that Quito is located 9,000 feet above sea level, so we actually dropped down in altitude to reach our lodging in the Cloud Forest.
Our second stop was a tour of the El Pahuma Orchid Preserve. The moisture laden air is ideal for epiphytes - air plants like many of the orchid species. Many of the plants were familiar as we walked through the jungle of orchids and greenery. Many were larger versions of the house plants that we have in our homes in the Lehigh Valley.
Birds were singing and insects were buzzing as we climbed the orchid preserve trails to several waterfalls. The weather was rather cool, not humid like it is outside right now as I work on this story. We wore light-weight long pants with the zippers that allow you to remove the pant legs from the knees down and light-weight long sleeved shirts with a SPF protection of 50. I sweated a bit and Bev glowed a little, but we were not uncomfortable. Our orchid preserve guide did not speak English, so Christian translated our questions and the preserve guide's descriptions and answers.
After about two hours hiking through the preserve we ate lunch and headed to, Pacha Quindi, a private hummingbird preserve. Christian stopped the van and said, "Well here we are." There was a pile of stones next to the dirt road. There was no evidence of a driveway or path, but just below the stone pile Christian left the road and entered the tangle of plants. We followed and suddenly, the thick jungle-like area opened up to a beautiful view of the valley and distant mountains.
We walked down a set of brick steps to the wooden house where a large number of hummingbird feeders were hanging. I probably snapped more than 100 photos during the hour that we spent observing the hummers flying about from natural flowers to feeders and back again. We have only one species of hummingbird here at home. Only the ruby-throated hummingbird is found east of the Mississippi.
In the preserve we saw 15 different species buzzing around in all directions. It was difficult to take clear photos even when they sat on the feeders. After a quick sip of nectar they were off again to another nectar source.
We soon learned that Tony and Barbara had purchased about 100 acres 12 years ago. The land had been used as pasture, but by the time they bought the land the open areas were rapidly filling in with new growth. They do not have electricity although there are wires that follow the dirt road that weaves by their hidden paradise. They do have water and they use candles at night for light.
The days and nights are equal at the equator. Tony explained that they get up at day break or shortly before sunrise, work the land all day - they grow a good deal of their own food - read for a short time by candlelight in the evening and go to sleep. That is their regular routine. They do not have a vehicle. They ride to town for supplies with neighbors or they hire a driver.
Tony, a native of Mississippi, and his wife, Barbara, a native German from the Heidelberg area, were great hosts. They carved their paradise from what had been the cow pasture and continue to improve the property for wildlife, especially the hummingbirds. The cottage, a separate cottage hidden away above the main house, a bathhouse, the entrance steps and the beautiful landscaping were all done by hand.
A few guides, like Christian, bring visitors to the property to enjoy the hummingbirds and the scenery. They charge $5 per person. The $5 fees are used to pay for new feeders and nectar ingredients. Barbara also sells hummingbird postcards that she creates from the hummingbird species that frequent their yard.
The bad news was we had to leave in order to stay on our itinerary schedule; the good news was they invited us to come back and house sit for them or to return for a visit and stay in the hidden cottage. I told Tony that he better mean what he said because I will take him up on the offer. He said he was definitely serious.
Bellavista was about a mile farther up the road. We checked in while our luggage minus one bag was taken to what was called the Casa Alemana or German House. I believe we had the best accommodations in the preserve. We had the full second floor of the building with a bamboo deck that looked out across the jungle covered valley. Clouds usually filled the valley below the cottage.
Dinner was scheduled each day at 7:00 pm and all of our meals were included in our initial travel fee. The fresh tuna steaks, mixed vegetables and rice were a delicious treat after our busy day hiking through the forest. We both slept well that night. The first birding hike was scheduled for 6:30 the following morning.
We met our Bellavista guide, Jorge, in the central meeting area. We heard a loud cracking sound in the tree above us as Jorge described our hiking route. The cracking sounds were coming from several toucan barbets. They were cracking hard berries with their large beaks.
Jorge explained that the toucans come into the trees to feed early each morning. The toucans were difficult to photograph through the foliage with the bright sky at their backs. The hike wound around the lodging facilities and back to the meeting area in time for breakfast. Male and female masked trogans, turquoise and beautiful jays, numerous hummingbird species, woodcreepers, doves, warblers and sparrows entertained us as we hiked.
After an excellent cooked lunch - lunch is generally the main meal of the day-Bev hiked down into the valley to see the waterfalls with other guests and their guide, Linden. I stayed back to photograph flowers and hummingbirds. Everyone wore high rubber boots to walk through the stream to the waterfalls. Different bird varieties inhabited the lower elevations.
It was Bev's birthday, so I bought her a light brown fleece hooded shirt with a toucan embroidered on the front. The nights and mornings were cool and she was without her warm sweatshirt. Not long after I took the shirt back to our room a van delivered her suitcase. She did not have to continue hiking in sandals and socks.
We passed on the 3:30 hike and took several short treks of our own. The schedule is similar each day, but the hikes had different destinations. That evening after dinner the guides surprised Bev with a birthday cake and candles. I had not thought of asking for a cake, but Isabella the manager who I bought the fleece from, told the chef that it was Bev's birthday.
Christian picked us up the following morning at 11:00. We said goodbye to the guides and Isabella, checked out of the German cottage and headed down the dirt road to Mindo. A 13 station zip line just outside of Mindo was next on our "to do" list. You could ride on all of the zip lines or as few as one ride. Six lines were arranged so you would end up at the beginning platform. We chose the six zip line option.
It was an exciting experience flying across several valleys hanging from a cable about 150 feet above the ground. Bev did two lines in a Superman position. She went with one of the zip line guides. He was behind her in his harness. She was in front attached to her harness. She wrapped her legs around his waist, extended her head outward and spread her arms apart and zipped down the line like Super Girl. Just before she reached the platform she moved back into a sitting position.
We chattered about our zip line experience as we ate our boxed lunch. The next and final stop of the day was the Mariposaria Butterfly P. A young woman gave us a short explanation concerning the preserve, then we were on our own to wander around at our leisure. There were beautiful butterflies and moths everywhere. They landed on our shoulders and our heads as we walked along the paths. We were even allowed to pick them up on our finger. We spent about two hours observing their behaviors and finally headed back to our hotel room in Quito. It was an unbelievable and magical three days.
We are so happy that we decided to take the pre trip before our tour of the Galapagos Islands. Just imagine what we would have missed.
(Bud Cole's story about his trip to the Galapagos Islands will appear in a future edition of The TIMES NEWS)