March 19, 2011
We have just driven past the huge Monument and Complex which mark de “Middle of the World”, just a few minutes north of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. As we ascend on the paved road (which could take us in some four hours from Quito to the beautiful and popular beaches in the northern Pacific coast of the country), we can see the long and arid valley of San Antonio de Pomasqui, surrounded by barren hills. It doesn’t take too long before that desert-like ecosystem and sight changes into a lush forest, teeming with exuberant vegetation…. We are going around the northern flanks of the huge volcanic building which makes the giant Pichincha Volcano, Quito’s eternal natural guardian and city backdrop….
We have just passed the small and picturesque town of Calacali and we begin to immerse ourselves in the mysterious and fascinating world of a typical Andean “cloud forest”…. In fact, the clouds carry in humidity from the tropical coastal wetlands, which condenses against the high mountain slopes and produce a rather constant drizzle. Thus, the vegetation is abundant as results of having plenty of water. As we start descending now, we marvel at the thick forest of high trees, laced with abundant epiphyte plants like the bromeliads, huge tree ferns and tree vanes. The greenery which prevails is only broken by the silvery shine of the whitish large leafs of, precisely, the “silver trees”. Soon we can also start seeing several beautiful, cascades, tumbling down the high cliffs….
We make a short stop at El Pahuma, an Orchids Reserve, where we can admire some of the more than two thousand species of orchids which Ecuador boasts, magnificent and luxuriant in their unique colors and shapes. Next we go by the entrance to the popular touristic town of Mindo, the epicenter of abundant ecotourism and adventure sports activities along the entire namesake valley of Mindo, a part of the Mindo-Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve, famous for the abundance of birds and butterflies. But we are going a bit further to the west and down into a transition zone between the “cloud forest” and a more traditional tropical rainforest. Less than one and a half hours since we left Quito and we reach the busy town of San Miguel de Los Bancos, a crossroads between the Andes and the Pacific Coast of Ecuador. A short drive from there brings us into the Tangara (meaning “tanager”, in honor of the birds bearing the same name), Eco Lodge and private Reserve located on a natural balcony, overlooking the long and slightly narrow Valle Hermoso (“beautiful valley”), which indeed it is, crossed right at its center by the Rio Blanco (“White river”), its intensely white waters rushing downstream towards the coastal plains.
We are met by our gracious hosts and welcomed with a refreshing and delightfully tasting arasà juice, an exotic fruit from the zone. At the Lodge’s gardens we can already start observing several types of tanagers, small to mid-sized birds with sturdy beaks and bearing some truly vivid color combinations, like the yellow-back tanager, its wings and back plumage intensely yellow, shining against an equally intense blue-black of the rest of the body. This area is also part of the world famous Chocò Bio-region, a corridor stretching from the south of Panama, across the western part of Colombia and into Ecuador’s northwestern zone, between the western flanks of the Andes and the coastal plains. The area is recognized as one of the world’s most outstanding “hot spots” of biodiversity.
An unidentified species of trogon, with olive-pale yellow chest and rusty-orange back, appears out of nowhere and perches itself on a small tree branch, ideally posing for a picture, which I do take…. Anita, one of our hosts, tells us that also common in the area are the rather rare green toucans. This is a birding paradise, just waiting for the visitors to, rather effortlessly, enjoy watching the variety and colors of hundreds of species of birds, as well as learning about their living, feeding and breeding habits. Numerous hummingbirds of metallic shining colors also fly back and forth. No wonder the entire zone, all around the east and west slopes of Pichincha Volcano, is famous for the large number of hummingbirds, so much so, that they have been adopted as the city of Quito’s bird symbol. After another round of arasà juice and a delicious snack of grilled shrimps and green plantain’s “patacones” with crunchy fried “yuccas”, it is time to ready ourselves for the adventure part of the trip…. This part of the story will be told on our next issue……..
While more hummingbirds fly back and forth across the vegetation, now our attention focuses on looking for other birds… first we follow their sounds… Johnny is an expert, he has lived here all of his young life and knows how to detect almost every single species, first by sound and then by sight… So now we are on the visual hunt for the avian fauna which also teems in the area… As we climb a steep and a bit muddy slope, on a small clear surrounded by tall trees we catch views of our first tanagers, beautiful birds which also sport multicolored bodies, there are several species of them and we can clearly admire and even photograph these pretty winged creatures.
The icon bird of the area is the magnificent “cock of the rock”, bright red on the upper parts and black and white on the undersides, bearing a conspicuously spectacular red crest… However, they are rather secretive and more active only at dawn and at sunset, so, Johnny tells us, the chances of finding one are scant… Later we learn that the American tourists did see several of them on their “early birds”, crack of dawn outing…. Next, some noisy and brightly red and green parakeets fly overhead and leave us perplex at their large numbers, very gregarious birds, always moving in large flocks…. High above flies, as if surveying the area, a kite, a larger bird, related to the falcon family, its (we don’t know if it is he or she…) long wings stretched out and keeping steady flight, most likely using the air currents at the altitude it flies… We also manage to spot, even though the hotter part of the day is coming and most of the animals, including birds, seek shelter and avoid energy consuming activities, a couple of brown and red trogons and some yellow and black orioles… For non-professional “birders”, the tour has been outstanding so far…
Now, the trail brings us to a larger and higher creek, down below a small river flowing on a rocky bed… For many (myself included…), the most expected moment has come.. in order to continue the circular trail you must ride the “canopy”…. Some of the group members panic momentarily; others cautiously ask security questions and others spark the adrenaline and let it start flowing free…. My friend Ivan, an Ecuadorian who lives for ten years in London and has become a very “urban creature” hesitates and asks if there is another way to get across the creek. The answer is no, and Johnny issues the security measures, explains in detail how to maneuver the hooks and cable and asks for the first volunteer…. I decide to set the example and, with Johnny’s assistance, we secure my harness, practice a bit with my hands and shout for the “let go” signal…. Seconds later my feet loose ground contact and I find myself flying over the creek, some 40 meters high above the floor, feeling truly like a bird… actually one or two birds cross paths with me and for split seconds I have the sensation I may even crash with one of them.. a heavenly sensation altogether….. It was my second time “canopying”, and I loved it ever so much, I pledged to continue doing as much of it as I can in my life… Being the first across the creek, I had to be particularly skilled at the landing, there was no one to help at the other end. I relieve the straps, the harness and the metal hooks and let them be pulled back to the other side by Johnny, so the rest of the group can follow…. Everyone on the tour had plenty of photos of the adventurous moment and lived unforgettable minutes of emotion… Ivan was last to come, and, overcoming his initial fear, he ended up loving the experience….
Well after midday and back to the Lodge, a delicious lunch with Ecuadorian specialties was waiting for us and we complemented it with the delightfully tasty and very cold national beer… A soothing relaxed sensation fills the air… A rainy afternoon prevents us from doing a self-guided trail at the opposite end of what we had done in the morning. Heading for a latish dinner, a snake swiftly crossed our path to the main building and scared us for a moment as it disappeared into the vegetation… While Ivan told me about his fear of snakes, I told him of my fear of rodents. After dinner, while we were playing pool on the indoors second level living room, a creature climbed from outside, a “raposa” a fairly large size rodent, a type of raccoon, whose sight sent me instantly jumping over the pool table while Ivan twisted in laughter…. We called the receptionist on duty and he chased the creature out of the saloon and back to the forest where it belonged…. The adventure put a perfect end to a memorable day exploring the magic cloud forest of Mindo, Ecuador…