Our tour leader is down on all fours and stuck in the mud. He cannot remove his boots until he takes his feet out. He is a mess. Now it is our turn to follow him across the huge mudslide blocking our path. One by one we struggle over getting extremely muddy but luckily avoiding the dangerous pits that lurk beneath the surface.
The mudslides that have plagued the Eastern slope of the Andes in Ecuador this year are an act of God: the Godzilla of all el Ninos. The decision to cross the mudslide is not.
On this birding trip to Ecuador, we have learned several important lessons about how not to book a trip.
- Get a draft itinerary before you pay all your money down (we didn?t). If the itinerary says “lodging at my house” ask questions. (We did, after paying it all. This got us a hotel?more about that later).
- If the itinerary doesn't specifically say what meals are covered and which are not, ask. Also, if a meal is not covered, ask if the schedule allows time for it, ask where you eat and when (we didn't). We had two breakfasts and three “dinner-lunches” at the leader?s house (hamburgers and hot dogs for two and chicken for the third).
- --Ask questions about “little things” like laundry facilities (see picture) and transportation. We had a car and a pick-up truck. The luggage, covered with a tarp, only got a little wet in heavy rains.
- If the activity level is higher than advertised, opt out. From 10 to 2 there are few birds out, anyway. Mostly, they don?t justify wearing yourself out hiking up steep slopes in high altitude and noontime heat. Opt out. I did.
The morning of our mudslide experience we arrived just after midnight at our hotel in San Rafael, south of Quito. We had to carry our luggage by ourselves up a steep marble-tiled staircase (35 steps) to our room (one double bed, one ¾ bed and one single), which turned out to have only a trickle of ice cold water, and fell asleep (not hard to do after 17 hours of traveling). We got up at 5:30 AM to get ready to be picked up for breakfast. Breakfast, at our tour leader?s house, consisted of 2 small pancakes, syrup and a juice box. No coffee. The house was a mess (hint: apparently garbage collection is infrequent in San Rafael). We headed across the main pass from Quito to the Eastern Slope and out on a long walk up and down steep muddy trails at 9,000 feet and, finally, across the mudslide. Then it was time for lunch, which was supposed to be sandwiches which our leader had made at home. And forgotten them there. We were offered, and ate, chips, Oreos and water while the two leaders debated whether to eat at a restaurant.
Our final destination that day, Wild Sumaco, in a beautiful bird-filled setting, was everything a well-run comfortable eco-lodge should be. The meals (three a day) were excellent. We saw wonderful birds there. Four days later, we left Wild Sumaco and headed back to Quito (San Rafael) to the same hotel with the assurance that we would have better rooms and hot water. BUT it was Saturday night. The street was a never-ending traffic jam, the sidewalks were packed with people and the solid wall of discos and karaoke bars across the street were at top decibels. Three of us got Jacuzzi rooms on the first floor but two were sent to the top floor again, opened the door and found it inhabited by a soccer team. They got moved down and we all tried to sleep. Without success. The bars closed at 2:30 but the street didn't quiet down until well after 3:30. After that the real noise began to settle down but the car alarms continued to go off. We had no trouble being ready to leave at 5:30 because most of us were still awake. Breakfast was scrambled eggs, toast and a juice box at our leader's house. Still no coffee Then we were off to 13,000 feet and a hike to a lake. Again, I opted out. I was happy because on the way we got good looks at a couple of Andean condors.
Our accommodations for the next five days were at a farm right next to the town of Mindo. Not all rooms had attached bathrooms and, though clean, the structures were closer to bunkhouse or shack than hotel. But we ate two excellent breakfasts in the main house. Three breakfasts were take-away ham sandwiches. Only one other meal was included in our package "lunch-dinner" which we ate around 3PM (pizza two days, steak one day and a really nice restaurant one day).
So was the trip a disaster? No. It was an adventure. The other people on the trip were wonderful to travel with and, in addition, they were very good birders. We saw many birds we would have missed if they, with their eagle eyes, had not found them. Our leader and co-leader took us to a restaurant when the sandwiches were left behind, found us another place to stay after the sleepless Saturday night, found a decent hotel in San Rafael after we had to cancel the proposed trip back to the Eastern Slope because the pass was closed, took us to a couple of decent, even good, restaurants for a couple of our dinner-lunches and gave us a delightful day in Quito when we couldn't go back east. And you could (and I did) opt out of the difficult steep up and down marches in the heat and high altitude. Most of all: WE SAW GOOD BIRDS!
The high point of the trip was our day at Refugio Paz de las Aves. On our last day in Mindo we had to be packed and ready to leave at 5:15 so we could reach the cock of the rock lek by dawn. A lek is a place where male birds come to jump around and make noise. This activity is irresistible to females. Go figure. When we arrived, it was still almost completely dark on the trail to the lek. Our flashlights revealed a number of cows on the narrow path but they moved off and, as we slogged through the mud, it became obvious that not all of the squishy stuff was mud. The lek was a leafy tree that was already alive with frog-like croaks and squeaks and shaking with jumping birds. As it became lighter the cocks; bright red birds the size of fat crows with black and white wings became visible. Every time a female (a sort of maroon colored bird) arrived the activity hit a frenzied peak and all the males flew off, chasing the female. Then they returned and began croaking, squeaking and jumping again.
|Antpitta in the wild|
Eventually, it was time for the antpitta feeding. In 2004 birders discovered Angel Paz, a campesino who was feeding worms to antpittas. Antpittas are very secretive birds and very difficult to see. He had learned to get the birds to come to his whistle to be fed. Word spread and birders converged on Angel?s farm to see the birds. They paid him money. It became a lucrative business for the Paz family who are now preserving large portions of their farm for birds. Angel's first antpitta, Maria, was a giant antpitta, a particularly rare bird. She is now gone but giant antpittas still come to a whistle, either by him or other members of the family who are now working in the business. We walked up and down steep muddy trails pursuing antpittas and saw four species of these rare birds. It was a magical day.
The last two days of the trip were spent in and around Quito because we could not get back over the pass to the Eastern Slope because of the mudslides. Quito was beautifully spruced up for the Pope's visit and lively with Sunday activity. We were quite happy to have this finale to the trip.
|Even the cast of Dragon Ball Z was excited to see the Pope!|
Would I go back to Ecuador? Yes.
Would I book another tour company? Yes.