Saturday, March 13, 2010

Vilcabamba to Zamora

Up in time for our 5:30 AM breakfast I wandered down to the lodge’s restaurant only to discover the place deserted and dark. A quick check of the time – no, I hadn’t set the alarm clock incorrectly. It really was 5:30. The large coffee urn was not perking and the kitchen was not open as it usually was at this hour. This wasn’t good.
The night watchman appeared with the lodge’s two dogs (both dogs reminded us of Nick and Paul’s “Mr. Wilson”). I asked about coffee and why the kitchen was closed. In rough English he asked if I spoke Spanish. “Un pequeño – a little”, I replied. He then launched into a lengthy explanation in Spanish about why the kitchen was closed. What little I did understand was that the chef, Alejandro, was last seen the night before headed to town with a “chica” and that his room was empty. The night watchman then left to inform the manager who lived on the premises. By now others had gathered for breakfast to discover what I already knew: desayuno was nowhere to be seen.
Early in the tour it became evident that this was a creative and inventive “can do” bunch of folks. When the watchman returned (without the manager) José explained why we needed to eat now and if the chef was not available could we make our own? The watchman eagerly agreed to open the kitchen and assist us.
It took a bit of exploring to figure out where food was stored, how to start the gas stove, and most important – to get some coffee brewing. Within minutes Jim had begun creating scrambled eggs. Niko and José cut bread while Carol worked on rustling up toast using a toaster oven. Naomi was busy cutting up fruits. Tom and the watchman worked on coffee. José, finished with cutting bread, lent Jim a hand with more batches of eggs while Condiments, plates and flatware were set out. In no time at all, folks were seated and eating the impromptu breakfast.
The manager never did show up. We’re not sure if she had ever gotten the word. But a very embarrassed Alejandro finally appeared as we finished eating. He was left to deal with cleanup and to explain, we assume, to his boss about not being on hand at the appointed hour. The breakfast cock-up put us a little behind schedule but no matter. Like Marge’s purse adventure and Jim’s unexpected dip in the pool, this would turn out to be one of those “memorable trip experiences” that will be talked about for years to come.
Bags loaded we headed out for our first stop: Podocarpus National Park. The park spans 360,00 acres with one of the largest concentrations of bird species in Ecuador - 500 registered species. Some biologists believe the number could be as high as 800. It has more than 40 mammal species including jaguar, wooly tapir, Andean bear, pudí (the world’s smallest deer), giant armadillo and Neotropical otter. The park is estimated to have more than 260 species of butterflies and over 1,200 moth species. Created in 1982 the park encompasses habitats ranging from cloud forest, to high-altitude grasslands (Páramo) with mountain lakes.
Our first foray into the park would be at the northwest corner near Nudos de Cajanuma, south of the city of Loja. The Andes in Ecuador are spilt into two parallel ranges: Cordillera Occidental and Cordillera Oriental. United at intervals by transverse ridges referred to by the Spanish topographers as nudos (literally translated: “knots”), the southernmost nudos is the Nudo de Cajanuma, which forms the divide between the Pacific and Amazon-Atlantic drainage. Protecting biological diversity is key since water drawn from the four rivers that have their headwaters in the park is critical to over one million people.
We hiked a long, narrow and winding road which climbed to about 7800 feet elevation, and ended at a group of buildings. These appeared to be part of a research station with primitive accommodations. There was a bathroom with a door, a light, and a flush toilet with a seat – the women were ecstatic. The weather was wet and windy and not at all conducive to good birding. It was scenic but no new birds of note were added.
Back on the bus we headed to Loja. Requests for a shopping stop resulted in a visit to a very well stocked supermarket. Staples like peanut butter, power bars, beer and rum topped the “must have list.” Carol, Melissa, and Claire found a shop selling cheeseburgers and fries. How long had it been? It made for an interesting break from our box lunch staple jamon y queso sandwiches.
Loja is an intriguing town. Of note: the city uses Llamas in the public parks to control the grass. Several were at work, tethered in a large public park that we passed.
We stopped later at a highway pull-off to have a box lunch for those who had missed or not chosen cheeseburger and fries…
Late in the afternoon we entered the town of Zamora. By now Carnival was in full swing as our bus was repeatedly pelted with water. The Río Bombuscaro was the scene of huge river parties with hundreds of vehicles and thousands of locals.
We followed the river road out of town to Copalinga (pronounced copal-INGA). One of the owners, Catherine Vits, welcomed us to the property. She organized room assignments and baggage handling and shared a brief overview of the property. Cabañas Ecológicas was the theme – we were to have our own eco-friendly cabins.
“Rustic” was used to describe the lodge prior to our arrival. "Rustic” conjured up visions of our stay at Gareno Lodge in 2008. No running water and no electricity in primitive cabins. That to us was rustic. "Rustic" at Copalinga meant there would be no electricity after 10 or 11 PM and none when we rose in the morning. Hardly an imposition. Far more like charming. Their principle source of electricity came from a hydro-electric generator, which they could not yet leave running 24/7 (perhaps in another month or so). We would make do with flashlights and candles. Several cabins had decks with chairs and all had high ceilings and large screened windows. Ceiling fans would have been nice but then there was the deal with no electric at night...
We checked into our cabin, unpacked bags and met back at the main lodge/dining/bar area. The restaurant/bar was open to a small courtyard with several orchid plants. A series of hummingbird and fruit feeders were within easy viewing – there was even a hummingbird feeder sitting on the edge of the bar. We sat, relaxed with a cold beer and/or wine and watched the feeders. New hummingbirds added: Violet-headed Hummingbird, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Violet-fronted Brilliant, Mountain Velvetbreast, and Rufous-capped Thornbill (everyone finally got to see one). Large flowering shrubs in front of the main lodge next to the parking lot served up: Spangled Coquette and an incredible male Wire-crested Thorntail.
A large tree in the distance (dubbed the “Tanager Tree”), along with fruit feeding stations near the lodge produced great looks at: Magpie Tanager, Silver-beaked Tanager, and White-lined Tanager.
Other new birds seen on the day include: Piratic Flycatcher, Barred Becard, Canada Warbler, and Russet-crowned Warbler. The foul weather at our earlier Podocarpus NP stop, combined with a longer travel day, knocked the daily tally of birds way down, both new and seen before.
The meals at Copalinga were wonderful. The service and attention to detail by staff was superb. Our cabin was extremely comfortable. The next morning, Valentine’s Day, we would spend more time in another section of Podocarpus NP. Valentine's Day - traditionally a day when lovers express their love for each other by presenting flowers, confectionary, or greeting cards. There would be none of those commercial trappings for us. My hope was to give Carol a nemesis bird – a Lanceolated Monklet. Now that’s true love!