South America

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: