Hola from Tababela! Zach and I have just returned from the most amazing adventure in the cloud forest of Maquipucuna Reserve. We are now at Hosteria San Carlos (aka the most difficult hotel to find in Tababela (awaiting our flight to the Galapagos in the morning.
This last week may have been the most incredible week of my life up to this point. We
were picked up on the 31st of August from Wantara Suites in Quito by one of the staff members from Maqui, Jamie. Zach and I enjoyed a beautiful drive, passing through Quito, stopping at Mitidad del Mundo (center of the world) to take a few photos from the Equator. Zach was obsessed with the people attempting to balance weird things on the line between hemispheres, most notably an egg. We also stopped quickly to catch a glimpse of the crater of one of Ecuador’s many volcanoes. Getting back in the car, we completed our journey through the Andes to Maquipucuna Ecolodge, paradise on earth.
We were greeted by a friendly guide and a kitchen full of cooks and wonderful smells, and sat down to one of the best meals I have ever in my life eaten. I could write odes to each plate of food I ate at Maquipucuna but that would be an insult to how good each was. many of you know I am not an adventurous eater, but here I tried and thoroughly enjoyed all of my least favorite foods except eggs, including cilantro, onions, fish (a whole fish!), tomatoes, and mushrooms. We were served huge plates every meal, including empanadas one morning that were nearly perfect replicas of the elusive Imperial Valley special quesadilla I had sought in vain in Quito and the best spinach soup that has ever graced the earth.
Immediately after lunch one of the staff members, Arsenio, asked us if we wanted to walk. We proceeded on an amazing hike with the person who turned out to be the best guide, manager, birder, and friend we could have possibly asked for in our adventures. This man is so in tune with the forest he can see a bird from nearly a mile away with his bare eyes alone, identify it, and then set up a telescope so we can view it. We became his mini apprentices, constantly pestering him with questions about birds, plants, insects, local history, politics, the reserve, and the Spanish language, which he bore gracefully and always, always smiling. He walked with us usually two or three times a day, once at sunrise for birding, one after breakfast, and once after lunch until dark. With his help, we saw and identified at least three or four dozen different species of birds, including toucans, toucanettes, swallows, at least a dozen and a half different species of tanager (Theadora, I thought of you almost constantly when we were walking), and many more. It turned out the Zach’s little Canon camera outshot my most professional camera, once we discovered that the zoom and macro capabilities far surpassed what I could do. We got so many great pictures of the plants and wildlife that we can’t wait to share with all of you once we get back home! We were very, very excited because the second day at Maqui while walking we found poop from a Spectacled Bear, the only bear left in South America. It wasn’t supposed to be their season, but the freshness of the poop and the gutted palm trees around us made it clear one was in residence. The next day, we found more poop and palms, and heard a very, very large animal very nearby crashing through the bushes. Arsenio told us it was very likely a bear going up a tree, but we didn’t see one that day. the next day, Zach and I set out morning goals, to see toucans and a bear. We saw two toucans in the morning, and then, on a really crazy hike through the pre-Incan trade paths from the coast to Quito on our way to swim in a waterfall, we found the scattered skeleton of a Spectacled Bear. While of course we were excited to examine the skeleton (I will probably never again ave a chance to inspect bear teeth at such close range, I hope) we were also of course very sad that the bear had not lived. Arsenio suspected it had slipped on the steep trail and fallen to its death. We took the skull back to Maqui and Zach and I vowed to be more specific about our goals in hopes that if we said we wanted to see live animals we would find them safe.
For most of the time, we were the only guests at the lodge. A group of twelve German tourists spent one night (Only one night? How, I can’t imagine)and then left, and it wasn’t until the afternoon two days ago that we were joined by Helen and Alister, a fantastic couple from England who shared our adventures. in addition to Arsenio, we became buen amigos with Katharine, a U.S. born volunteer at Maqui for the last four months. Because of the arrival of most people, it was decided that the additional activities we had selected to join at Maquipunuca were all pushed to one day so they could join us, which coincidentally fell on my birthday yesterday. Zach and I decided to skip our morning birding to catch up on sleep, and then we ate breakfast and loaded into the van for a full day of adventures. We began in Tilupe, a small village less than an hour away from Maqui, where we toured a pre-Incan ceremonial site and museum. This was especially interesting because part of the trail system at Maqui includes several miles of pre-Incan trails winding through the hills of the forest, and we found some small artifacts partially buried in the trail. After this, were off to go zip lining through the canopy at Toucanopy, probably one of the coolest experiences I have ever had. After an hour of zipping through the trees and hearing about how installing ziplines for tourism is helping to preserve forest land that would otherwise be destroyed for agriculture, we piled into the van again to head to the town of Mindo for a white-water rafting trip down Rio Mindo. This was not originally part of our trip, but since we couldn’t get into Sta. Lucia to see the Cock of the Rock mating dance the co-owner, Rebeca, organized some substitute activities for us. It was a really amazing experience, aside from the obvious, because the fact that we were in the river hid our human noise and allowed us to see a few of the forest and water birds we had previously been unable to catch a glimpse of. Was the day over after that? No way. After drying off, we headed out to the chocolate factory of Mindo, where we learned how cacao trees grow and how their seeds are made into chocolate. After tasting a few delicious samples, we got back in the van and headed back to Maqui. Waiting for us was an amazing birthday dinner (a whole Tilapia for each of us, harvested locally and fresh) and while we were out the owner of Maqui, Rodrigo, had managed to get ahold of the ingredients to make Canelazo, my favorite Ecuadorian drink, and a cake!
It would be hard to explain in words the overall experience of Maquipucuna, although I have tried to touch on the parts I enjoyed most. Someday I hope to go back to Maqui as a volunteer to continue to learn about the forest from amazing people like Arsenio and spreading the knowledge to others. Seeing the barren spots where construction rigs had torn down the trees compared to the lush foliage of the primary forest at Maqui makes me understand more the passion and fire conservationists have for places like this. At Maqui much of the reserve is secondary forest, where agricultural lands were bought and the forest allowed to grow again in an attempt to restore the ecosystem. As was explained to us by the woman who owned the zip lines, cutting down a simple tree in this environment
destroys an entire micro-ecosystem for literally thousands of species. A tree can be a habitat for multitudes of fungi, epiphytes, mosses, insects, birds, and mammals. For example, removing one tree may also remove hundreds or thousands of the smaller plants, called epiphytes, that grow in the upper branches that act as collection pools for water, which in turn allow mammals to drink in safety without going down to the ground and places for insects to lay eggs. The moral of a long blog before bed (I need to make sure I am up in time to get to airport tomorrow) is be more conscious of what you use. A cup of coffee in the morning doesn’t seem like a big drain on resources and energy, but the demand for the foods and products we take for granted can, and is, destroying some of the most precious and beautiful resources we have. With that, I hope you all are well, I miss and love you all like crazy, and we will see you in about two weeks! Hasta luego!