Nature

I’m now seven weeks into my stint at Tandayapa Lodge, 7” north of the Equator in Ecuador’s Pichincha state – and it’s almost time to go.

View from Yanacocha, photo by Ben Tavener

View from Yanacocha, photo by Ben Tavener - click on the image to see my gallery of photos on Facebook.

This week I’ve been mopping up the things I’d not yet done in the area, like today’s visit to Mashpi nature reserve to tick a few more birdies off the list.

As cliché as it might sound, it’s going to be a wrench to leave. The people, the wildlife, the climate, the food – it’s all been so welcoming, diverse and intriguing.

Even the tarantulas and weird bugs buzzing round the lodge have been fun, and although I’m not the morning type, getting up at 4:30am to get to an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek before sunrise, followed by a full day’s guiding a group of nature-lovers round a nature reserve, has been great.

After squeezing the most out of the usual-sunny mornings, the afternoon is usually anyone’s guess. Here in the subtropics, rain is a common afternoon feature, but if I’ve missed the morning sat in the dark somewhere waiting for some elusive BBJ (bloody brown jobby) to give the group a ten-second flyby, I’ve often enjoyed a lot of good early-afternoon hikes, even if the altitude means you pant around parts of it.

One reserve we visit, Yanacocha, is at 3,500 metres and you can really feel that oxygen is in much shorter supply than the relatively low Tandayapa Lodge which is at 1,700m – just a bit lower than Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain.

After the numerous warning I received before coming to Ecuador about its inedible food, I have to say I think it’s either rubbish, or I’ve been extremely lucky – and not just with Rosita, the lodge cook’s fabulous cooking.

I’d tried things like the local bolón – a fried ball of mashed plantain with chicken and spices, and sugar-filled empanadas (like a pancakey croissants) with locally shade-grown organic coffee (apparently the slower cultivated shade-grown coffee is better for you and the environment – you’ll have to Google it, sorry…).

And there are vegetable and types of fruit here I’d never even heard of – like babaco, tree-tomatoes, white carrots, and about eight types of bananas and plantains.

I’ve had some really wonderful encounters with nature down here, too: having hummingbirds, like tawny-bellied hermits, fly up to you while you’re on a hike only to eyeball you for a few frenzied, fleeting seconds, buzz around your head and then fly off again back to attacking heliconias for their nectar; going owling in the jungle when it’s pitch dark; stumbling on a manakin’s weird lek – with the males dancing on branches as if they’re possessed, or thrusting their primaries into the air with an electronic-sounding “beeeeep” as the wings touch 1,000 times per second; rescuing booted racket-tails from the lodge ceiling with a red rag on a long pole; and last night I was returning the amorous advances of a common potoo at dusk, only for it to come right up to me and rode over the lodge until it realised I wasn’t a lady potoo.

Anyway – I’ve so far seen around 285 lifers (species new to me) and with any luck, I’ll have bumped that up to 330 by the time I leave Ecuador.

But this is where the really fun bit of this two-month stint in Ecuador begins, fulfilling one of my lifetime ambitions, and going to the place where you are unlikely to win a staring competition with any of the local wildlife. Galápagos.

So I’ve now been in Ecuador for a month, living at over 1700m, at 0° 0’7″ north of the Equator in the remote village of Tandayapa. Not much by way of communication with the outside world, but a truckload of wildlife.

Plate-billed mountain toucan, photo by Ben Tavener.

This plate-billed mountain toucan is fairly common in the Upper Tandayapa Valley, photo by Ben Tavener. Click on the photo for the rest of my photos from Ecuador.

I’ve been volunteering and guiding for a bird lodge in the village, and I’ve got another four weeks to go in Ecuador.

I’ve been helping out doing whatever is needed to keep me there gratis – including serving the food, guiding guests, lugging suitcases up steep slopes, refilling up hummingbird feeders, and even filling holes in trees with worms to lure in the antpittas.

Of course, it’s not all work, and I get to do a lot of birding. So far, I’ve racked up over 240 species of birds new to me (known as “lifers” in the business) just in the area around Tandayapa and the surrounding including Milpe and Río Silanche.

Bird highlights have included the stunning plate-billed mountain toucan (pictured), Andean cock-of-the-rock, lyre-tailed nightjar, common potoo, and many, many species of hummingbirds.

Photographic highlights of my trip so far – including lots of the birds (sorry!) – can be found here.

After another three weeks or so, I hope to be doing some proper travelling – seeing the capital, Quito, and maybe other parts of the country before I head back to Brazil.

Until then… Hasta luego!

It was a long day – not doubt about it. About 15 hours of travelling – from Curitiba, through São Paulo and, as there are no direct flights to Ecuador from Brazil, through the Colombian capital, Bogotá.

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Flying into Quito just after dusk was breathtaking

However, nothing prepares you for flying into the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, which is set in a “dry valley”, 2,800 metres up, and has an long, undulating shape.

It’s a mixture of clearly planned districts, and other areas which are more reminiscent of Rio’s favelas – home to its 2.5 million inhabitants.

So far, it seems like a pretty modern city (for the region) and pretty lively. There seem to be far more Western companies here and in Colombia – like KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts – than in Brazil. Perhaps due to a lack of their own homegrown equivalents, which Brazil has.

Things are pretty cheap: a cab ride just cost me $2 (they use US dollars here) and my accommodation last night – private room with en-suite – cost $20.

Due to its location (near the Equator) and altitude, the place has very predictable weather: normally around 18°C, with about 60% chance of rain. (Right now it’s sunny.) It’s an easy life for a weather forecaster here…

I haven’t seen it yet because of all the cloud, but just beyond Quito is a volcano, or more accurately a “stratovolcano“, by the name of Cotopaxi.

At 5,900m tall, it’s a bit of a monster, and apparently can be easily seen from Quito’s northern suburbs in July. Weather permitting, of course.

Volcano Cotopaxi, near Quito

Volcano Cotopaxi, near Quito

Could’ve fooled me…

OK – so, time to log off for a while. Perhaps a month or so. I’m off to Tandayapa and the mountain cloudforest.

Today is my last day in Curitiba for the next two months, as tomorrow I’m flying to Ecuador for a stint of volunteer work and South American exploration.

Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador

Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador

You’ve probably spotted, and perhaps even raised an eyebrow at, my fascination with our feathered friends, and this trip will see me well and truly wallowing in birdy goodness.

Tandayapa Bird Lodge, located about 30km northwest of Ecuador’s capital, Quito (as the crow flies), is a purpose-build cloud forest lodge, sat around 6,000ft above sea level – and is something of a Mecca for bird lovers.

Here, I’ll be helping visitors make the most of their stay, and most importantly, making sure they get the right snaps of the nature they travelled so far to get. I also intend to offend the locals with my dead-in-the-water Spanish, and pretend they are instead speaking Quechua.

Despite its small size, Ecuador has the biggest concentration of hummingbirds on the planet, as well as many endemic species.

This should keep me on my toes, as nearly every bird I see will be a first, a ‘lifer’ as us birders call it.

Towards the end of my trip, I’ll be doing so more run-of-the-mill sightseeing – and shall be reporting on Quito – Ecuador’s capital, and the world’s second highest, altitude-wise.

Of course, Ecuador is also where the Galápagos Islands, of Darwin fame, are – only a few hundred miles off the coast. Whether I get to visit these, and Ecuador’s biggest city, Guayaquil – time, and this blog, will tell, and will likely depend directly on how generous visitors’ tips are! (Kidding!)

Anyway, time for some more packing and a last-minute checks online for which plugs they use, if the water’s OK to drink, (wow, just found out they use the US dollar! Handy!) and what the chances are that I’ll be stabbed by anything worse than a hummingbird:

Florianópolis, the city on the island, is the capital of the southern state of Santa Catarina. The stunning, 53km-long island on which the city sits offers over 100 beaches, culture, good food and nearly 300 years of history.  

 

At just a four-five hours’ coach ride from Curitiba, a small distance, by local standards, it had been on my list for too long, and a couple of weeks ago I seized the chance.

Florianópolis from the air

The famous Hercílio Luz Bridge has long been taken out of use, and the island is now connected to the mainland city of São José by a dual carriageway.

It is the gem in South Brazil’s crown, and whether you arrive by air – flying onto the hilly, forested subtropical island, with its lagoons and golden beaches, or by road – crossing over from the continent to the island with Florianópolis town center and Hercílio Luz Bridge as your view, the first time you see the island is breathtaking.

We arrived late, and first thing the next morning we headed for the centre  – with its colourful, Colonial-style buildings, palm trees, energetic street performers and vendors, not to mention the crazy Union Flag-style art deco paving slabs.

The city’s central district is small – and in a few hours we discovered most of Florianópolis’s charming buildings and squares. The Municipal Market sells a mishmash of local food – particularly seafood and lots of exotic-looking fruit.

After grabbing an açaí with banana and granola, we wandered up to the Metropolitan Cathedral and to Praça XV de Novembro (15 November Square – every city has one for some reason), where the city’s enormous Figueira (fig tree) resides – so big it literally has to be held up by scaffolding.

Florianópolis city centre, photo by Ben Tavener

Florianópolis city centre. Photo by Ben Tavener. Click image for my Florianópolis gallery on Facebook.

The city has a vibrant atmosphere, and if we were lucky enough to see a group of locals practising their capoeira moves: gingas, esquivas and rasteiras.

Although the city is known for having Brazil’s best quality of life (according to the UN’s HDI index), we didn’t want to stay there long as it was oppressively hot and humid in summer: 35°C felt more like 45°C, and soon a trip to the beach was needed.

Getting the bus around the island is easy, if not the speediest way to travel.

An hour’s winding bus ride and you arrive in the centre of the island at the Lagoa da Conceição (“Conception Lagoon”, oh err), next to a small town of the same name.

At 13km long, and over 2km wide in places, the brackish waters of the lagoon are the perfect place for take a boat ride or hire a jet ski.

Cachoeira boat stop, Lagoa da Conceição, photo by Ben Tavener

The Lagoa da Conceição is best nagivated by taxi boat, which dropped us right on a restaurant pier. Photo by Ben Tavener

We hopped on a boat up the western shore of the lagoon – just R$5 each way, which took us past palm tree-covered hills, with the island’s famous sandy dunes in the distance, onto otherwise inaccessible parts of the island.

We passed what seemed to be very exclusive resorts, and after an hour’s sailing along idyllic lagoon shoreline – with kite surfers occasionally racing past the boat, we ended up on a wooden pier which went straight into a restaurant.

The other side, after 10 minutes’ walk or so along a trail, into the subtropical forest, we arrived at a cachoeira (waterfall) that we could swim in. The fresh water was exactly what we needed to cool us down. The area was buzzing with bird and butterflies, and banana and cacao trees (or “chocolate trees” as I often erroneously refer to them) are everywhere.

One of Florianópolis island's many "cachoeiras" (waterfalls) - perfect for a dip, photo by Ben Tavener

One of Florianópolis island’s many “cachoeiras” (waterfalls) – perfect for a dip! Photo by Ben Tavener

But the main reason people come to the island – the Ilha de Santa Catarina – is for its array of clean, safe beaches. The only trouble is finding the one that suits you best.

A car or bus ride from the center gets to the northern part of the island in around 35 minutes.

Here you’ll find the resorts of Jurerê, Ingleses, Canasvieiras, Santinho – home to the Praias do Norte (northern beaches).

Jurerê is home to the island’s élite: affluent Paulistas and Cariocas who have bought their dream summer home here. Don’t be surprised when you see the Ferraris and Lamborghinis passing you by, and a hefty bill in the restaurants and bars.

(I was told by Catarinense that in this part of the island there are bars which are for those who simply never need to check their bank balance – and a table or a sofa at a bar can cost R$1,000. That’s just for sitting there, never mind the price of the cocktails. . . Clearly meant to keep the riff-raff out!)

In the end, we plumped for long stretch of golden sands in the town of Ingleses (literally “Englishmen”), which is more down-to-earth, and a little less painful on the wallet. The beaches there are clean, if a little busy at weekend, but there’s space for everyone. Try a banana boat ride or just splash around in the inviting waters.

Ingleses Beach, Ingleses, Florianópolis island. Photo by Ben Tavener

Ingleses is favoured by families and tourists, but there’s plenty of room for everyone! Photo by Ben Tavener

As we didn’t have all day, we just grabbed a table, and enjoyed a beer with some fries on the beach, and took in some rays, splashed about and admired the views of the surrounding hills and islands.

The Praias do Leste (eastern beaches) offer a mixture of calmer sands – such as Joaquina – to Praia Mole, which is where the surfers head to make the most of the ideal waves.

Swallow-tailed kite

Swallow-tailed kites can be seen soaring on the thermals generated by the island’s mountainous landscape

For those who want to get further off the beaten track – the island offers a number of trails, particularly in the south of the island.

Some go to fresh-water lagoons and falls, others lead you eventually to secluded beaches.

The one-hour trek to Praia Naufragados will offer visitors a taste of the Mata Atlântica – Brazil’s east-coast tropical forest – ending up on a more secluded beach.

It’s a good place to spot much of the island’s flora and fauna – including the majestic swallow-tailed kites circling in the thermals.

Anyone in the south of Brazil should definitely try to visit Florianópolis – it’s a couple of hours’ flight from Rio or São Paulo, and it’s worth every penny.

For a second, I thought an avian murder was taking place outside my window.

This is Brazil’s endemic plain parakeet (Brotogeris tirica) – or the “rich parakeet” (periquito-rico) as it is known in Portuguese, and it is very common, especially here in the Curitiba and in our bigger neighbour, São Paulo.

They are NOISY. They congregate in groups and fly from food source to food source, squawking their lungs out. But they brighten up my day whenever I see them, particularly this close (thanks to my zoom lens!).