[A joint post by Joe and Lori]
Back in Ecuador
Joe and Lori are back in Ecuador. In Cotacachi. Much like last year, we are using it as our Ecuadorian home base, and have reconnected with friends Juan Carlos, Eddie, and Susana, and our dear friend Beverly. We have re-visited some of our old haunts in town and in the surrounding area – Café Rio Intag, Serendipity, Cuicocha, Peguche Falls, El Gran Condor, Hacienda Pinsaquí, Puertolago, the Otavalo Market. In all of these places we smell the air of familiarity. In so many ways it feels like home. Home away from home.
Through a fortuitous confluence of events, our friend Ruth and Beverly’s son Mark and his friend Ivan were going to be in Ecuador at the same time. This gave us the only reason we needed to whisk our visitors off on a little adventure. So, after the requisite amount of planning, communication, deliberation, and decision-making, we set off for Mindo, Puerto Lopez, and Isla de la Plata.
We almost did not get to meet Ivan. His Mexican passport was set to expire in less than 6 months. So, unless he could renew his passport in time he was going to have to stay home, and miss out. As luck would have it, or through the blessing of divine intervention, or the power of cosmic consciousness, the day before he was scheduled to leave for Ecuador he received a call that his new passport was ready. We all felt a deep sense of gratitude!
Ruth, our good friend from Whitehorse, is a birder from way back, for as long as she can remember. She’s really a twitcher. And what better place to be a twitcher than Ecuador? Over 1,600 of the approximately 10,000 bird species in the world can be found in Ecuador — one of the highest quantities in the world. And what about Mindo? Mindo consistently ranks at the top, or near the top, of the annual Christmas Bird Count*, with typical counts of over 400 different species. With Joe & Lori in Ecuador once again, Ruth could not in her right mind pass this opportunity up. After all, how many more chances would she get?
*The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a census of birds in the Western Hemisphere, performed annually in the early Northern-hemisphere winter by volunteer birdwatchers and administered by the National Audubon Society. (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_Bird_Count).
Mark is Beverly and Jack’s youngest child and, while a handsome and accomplished man in his thirties, will always be considered the “baby” in the family. When he arrived with his equally handsome and accomplished friend Ivan, Beverly affectionately referred to them as the gua guas. Gua gua (pronounced waa waa) means baby in the local indigenous language Kichwa. The name stuck and henceforth the pair endured with good humour being called the gua guas for the duration of our travels. We couldn’t have asked for better travel companions, for they enveloped us with their youthful energy and humour and were such fun to be around.
It was the height of comfort to have Juan Carlos (JUANK Tours: https://www.facebook.com/juan.ullauri.752?fref=ts) take the six of us in his roomy van on this grand little tour of Ecuador. Altogether, the magnificent seven set off from Cotacachi and set our sights on Mindo, where we would spend our first three nights.
The good news is that the birds are still here. Lots of them. And you don’t have to stray too far to see them. Many can be spotted right in town, with the naked eye. Some of them, however, you do have to make a special trek for, and get up pretty early in the morning – like 4:00 A.M.! I’m talking about the Andean cock-of-the-rock. And, the ochre-breasted antpitta: also known as Shakira for her unique shaking motion. Of course, there are numerous others.
At 4:00 in the morning, on our first full day in Mindo, Lori and Ruth, and Mark arose to go on one such special trek. Soon thereafter they were picked up at our guesthouse by our bird guide extraordinaire Danny Jumbo (http://mindo.jimdo.com/contact/), and off they went to see the Andean cock-of-the-rock. Joe, knowing that the trio of birders were in extremely capable and reliable hands, decided that on this day sleep was more important. He still awoke at 4:00 in the morning, and ended up missing out on a great adventure. Oh, well, there’s always next time!
Danny is a highly competent and personable guide, but when he realized that Ruth was a life-long birder, intent on adding birds to her list, he went above and beyond to find more and more birds. Mark, Lori, and Ruth could barely keep track of all the wonderful exotic birds they spotted in Refugio Paz de las Aves (http://www.refugiopazdelasaves.com) (fortunately Lori was recording them in her notebook, where page after page was filled). After a completely wonderful and satisfying visit to the reserve, Danny wasn’t quite finished.
Born and raised in Mindo, Danny knows the area as well as anyone. While swiftly driving back to town, careening around the winding forest roads, he would glance up at the misty treetops and suddenly stop, turn his flashers on, look up with his binoculars, jump out with his tripod and scope, and offer up another beautiful bird to admire. At one point, he stopped in a farmer’s field to get a good look at a collared forest falcon, which the farmer admired along with the rest of the crew. The farmer asked Danny for a lift into town and stood in the back of the pickup for the expected short distance. But Danny still wasn’t done. After three more abrupt stops to hop out and look at birds, the farmer seemed tired of lurching around in the back of the pickup and attempted to climb out, undoubtedly thinking he would get there more quickly under his own steam. Danny motioned him back into the truck, where he remained and grinned good-naturedly at every lurching stop the rest of the way into town. Ruth added at least 10 to 12 birds on the drive back alone, and the farmer had a good story to tell about the crazy birders.
At the same time the rest of the group (Beverly, Ivan, Joe, and Juan Carlos) enjoyed a leisurely, wholesome breakfast on the deck of El Descanso Guest House, in Mindo, and witnessed their fair share of birds (including many varieties of hummingbirds) from the comfort of their chairs!
The day was so much fun that Ruth, Lori, and Joe (who did not want to miss out on the adventure a second time) decided to go with Danny to another reserve at dawn the next morning! At least it wasn’t 4:00 AM (that’s Joe talking)! On this day, we were off to the Milpe Bird Sanctuary, which forms part of the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation (http://www.mindocloudforest.org), near Mindo. The second day, according to Lori and Ruth, was just as fun as the first, but for different reasons. For Lori, being a pluviophile, it was a glorious day to be absorbed by the cloud forest – one could even call it jungle – in the rain! Ruth loved it as well. Joe, not enamoured with the rain, was thankful for his waterproof raincoat! But, really, it was a great opportunity to tune into our true nature, and become intimately aware of our deep connection with the pulsing, living forest. The four of us had an amazing time!
And the day wasn’t yet over. We had a wonderful breakfast at the Mirador Río Blanco in San Miguel de los Bancos, near Mindo. At the back of the restaurant, from a spectacular vantage point, clouds hovered across our view, taking turns covering and uncovering the majestic Rio Blanco. Of course there were more birds to be seen; some so close you didn’t need a telescope or a pair of binoculars.
Ruth’s enthusiasm for birding was contagious and everyone participated in the thrill of spotting birds. While out for breakfast, the other half of our party saw a toucan, much to Ruth’s chagrin. However, when she tallied her list, she was thrilled to discover she had added nearly 100 birds to her list — thanks to Danny!
Other Mindo highlights included a chocolate factory tour at El Quetzal (http://elquetzaldemindo.com) and a side trip to the Museo de Sitio in Tulipe (http://museodesitiotulipe.com).
We all wished we could have stayed longer in the charming town of Mindo but another adventure awaited. We headed off towards the coast and drove along the Ruta del Sol (Route of the Sun) on our way to Puerto Lopez. On the way, we stopped at a beautiful deserted beach so the gua guas could, after much anticipation, swim in the Pacific salt water. After a long day’s drive we arrived in Puerto Lopez, our rest stop for the next two nights, and the departure point for day tours to Isla de la Plata — sometimes referred to as ‘”the poor man’s Galapagos” but which we called the mini Galapagos.
The next day our group joined an organized tour and “set sail” for Isla de la Plata in search of the blue-footed boobie. But, as it turned out, there was nothing to search for. The blue-footed boobie was everywhere to be found, in plain sight. There were mature males and females, juveniles, and even cute little baby boobies. We also saw plenty of other birds, but the blue-footed boobie was the real highlight!
After the birds it was time to play in the water. Everyone jumped off the boat, and began to snorkel in the cool translucent water, entering the domain of sea turtles and beautiful colourful fish. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves – well, almost everyone. Ruth was in a real tizzy, arms flailing about, with an expression on her face like some monstrous creature was trying to drag her down to the deepest depths of the ocean forever. Luckily, Lori, who was in close proximity, used her calming powers to sooth Ruth’s nerves and turn desperation into relaxation. Ruth actually began to enjoy the water!
When Ruth was done snorkelling she needed help to get back in the boat. So, our guide nicknamed “El Toro” (the bull, for obvious reasons) placed his beefy arms under Ruth’s shoulders and in one fell swoop hauled her body completely out of the water and into the boat. Immediately, Ruth requested that I inform El Toro the reason why she couldn’t get back in the boat under her own steam. It was not because she was fat but because of her bad knees. I proceeded to relay this message to El Toro in Spanish, but he didn’t even bat an eye. It seemed the importance of this message fell on deaf ears!
Our friend Beverly is a native Ecuadorian born in the southern city of Guayaquil. Although she has spent most of her life in the US, where she raised her family, she retains a deep love and connection to her native land. That love is reflected in the places she visits and the stories she tells. She has stayed connected to her relatives in Quito, who are involved in the tourism industry and are a wealth of knowledge about this beautiful county. They have shared much of the beauty with Beverly, who has in turn shared it with us, and we are forever enriched by the experience.
In Beverly’s world we might stop for bizcochos (butter biscuits) to nibble in the car, or savour empanadas verde (made from plantain) at a rest stop. We might hear about a local legend as we travel or make a side trip to some beautiful ruins recommended by her cousin. When you see Ecuador from inside Beverly’s world, you cannot help but fall in love with this country as well.
The remainder of our trip we spent in Quito, gaining further insight into Beverly’s world. We got to meet her wonderful cousins and some of their family. It was a privilege to see her interact with her extended family and to secure a glimpse into the lives of quiteños. Warm and generous with their time, we were thrilled to meet them and benefit from their comprehensive knowledge of this country. The best little country in the world!