Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Adventures in Mindo and Cotopaxi


Eliceo, our driver for our entire stay in Ecuador, maneuvers our off-white 30-seat passenger bus expertly through the lush mountains of the Reserva Bellavista approximately 60 kilometers northwest of Quito. Although our alarms went off this morning at 5:45am (yesterday, at 4:15am), no one is asleep. Eyes and camera lens, pressed against windows, scan across the cloud forest we leave behind. These western Andean slopes afford some of the best bird-watching, hiking and wildlife photography you can find anywhere on Earth. And we have taken full advantage of every moment here.

Mindo is a small village set in a cloud forest. After a morning of On Assignment projects in Quito, a two-hour ride took us to Cabanas Bambusa, our home for the next four days. Niki, an expert biologist and our local guide, met us in town and took us to El Chef for a traditional meal of chicken, rice, fresh juice and a soup made from green plantains. Exhausted from our travels, and full of food, we settled into our bamboo huts for the rest of the evening.

We awoke in Mindo as most locals do: by rooster! Leo, the manager of Bambusa, provided eggs toast, fresh fruit, tea, hot chocolate and coffee. A short walk along a dirt trail along the Mindo River brought us to the Mariposaria, a butterfly farm. There we saw nearly thirty different varieties of butterflies. The Mariposa is a research center first, providing scientists an excellent opportunity to study so many butterfly species in one location. Photography students focused their lens on the amazing colors and textures. A tube ride down the chilly Mindo river took us to lunch at another local restaurant where we warmed ourselves with soup and hot food. In the afternoon, after changing out of our wet clothes, we zipped across thirteen cable lines almost 100 meters above the forest floor. Fear dissolved into nervousness which dissolved into sheer excitement. A few students admitted that ziplining was their favorite activity so far on the trip.

We awoke early on our second day in Mindo. Two pickup trucks bounced us across dirt roads and dropped us off at a cable car system. A conveyer system pulled us nearly 400 meters across a canyon to another mountain. From there, we hiked down approximately 2 kilometers to a beautiful waterfall, where we swam and cooled off. The Photography students played with speckled light and tones, while Wildlife and Conservation students explored the fauna and vegetation.

Although our afternoon brought some rain, it did not deter our community service project. Half of the group painted and cleaned the local hospital while the other half cleaned and maintained the outside walkway. Klever, our local contact, was a great help. Locals passing by saw our hard work and beeped their horns, waved hello and even brought us fresh bananas as a thank you! The connection the students made with Klever turned out to be a highlight of the day for many.

Greg Marshall, a biologist expert working with National Geographic, joined our family Wednesday night. After a quick introduction, we all went to bed (on Thursday we had woken up at 4:15 AM to travel to Angel Paz, a reservation nearly forty minutes away from our hostal). After a brief hike down into the dark forest, Angel, our guide, fed a few of his birds and explained the unusual mating ritual of the Cock-of-the-Rock. Students watched as his birds fed and some took advantage of the opportunity to take pictures. After so many activities during the last few days, we spent the rest of the afternoon resting and relaxing at our hostal. We ate one last dinner in Mindo on Thursday night and this morning we find ourselves being whisked away deeper and deeper into a very different part of the country: the páramo (Andean highlands).


Waking up before the roosters for the second day in a row, everyone was eating breakfast by 6am on Friday in order to make our 7am departure from Mindo. Though there was quite a bit of last-minute packing to accomplish, most of us spent some time marveling at and photographing the gorgeous morning rainbow, which had formed behind our hostal during breakfast. With bags in hand, we said a final farewell to Leo and shuffled down the road to meet Eliceo and our bus.

Less than two hours later, we arrived at La Mitad del Mundo ('the middle of the world'), just outside of Quito, where we toured the grounds and did some shopping. A park of sorts, La Mitad del Mundo is modeled after a colonial Ecuadorian village and home to an enormous monument, which (incorrectly!) signals the location of the equatorial line. Calculated by Charles-Marie de La Condamine in 1736, the equator was thought to pass through the park until modern calculations proved it actually exists 240 meters to the east of the monument! Museo Solar Inti Ñan (inti ñan is the Quichuan word for “sun”), a museum on the actual equatorial line, was our next stop. Full of interesting activities proving the existence of the equator and a tour of various housing complexes used by the indigenous people, the museum was a hit for believers and skeptics alike.

Skirting Quito’s city limits, we began the 2.5-hour drive to Hacienda Porvenir, where we spent the weekend visiting the area around Volcán Cotopaxi. Though some people slept for a portion of the drive, everyone was wide-awake for the adventurous last leg, when Eliceo expertly maneuvered our large bus up a winding cobblestone road.

Upon arriving at the hacienda, we were greeted by Señor Alfredo, the manager, who served us mini empandas, a pastry-like snack of fried dough encasing queso fresco (Ecuadorian cheese), and an outstanding tea. Still hungry, we then moved to a different part of the hacienda where we had a filling lunch of lentil soup and pork chops.

Bundled up in jackets, sweatshirts, gloves and hats, most everyone then embarked on a hike around the area, stopping at a near-by waterfall and checking out the local flora and fauna. Surrounded by volcanoes and high Andean forest, we were absolutely astounded by the scenery. After a delicious dinner, students split up into On Assignment groups-- Wildlife and Conservation students had a quick review of what they had learned in Mindo, while Photography students meandered around the hacienda shooting dusk and night photographs.

The next morning we got our first look at the snowy peak of Volcan Cotopaxi, which had been shrouded in clouds the previous afternoon. Dressed as chagras (Ecuadorian cowboys) in ponchos and chaps, the majority of the group spent Saturday morning horseback riding through the area surrounding the hacienda. Riding from high Andean mountain forest into páramo, they spotted American kestrels and caracaras (a native hawk) and heard tawny antpittas.

Saturday afternoon was spent at a nearby campsite, where the group contributed to the reforestation effort by planting over twenty alder saplings. Wildlife and Conservation students then performed a biodiversity transect and water sampling in the same area, while the Photography group held a critique of selected photographs.

On Sunday morning the majority of the group traveled to Santa Rita, a nearby nature preserve owned by Tierra del Volcan. We spent the morning hiking the trails in the area and ziplining over the small river passing through the forest. After a quick lunch, the group built a 9-post orchidiario on the side of the interpretation center. While they do not currently have any orchids to display, the managers hope to salvage and replant ill-fated orchids that have fallen off tree limbs, so that visitors will always have the opportunity to view the unique plants.

After a short hike to a nearby waterfall, we made our way back to the hacienda for some free time, during which students read, took photos and walked the grounds. That evening Greg gave a presentation on his work at National Geographic. As inventor of the Crittercam, a tiny video camera that is attached to wild animals for days at a time, Greg had some incredible footage to show us, including footage of green sea turtles, emperor penguins and a lioness with her cubs. Amazing!

Up at 7am today, we left Hacienda Porvenir for the last time and drove to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. While we were unable to climb the volcano, everyone enjoyed a long walk around Laguna Limpiopungo and then a guided tour of the nearby interpretation center. Taking our last look at the snow-capped summit of Cotopaxi, we embarked on another adventurous ride down a dirt road and made it back to Quito.

¿Y mañana? A Galápagos!

- Alex & Jes