Ascending to Santa Lucía
"Do you guys see that mountain?" asked our guide Javier, gesturing over his shoulder to a peak blanketed in lush vegetation and topped with wispy clouds. "That's Santa Lucía. That's where we are going."
And thus began our 2500m trek up to the Santa Lucía Cloud Forest Reserve, ascending more than 600 vertical meters in a couple hours. Upon entering the forest at the base of the mountain, we were soon immersed in a new world of endless epiphytes ("air plants"), arthropods (see tarantula), hummingbirds, and eventually, clouds. Javier introduced us to the ecology of the forest as we climbed, a much different ecosystem than the rainforest from which we had just come.
Our arrival at the top of the mountain was met with ice-cold lemonade (made from delicious local sugar, local lemons, and local water) and the chance to sit down, take off our muddy boots, and enjoy our new vantage point.
We spent our first afternoon in Santa Lucía observing hummingbirds. Within a half hour, we observed 8 distinct species visiting the feeders. To put this in perspective, there are only 12 species total in all of the US (Ecuador has more than ten times that number).
The next morning, seven of us were given the opportunity to visit a lek, a site where male birds court female birds by performing intricate dances. This specific lek is used by an iconic Andean bird called Cock-of-the-Rock.
In order to get there by sunrise (when the birds are most active), Morgan, Max, Cris F., Jake, Luke, Ross, and Matt left the lodge at 4 a.m. We trekked over "three mountains" (though others described it as two decent-sized hills) on our way to the site, navigating the winding path in the pitch dark with headlamps and flashlights.
About five or six of our birds showed up, but unfortunately, they were all males. Our guide Noe explained to us as we left, "The female didn't come. So the males were very sad." I think some of our group members felt the same way, but nonetheless, it was a great experience. I mean, how often can you say you hiked through the Andean cloud forest at four in the morning? (Plus, the views on the way back were incredible, with the clouds opening up to reveal the mountains below)
After breakfast, we spent the rest of the morning on another hike learning more about the ecology of the cloud forest, seeing the beautiful orchid gardens, and taking turns on the giant rope swing.
The afternoon featured a botany lecture by Javier and an entomology presentation from Jed and Emma (see photo).
More sleep (for some), more hikes (for all)
The next morning, a new group of seven (Jed, Katie, Less, Dr. Reding, Casey, Alex, and Kyra) set off on the same 4 a.m. trek the other group had made the previous morning. Meanwhile, everyone else caught up on sleep. After breakfast, we set out for the Santa Lucía waterfalls.
On our way there, we stopped at the Santa Lucía sugar cane field. They produce their own organic brown sugar (like we had in the lemonade when we arrived), a healthier and more flavorful variety than our highly-processed white sugar. Recently, however, the crop has been decimated by the appetites of some endangered Andean spectacled bears, the only bear species found in South America. Bear with me for more on this subject later.
After dinner, the Santa Lucía staff wished us farewell and thanked us for visiting (we would leave the next morning). We were then invited outside to see the insect light traps that the guides had set up. These traps shine a powerful floodlight up at a large white sheet. The insects, attracted to the light reflecting off the sheet, came by the hundreds—sphinx moths, rhinoceros beetles, a cecropia moth, and much more. Our class-entomologists described the experience as "pure ecstasy.
Oso de Anteojos
We awoke early the next morning to hustle down the mountain. Our next stop was the Maquipucuna Biological Reserve, which is just down the road from the base of our Santa Lucía mountain. This detour was not on our original itinerary, but we made it for a worthy cause: a chance to see the endangered spectacled bears currently living in the park (the same species eating the sugar cane). Even for Ecuadoreans, this is a very unique opportunity. Before this, Javier had only seen two spectacled bears during his 24 years working in conservation.
We saw two. The first was fairly far off the path, up in a tree, snacking on some aguacatillo fruit. The second one was doing the same, but the guides led us crawling through the undergrowth to get a better view. We ended up almost directly under the bear, watching it stretch to reach the thin branches on the top of the tree. The bear peed, nearly hitting several members of our group (we were asked to include this in the blog).
I feel pretty fortunate to have experienced what we did. Not because we saw something rare and incredible, though. Ecology isn't about seeing cool things just to check them off a list. It's about seeing the beauty in the natural world and realizing that these organisms, these ecosystems, this earth—are worth conserving.
We left the cloud forest similarly to how we arrived: hungry. But with a lot more knowledge in our brains. And a little more fatigue in our limbs. But ultimately satisfied. We arrived back to Quito at 4:00 p.m., just in time for a late lunch.