Tuesday, December 01, 2015

A New Mammal Discovered!

Greeting All,
We have switched gears from climbing volcanoes to looking for birds and wildlife.  We were able to squeeze in a 2-day visit to the Bellavista Cloud Forest, about a 2-hour drive northwest from Quito.  Much of Ecuador's cloud forest has been cleared for agriculture and cattle grazing.  In 1991 Richard and his wife Gloria purchased their first piece of land and built Bellavista Lodge 2 years later.  Today the lodge protects 700 hectares of cloud forest and more land is being purchased and allowed to revert naturally back to forest.  When we arrived we were greeted by many colorful hummingbirds that visit Bellavista's feeders.  About 10 different species frequent the feeders this time of year making them easy to photograph.

Violet-tailed Sylph

Buff-tailed Coronet

After breakfast our guide, Luis, took us on our first hike into the cloud forest to look for different bird species.  It's a challenge finding and photographing birds in the dense fog-shrouded forest but with Luis's help Marc got a great photo of a Crested Quetzal.

Crested Quetzal

Another hike in the afternoon yielded many more beautiful birds.  Here are a few of our favorites:

Plate-billed Mountain Toucan

Toucan Barbet

That night after dinner an unexpected surprise awaited us.  A pair of Olinguitos, a new species of mammal discovered in August, 2013, were in the trees right next to the lodge!  The Olinguito, a nocturnal South American mammal has evaded the scientific community for all of modern history and is the first carnivore species to be discovered in the American continents in 35 years!  


Olinguitos


The following morning I was up early to wait for the Tayra.  I had received a tip that this animal visits the lodge around 6:00 AM.  Sure enough, a large weasel-like animal appeared on the forest floor and climbed up a tree to a bunch of bananas that had been hoisted up into the canopy to entice animals to visit.  The Tayra would grab a banana, climb back down to the forest floor and disappear for about 10 minutes to eat his prize.  He made about 6 trips before disappearing for good, no doubt quite satiated after consuming so many bananas!

Tayra

We had time for one more birding hike in the cloud forest before returning to Quito.  On the drive from Bellavista a female Andean Cock-of-the-rock had built her nest right next to the road!

Female Andean Cock-of-the-rock

Early the next morning we started the long journey to Kapawi Ecolodge deep in the Amazon Rain Forest.  The trip started with a 4-hour drive to the town of Shell at the edge of the rainforest.  From here we took a 50-minute flight in a 10-seater Britton-Norman Islander over a seemingly endless expanse of Amazon Rainforest.  

Amazon Rainforest

Soon we were enveloped in clouds and rain pelted the windshield.  We bumped along and I hoped we'd reach the airstrip at Kutsutkau soon.  Our pilot skillfully threaded his way through the clouds to the dirt airstrip below and we landed with a thud.

Kutsutkau Airstrip

We unloaded the plane including fuel for the lodge's generator and reloaded our stuff onto a motorized canoe.  

Unloading the plane at Kutsutkau

A 30-minute trip down the Capahuari River finally brought us to the Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve where we would spend the next week.  The lodge was built in Achuar Territory in 1993 in an effort to protect their pristine rainforest home from oil extraction, logging and mining.  Kapawi Ecolodge is situated deep in Ecuador's southeastern part of the Amazon Basin close to the border with Peru.  We settled into our cabin, #18, the last cabin in a row of cabins along a drying lagoon.

Our Cabin at Kapawi Ecolodge

We explored the trails and rivers in the area with our naturalist guide Valeria and our local Achuar guide Abraham.  Here is a map of the area.

Map of Kapawi Lodge Area


The best place to look for wildlife was along the rivers.  Hanging from a tree along the Capahuari River was a Brown-throated Sloth, a species of Three-toed Sloth.  He remained in the same tree for days and we'd be sure to look for him as we passed by.  

Brown-throated Sloth

Also seen along the rivers were troops of Red-howler Monkeys and Saddleback Tamarins.  We had gotten a glimpse of one of these tiny monkeys in Peru back in 1991 but here they were plentiful and not quite as shy.

Saddleback Tamarin

A new species of monkey for us was the White-tailed Titi Monkey.  We only saw two of these monkeys but it was a reasonably good sighting.


White-tailed Titi Monkey

A family of Horned Screamers lived in the lagoon in front of the lodge.  We first encountered these bizarre birds last year in Brazil but here they weren't as shy and Marc got a great photo.

Horned Screamer Family

Along the Pastaza River were clay licks where colorful Chestnut-fronted  Macaws, Yellow-crowned Amazon Parrots, Dusky-headed Parakeets and Orange-cheeked Parrots would gather every morning to eat clay to neutralize toxins in the plants and seeds they ingest.

Orange-cheeked Parrot

Gray River Dolphins glided along the rivers and would briefly surface to exhale.  We glimpsed a Neotropical River Otter but he submerged before Marc could get a photo.  Others at the lodge had seen Giant Otters but we weren't so lucky.  We searched the main rivers for them but came up empty handed.  I suggested we explore a more obscure river, the Ishpingo, but Abraham told us it was narrow and blocked with fallen trees.  That did not deter us.  We motored upriver as far as we could go in the canoe stopping frequently so Abraham could hack away fallen trees with his machete!


Abraham Clearing the Way!

Finally we could go no further as a tree too big to cut lay in our path.  No worries, we had brought along two kayaks and transferred into these tiny boats and continued upriver.  It wasn't easy going against the current. We had to maneuver around many fallen trees and at times got stuck on top of them.  Abraham would come to our rescue and push us off.

Abraham to the Rescue

Other times we had to lay in our kayak and squeeze under a large fallen tree!

How low can you go?

Our efforts were not in vain.  A Giant Otter scolded us for trespassing in his private domain.  Not wanting to disturb him for long we turned around and headed downriver.  As we rounded a bend the remainder of the otter's family joined him in admonishing us.  There were 10 otters in total, the largest family group we had ever seen.

Giant Otter Family

We returned to the canoe for lunch then continued downriver in our kayak.  We came upon a troop of Saddleback Tamarins that were clearly agitated at us or so we thought.  When Valeria and Abraham caught up to us, Valeria exclaimed "look at that baby tamarin on the branch just behind you!".  We turned around and there was a tiny baby clinging desperately to a fallen tree branch in the middle of the river!

Stranded baby Saddleback Tamarin


He must have fallen into the river and managed to climb out but was now stranded.  His mom screeched from the shore but was not sure how to help him.  

Frantic Mom

The kites circled overhead in anticipation of an easy meal.  "We have to save him!" Valeria exclaimed.  She grabbed him and Abraham paddled to shore where Valeria released the petrified infant.  He scurried up to his waiting mother and the reunited pair disappeared into the forest.

Our search for wildlife did not end when the sun set.  A whole new set of creatures appeared after dark.  On night walks we encountered creepy spiders and scorpions, poison dart frogs, cicadas, walking sticks and night birds.

Wolf Spider

Ecuadorian Poison Dart Frog


Sadly, the night monkeys eluded us.  On one of our last days Abraham informed us that that Eduardo, one of the boat drivers, had found the night monkeys' daytime roost.  Finally, we were able see the wide-eyed family of four who had been visiting a fruiting tree next to the bar.

Spix's Night Monkeys

After visiting the night monkeys' roost Abraham had another surprise for us.  "Did we want to go to Kapawi Village to see a family of Pygmy Marmosets that were living near his house?" he inquired.  "Of course!" we answered.  We had been searching for them all over the Amazon and there was a family right in the village.  We weren't disappointed.  A curious fellow came close and posed for us.

Pygmy Marmoset

On our last night we were treated to a glorious sunset over the Amazon Basin.

Sunset Over the Amazon Basin

What a fitting end to an amazing week at Kapawi!  Our heartfelt thanks to Valeria and Abraham for showing us the wonders of the Amazon rainforest.  May Abraham and all members of the Achuar community continue to live in harmony with nature without the threat of outsiders wanting to exploit their rainforest home!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

The Mountain Closest to the Sun

Hi All,
Everyone knows that Mt. Everest is the highest mountain in the world but did you know that it's summit is not the farthest point from the Earth's center?  That distinction goes to Chimborazo Volcano, the highest point in Ecuador and our next climbing objective.  After recuperating in Quito from our climb up Cayambe Volcano we headed south toward Riobamba.  Cotopaxi was revealing itself to the southeast.

Erupting Cotopaxi Volcano

We were suppose to climb this volcano but due to recent eruptions in August and October, Cotapaxi National Park is closed and the volcano is off limits to climbers.  Cotopaxi had been dormant for over 70 years but decided to reawaken the year we planned to climb it!  We turned off the Pan-American Highway and took a detour to Quilotoa Volcano.  It's not much of a climbing challenge since you can drive almost to the rim.

Quilotoa Crater Lake

We descended about 1200 feet to the crater lake and made the climb back up.  Other tourists not as acclimated as us opted to ride horses or mules to the top.


Hitching a Ride up Quilotoa

We returned to the main highway and continued south to the large city of Riobamba where we would spend the next 3 nights.  The following morning we awoke to rain but made the trip to Chimborazo Reserve anyway to do an acclimatization hike.  The road to the Carrel Refuge was shrouded in clouds and we could barely see 20 feet in front of us.


Entrance to Chimborazo Reserve

When we arrived at the refuge a climbing team sponsored by Solomon was already there.  We first ran into them as we were leaving the Oleas-Ruales-Berge Refuge on Cayambe Volcano and they spent last night at the same hotel as us in Riobamba.  Now they were here at Chimborazo - who was following who?

We geared up for our hike.  We didn't need climbing gear as we weren't going very high but Goretex was a necessity!  We climbed on a nice trail with switchbacks to the Edward Whymper Hut about 700 feet above.  The hut is now closed and is named after English climber Edward Whimper, the first person to scale Chimborazo back in 1886.  Edward Whymper and his Italian guides Louis Carrel, and Jean-Antoine Carrel were the first Europeans to summit a mountain higher than 20,000 feet.  

Our Group at the Edward Whymper Hut

As we climbed higher it began to snow and the wind picked up.  We reached the top of a small ridge and stopped for a break.  Given the weather conditions Diego, our trip leader, decided to turn back. We had hoped to climb higher but only made it to 17,200 feet.

Our Turnaround Point

On the drive back to Riobamba we saw several groups of Vicuñas along the road.  Vicuñas are one of the two wild camelid species, the other being the guanaco found in southern South America.  In 1988 about 300 animals were introduced into Ecuador from Chile, Peru and Bolivia.  Today the Vicuñas are protected in the Chimborazo Fauna Production Reserve and their numbers have grown to nearly 6000!

Vicuñas

The next day we headed to the resort town of Banos.  Along the way Tungurahua Volcano loomed above us.  We couldn't see the volcano as it was hidden in clouds but could hear it roaring like a jet engine and see the ash spewed from it active crater.

Ash from Tungurahua Volcano

As we neared Banos we had to stop for a volcano evacuation drill being conducted by the local school.

Volcano Evacuation Drill Halts Traffic

It seemed odd to be visiting a tourist town at 5000 feet the day before we intended to climb Ecuador's highest peak but here we were.  We stopped to admire some waterfalls dropping into the Pastaza River Canyon that ran along the road.  Diego suggested we take a cable car across the canyon to get a closer look.  It was an exciting ride.

Cable car Across the Canyon

We continued down canyon in our bus to the tiny town of Rio Verde where we hiked down to the Pailon del Diablo Waterfall (Devil's Cauldron).  A trail took us alongside and then we crawled through a rock tunnel to reach a point under the 100-foot high thundering cascade!


Marc under the Waterfall

Looking Down the Devil's Cauldron

On the way back to Riobamba the clouds had dissipated and we could now see Tungurahua Volcano.  Every time we got a view we'd shout "The volcano is out, the volcano is out!" and we'd stop the bus for yet another photo.

Peggy in front of Tungurahua Volcano

The big day finally arrived.  We headed back to Chimborazo around 10:30 in the morning.  We stopped at the Mountain Lodge Estrella del Chimborazo (Chimborazo Hill Star) for lunch.  We watched a herd of Alpacas grazing as we enjoyed a tasty lasagna meal.  


Alpaccas

After lunch we drove to the Carrel Refuge.  Chimborazo finally revealed itself.  It's glacier-clad slopes looked steep and daunting!  Time to get serious.


Chimborazo Volcano

Our group settled into the larger of two bunk rooms.  I grabbed the bunk on the end furthest from the door - not that I expected to get much sleep.

Our Bunk Room in the Carrel Refuge

After settling in we walked back up to the Edward Whymper Hut and sat for awhile contemplating the climb ahead.  

Our Group at Edward Whymper Hut

We returned to the Carrel Hut to prepare our climbing gear: plastic double boots, crampons, ice ax, climbing harness, helmet, headlamp and several layers of clothes.  As with Cayambe we had an early dinner then tried to get some sleep.  I was too anxious about the climb so could not fall asleep.  Our alarm went off at 10:00 PM, time to get up, have "breakfast" and gear-up for the climb.  The weather was clear and the wind calm as we set off around 11:05 PM.  We climbed steadily to the Edward Whymper Hut where we diverged from the Whymper Route and headed straight up the ridge.  A hour later we stopped to put on our crampons and get roped up.  This time we were paired with mountain guide Robin.  We soon lost the first 3 rope teams as I fiddled with the rope and my ice ax.  I had to keep reminding myself "ice ax on the uphill side and rope on the downhill side". Every time we turned at a switchback we'd have to switch the rope and ice ax which took me a considerable amount of time.

The conditions underfoot were tricky with frozen scree and ice interspersed with rotten snow.  I was not sure my crampons would hold.  We climbed steeply, around 45 degrees toward the main ridge. "When we get to the ridge it will get easier" I kept telling myself.  I could see the headlamps of the 3 rope teams ahead and pressed on.  Finally we crested the ridge around 2:30 AM.  It didn't get any easier!  The ridge narrowed, was bare and icy and was just as steep.  I struggled upward, not confident that I could go on and concerned about getting back down.  Robin asked "If you go higher will you be able to come back down?"  "No" was my immediate response.  So after climbing about 2300 feet (not quite halfway elevation-wise) and reaching 18,100 feet we decided to turn back.  It was not the outcome I had hoped for but I know my limits.  We picked our way down carefully meeting up with Lisa who had also decided to turn back.  Four hearty souls in our group made the summit or came very close to reaching it.  We stopped to watch meteors from the Leonidas Meteor Shower shoot across the sky.  Maybe we hadn't reached the point the farthest from the center of the earth but we had come closer than most!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Note: We didn't take any photos during our attempt to climb Chimborazo.  It was dark and quite frankly I had my hands full!  Here is our GPS track overlaid on a photo of Chimborazo taken the day before.  It will give you an idea of our route up the volcano.  


Our Route on Chimborazo



Sunday, November 15, 2015

Volcanoes on the Equator

Greetings All,
We're in Ecuador, a small South American country that straddles the equator.  We arrived in the capital city of Quito late on November 3rd.  Here is a map of Ecuador with the places we'll visit.  

Map showing places we'll visit in Ecuador

We had a few days to relax and acclimatize to the higher elevation of Quito at 9350 feet.  On one of our free days we decided to visit the town of Otavalo where there is a market full of brightly-coloured, woven craftwork and the indigenous people of Otavalo wear their traditional dress on a daily basis.

Handicrafts in Otavalo Market

Otavaleno Woman


For lunch we went to Hacienda Pinsaqui 5km north of Otavalo.  First built in 1790, this restored colonial hacienda was originally a textile workshop.  At one time 1000 local weavers and spinners were employed here.  The fabrics woven here were exported to the US in the late 1800's.

Hacienda Pinsaqui

 
After lunch we visited Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.  At the southern end of the reserve is Cuichoca Lake which means "Lake of the Guinea Pigs."  We took a short walk to the rim of the crater lake which was formed about 3100 years ago by a massive eruption.  Today the weather was not cooperative and we got limited views of the lake and caldera.  We are going to return here in a few days with the rest of our trek group to hike around the rim of caldera.

Cuicocha Lake

 
The following day the remainder of our trek group trickled into Quito.  Two members of our group arrived from Peru having just done the Inca Trail and the remaining 5 came directly from the UK.  First up on our agenda was a visit to El Panecello (small piece of bread), a 200-meter volcanic hill overlooking Old Quito.  The views were obscured by clouds.  On a clear day we could see the volcanoes of Cotopaxi and Chimbarizo.  On top was a 45-meter stature of the Virgin Mary.  It was engineered and erected by Anibal Lopez of Quito in 1976.  Madonna is standing on a globe and stepping on a snake.  Her wings are unusual in making her look more like an angel.

Virgin of Quito

It was raining as we toured Old Quito.  Street vendors were out in full force selling umbrellas with shouts of "paraguas, paraguas!".  We went to the main square (Independence Square) with a monument to Ecuador's independence from Spain on August 10, 1809. On the eastern edge of the plaza is the Presidential Palace.  We couldn't go in but peered through the gate.  Two soldiers were guarding the entrance.  

Entrance to the Presidential Palace


The next stop was La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (Church of the Society of Jesus) is a spectacularly ornate Jesuit church.  It is decorated with lots of gold.  Unfortunately, photos aren't allowed inside the church.  Construction of the church began in 1605 and was completed in 1765.  la Compañía is one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America. 

La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús 

Our last stop was the Church and Monastery of St. Francis, commonly known as el San Francisco, a 16th-century Roman Catholic complex.   It fronts onto its namesake Plaza de San Francisco.   The style evolved over almost 150 years of construction (1534-1680).  We discreetly snapped a photo inside this church.

Church and Monastery of St. Francis 

We went to an Ecuadorian restaurant for lunch.  One of our group was brave and decided to try the Guinea pig.  A splayed Guinea pig complete with its head arrived on a platter.  It didn't look very appetizing. 

Guinea Pig Anyone?

These animals play a significant part in the everyday life of Ecuadorians as they reproduce rapidly and need a minimum of food and care to survive. They make for a high protein meal especially for populations living in high altitude.

The next day we woke to bright sunshine, finally!  We returned to Cuichoca Lake this time with our trek group and much improved weather.  Our local guide, Antonio, and his young daughter, Cesa, led us on a hike around the lake.

Cuichoca Lake

In preparation for climbing some of Ecuador's high volcanoes, we did a 3-day trek through the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.  Our trek started in the village of Pablo Arenas.  We followed a road through the village and climbed through cultivated fields and cow pastures.  We passed many fields growing a tomato-like fruit called Tamarillo on small trees.  We called them the "Tomato Forest."  

"Tomato Forest"

We could see the village of San Francisco our destination on a plateau not far above us.  It looked so close.  First we had to climb down through forest to cross a ravine on two logs with a cable. 

Marc Crossing the Ravine


We climbed out of the ravine on a steep muddy track.   We had to climb back down to cross another ravine and then had to climb another 600 feet To reach the village of San Francisco at 9600 feet. Camp had been set up on a soccer field.

Camp at San Francisco

We left San Francisco the next morning and headed up toward the clouds.  We climbed barren hillsides where the forest had been cleared to grow crops and graze cattle.  We saw some beautiful red and blue tanagers and hummingbirds.  

Sapphire-vented Puffleg

We had to cross a forest covered ravine whose slopes were too steep to clear.  The trees in the mountain forest were draped in moss.  

Hiking through the Mountain Forest

We wondered how much of this mountain forest remains.  We climbed steeply out of the forest and into the high grasslands called paramo to the high point for the day at 13,200 feet.  We traversed a few ridges where cattle were grazing (they aren't suppose to be in the reserve but the locals ignore the rules).  Finally we could see camp set up next to Yanacocha Lake below. 

Camp at Yanacocha Lake

It was a long 4500-foot descent back to our bus the following day.  We started the descent by climbing up to a ridge.  As we were approaching the high point for today's trek, Marc spotted a White-tailed deer on top.  It ran off at our approach.  The descent back to the bus took forever.  We stayed high, traversing ridge after ridge but not dropping into a valley.  We saw a second deer running off below us.  We stopped for lunch still high on a ridge.  Finally, we started dropping down and down.

Descending from Yanachocha Lake

On November 12, we climbed our first volcano, Imbabura.  We drove up to just over 10,000 for the start of our climb.  We hiked up the road a bit and turned off to follow a muddy trail through eucalyptus trees.  We pushed our way through bushes and tussock grass.  It was cloudy and misty as we climbed higher over hills of tall, wet grass.  We left the main trail which climbed straight up the ridge to climb some switchbacks.  We rejoined the main trail which headed up the ridge.  As we turned a corner, we were hit with a fierce, cold wind. I followed Raoul, our local guide, closely up the ridge which was becoming narrower.  We arrived at the rock scrambling section which was not difficult with lots of hand and foot holds but there were some exposed sections.  Fortunately for me, the long drop offs were covered in clouds and I couldn't see how far I'd fall if I missed a step. We arrived at the north summit at around 15,000 feet.    The view was obscured by clouds but we still posed for a group shot on the top.

Our group on the summit of Imbabura Volcano

Now for our next objective, Cayambe Volcano at 19,000 feet!  It is both Ecuador's third highest peak and the third highest peak in the Americas north of the Equator. It also has the distinction of being the highest point on the Earth's surface through which the Equator directly passes. The climb starts from the Bergé Ruales Oleas Refuge at around 15,000 feet.  When we arrived at the Refugio, Cayambe loomed high above us in bright sunshine.

Us with Cayambe Volcano Behind

We had an early dinner before settling into our 6-person bunkroom which I shared with 4 men (including Marc). 

Our Bunkroom at  Bergé Ruales Oleas Refuge

We didn't get much sleep before getting up at 11PM to prepare for our climb.  There's so much equipment (plastic double boots, crampons, ice axe, climbing harness, helmet, headlamp, plenty of warm clothes, water and food) to assemble for a high altitude climb.  We headed out in darkness around midnight and scrambled up some rocks before reaching the glacier where we put on our crampons and roped up.  Marc and I were on one team led by Diego who is also our trip leader.  It took us a grueling 7 hours to climb 2.5 miles to the top!  There were times I felt like quitting but I kept pressing on.  We jumped over deep crevasses as we made our way up the massive Hermoso Glacier.  Around 7AM we reached the summit.  The wind was blowing fiercely, my heart beating wildly and I was gasping for air but we had made it!

Us on the Summit of Cayambe

We were above the clouds.  Cotopaxi Volcano was spewing ash to the west and we could just make out Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest peak, on the southern horizon. 

View of Erupting Cotopaxi Volcano 

We didn't linger on top for too long.  It was cold and we wanted to get down before the snow conditions changed.  We followed the same route down but now in daylight I could see what we had missed on the way up.

View on the way down from Cayambe

As we neared the bottom of the glacier it started to sleet and rain but a rainbow emerged over a tiny lake brightening my spirits.  It took us 3 hours to return to the refuge.  What an exciting and challenging start to our Ecuadorian adventure!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc