Cloud Forest…………..the name conjured up images of a mystical, magical land filled with fantasy and bewitching allurement, shrouded in a spellbinding mix of cloud and mist, myth and folklore……..and I certainly was not disappointed, for Ecuador’s Cloud Forests are indeed akin to a dream.
Constantly immersed in a layer of clouds, Ecuador’s montane rainforests are located on the slopes of the Andean mountain range between 900m and 2,500m above sea level. Rainfall is often heavy in these tropical mountainous regions and as the moisture laden air cools due to the upward deflection by the mountains, persistent condensation results and the Cloud Forest is born!
Being constantly veiled in clouds, these forests have very unique climate conditions, which of course affect flora, fauna and the ecosystem as a whole. The Cloud Forests of Ecuador are considered the single richest hotspot of biodiversity on the planet, containing approximately 15-17% of the world’s plant species and nearly 20% of its bird variety. They are also home to many iconic species of animal such as the Spectacled Bear, Jaguar, Sloth, Howler Monkey and Puma.
With 25% of the World’s Cloud Forest occurring in Ecuador, it was paramount that I visit. So literally 24 hours after I arrived back to Quito, I set off for a 3 night stay at Bellavista Lodge, swapping majestic, craggy mountains and snow-capped volcanoes for the moist, cool and verdant lushness of the forest…….to lose myself in the mysterious clouds.
Bellavista is located in the Tandayapa Valley, less than a 2 hour drive from Quito and is one of the regions first eco-tourism projects established in 1991. Turning off the main Quito to Los Bancos route, meandering higher along the coiled forested cobbled road, arriving at Bellavista was like entering an enchanted evergreen fairy kingdom. 40% of all species of Hummingbird are found in Ecuador and Bellavista is a haven from which to observe these little enchanters. I was soon captivated by the blur of hypnotic bright colours as they flited from flower to flower, their wings a blur of activity creating the soothing melodious drone for which they are named.
Once settled in my room in the “Trailhead House” I had to forcibly peel myself away from my balcony and its sensational views over the Cloud Forest to join a guided walk. The Guided Walks offered at Bellavista are a great opportunity to discover and identify the unique flora and fauna of the area, familiarise yourself with the different bird sounds and also a great way to habituate yourself with your surroundings. The heavy incense of vegetation and rain permeated every pore, interspersed with the fragrant aromas of orchids and bromeliads as we crept along the forest floor. Trickling water from the nearby streams mingled with the chorus of birdsong………the forest was bursting with life, a true feast for all the senses.
After lunch I decided to take myself off on a short hike of exploration, delving a little deeper into the forest I managed to spot two toucans resting in the trees, their brightly coloured bills a flash of brilliance in the dense leafy vegetation. Every step felt like an adventure, balancing on rocks whilst crossing dribbling streams, shimmying along fallen logs and crawling delicately under low hanging branches and vines, moving to the pulse of energy all around.
As the sun descended a chill began to set in when I arrived back to my room so I decided to put my heater on……and bam the electricity went! I had fully convinced myself that I had blown the entire electrical circuit and was practicing my playing dumb face when there was a pretty stern knock on my door……..shit! Instead of a sea of angry faces I was met by a beaming smile from one of the staff offering me candles and matches, explaining that there had been an ongoing problem with the electricity that they had been trying to manage….phew, wasn’t my fault!! Dinner by candlelight with the sounds of the forest enveloping us was amazing, in fact having no electricity added to the experience, a complete switch off from the outside world, total immersion into the wilderness. Back in my room alone and in darkness the mind does begin to wander………deep in the woods, no electricity, isolated and with only five guests…..isn’t this how most horror movies begin?!
Waking up to the dawn song and the morning sun stretching its fingers under my duvet I was pleased to discover that I had not become a cast member in a horror movie! After a hearty breakfast I once again set off on an adventure. Hiking alone probably isn’t the best idea, particularly when there are jaguar, puma and spectacled bear in the area, but the other guests were couples and I didn’t fancy intruding and I was prepared…….I carried a first aid kit and a Leatherman tool with me!! Off into the bush I sauntered, climbing uphill along the Heliconia Trail to eventually link up with Tarzan’s Folly which was an incredible descent to the forest floor, crossed a stream then climbed steadily to the other side of the valley. I then linked up with the Bestiary Trail which was an absolute beast of a hike…..very exciting, very adventurous and incredibly hard work! I scrambled along densely carpeted verges, hugging close to the trees, a sheer drop the other side of me, climbed over thick, sinuous roots soft and velvety with moss and eventually after a monumental climb out of the jungle canyon I was on the road back to my room just in time for lunch!
You would think that perhaps I’d treat myself to a relaxing afternoon lazing in my hammock, bathing in the sounds and smells of the forest………..no, that did not happen! My appetite for foraging through the forest had not yet be sated so I set off to explore, following the Chaquinan Trail until I reached the “house in the woods”, slightly creepy and it definitely fitted into my horror film theme so I swiftly moved along to the Discovery Trail, a nice, easy forest walk that descended gently, crossing two streams until I reached Discovery Falls. Due to a serious lack of rain there was no gushing, bubbling water, only a modest trickle, but the scenery, views and vistas were amazing. Once again I had to pull myself away from a vision of beauty as I began the steady climb back to the Lodge and a well-deserved dinner!! After 6 hours of hiking it was no surprise that I retired to my room pretty early, letting the nocturnal sounds of the forest lull me into a deep slumber.
My final morning at Bellavista involved lazing in my hammock, favouring the forest views to my book, trying to memorize the sounds of nature around me. Watching the humming birds busily flitting once again the sound of tyres on gravel pulled me from my enchanted fairy land and back to reality, it was time to leave the charm of Bellavista behind and return to Quito to prepare for my venture to the Galapagos, but its magic still lingers in every cloud or misty afternoon I see.
Bellavista Eco Lodge (http://bellavistacloudforest-espanol.com/)
Ecuador September 2012.
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)