Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cosanga, Cloud Forest

Tom, a post doc in Ecuador these past two years, came to pick us up in his boss's Toyota white Landcruiser, the perfect vehicle for the jungle and the Andes. Maya and I sat strapped in the back seats which were placed along the sides across from each other instead of facing up front, and were surprisingly comfortable. We drove to Cumbaya, a valley away from Quito, and stopped at a 'Ferreteria', which appeared at first to be a hardware store, but seemed more like a version of Home Depot. Maya, Eric and I bought our rubber boots for the jungle, but there are quite a variety of goods to purchase in a Ferreteria, including tools, gas masks, sinks and toilets, machetes, and so much more for both homes and businesses and construction sites. We got gas (quite a bit less expensive than the US ), and made a 'SuperMaxi' run, where we bought water and snacks.

Cosanga is half way to Casa del Suizo, so Eric and I had just been on this road in March. The first part of the drive is up up up the mountain to Papallacta. We turn right at Pifo and start climbing. Quito is a 9000 feet, I believe we reach 14 or 15000 feet before we descend again. We rise above the tree level, and reach the 'Paramo'. It is a lonely drive with few towns or inhabitants. We see cows, some horses, a few sheep and no llamas. We pass trucks and a few buses, but few cars. We ascend above the clouds and much of the road is in the clouds so we cannot see much. When we can see, there are wonderful waterfalls and once we descend from the summit, we enter the cloud forests. The springs are at Papallacta, and I wish we could stop and enjoy them, but we press on.

The road is mostly paved, which is a significant improvement from the first time we took a bus up here with the students. At that time we followed bulldozers as a path was cleared for the bus. In March this part of the road was fine, but this time there are many moments when I am relieved to have the Landcruiser, which has no trouble with the mud and the parts of the road that hardly seem passable. Of course the buses and the trucks seem perfectly fine, and do not slow down in their journeys. I am always amazed that the bus system is so extensive and makes every corner of the country quite accessible.

We descend after Papallacta. I believe our ultimate destination is at 7000 feet. We pass the 'big' town of Baeza and just before Cosanga, we turn right up a dirt road 5 kilometres to the 'Yanayacu' research station. On the website, the directions are to take the bus to the turn-off and hike up to the preserve. I am so relieved we have our truck and that we do not have to carry Maya up that final stretch, although when Eric and I were first discussing the trip, we had planned to take the bus and walk the 5K.

We meet Harold Greeney who built and created the research station over the last twelve years. He has done this with almost no funding, and until recently has not had a PhD. He has been devoted to science and has published many papers, and has slowly grown and built his program such that he is attracting scientists and students and grants. His reputation has grown along with his work, and Eric is interested in collaborating with him. There are 'plain-tailed' wrens who live in the bamboo forests here and are unique in that males and females sing duets together such that one cannot tell when the male stops and the females begin, they are so coordinated in their singing. Eric wants to study these birds and look at their brains while they are singing and afterward.

The cloud forest is a magical place, a bit of tropical paradise high up in the Andes. It is raining when we arrive and when Maya, Eric and I take a walk in the forest, it continues to rain, and the path we take follows a stream and is covered in ferns and bamboo and many plants that I somewhat recognize as houseplants. Maya finds a frog that is hardly visible it is so well camouflaged. There is little colour in the forest, it is green upon green, with lots of moss or green growing on trunks and rocks and a profusion of bromeliads. It is different than the jungle, most importantly there are far fewer insects flying around. I hear birds but see nothing.

At the research station, we take a tour through the caterpillar lab, where hanging plastic bags hold each caterpillar and a few leaves. Many are in the pupa stage and will be moths and butterflies. Harold tells us that 80% of the caterpillars are new species! There are a few students at the station, and some volunteers, who are studying and categorizing and naming the caterpillars. One student is studying social spiders.

The accommodations are simple. Sheets and blankets are provided, there are two bathrooms and a shower. There is a 'bodega' where I forage for food. I make Knorr asparagus soup, chinese noodles and canned Ecuadorian tomato sauce for dinner, with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. Harold comes to show us pictures of a botfly infestation in his wrist. He photographs the botfly pushing through his skin and it is so disgusting it scares Maya so she is afraid to go to sleep.

Eric is so enthusiastic about this place and the possibilities for his research. He has brought all sorts of equipment for this experiment on wrens that he has planned and this is the perfect place to do it. Tomorrow we will visit a bamboo forest to look for the wrens. I am sure we will be back here again soon to start working!


  1. Mindo is also a very beautiful cloud forest, a bit NW of Quito.

  2. That is next on my list of places to visit!