Visiting a Cloud – Forest

Story and photographs by Bud Cole

I am far from a jetsetter or 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 greatest trip 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
 tourists 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 no one needed a two foot long heavy lens or a
tripod to take photos. I took nearly 100 % of my photos with a wide-angle 
lens.
Hummingbirds, trogans, toucans, various jays, lizards and many
 other forms of wildlife of the forest didn’t move away if approached, 
although the general wildlife rule is to keep your distance. The birds 
would land right next to where you were standing, thus offering a great 
view of that special “Kodak moment.”

I was using my Olympus E-510 digital SLR camera, but to say “Olympus 
moment” would be lost in translation when compared to the well known 
Kodak ads on TV.
  My wife Bev and I flew out of Philly, 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 for some
unknown reason could not travel to Quito. Plus, we connected through 
Atlanta instead of Miami.

We were surprised 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 in bold print. It
was almost midnight, but the presence of our guide gave us confidence 
that the service in Ecuador was going to be very good.

And the services were excellent throughout the entire two weeks.
The only major problem was when 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 for the mountain climate.
  After a good nights 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 our friends at home
 that we were flying into Quito and then heading 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 to about 6,000 feet while 
traveling to our lodging in the Cloud Forest. 
The second stop was to tour the El Pahuma Orchid Preserve. The
 moisture laden air of the region 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 recognizable as larger versions of the house plants that we 
have in our homes back in Pennsylvania.
 Birds were singing and insects were buzzing as we climbed the
 orchid preserve trails to several waterfalls. The weather was rather cool,
but not humid like a Pennsylvania summer. 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.

We sweated some and Bev glowed a
 bit, 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. The only disappointment if you can call
 it that was not seeing one of the spectacled bears that inhabit the forest. 
After about two hours hiking through the preserve we ate lunch 
and headed to, Pachafor Quindi, a private hummingbird preserve. 
Christian stopped the van and said, “Well here we are.” The only clue of
 human presence 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 at home. Only the ruby-throated 
hummingbird is found in the northeastern United States. 
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 our hosts, 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. “We get up early, fill
the feeders, spend time working on the property – they grow a good deal
 of their own food – read for a short time by candlelight in the evening and
 go to sleep,” Tony explained. 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. Their home, a separate
 cottage hidden away above the main house, a bathhouse, the entrance
steps and the beautiful landscaping were all constructed by hand. 
A few guides, like Christian, bring visitors to the property to enjoy 
the hummingbirds and the scenery. They charge $5.00 per person. The
 $5.00 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 we were invited back to 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, which were usually filled with low clouds.

Dinner was scheduled each day at 7:00 pm and all of our meal s
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
f oliage due to 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. The resort provided high top rubber
boots to everyone so they could hike through the stream to the waterfalls.

I stayed back to photograph 
flowers and hummingbirds. 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. The resort manager, Isabella, who I bought the
fleece from earlier in the day, 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
 Preserve. A young woman gave us a short explanation concerning the
 preserve, and then we were on our own to wander around at our leisure.
There were beautiful butterflies and moths everywhere. (Photo 13 – 111,
heliconius butterfly on peace lily) They landed on our shoulders and on
 our heads as we walked along the paths. We spent about two hours 
observing their behaviors and beauty before finally heading 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.