Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Ecuador,Hasta La Bellavista Baby

Christina writes: After an amazing, yet exhausting adventure in the Galapagos, I was wondering if we really needed another nature experience in the cloud forest, or whether our time would have been better spent relaxing in our Quito hotel. Knowing that we had a six thirty am pick up and a two hour drive almost made me want to cancel. But, it was prepaid back in Australia, so we tumbled out of bed and got on with it. The first half of the drive was getting out of the city - the only highlight being the equator line and the big monument that marks it. The second half was bumpy windy roads and we were glad to get out of the mini bus at the other end.

Plate-billed Mountain Toucan

Suddenly, as we entered the 700 hectare reserve, all doubts were cast aside, we had entered a unique place. Bellavista is at the southern edge of the Choco/Andean rain forest - among a small handful of internationally recognized hotspots of biodiversity - that stretches from southwestern Columbia to Northwestern Ecuador. We were met by our charming host, Richard and shown to our cute home, the bamboo house, where we had the second floor to ourselves.

This is a bird watcher paradise. I felt like an imposter at first. We came here because our travel agent Sheree said it was worth visiting while we were so close. But others staying here seem to already know so many of the birds and their names and have list of what they want to see and what they hope to glimpse. Our guide David is brilliant. He can spot a bird and identify it by its call and its markings before I can even make out the fluttering of wings many trees away in the valley.

We started off with a nature trail - about three and a half hours and 7km on winding narrow muddy hillside paths. The trees are dense and the lushness of the foliage envelops you as you wander along. We didn't see a great deal of birds on the walk until we returned to the road, but we did marvel at the diversity of epiphytes (air plants) and the tiny orchids that clung onto the trees.

No doubt, my favourite place at Bellavista was the bird feeders. Craig, Callum and Charlie flagged the afternoon walk because of rain, but I went down to the meeting place and then stayed for over two hours mesmerized by the dozen different varieties of Hummingbirds that feed on the sugar syrup in the feeders. Trying to get photos of these beautiful creatures is almost impossible, but if you sit long enough and train your camera lens on the feeders, you manage to get some. 
Beautiful Jay

Check out his fluffy 'boots'

My favourite, Purple-throated Woodstar - flaps his wings 85 times per second and makes the sound of a bumble bee. He does have legs, but never uses them to feed - just hovers.

Masked Trogon

So while I am not a converted 'Birder', I have a new respect for those who are, those who guide and educate people about the beautiful birdlife and for Richard who has built a sustainable tourism operation to protect this environment.

P.S. I do now have an official bird list, and I've ticked off all the birds I saw - maybe I am a birder in training??  

Craig Writes:

3/04/13. Imagine your sitting at your favourite coffee shop, it's a warm balmy day, every now and then the slight whisper of a breeze blows through to ruffle the pages of your daily read. The coffee's strong and hot and the rich aroma is a pleasure in itself. You look up every now and then to casually scan the street scape for interesting things and beautiful people. You look down but your head suddenly jolts back up. This cant be right. Walking straight towards you, no more than 20 metres away is Daniel Craig - James Bond himself- and with her arm loosely linked through his is none other than the gorgeous Charlize Theron. HollyWood royalty right here in front of you. You turn to your left to share this unbelievable event with your neighbour and you look straight into the face of Meryl Streep sipping delicately on a Chi Tea. She gives you a polite nod then continues reading her book.  Raucous laughter and table slapping rips your attention to a group of fellas playing cards a few tables back. Johnny Depp, De Niro and Clint Eastwood are playing Texas Holdem and getting served hot chips in a cone by Madonna in a set of fish net stockings. Holy shit what's happening are you in a dream, have you been drugged. Al Pacino walks in with a small Pug on a tattered leather leash and sidles up to them and points to his dog, " hey guys, say hello to my little friend", De Niro concentrating on his cards turns and says, "you talkin to me". Eastwood sees the Pug is about to piss on Pacino's leg and chuckles to himself, " go ahead Pug, make my day".
The lounge your on bounces as someones next to you gets up . You turn and look up into the craggy jowled face of Big Arnie Schwarzeneger. He says he has to go to the toilet but, "he'll be back", could I look after his toona sandwich.   Your head is spinning, your favourite Hollywood stars are here, now, in front of you. The euphoria, the excitement, the amazing good fortune to be here, in the right place at the right time.

Well, times the hyperbolic fervor of my dream sequence by ten and welcome to the excitable world of the dedicated bird watcher. I recently had the experience of being with a flock of dedicated bird watchers when we visited the Cloud Forests that cloak the steep slopes of the Andes mountains. We stayed at Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve in Ecuador and it is one of the best. These folks don't just love their birds, they are enraptured. 
The Pink Footed Goose, The Asian Crested Ibis, The Laughing Owl, these are the Rock Stars and the hero's of stage and screen to the serious "birder". They have binoculars that could find Neil Armstrong's dropped wallet and cameras that could snap a shot of it lying in the shadow of a foot print. Not to mention an encyclopedic mind of names and the eyesight of Clark Kent. " Oh look, look, the furry feathered nicker bocker navel knocker, just there, in the shadow of that large palm frond, behind that large tree, behind that other large tree, in the next valley. " Oh yes, yes, I see it, I see it.
I know it seems I'm poking fun, and I guess in a way I am, but, these dedicated bunch of bird lovers spend heaps chasing the next peek of something rare and they're happy to get up at any ungodly hour of the morning to make sure they're in their hidey hole covered in dripping palm fronds before the sun rises just to get that one in a million shot. So, good luck to them.

Palm ponchos
The Bellavista lodges were rustic but comfortable.  The food, adequate. They restock on Wednesday and all the good stuff gets eaten in the first few days so don't expect gourmet anything after about Sunday. Our cabin was built entirely of bamboo and was fine after we found a heater to take the night time chill out of the air.

Our cosy bamboo hut 
While the whole bird watching thing didn't really tickle my fancy, the landscape, the valleys with the thick forests of Guava Trees and enormous Palm trees, mostly covered in tree moss due to the constant wetness and humidity, was breath taking. The air as fresh as the the first day it was made.

My lungs feel good just looking at this picture
The one little fella that I was quite keen on and I could sit and watch for ages was the Hummingbird. They have about 138 different species in Ecuador and they're all really cute. Some facts. They drink four times their body weight every day.  Their wings can flap between 60 - 85 times per second. Their heart is 40 percent of their body mass and they are the only bird that can fly backwards. Their heart beats up to 1200 times per minute and when they sleep they hibernate and their bodies metabolism  slows down by up to 90 percent. And, they're really really fast. Love the Hummingbird. 

Re fueling at the Hummingbird BP
Humming Bird chit chat
Apart from the glorious walks through the chirping forest in oozing mud and sloppy Wellingtons, which was much better than it sounds, there were a couple of other highlights.

And I was going to wear thongs
The Mariposa De Mindo butterfly farm was good fun. Hundreds of the most stunningly coloured and curious butterflies you've ever seen.  The Owl Eyed butterflies were big and friendly. 
Butterfly love. With a lifespan of only 2 to 5 days, it was never going to last.
There are pieces of banana everywhere and your encouraged to wipe a bit on your finger, looks and feels a bit like a booger but the butterflies love it. 

With the adoption papers through, it was time to take the kids home.
Then there was El Quetzal, the Chocolate Making Factory. Whats not to like here. While not the Willie Wonka of South America we got to see and taste everything from the raw Cocao pod through to some of the final products like the  77 percent Chocolate with Ginger and the Chocolate BBQ sauce. The whole set up is pretty rustic but man they make some of the best chocolate Iv'e ever had. 
The very latest in 1960's technology
The brownie, sorry Pete, was beyond compare and the coffee, ohh the coffee.

This offensive looking blob is arguably one of the finest things I've put in my mouth

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