Ecuador Days 8 & 9: Hiking the Cloud Forest


Masked Trogon, male, with meal

We four Travelers woke to a rainy and gray morning in the city of Santo Domingo. We headed down the street to a coffee shop for breakfast. We stuffed ourselves with egg sandwiches and pastries. Simple things like going to breakfast in Ecuador can be amazing. In this city of over 300,000 people, someone walked down the sidewalk by the coffee shop leading three goats. I love Ecuador!

Frodo the truck was retrieved from wherever it had been parked for the night. I actually have no idea where Traveler Nine parked the truck the night before. I am happy to keep it a mystery to myself. We packed up Frodo and headed into the mountains and the Mindo/Tandayapa region.

We drove up and up in elevation. Slowly the forest closed in around us. As did the clouds. We had arrived in the montane cloud forest, characterized by near constant cloud cover, whose moisture feeds the abundance of flora. Trees became ecosystems all their own, habitats for myriad species of vines, bromeliads, orchids, and other epiphytes.

As we drove toward Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve and Lodge we were greeted by a riderless horse. We have no idea where the rider was.

 
Cows also stood roadside to greet us.

 
The many colored cows of Ecuador.

We were now between 7000 and 8000 feet above sea level. We found the tiny, unpaved road leading up to the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve and Lodge that would be our home for the next three days. Bellavista is a privately owned reserve that sits in a region that regularly breaks records for bird species counts. There are over 10 km of private trails in the reserve as well as several roads to wander. It is heaven for those who love birds, bugs, flowers, and trees right out of the Jurassic or Cretaceous periods. Hummingbirds are everywhere. And at night moths and bats take over. It is a place so very much alive and full of life yet incredibly secretive.

The Hill Cottage with turkeys
Frodo the truck with trumpet flowers in the background

The lodge has several forms of accommodations. We ended up in our own cottage (The Hill Cottage) located a short drive away from the main lodge. Our windows looked out onto steep slopes and cloud banks filled with Blue and White Swallows gorging themselves on insect life.

 Looking up the slope into the pasture (for horses) by our cottage

The temperature here was a relief after the heat and humidity of the coast. During the day its in the 70s and at night drops into the 50s so come prepared. Also bring plenty of rain gear as it is wet most of the time.

We dropped off our belongings and then headed down to the lodge for lunch. Now, sometimes my life treats me to bizarre confluences of experiences. Earlier this year I had spent a weekend in Berlin, Germany, where I ate what I had thought was the best chocolate mousse of my life, after eating a vegetarian meal made out of mushrooms and potatoes. Well, this day at Bellavista repeated that meal almost exactly. Weird. BUT we were treated to what really is the best chocolate mousse on the planet. Chocolate from the Mindo region of Ecuador is fruity and complex in ways that is magical. It's like a brilliantly made wine or a perfectly aged bottle of armagnac. The next day the wizards in the kitchen turned that into an equally amazing ice cream.


Buff-tailed Coronets

Buff-tailed Coronets showing a flash of iridescence.

After lunch we wandered the grounds being buzzed by hummingbirds -- there are many feeders set up along the walkways around the lodge -- and admiring the masked trogons sitting in the trees above us. Traveler Thirteen led us to the R Trail, which happens to be one of the difficult trails, to investigate exactly what difficult meant. The trails here have ratings from easy to slippery/suicidal. I wouldn't suggest trying out the slippery/suicidal trails. It began raining harder but no one cared as we wandered this primeval-looking forest listening to frogs squeaking under ferns and moss and admiring blazing orange flowers seemingly opening before us.

 

 
Violet-tailed Sylph show off its iridescent blue markings

We returned to the cottage. Traveler Thirteen went exploring down the trail leading through the horse pasture next to the cottage. She was accompanied on her walk by chickens and turkeys owned by the the caretaker of the cottage.

As the evening progressed we headed back down to the lodge. I slid spectacularly down the bamboo stairs and gave myself my requisite massive bruise that I seem to gain on every adventure I go on. And, in typical style, despite being in near blinding pain, I was still looking around and noticed bats sipping nectar from the trumpet flower trees lining the pasture.

When we returned to the cottage it was surrounded by more moths than you can imagine. In every color and size. Thousands of moths. Clouds of moths. Galaxies of moths swarming any light source. I could have watched them all night.

 
Moth

Moth Traveler Nine found inside our hammock

The next day Ten, Thirteen and I woke up before the sun and headed down to the lodge for a guided bird walk. In less than 30 minutes I saw well over twenty-five species of birds I had never seen before. Masked Trogons, Strong-billed Woodcreepers, Montane Woodcreepers, Azara's Spinetails, Russet-crowned Warblers, Slate-throated Whitestarts, Turquoise Jays, and Masked Flowerpiercers were just a few birds of what we saw.

Masked Trogon, male

Masked Trogon, female

Masked Trogon, female





Strong-billed Woodcreeper

After breakfast we headed out with our guide onto a medium trail. The clouds were thick and the trees wreathed in fog as we climbed up steep slopes. I kept waiting for a T-rex or a velociraptor to come charging down the path. We learned that tubular flowers with bright colors attracted hummingbirds as pollinators. Pale colored tubular flowers attracted bats and insects. If they had both bright and pale blooms then they relied on all three for pollination. We learned about the hundreds of kinds of ferns that live in the cloud forest. We heard but didn't see frogs. We saw a tarantula nest. Traveler Nine and I held a huge millipede. We visited the research station and investigated the moth wall, a special area where moths are attracted by special lights. We wandered down roads and steep and slippery trails surrounded by giant plants and secretive forest. I felt very small. It was good.

Giant fern tree

Elephant ear

Beetles and moths, Research Station, Bellavista

Moths

Moths

Moths

Moths

 Bamboo

Ghost Flowers

Butterfly

Ferns and fiddleheads are all over the cloud forest

Millipede. Traveler Nine and I held this one and let it crawl on us.

Detail of a leaf

Another type of fern/fiddlehead

A glimpse at the forest when the clouds threaten to clear.

Epiphyte covered tree

Flowers that I can't remember the name of.

A brief glimpse of sunshine.

These flowers attract hummingbirds, bats and insects based on their coloration.

These trumpet flowers bats will be attracted to for pollination based on their pale coloration.

Bird of Paradise

Bromeliad, a member of the pineapple family.

All the while we walked I hoped to see a mountain toucan. No toucans. Yet.

At lunchtime there were lots of photographers around but I, for once, had the biggest lens! Oh how people drooled just looking at my camera. This never happens at home where my 300 mm lens just can't compete with all the guys with their 500 mm and 600 mm lenses. I can't carry something that big around. But here in the Cloud Forest I finally measured up. I was alpha photographer for a day. And I admit abusing my new found status to get the best position for hummingbird photography.




We spent a quiet late afternoon in our cottage since it had begun to rain again. I sat watching the swallows zooming through the air. Travelers Nine and Ten napped.  Thirteen and I watched the caretaker's wife herd young chickens along with a giant elephant ear leaf, shooing them along, and putting them away for the night underneath our cottage, which doubled as a chicken coop apparently.

After dinner the bats put on another show at the hummingbird feeders. There were at least two different separate species visiting the feeders but they moved so fast it was impossible to identify them. I began formulating a plan for the next evening using my camera to see if I could capture a portrait of our nocturnal friends.

We encountered this mare several times. She's grazing outside our cottage. Her foal in the photo below.

Filly keeping an eye on the photographer and Mom (above). The trumpet flowers you see here are the same that would have bats hanging off them come nightfall, as they fed on nectar.

Chicken taking her chick for a stroll near our cottage





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