19 May 2013

Ecuador - May 2013

12/05/2013

Up early for my departure. There was only 25km’s between me and the border now. I had not bothered to visit the mangroves around Puerto Pizarro as there were few birds for me to see there. However, I changed my mind at the last minute and spent 20 minutes around the available mangroves adding a few more birds to the list and many more mosquito bites to my body.

The last few km’s disappeared at a rapid rate. It was just after 08:00 on a Sunday morning, what a time to try and cross a border. As it happens, it was actually brilliant - I was the only person there and had 4 staff to work with. Four staff still thought I should wait in line as they were apparently ‘busy’. Stamped out of Peru, stamped into Ecuador in the matter of a 5 minutes. Now all I had to do was get my bike stamped out and in. 

Actually, I had a cunning plan at this stage. I had read about foreigners getting charged high sums of money, US$300 for some piece of paper allowing them to take Peruvian plated vehicles out of the country. As far as I could see it, if I crossed the imaginary line into Ecuador - then I could blag my way through the paperwork on that side if required. Turned out that the ‘Aduanas’ were closed and I was directed to approach the Ecuadorian aduanas further up the road in any case.

As far as I could see it, Peru, or some of it’s citizens had just lost US$300 for being tardy - early bird gets the worm as they say. Chuffed to bits, I arrived at the Ecuadorian aduanas some 9km’s down the road. I was greeted by a very friendly chap who explained all the paperwork I needed to get copied and where to get SOAT (that public insurance thing). Turn around and head back towards the border, fun and excitement ahead at Huaquillas no doubt. 

Huaquillas has a reputation as being a place where you might lose your hubcaps if you pause too long at the traffic lights. Hopefully the criminals were taking a lie in too. First the paperwork - passport, drivers licence, bike papers etc. I made sure I copied about 5 different bike forms just in case. I also thought the more paper I had the less likely the aduanas were to ask for this ‘foreigner on a Peruvian plate business’ - I still wasn’t sure if I had managed to pass this test yet. Copies made, I headed across the road to get my SOAT sorted out. As expected though, Sundays are not the day to get such paperwork sorted on. Bizarrely, while SOAT is a mandatory requirement to enter - there is no SOAT office at the border or at the aduanas or even required to be open on a Sunday...

Some helpful person showed me where the SOAT office telephone number was. He assured me that the person would come out to sort the SOAT out if I called. Obviously I have not arranged for an Ecuadorian mobile SIM yet, so it was of to the ‘cabinas’ to use a public phone instead. Call made, the chap was a bit brush and I wasn’t sure if he intended on arriving or not. Anyhow, I went back to the shop window and waited for around 45 minutes before getting the hump and moving onwards. At this point I was getting the feeling that I may be staying here for the night. I did however find another SOAT sign above an internet cafe. In I went to ask for directions, only to find that this internet cafe was indeed the place that sorted out SOAT. Wasted over an hour by not walking in here in the first place. Either way, SOAT was sorted out in less than 10 minutes and my 2 month permit only cost US$5.00. Peru if you remember correctly only supplies in 1 year terms at a cost of US$180. 

Back to the aduanas, paperwork in and SOAT in hand. Chappie enters everything onto the computer, has me sign a copy of the temporary import permit and I am done. All the worry about Sunday border crossings, Peru exit permits etc and here I was - legally inside and free to make my way. Welcome to Ecuador was the overall message and how good it felt. Not since entering Argentina did I get the feeling that anyone was happy to have me.

You immediately notice the difference between Peru and Ecuador. It takes no more than a few km’s within Ecuador to see that roads are maintained, road users actually drive with care and consideration. I’ve crossed borders often enough to know this was not simply border excitement - the drivers were really not trying to hit me, nor were they overtaking each other stupidly or bloody hooting at everything that moved. I think more than anything else it was the relative quiet and calmness on the road that was so noticeable.

How fast things changed, I had been driving through desert or arid scrub ever since Lima, some 1300km’s south. Within 15km’s of entering Ecuador, the desert was gone and I was suddenly plunged into cloud forest. Low cloud forest, barely 300masl. The roads were no longer straight either, things got undulated fairly quickly and I was throttling down to 60km/h for the rest of the day. Happy that I was on track, I pulled over for a quick bite to eat. Food is much the same as Peru, soup to start followed by a plate of rice, meat and salad. There are marginal differences here though, the quality of food is better but more importantly the standard of hygiene is exponentially higher. I wasn’t sure all of a sudden if my body was going to be able to cope without it’s daily dose of C. dificile and HepB.

I was heading to the town of Piñas (Pineapples) for the night, the purpose being to visit the Jocotoco run reserve of Buenaventura. I wasn’t able to find the hostel I had been recommended, so settled for a centrally located hotel. More differences, I barely have to check if a place has WiFi - even the bog standard hotels, hostals and some hospedajes have WiFi as standard. Better yet, there is actually some bandwidth to work with. [In two evenings, I was able to upload over 1Gb of images]. In Peru such an upload would have taken over a week - what one would expect with bandwidth that had the same capacity as a mosquitos penis.

Dropped my gear and shot back out to visit the upped section of Buenaventura. I had no sooner arrived and the heavens opened. The next hour had me taking refuge under a conveniently placed sign shelter. I kid you not, you know it rains a lot when there are roofs constructed just for signage. The Ecuadorian birdlist had been started and I even managed a few lifers before the lights started to fade and I headed back to the hotel. Quick walk about town to see what was on offer for dinner. I noticed a sign I had yet to see anywhere in South America - Asadero. It soon transpired that this was just the local name for a BBQ. Sorted, picked out a a large helping of ribs and had it cooked a few feet from me. Perhaps I really did have ‘border eyes’ on, for I also saw some rather attractive looking birds of the non-feathered kind. There has been little to distract me since leaving Argentina, hopefully this would not be a country wide problem for I could do without distraction at this point.

Overnight : Piñas

13/05/2013

Up early for the short ride to Buenaventura. Clouds looked ominous, and I was soon struggling to see the road through the thick cloud cover. That was how things remained for most of the morning. Birding in thick cloud is not much fun nor very useful, so it was hardly any surprise that I was adding little to the list. Drove a little further and found a break in the clouds. Birded fairly well for the next hour until it became too hot! Bloody weather.

Down the road to access the reserve proper and find the hummingbird feeders. It has been a while since my last ‘mega-hummingbird’ twitch and I was in need of some easy ticks. Entrance fees = US$15.00. Normally I’d have a whinge about such extortion, but in the case of Jocotoco I was more than happy to pay. This private entity have done an incredible amount of work to save some very threatened birds in Ecuador. This small reserve itself has two species found nowhere else in the world - Elo Oro Parakeet and El Oro Tapaculo. At one point on the main road, you can see the almost the entire reserve around you - and know that for two birds, this is the only place they can call home. 

The hummingbird extravaganza was not disappointing, in fact I had yet to see so many hummers at feeders. Here they don’t even bother with the conventional hanging feeder - just huge bowls of sugary water set out. I say bowls, they are more like the base of a very large plantpot (probably 45cm in diameter). The rim of each bowl was packed with hummers of different species, shapes and sizes. Unusually they were mostly getting along too. Feeders normally have a dominant species that spends most of it’s time chasing away other species of hummer. Perhaps the bowls were so large, that there was no need to compete for feeding spots. I enjoyed the show for 20 minutes before heading up the road to see what else I could find. The reserve holds some other incredible species - Long-wattled Umbrellabird being one. From November to April you can almost guarantee a sighting as the males spend each morning displaying at a ‘lek’. Now however, they had dispersed to the surrounding forests - I did not managed to find one unfortunately. 

More birds were added to the list before I departed with yet more rain falling. Being late in the day I headed back to the hotel and out for another fill at the ‘asadero’. It had been a good day in the field ultimately, but I was still missing both the species I had come here for. Tomorrow I had one more morning to put that right or else I would have to accept a dip.

Overnight : Piñas

14/05/2013

Early again, back to the top of the forest - more cloud, more rain. Quite a pattern emerging already in Ecuador - there is always thick cloud about and basically it rains most of the time.
Barely got off the bike and a flash of colour went sailing over my head. I knew what this was before I had even got my bins out - a bird I had spent weeks looking for on the Manu Road in Peru and failed to find, the Golden-headed Quetzal. I do rather like the Trogon family which includes the Quetzals. Stunningly coloured and will often approach you rather than the other way around. Having said that, they are stealthy birds and some level of luck is required to notice their presence unless you see an explosion of colour when they dash from one tree to the next. They are quite confiding too, no matter whether in Asia, Africa or South America I have not normally had a problem getting to within a few feet for some decent photos.

Next up, an Ecuadorian Endemic - Pale-mandibled Aracari. Then another as two El Oro Parakeets shot past me never to be seen again. On the one had I was happy and relieved to have seen them, but disappointed not to have gotten a longer, better view. By 09:30 it was time to get a move on - my last morning here had been memorable and I would certainly like to come back some day. Back to the hotel to load up and start a long drive to the small town of Yungilla. 

More cloud, more rain - in fact it became so hazardous at one point I pulled off the road and just waited for conditions to improve. Whether they actually did or I simply lowered my safety threshold is debatable. 25km’s of harsh conditions before I emerged from the cloud and into blue skies... Progress is generally quite slow due to the undulating nature of the road, the weather only makes things slower.

Roll into Yunguilla just after 16:00 and find an appropriate hosteria. While ‘hosteria‘ sounds much like hostal, I was soon to find out that the conditions and prices are hugely different. That would be the last time I stayed in a hosteria - US$35 per night. That might sound cheap, but I am really getting low on funds and cannot be wasting bucks on a place to put my head down. 

Overnight : Yunguilla

15/05/2013

Early again, although I was not carrying my gear. This birding trip would only be a few hours hopefully. The target today was another critically endangered bird, another Jocotoco Reserve to the rescue. The Pale-headed Brush Finch was considered extinct until 1980 when Swedish scientist Dr Niels Krabbe found it in this one valley. Despite searching in neighbouring valleys, no more were found - the world population stood at 12 pairs. Today, thanks entirely to Jocotoco, there are more than 200 pairs in this valley. Still critically endangered - after all it would take only one fire and the population would disappear for good. Hopefully there are plans to re-introduce this bird to other protected areas to increase it’s spread. 

Now the challenge was first to find the reserve, then to find the bird. Part one was accomplished not without a struggle, part two was accomplished about half an hour later. I know this must look rather silly to any voyeurs hiding in the bush - but there I was fist pumping to myself in some bleak and lonely valley. I managed a few drab images of a sub-adult, not nearly as attractive as it’s parents, but a photo none the less. With nothing else to see here, I was on my way back to the hosteria to pack and start the next leg of my trip.

The rest of the journey today was an exercise in riding only - I was simply laying down some distance to the next spot some 600km’s to the north. The aim was to reach the small town of Alausi, some 280km’s away. This should be attainable and then allow me to finish the remaining distance the following day. As it happened I did make it to Alausi, but not without further hell on the roads. Not long after leaving Cuenca, I started climbing up the Andes. The weather became progressively colder, and then downright fowl with gale force winds, thick fog, cloud, rain and sleet. I made a number of stops along the way for coffee - more so that I could warm my hands and not feel cold rain smacking my face. It was also necessary to give my brain a rest, it was incredibly difficult to concentrate for much longer than an hour in these conditions. At least I was safe in the knowledge that other road users were also driving to the conditions rather than the Brazilian, Bolivian and Peruvian method of driving to your fate. The drivers in all three of those countries take their daft religion quite literally - they believe that they will die on a pre-determined day, so how they behave / drive up till that point is immaterial. As so many of the taxis and truckers have plastered on their vehicles, ‘I drive with god, do you?’. I would wager that the comparative incidence of road death to religious fervour is positively enormous.

Needless to say, I was and still am very happy to note the good drivers of Ecuador have not taken leave of their brains and put their and my safety in the hands of the ‘omnipotent and impotent’ fairy in the sky. Rode in to Alausi just after 17:00, shivering, wet and in need of coffee. Luke warm shower, hot coffee and two bits of shopping to do. First - draw more money and secondly on the off chance that I might find them, get a pair of gum boots. I have been meaning to get gum boots ever since the rain started falling in Bolivia, but either didn’t make a decent effort or my feet were simply too big for the boots available. Money sorted, and would you believe it I found gum boots too. Not just one set of large feet, I was able to choose between sizes. [Turns out I was a little conservative and got one size too small - at least on my right foot that is]. Gum boots - probably the best US$11.00 I have ever spent. 

Get my head down early tonight - long drive coming up tomorrow. The couple above start a full 18 holes of bedroom golf, has me putting my earphones in for the night. It is something I have been doing quite regularly recently - a decent dose of metal to get to sleep. 

Overnight : Alausi

16/05/2013

Don’t wake up early for a change. Take a quick brekkie before loading and heading off again. Today I am planning on getting to the industrial town of Tena near the Amazonian lowlands. Everything is going to plan, the skies are clear if somewhat cold - but I am hoping to get a glimpse of Mount Chimborazo. The highest peak in Ecuador, a dormant snow clad volcano. Such hopes disappear within an hour of riding as the thick cloud rolls in. Oh well, at least it has not started to rain yet. I am making good time when I reach the large town of Riobamba and have to make a decision. Stay on the main road which takes a large diversion away from where I am going, or take the less travelled but more direct route. What sways my decision in the end are the clouds. The main road would have taken me right past Mt Chimborazo, but with visibility limited I punt for the less travelled road.

Again, all goes to plan and I sit for lunch with less than 20km’s to travel before I am back on the main road at the tourist town of Baños. Things go to pot not long after that, the road disintegrates into black sand and the direct route out is blocked my a major landslide. Find the re-route eventually before sitting for another hour while the local road crews are busy with construction. You’d have thought they would have gone to clear the other road first before blocking this one too? Not everything in Ecuador is necessarily better than Peru - it is clear that the roadworks department have the same amount of intellect.

By now, it is not going to be possible to reach Tena, so I may as well take the opportunity of knocking off a little earlier than normal and finding a cheap room. This I do, pay US$6.00 for the night that also has decent hot water and very good WiFi. Spend the afternoon tackling my blogs, images and other bits and pieces that I have been ignoring recently.

Overnight : Baños

17/05/2013

There is no rush to leave early as Tena is only 130km’s away. Small breakfast before setting off under relatively clear skies (thats a euphemism for two spots of blue sky or more than one ray of sunshine - anything more than that has not yet been witnessed and thus cannot be said to exist in Ecuador).

No sooner had the morning started and so did the rain. Perhaps Gunnar was right - I am a rain magnet, certainly not willingly though. This particular section of road had a number of long tunnels. Yet again, I can bash Peru on this. Here the tunnels are bored with an excavator rather than hacked out with pick and shovel. Said hole is also concreted on the inside to stop rocks falls and excessive water leakage. Blow me down, they even have decent lights to that one is able to see the road while driving through. In Peru you just make it up as you go along - no lights, unknown road surface, trucks and busses overtaking each other inside the tunnel without lights on etc. Here, I could if I felt like it have travelled around the tunnels to. Again, the forward thinking of the people here is excellent - they have a lot of tourist here, who like to ride down the roads on bicycles. So they built a bicycle lane that puts most of the first world to shame. Then they refurbished the old road / mule trail that used to run along the ridge so that cyclists and motorbikes? could travel this stretch of road without having to go through the tunnels and endanger themselves. 

I have rather taken to Ecuador - but as with Argentina there is one major issue stopping me from queuing up for a residents permit. In Argentina it is their shite economy, in  Ecuador it is the shite weather. I didn’t think there was a place on the planet that could have worse weather than Ireland or Britain - but if this is the ‘dry season’ in Ecuador, I certainly do not want to see what the wet season is like.

A little wetter than usual, I drive into Tena just after 11:00, waste an hour looking for a hostel and then get the hump and carry on driving despite their being hundreds of hostels and hotels in town. My brain has clearly become frazzled with the weather for I am not thinking too well. Am not making good decisions and despite knowing this I become rash and pull into a hosteria nowhere close to anywhere really. OK, it was closer to where I intended to go birding tomorrow but not by much. Then just when I think I am getting my senses back after hearing the price, I agree to stay anyway. 

Less said the better. I only found out that night that this hotel was a written up birding destination. I was paying so little attention I did not even look at the name of the place. Wasted afternoon of no birding when I should have been, although it was raining it must be said in my defence at least. Go to bed early to try and clear my head of tiredness or whatever it was that made me a little bit pillock today.

Overnight : Archidona

18/05/2013

Up early again for my ride down the Loreto Road. One of the upsides to being on motorised transport is the speed with which I can get from birding venue to the next. The downside is that I get up early almost every day - I am starting to suffer from fatigue. Nothing like the cool morning air mixed with some light drizzle to sharpen the sleepy head. Light drizzle turned to proper rain shortly. My trip down the Loreto Road became sodden, and I didn’t stop until I had arrived at the Susanita Comedor (Susana’s Little Kitchen). Here I was able to offload my sodden gear and get some hot coffee. It was also a reliable spot for a species of Hummingbird I was after - the White-tailed Hillstar which I did thankfully secure quite easily. However, that was all I secured. Things became rather sour soon after with my first mouthful of coffee. You know that feeling when your tongue is expecting one taste but your brain disagrees with the actual interpretation. Instead of boiling water, it would seem they poured from the lemon tea urn. I had not at any stage on my trip every returned anything to the kitchen, but here I drew the line. You can serve me half cooked meat, dodgy salads and I’ll eat it - but don’t mess with my coffee!

Back up the road and yet more rain. There goes another good birding venue to the rain, might as well get on to San Isidro. San Isidro is another well known birding site owned by one of Ecuadors top birders. The private property sits between two of Ecuador’s national parks and contains many highly sought after birds. While I wasn’t going to be walking any trails in this monsoon, I could at least sit and watch some hummingbirds from somewhere dry.

However, it did not happen that way. The rain went from downpour to torrential. I was now getting very wet, my jacket not able to contain the deluge. My waterproof leggings had given up the ghost many moons ago - in fact they let water in and then maintain it there. Given the sitting position on the bike, I am unaware of the slow drip feed that accumulates in a pool between the saddle and my crotch, that is until I reposition myself and get a flood of cold water on a part of my body that rather prefers not to have cold water on it. Stupid pants, it seems they would be more affective if I turned them inside out. For the moment, I’d get less wet if I attached a garden hose to my jocks. 

With the wind turning to a gale, the altitude climbing, deluge increasing, visibility next to nothing - I was having to hold onto the handlebars very tightly just to stop from shivering. There would be no stopping at San Isidro, I would just carry on up to Baeza and be done with it - I really needed to get out of these clothes and under some hot water. As it happens I never saw the sign for San Isidro in any case. Small hotel found, turned out to me more like a cheap motel but it would do. What a surprise I was to have on stepping into the shower - torrent of boiling water like I have never had anywhere in the world. This was just the ticket.

Warmed up and dry for the first time today. Out came some cheap rope I had bought in Peru and hung onto for some reason. This suddenly became useful as my saddle bags had soaked through. All my clothes (barring the dirty ones in a plastic bag) were soaked. Despite have just showered, I had to climb back into the dirty (nothing more than a days sweat at least) while all the recently laundered stuff was hung up to dry. Just how dry they were going to get was debatable. With rain continuing to clatter down outside, there was precious little chance I’d be seeing dry clothes any time today. More importantly, I was now starting to climb the Andes again. After another birding stop in Papallacta I’d be crossing the continental divide - yet again, and this one like most other is well over 4000masl and bloody cold on a good day. Given my weather experience in Ecuador to date, it’s not like I could be holding out for a good day either. I was already light on cold gear, wet cold gear would freeze me, and that would be no use.

My saddle bags on the other hand had proven to be a large waste of money. Standard Italian crap, all look and no substance. Adrian and I had used them in Peru, and they had both torn on the first day. I sowed them back up 15kg breaking strain nylon fishing line then. At least my sowing has stood up. The cheap and crappy bag covers on the other hand are useful only to keep out a little dust - water doesn’t even osmote through them, it diffuses directly. So I shall now package the rest of my gear in plastic bags and toss the useless bag covers. I do this already with some of my other gear - all of my electronics and my entire medical bag have their components sealed in zip lock bags. 

Nothing much was done after that. Chain on the bike needed tightening again - incredibly, it has already been 1500km’s since I last tightened it. Wrote the rest of this blog piece and then saw some sun. Much like a Brit gets his shirt off the moment the sun shines (despite it being subzero), so I got the bins on and darted back down the road towards San Isidro. Not only did I want to get at the hummingbird feeders, but I also wanted to buy a ticket to visit a trail a little further down the road. For some reason, despite the trail being popular there is no ranger station to pay your entrance fees at. The alternative is to drive another 10km’s down the road, get a ticket and then drive back again - madness. This is the only part of the park that most people ever access. However, I failed to make it to San Isidro yet again as the rain started to fall heavily about 2km’s before the turnoff. As I had no other clothes but those I was wearing, the decision was easily made to turn around and scarper back to the hotel. I’d just have to take my chances tomorrow morning and hope that either the rangers didn’t find me on the trail, or that the park guards have come to their senses and opened up a ticket office there. (The info I have is 3 years old).

Overnight : Baeza

19/05/2013

Alarm seems to ring far too soon for my liking. Groggily open the curtains to see what the weather has in store. Surprise surprise, pissing with rain. Sod it, yet another birding day sunk. Back to bed for a few more hours. Repeat as per above again.

Goad myself out of bed around 09:00, quite shattered for some reason. The weather does not look as if it will change much, so may as well push on towards Papallacta. Two particularly good Ecuadorian birding venues have delivered nothing but heavy rain. Worse, I am told that the skies have been clear for 6 days, only started raining yesterday. Perhaps I am a rain magnet - send me to the next drought addled part of the world. 

Large breakfast of rice, steak, eggs, french fries, salad, cheese roll and coffee. The drive to Papallacta has drizzle in the air but nothing like yesterdays torrential stuff. The drive is slow, the road is slick and steep - my poor bike struggling with the altitude. Papallacta is only 38km’s away, so I have barely started riding when it is over.

Check in to a budget hostel and set out the clothes line again. This room has a stand alone heater - something that will be well used by the time I am done. Papallacta must be one of the few villages in the world that has it’s hot and cold water supplied by the council. Then again, the villages entire existence centres around the thermal pools - all the council needed was a pipe.

I am now thoroughly frustrated, it has been five days since I last saw any decent birds. I already know how many good species I have spurned with all this rain. I head off to the posh resort of Termales de Papallacta. Not that I want to rub shoulders with all the rich grannies - there is access to some decent birding habitats behind the complex. 

Rest of the afternoon is spent dodging the rain squalls. Up the road and bird, rain, down the road and bird, switch positions a number of times. Despite the yo-yo, I find some cracking birds. Even the huge and aggressive mosquitos are not able to put me off for long. Finally back in the saddle, tomorrow is more birding around this area before crossing the continental divide and heading down to Quito for the night. 

Overnight : Papallacta


20/05/2013

Roll out of bed, very groggy again. Perhaps I should take a day off. Pack up my gear before looking out the window. Theres a surprise - thick cloud and rain. Load up and head off, the roads are wet and slippery, the cloud impenetrable. There will be no birding this morning, so I take aim for Quito.

The climb over the pass has my poor bike chugging away in the rarified atmosphere. The rain starts to pelt down and all I can hope at this point is that is does not turn to snow. Not long after clearing the pass, I am able to increase my speed thanks to the effects of gravity. Take breakfast in a truckers stop, harsh coffee from many decades ago - but it is hot and for this wet and shivering stick, heat is all that is required.

I arrive in Quito to find glorious sunshine and heat. Have to take off my thermal jersey even. Plot my way through the capital, having arrived in the south and needing to exit in the north. Make decent progress, slowed only by the steep hills. Another quick pitstop before continuing onwards. I pass Mitad del Mundo, a large monument marking the Equator. Surely I stopped to have my photo taken like countless other tourists? Err, No. Unlike said tourists, I live in the age of GPS and know that the monument is in the wrong position! I walk about 200metres further north to a barren patch of land and take a leak, on the real equator.

Intellectually satisfied I carry on up and and over yet another pass before dropping down into the western slope cloud forests. The rain returns with a vengeance, not letting up for the entire 80km ride to Mindo.

In Mindo I find myself somewhere to stay - Rubby Hostel, at US$8.50 a night there can’t be much to complain about. Indeed the residence is just fine, something I have paid much more to stay in all over South America. Never mind that a good breakfast is included (and served on birding time, 04:30). 

Head into town for some coffee and internet. Despite being shattered, I am off early again in the morning. Try to take advantage of a little gap in the rain, but it is already starting to get dark.

Overnight : Mindo

21/05/2013

Early doors and Norma has got breakfast ready for me at about 05:00. I take a small walk across the town to visit the Yellow House. One of the very first tourist orientated hotels in the town. The house is indeed bright yellow. Anyhow, besides being a working farm - the owners conserved vast swathes of the cloud forest on their land. It has had excellent trails put in with hummingbird and fruit feeders. Everything a birdwatcher could want. I actually popped in last night to arranged tickets for this morning first. They had an even bigger bonus for me personally in the form of two large and energetic German Shepherds. 

I walked the trails for a good few hours taking advantage of the clear skies. Birding was good, just the introduction I needed to the Mindo Valley. On the way out, I bumped into a very friendly American birder from Maine. We spent more time chatting than birding, heading off to another part of Mindo for a few hours before he was due to head off to destinations new.

The rain started to bucket down right on schedule 12:59 to be exact. With that, I hung the bins up for the day and concentrated on sorting out my schedule which seemed very liquid at present. Norma’s ex-husband is one of the premier guides in town and I was trying to arrange a morning out with him. I almost never use guides, but at these rates I’d have been stupid not to. Besides, I am starting to get a little anxious about just how good one needs to be in the field in order to be a guide - best I find out. We make calls back and forth, the plans changing variously. Eventually it is decided that he will guide other clients tomorrow and I will instead head off to the farm of Angel and Rodrigo Paz. 

Overnight : Mindo

22/05/2013

Up at 04:15 and Norma’s has breakfast ready for me. It is still dark out, so the first part of the drive is taken very slowly. Pillock here stuck with the sunglasses as eye protection, so they don’t work all that well in the dark or low light. Taking them off is not really an option, a direct hit from a large insect and my eye would be destroyed. Some of the things that have hit my helmet have made me jump - been bigger than birds. 

It is not too far and I need to drive slowly so as not to miss the turnoff to the farm. I’m being lazy here, but there is no point in re-writing a story that has already been told. I have taken the information directly from the Paz de las Aves website.

Once upon a time there was a logging Paz family like many of the poor logging families that lived in the Northwest of Ecuador.  There was nothing special about them, they farmed and cut trees to make space for grass and cows, sometimes they cut the really big and valuable trees when they needed extra money for important things like food, education, and family emergencies, much like many other families did.  So this was the way in which the destruction of the cloud forest continued in the Northwest slopes of Ecuador.

In the summer of 2004 the Paz family began a new way of life when Angel Paz, discovered a Cock-of-the-Rock Lek in his property, and soon he learned that this was a big attraction for tourists who were willing to pay money to see the dancing and calling habits of this flashy bird. Angel made contact with Richard Parson who helped and encouraged him to make a trail in the forest so that his tourists (birders) could see the show.  In the process of constructing the trail, the antpittas started to show up to eat the worms that were excavated when the trail was being built.  Angel was thinking about hunting them since he had done this from his childhood to provide some food, but consulted with Richard who told him that this bird was in danger of extinction and it would be much better to try to make it part of the show.  It took Angel three months of hard work to follow this bird and continue with the worm excavating until the bird finally followed him in exchange of a big fat worm. Since then the Paz farm is the most regularly visited place by birders who come to Ecuador to get a glimpse of the 1600 species of exotic birds that live in this country.

The Paz show of today include the original Cock-of-the-Rock Lek, María a Giant Antpitta, Willie a Yellow-breasted Antpitta, Jose a Moustached Antpitta, Shakira an Ochre-breated Antpitta, a good variety of exotic birds that feed on a fruit feeding hall like the: Toucan Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Sickle-winged Guan, a Black-chinned Mountain Tanager, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager,  and a number of nice hummingbirds that come to their sugar feeders.  María was the first to show up and to follow Angel and today she can be found along the trails hoping and hoping for a fat worm. The others are more cautious and require some calling and patients for a show-up to the tourists that come to see these special birds.

It is important to realise that billions of dollars have been spent until today by world organisations such as the WTO (World Tourism Organisations) in an effort to educate the people on the importance of the protection of our biosphere. All of these billions have done very little and today we are faced with the most terrifying threats of global warming and drastic climate changes that are the direct result of the destruction of our delicate biosphere. Why have we not been able to stop our own destruction? The answer could lay on job creation and sustainability which is what the Paz family is showing by example.“

That in itself is quite incredible, but lets talk numbers too. It costs US$25 per person to visit the farm and walk the trails. For the best part of 4 hours, you have the services of two excellent guides, entrance to the forests, a pile of fruit dispatched for the fruit eating birds, various antpittas and other agoraphobic birds called into view. A trip to the hummingbird feeder with a host of species I did not see elsewhere followed by an excellent breakfast. 

I’ll try a contrast - entrance to most reserves in Ecuador costs US$15 per person. Cost of guide for half a day is around US$60.00. Similar breakfast in Mindo - US$5.00. Even if I am charitable and only charge for one guide, you’d still be looking at a minimum of US$80.00 for the equivalent anywhere else. Did I mention the antpittas and various others that come out of the dense thickets? That too, even better there is no need for playback - so the birds suffer next to no interference from humans other than picking up an easy meal in the morning. 

You cannot come to Mindo or even Ecuador to bird and not come here. This is conservation at the grass roots level, the only kind that will ever have a chance of working without the need for fences, guards and laws. When conservation measure like this allows people to not only make a living but demonstrate the possibilities within their communities, then our wildlife might stand a chance. 

After such an excellent morning, I decide to take a drive along the Ecoruta - the old road that used to run from Quito through Nono and onwards to Mindo. I am only doing a small part of it through the Tandayapa Valley. The road is not vehicle friendly, but I persevere until a passing tourist vehicle tells me that my number plate has fallen off. Panic time - I thought I had left Peru behind, how on earth am I going to arrange for a bloody plate in the middle of Ecuador! I look over my shoulder and cannot see the plate, time to turn around and start back up the road looking for it. If Murphy has been kind, it has landed blue side up, if not the grey is not going to be easy to see. After four rough km’s, I decide to climb off and take a birding brake. I also need to clear my head of all the negative ‘what if’s’.

I get off and walk behind the bike to find that my plate is actually still there, just hanging by one zip tie. Of course, had I looked over my right shoulder initially I would have seen this. A rugby shoulder injury makes looking over my right shoulder difficult, so I almost never do - it is one of the reasons I take so easily to driving in countries that drive on the right, I never have to worry! Oh well, at least that potential horror show is now irrelevant. Take the plate off and put it in my bag for reattachment later.

The forest looks great, but the birding activity at this time of day is quiet. I vow to return for a morning here later in the week. For now, I make tracks to get back into Mindo before the daily showers arrive. I just about make it, the heavy clouds bursting within minutes of my first coffee arriving.

Today I also find a different cafe where I can have proper coffee and half decent WiFi. The father and son owners take to me quickly and for the rest of the weeks this becomes my coffee, lunch and dinner spot. 

Overnight : Mindo

23/05/2013

Today is my guided trip with Marcelo. We are heading to Rio Silanche, a small remnant patch of lowland forest about 30km’s from Mindo. There are three other people on the trip too - good for costs, but it soon turns out that none of them are birders! Not to worry, the company is good - John an Australian and a couple from Puerto Rico.

I start wondering about the brains behind agreeing to go to Rio Silanche for it means we are driving in a tour bus. Despite the driver being good, my motion sickness seems to have gotten worse after almost a year without making much use of alternative transport. I just about make the drive without getting overly queasy.

As things turn out, the good company is useful as the weather is again rather unkind, bucketing it down all day rather than the customary afternoon only. Despite this, Marcelo and I do manage to get a few decent birds. He is very apologetic for the poor showing, but why I do not know. As I am at pains to point out, he cannot control the weather. We return to Mindo in a bit of a hurry with poor John having to shuffle quickly to catch his bus to Quito before an onward flight. 

With the rain doing little else than what it is good at, I make for the coffee shop and spend the remainder of the afternoon adjusting my schedule and starting my plans for Colombia.

Overnight : Mindo

24/05/2013

Up early again, today I am going to head off to another small reserve called Milpe. While the birds are not all that different to those found all over the Mindo Valley, there are some more likely to be seen here. I am greeted by a wave of cars on the motorway, fully 5 minutes before I get a chance to pull in. I knew that today was a massive holiday, but I had not expected the roads to be this jam packed at 05:00 in the morning! These cars must have left Quito no later that 03:00. 

Why? Well today is a massive day for two reasons. It is Independence Day as well the inauguration of Rafael Correa for another term. Perhaps the best and deservedly an extremely popular president. A big entourage of foreign dignitaries will be attending including Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. Every one else is heading for the beech it would seem.

It takes only 20 minutes to get to Milpe and I start birding almost immediately. Pick up a few of the Manakin and Tanager species that I was after. While watching the bird feeders near the lodge, I bump into a South African couple who reside in London. They are another good chat and only the second set of South Africans I have met on the entire trip (the others being in Santa Cruz, Bolivia). 

After a very successful mornings birding (in the sun no less), I get back to Mindo before the expected rain. I notice that my Odometer is not working. Glancing down at my front wheel I notice the cable has come adrift. How on earth has this managed to unwind itself? Mutter expletives about Chinese crap under my breath not for the first time. Re-attached the cable and continue onwards to find that after working for a few kilometres the ODO is non-functional. back at the hostel I remove the cable to find that it comes in two pieces when one is the desired number. The cable has snapped - into town to try against all probability of finding another. No luck as expected, will have to look when I get to Quito.

The sun must have added a few lakes to the clouds, for the midday downpour was the most ferocious I have seen during my wet days in Ecuador. The roads became rivers, the shops brimming with the massive influx of tourists. There was no seat for me at the cafe - my friends doing a roaring trade while the rain kept everyone eating and drinking.

I did eventually get a seat when the rush ended and caught up on the days news. Here I got running commentary from father and son on the presidential inauguration and what it means to the people here. It is so refreshing to see a country run by a president of the people and for the people. Why is it so hard for so many countries to produce this? The son (who is perhaps late 30’s) lived in the US since he was 17 and ran a very successful chauffeur company. When the US economy tanked, he lost everything - his business, home and suddenly had to try and support his wife and four children. In the end, he moved back to Ecuador and started all over again. He works as a chef in this small restaurant, but is still able to provide for his family that now numbers five children. 

He is well positioned to explain the benefits of Rafael Correa’s policies to the people. Ecuador has oil money and like Venezuela has started pouring it quite literally back into the country. in Ecuador the results are much better than Venezuela (perhaps due to being a much smaller country with a smaller population). Never the less, children are mandated to go to school - and they don’t have to pay for anything. Uniforms, text books and food are all provided by the state. No more can rural campesinos reject sending their children to school due to lack of funds. In a generation, the entire population with have an education that their parents could not have dreamt about.

Medical facilities have been improved and medical provision is free. You can see the the difference in health here. Smoking is being stamped out through education rather than laws and regulations alone. Their is a massive drive to promote the environment from not littering to signs explaining how important water is, the part that forests play in cleaning the air we breathe etc.

I could write many more pages from the mouths of the many people I spoke to and the many observations I made alone. Ecuador is a fantastic example of ‘another way’. Another way to govern for all  the people of a country rather than the elite only. It is presidents like Correa and countries like Ecuador that get up the nose of the US. For they have a system that is different, a system that makes everyone count - where the rich and powerful are not so important anymore. What a system to aspire to, at least many Latin American countries have started to realise that they can stick the finger up at the US now and go it alone - they don’t need the US, the US needs them and they are starting to turn the tables. 

The likes of Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin and Antonio Jose de Sucre amongst others are rightly revered for liberating Latin America from their European colonialists. In time (more so than even now) we will all recognise the the huge significance played by Ernesto Guevara, Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende, Jacobo Arbenz and others in liberating Latin America from the clutches of the United States. Unfortunately for the likes of Cuba, the world was not ready for what they did, but Latin America is starting to benefit from their sacrifice.

Para los pueblos de América Latina, por favor, no deje caer la pelota. Hasta victoria la siempre!

Overnight : Mindo

25/05/2013

Today it was time to leave. My plan after another early breakfast was to head up the old Mindo / Quito Road. Half way their I had a change of heart and decided that I actually fancied birding a road that see few birders - the Mashpi Road. It is a great location for some hard to see species. Following the excellent directions of Lelis Navarette, whose website I could not have done without, I found myself in birding wonderland.

That wonderland disappeared almost immediately however as the thick cloud and rain made an unexpected appearance. The sun had been out and all had looked so good. instead I did my best in the foggy conditions picking up a few of the targeted species but really having a disappointing time of it all.

With little prospect of conditions improving, I decided to head to Quito before the weather got any worse. low and behold, less than 5km’s from the birding sites the weather was all sun again. Oh well, some you win. Off to Quito.

An excellent lunch just before getting into the city before I fumbled about for a while trying to find a hostel close to the road I needed to take in the morning. En route I find a Moto Repuestos - I’m in luck, for US$2.00 they have the right velocimeter cable. Half an hour later I am ensconced in a decent hostel where the necessary repairs are carried out on the velocimeter cable. I make good time and am able to sit down to watch the Champions League Final while getting my plans sorted for Colombia. I am hopelessly behind, Colombia has really sneaked up on me here.

I have however managed to get some excellent help from Diego Calderon of Colombia Birding. Need to make some drastic changes to my itinerary to avoid some ‘security issues’ and also to see more and better species. It has to be remembered that people like Diego (and others I have met or communicated with along the way - Gunnar Engblom in Peru, Guy Cox and Mark Pearman in Argentina, Bennett Hennessey in Bolivia) make their living out of guiding and yet they are alway happy to share information with people like me who ultimately contribute little to their livelihoods. I am very appreciative indeed.
Overnight : Quito

26/05/2013

Up at 06:00. Despite wanting a little lie in for a change, the mountains are hardly warm first thing. Pack up and head off for the long climb up the peaks towards the Yanacocha reserve. This is one of the few high altitude locations where one is able to bird on a flat contour trail. It is also home to the Black-chested Puffleg, a Critically Endangered little hummingbird.

I arrive not long after 07:00, there is no one to be found at the entrance so I just make my way in and start birding. No sooner have I started this mornings adventure and the thick cloud and drizzle have started too. I get the feeling that I am about to get buggered yet again. Mercifully the rain and cloud are only intermittent and I am able to bird almost unhindered for the next 3 hours.

Almost all the target species attained for a change, I head back off to the entrance to pay my entrance fee. I am generally impassive with respect to entrance fees, especially since I think governments should be funding these projects as a matter of course. However, all the Jocotoco Reserves that I have visited are making a massive difference for some of the worlds most endangered species. While US$15.00 a pop is a bit steep, I can actually see the impact this money is having and would pay more if I had the funds to do so. I rarely plump for charities, but this is worth while mentioning even if it adds no extra funds

Fundación Jocotoco : http://www.fjocotoco.org/donations.php

Back into Quito before skirting around and out for the drive north. More cold rain and more stops for coffee to keep warm. The Public Holiday is over and I am glad to be leaving Quito rather than trying to arrive - the traffic is monumental in the opposite direction. 

Get stopped by security at a toll gate. As is my wont, I have skirted down the side and into the bike lane to bypass the gates. Security stops me and tells me I have to pay! I am quite incredulous and let him know it. No where in all of south America of the remainder of Ecuador do motorcycles have to pay toll fees! He is adamant that I have to at this one. Turn around drive back up against the traffic to look at the toll board - there is no bike fees, so I proceed to the gate to find out what the ‘made up’ figure is : .20cents apparently - I even got a receipt which probably cost almost as much to print. 

Turns out that the next 3 toll roads have signs charging bikes, must be something new. Would help of they put bikes above cars and not sandwiched mower down amongst the trucks - they even charge for car trailers. 

Nothing much of interest occurs after this. I stop to take a photo! Not of anything particularly exciting, but since it is not raining I might as well make the most of it. I don’t engage the gears properly and the forward lurch causes the stand to close and the bike to fall on it’s side. Bollocks - no idea how I am going to get the bike back up, but I best move quick as my fuel cap has the same quality of seal as a pineapple might. Back on its two wheel, I have no spilt petrol but some bent components. Gear pedal is pushed in and the clutch lever is bent 90 degrees. It is still drivable, so I finish the last 40km’s before tackling the damage. Cheap Chinese shit, shouldn’t be difficult to bash back into shape. Indeed I just use my boot to push the gear pedal back into it original position. The clutch leaver I disassemble before taking to it with a brick. With a seemingly straight lever, it is reassembled almost as good as new - a little less paint that it used to have.

Into the hotel to find that the water is off for a few hours. Tackle my photo editing in the interim. Showered and decide to take a shave, should always look half decent when getting to the border. Tomorrow is the end of Ecuador and the start of what I have dreamed about for years. Indeed, the thought of finally getting into Colombia was the only thing that kept me going through Bolivia and Peru. The promised land is imminent, just let the weather be decent please!

Overnight : Ibarra

27/05/2013

My last morning in Ecuador. Wake up just after 06:30, not in a massive rush and breakfast is included in the room rate for a change. Despite all that, the restaurant does not open at 07:00, nor did it look likely to open at all. Pack the gear and head off. The weather looks promising, an early morning nip but bright sunshine. 

The ride is cold despite the sun, but at least it is not raining. Breakfast taken about 45km’s down the road at an impossibly located holiday resort. Push on to the border arriving not long after 10:30. First to check out of Ecuador - stamped out in a few seconds and head off to the Aduanas to have my bike stamped out. Takes a while to find the unsigned window but all is well.

The remainder of the day will be dealt with in Colombia - May/June 2013.

As is customary, I will end this blog piece with a few thoughts on Ecuador overall. In fact there won’t be all that much to say, the constant rain was disappointing but I left very positive and happy about my experience none the less. Ecuador is full of stunning scenery (I didn’t see any volcanos due to the weather - but I can imagine for a minute), lush cloud forests and again unseen and uncared for by me - very pretty beeches. The roads are very good condition, and yet they are being improved and widened. Never mind the drivers, the best I have seen in a year.

Technology on a whole is approaching that of Europe. Perhaps most telling is the very positive attitude of the people. I was in country for the inauguration of Rafael Correa for an unprecedented third term. Before you start pointing fingers at someone being a ‘dictator in the making’ - you’d do well to look at his election and approval ratings first. I spoke at length to people who had risen from poor campesinos to owning their own home and business. Others who had lived in the US for much of their life only to loose everything they had when the US economy tanked. They returned and found a different country, one where they had the opportunity to start again and make a decent living. Correa has said that this will be his last term, I don’t doubt his word - but I think there will be many people in this country that wish he could stay longer.

If anything, I regret not having spent much longer here. The longer I have travelled, the more I have come to realise that I made many mistakes in my planning and logistics. I have perhaps left the two best countries for last and as a consequence am having to move quickly due to lack of funds more that anything else. I guess you learn from these things, the lessons I take away will make the next journey through these parts much better I think. 


Adios Ecuador, it was short and wet, but an absolute pleasure. 

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