April 20, 2012
After a hearty lunch, we leave the beauty of Mindo’s cloud forest and head on back to Quito and the Andes, admiring the luxuriant nature of the pristine forests which extend through the western foothills of the Pichincha Volcano. Within less than two hours, we are back in Ecuador’s capital city, which we just bypass, using the highly scenic Western ring road, better known by the locals as “Marshall Sucre Avenue”. The ride provides great views of the spectacular city and its mountainous surroundings. But our target is to “endure” just an additional hour and a half ride, this time south of Quito, through the very heart of the stunning “Avenue of the Volcanoes”, as we make our way to the foothills of the awesome Mount Cotopaxi, towering at near 20.000 feet of elevation above sea level, our planet’s highest active volcano.
As Ruben drives our vehicle, rather than snoozing, Ivan and I keep on watching the new sights which appear at every bend on the famed Pan-American Highway, admiring either the incredible greenery of the vast Andean valleys, with their terraces of cultivated vegetables, maize, wheat and hundreds of other produce, or capturing on photos the picturesque color of the quaint Andean towns we cross by; or else, watching the majestic peaks of the Pasochoa, Atacazo, Sincholagua, Rumiñahui and Corazon ancient volcanoes. Next to appear are the twin, snow-covered Iliniza peaks, remnants of an old and large volcano.
A partially cloudy afternoon still allows us to catch good glimpses of the colossal giant, the enormous and perfectly cone-shaped Cotopaxi Volcano, covered with its huge mantle of snow and millenary glaciers. We abandon the Pan-American Highway to enter a secondary road which will take us to the Mountain Lodge where we will spend the night. The Lodge is comfortable and attractive and the hosts, George and Maria make us feel at home with a warm welcome drink and great stories of the volcano, told by the fireplace. We are at over 12.000 feet of elevation. A superb Andean-themed, yet light dinner sets us ready to sleep, waiting for tomorrow’s canopying adventure.
Early in the morning, after an equally hearty breakfast, we set off on a horseback ride which takes us up the flanks of Cotopaxi, admiring the unique vegetation and some of the animal life which inhabits the high moorlands. Finally we arrive to our destination; a deep mountain gorge, most likely an ancient glacial river; where we are fully equipped and briefed for a new canopy adventure. This time we fly a long, over 1.200 feet long zip-cable, high above the rocky ravine, with the backdrop of Cotopaxi’s snows, a thrilling experience…. Relying on the harnesses and the safety equipment, I stretch-out both hands laterally and for a few unforgettable moments I imagine to be an Andean condor…..
Still feeling the adrenaline of our Andean canopy flight, we sadly leave our hosts and continue on as we are aiming for one more canopying adventure later this afternoon, already in the coastal lowlands. With a packed-lunch of sandwiches, fruit and refreshments, we take on again on the Pan-American Highway, for the slightly over three-hour drive that brings us to the picturesque town of Bucay. Flanked by endless rows of banana and cocoa plantations, we arrive at the attractive resort, where we will do our second canopy adventure of the day. Jacqueline greets us and instructs the staff to prepare the equipment. I climb up a 12-foot high metal tower, get once again secured and sent off on a new flight, this time over a wide lake, filled with ducks and some swans, while swifts cross my path as I make the fast-speed yet controlled descent to the twin metal tower, at the opposite side of the lagoon. For a thrilling finale, I opt for a return canopy flight, which is slightly “uphill” and thus a bit harder, especially to reach the terminal tower. But I succeed and, while my friends take photos of me flying over the lake, I can’t stop thinking of the myriad of magical things one can do in Ecuador’s natural wonderland…..
April 14, 2012
A choir of birds’ songs wakes me up after a pleasant night’s sleep in the peaceful and quiet surroundings of the pretty Lodge. Our location: Mindo, the heart of one of Ecuador’s most famous cloud forests, and a hot spot of biodiversity, just a little over one and a half hour’s drive from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The area has become a popular ecotourism destination, a bird watching paradise and, due to the irregular topography of the terrain, a hub for adventure tourism and extreme sports, including river rafting, cannoning, rock climbing and, of course, some thrilling canopy outings.
After a hearty and delicious breakfast, enhanced by the views of dozens of species of startling hummingbirds, inceassantly flying around; we set off on a nature trail, led by our local guide, William. Ivan and I make a few stops to watch some of the amazing flora of the exuberant and lush forest, as well as to spot some colorful bird species, flying around the dense vegetation. However, our target for this morning is a canopy adventure which will take us over three different lengths and heights of flight over the tops of the trees. Marching over a slightly muddy and irregular terrain we reach the first deep ravine. William goes the extra mile to make sure that we follow the handling and safety instructions, even though Ivan and I are not first-timers with the canopy. He secures the equipment and double-checks that everything is safely in position. We get onto our harnesses, secure and lock the poles and I decide to go on first. A couple of steps over firm ground and soon I am in the air, flying like a bird, literally above the forest’s highest tree canopy. The feeling is incomparable… a unique sensation of freedom, admiration and pleasant vertigo. I land at the opposite end; release the cables and return them for Ivan’s turn to fly. I capture good pictures of him high over the trees and then approaching the ground. Jokes and laughs add pleasure to the adventure. Then it is William coming over, performing aerial tricks, like the perfect expert he is…..
The operation is repeated twice more. The third stretch is the lengthiest one, some 500 feet of cable over a large and wide ravine, covered with huge trees, teeming with birds. Here I venture to open up both arms and feel like a true bird for some seconds, while watching two colorful toucans almost crossing my aerial path….. This is the time to perform some antics and, while keeping up with tight safety, feel the adrenaline of defying the altitude and competing with the birds. Everything happens so fast and yet, every split second is filled with excitement and thrill. So much to see, do and absorb in less than a minute, that a minimal distraction of mine, sets me onto an awkward and totally ungraceful landing at the other end, missing by inches the trunk of a large tree…. The heart is pumping at full speed, but at the same time a sensation of joy invades all of my body and mind….
Ivan and William decide to try a duo flight and, to add excitement, William positions himself upside down, skillfully managing to control the cables in such a way that shortly before landing he is in the upright position again. The adventure produces of course more amazing photos. We have completed a long loop trail in the protected forest, indented with three canopy crossings which provided us with minutes of superb thrill and memories never to be forgotten. To have been truly “flying” over the forest canopy, competing with the birds and looking at the ground from the privileged position that only birds do, just left us breathless and filled with excitement plus the compulsive desire to repeat the adventure over and over again. So, we will continue our journey to try the awesome canopy experiences on two more and totally diverse geographical, climatic and ecological habitats and locations, one on Ecuador’s Andes and the other on the country’s inner coastal lowlands. The continuation of the story will be told on the following issue…..
March 11, 2012
Mindo bustles with national and international tourists, a colorful mix of dedicated bird watchers, orchid and butterfly and nature lovers along with young and adventuresome sports travelers, eager to enjoy the fantastic nature of the unique cloud forest or to engage on a river rafting outing; a canopy flight over the forests’ trees or a thrilling rock escalade.
We check in at one of the popular restaurants in the center of the village to indulge on a substantial lunch which includes fresh trout, the very Ecuadorian bowl of white rice, fresh salads and plenty of tropical and subtropical fruits from the area. Our bikes are well covered from the sun and the warm temperature, while we refill ourselves with more calories and plenty of liquids for our last pedaling portion of the day. We get back to our comfortable air conditioned bus and continue on towards the inner coastal flatlands, looking at new sights of banana, coffee, cocoa and citrus fruits’ plantations, along with pastures where cattle graze. The good paved road allows us to devour kilometers in safety, until we reach the proximities of Cojimies, in the north-central coast of Ecuador. Time to get off from the bus, get hold and make use of our helmets, reflective vests, gloves, knee protections and to check each of our bikes to make sure they are well. Now we will engage on the last leg of today’s biking adventure, having descended from the 9.000 feet above sea level of Quito, Ecuador’s capital, past the Equator, down through the cloud forests of the Mindo-Nambillo Reserve and now for a fast one hour ride along the coastline of Ecuador.
The Pacific Ocean greets us with its metallic blue color. Miles of pristine sandy beaches frame our vision to the west as we pedal with due south course and the warm air of a sunny late afternoon puts us up to some extra sweat…. Here again we must comply with some fast-timings which require a good deal of muscle exercise and rapid pedaling… However, the flat and good quality road allows our caravan to move forward well as many by-passers wave at us.
Stretches of coconut palm trees align alongside the endless sandy beaches, and picturesque fishermen’s villages go by as we head towards Pedernales. As we reach our destination town, we make one last stop, just to watch in awe one of those magic sunsets on Ecuador’s Pacific coast…. We cannot refrain from thinking how the sceneries have varied from our early morning departure from Quito, high in the Andes, to the late afternoon right by the Pacific Ocean…. Our bikes behaved well, there were no incidents along the way, and even though a bit tired from the pedaling effort, we exude happiness, that unique feeling of well being, a close relative of euphoria, having accomplished our seemingly difficult challenge of the day. As the last lights of the day taint the sky with orange and reddish tones, we enter the quaint and attractive town of Pedernales and we know that, after checking our bikes and securely guarding them on the support truck for the return trip, even before checking-in at our hotel, we will all head out to one of those cozy and colorful beach kiosks, blasting with loud tropical music, to celebrate our journey with an ice cold Ecuadorian beer……
This way we ended one more biking adventure on the magic realms of Ecuador, a memorable experience, never to be forgotten…..!!
E N D O F P A R T T H R E E
March 3, 2012
The crisp Andean air greets us together with the early morning rays of the sun, piercing through a thin layer of clouds. We have congregated at Quito, the capital of Ecuador’s north-western city exit, where the Motorway leading to the Middle of the World begins. The gang is all there: Mario, Roberto, Maria, Fernanda, me and more than two dozen other cyclists, ready to undertake a new biking adventure, this one leading us from the top of the Andes, directly to the splendid northern beaches of Ecuador. Fully equipped with our reflective vests, helmets, gloves, knee protections and water bottles, we set off on a speed-spree along the 8 kilometers (6 miles) long, six-lane fast highway. It just takes us a little over 20 minutes to reach San Antonio de Pichincha, and the neighboring tourist complex which features, as the centerpiece, the tall monument to the Middle of the World.
We have reached the planet’s Latitude 0-0-0. Time for some pictures with the monument behind us and one foot on the northern hemisphere and the other foot on the south…. A unique treat, only possible along the very few inhabited spots which the Equator crosses…!! We make a short break to get some refreshments, chocolate bars and snacks and a “technical” restroom stop. We must keep on the move, so, under Mario’s leadership, the biking troop starts pedaling again… now we start a progressively steeper climb over the southern slopes of the old Pululahua Volcano… the scenes that pass by are striking, from verdant hills to barren fields, heavily eroded by wind and centuries of deforestation… fortunately now the area is protected. Friendly people cheer and wave at our caravan, while we put maximum strength to our muscles, pedaling uphill, over the winding road, which provides a new breathtaking view at every turn. The scenery is typically Andean as we get to the highest point of the road at close to 9.000 feet above sea level….. And the sea is waiting for us later this afternoon….!!!
Now we begin a gentle descent towards a green valley, still with an Andean air, towards the small and picturesque town of Calacalì. The quaint pueblo’s yellowish walled church stands as the main construction on the village, while a monument to one of the most distinguished natives of Calacali, a famous and much loved Ecuadorian music female singer and composer of the mid-20th Century, stands in the center of the pretty little town’s park. Here we make a second break to adjust our equipment, hydrate ourselves and stretch our legs. It has taken us a little close to one hour to cover this new stretch, from the Middle of the World to Calacali.
More than two hours have elapsed since we left Quito. The sun is now right overhead and, even with our helmets, it feels strong, as it uniquely is on these Equatorial latitudes… The support vehicles furnish us with towels, bottled water and the odd spare to fix a tire or transmission piece. Upon leaving Calacali, we now engage on an increasingly steeper, exciting and challenging downhill…. Surprisingly too, the scenery changes within minutes from the bucolic Andean rural sights to the wilderness of the vast montane and cloud forests which stretch down in front of our eyes…. The dense and luxuriant vegetation startles us with its “silver trees” shining under the bright sunlight, as some small cascades create a magic feeling of entering a “lost world”. If this trip is beautiful by motorcar, the perspective from a mountain bike is totally unique, different and memorable….. Our group uniformly keeps up the pace and, relaxed and feeling great, we even manage to exchange comments and friendly jokes amongst us, while our leaders and the escorting vehicles and support staff are on a constant alert to the groups’ safety. This third segment takes us another hour, before we reach a roadside resting area where we will get off the bikes, load them onto one of the trucks and let them rest, as we board a comfortable bus, for the 30 minute ride taking us to Mindo, a colorful and bustling tourist hub in the middle of the cloud forest, renowned for its spectacular nature, superb bird watching and adventure sports and activities. This is our near-two hours’ midday stop, before reassuming our journey towards the beach…. So, the story continues on… We will tell you about it on the following issue, just keep track of our biking adventure….
E N D O F P A R T T W O
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…