Following in David Attenborough’s (And Other Giant) Footsteps in Search of the Birds of Paradise

 

A King Bird of Paradise

A King Bird of Paradise

 

The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of my all time favorites that I saw

The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of my all time favorite BOPs that I saw

Some of you have wondered why, of all places on Earth, I was determined to go to Papua New Guinea.  It’s one of the hardest destinations to reach; it has very little infrastructure once you’re there; it rains ungodly amounts up in the mountains where I spent most of my time; the food is awful; the lodging substandard; and there is always that age-old question about when cannibalism really stopped being fashionable there.  And don’t even get me started about the 27 leeches that I pulled off of myself in less than an hour just a few days ago.

So why did I go? Blame it on David Attenborough, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes.

Sir David Attenborough is my hero and has been for many years. He always tops my list of modern-day invitees in that hypothetical game of assembling the perfect roster of dinner guests.  He has taken me (and millions of others) around the world vicariously to see the most fascinating wildlife on this planet, and he does it with the most infectious wonder and enthusiasm imaginable.  The first time I saw Attenborough in Paradise (1996) and The Life of Birds (1998) I was hooked.  One day, I told myself, I’m going to go and see those Birds of Paradise for myself.

Attenborough eventually led me to the writings of Alfred Russel Wallace, a renowned 19th century British scientist, scholar and explorer, a contemporary of Darwin’s and the author of  The Malay Archipelago, a brilliant work in which he describes in great detail, among other things, “…the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth – the varied species of birds of paradise.”

And then two years ago, my sister and I went to a lecture in Washington that was jointly sponsored by National Geographic and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  The speakers that day were Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes and marked the publication of their book, Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds (2012), the culmination of their nearly decade-long project of studying and photographing all 39 species of Birds of Paradise.  Their talk and PowerPoint, and the exhibition that National Geographic mounted to coincide with the book’s publication, were riveting.  How much longer do I want to wait, I asked myself that day.  And the answer was, not long.

So it is thanks to all of those men that I have stood on a pass near Mount Hagen on a cold and misty afternoon and seen with my own eyes, perched in the distance on the top of a dead branch, The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, his yellow breast aglow, and his two head feathers, or “flags” and “head-wires” as they are known, waving in the breeze as he sat there regally for all of us to admire.  And the sublime Ribbon-Tailed Astrapia, his turquoise blue throat aflame as he flew across that same road the next, misty morning, trailing his four-foot long white tails like an ermine cape. And the astonishing Blue Bird of Paradise, preening his dazzling cobalt feathers, turning his black head and body upside down and displaying for the female who watched from above, seeing the virtual apron of feathers that he fluffed out for her benefit. And the more subtle, but still dazzling, Brown Sicklebill female as she came to the feeder at Ambua Lodge, pale eyes glinting, her long, curved beak open wide to receive the fruits that she plucked so daintily.  All of them, plus fifteen other species of these magical animals.

A female Brown Sicklebill Bird of Paradise at Ambua Lodge

A female Brown Sicklebill Bird of Paradise at Ambua Lodge

 

 

I have seen birds so beautiful that they stunned me into silence, so perfect that they moved me to tears, so whimsical that I shrieked with laughter, and so wondrous that I stood there slack-jawed with delight.

All of that and  leeches, too.  Really, what more could a woman want?

 

A Different World

A man in Hula Province, in the Highlands, selling his handmade wooden figures.

A man in Hula Province, in the Highlands, selling his handmade wooden figures.

 

Villagers gather for a compensation hearing in the murder of one man by another in a Highlands village

Villagers gather for a compensation hearing in the murder of one man by another in a Highlands village

 

Sweet potatoes are a common crop in the Highlands, where it seemed people grew more of their own food than in other parts of PNG

Sweet potatoes are a common crop in the Highlands, where it seemed people grew more of their own food than in other parts of PNG

Of all the places I’ve now visited in PNG, the Highlands stay with me most strongly.  Perhaps it is my own Swiss DNA that resonates with cool, damp weather, high peaks and lush green valleys, but it is also that I admire the tenacity and grit of people and animals that live in and adapt to places of considerable, cold elevation.  Theirs is not always an easy life: no fish to pull from the sea for quick protein, no tropical fruit trees that practically plant themselves and groan with heavy fruit; no lightweight clothing or the ability to essentially live outdoors, as many people in hot and humid climates do.

Mountain dwellers work hard to survive in places like PNG, where the limited roads and bridges that do exist still routinely wash out, communities are stranded for days at a time, and even the most basic supplies like cooking fuel can be hard to come by. Hence, the Highlands people are self-reliant in notably different ways than in other parts of PNG.  Men harvest timber to build waterproof housing and dry for cooking fuel.  People raise animals like pigs and goats and chickens, which we didn’t see in other places, and their gardens are extensive and productive, with sweet potatoes mounds covering huge swathes of the region. Young girls stand knee deep in running water to cut big bunches of watercress, and women weave simple bags called bilums that they usually wear with the strap across their foreheads, carrying loads of varying weights.

A woman wearing a woven bilum, the traditional bag that is used for carrying all kinds of things

A woman wearing a woven bilum, the traditional bag that is used for carrying all kinds of things

 

The Highlanders’ isolation has slowed the adoption of the latest technology and the casting off of traditional ways. Communities are still closely knit, and like the old tribal societies that they are, they even have their own legal justice system, as we found out one rainy day while passing through a small village. There, dozens of people were gathering in an open field under a sea of umbrellas.

“This is a village gathering to decide a compensation,” our local guide explained to us. ” A man just killed another man here, and now the elders will decide what restitution must be made to the family that has suffered the loss.”

He went on to explain that both families – the perpetrator’s and the victim’s – would be there, along with most of the village, for whom the gathering took on an air of gossipy excitement familiar to any small town dweller.  The elders appoint someone to negotiate for each family in the matter of compensation, going back and forth until there is a proposal and then an agreement that the elders and both families must agree to.  If a great deal of compensation is owed the victim’s family and the accused cannot make good on that restitution, then his extended family must assume the responsibility for paying the compensation, no matter how heavy a burden it imposes upon them. Honor – and the elders – requires that. The police are not involved and the word of the elders is never challenged, according to our guide.  That is how things have always been done up here, and the system works. Compensation can take the form of animals or cash or land, he explained, and it can also include banishment from the village, if the elders feel it justified. In the end, with all of the affected parties involved, justice seems to be served to most people’s satisfaction.

That same afternoon, we traveled to see a group of traditional men known as Wigmen, a small and dwindling group of elders who dress and live in keeping with ancient traditions and who hope to instill those same values in a new generation of younger men. The Wigmen are so called because of the human hair wigs that they make and wear for important ceremonies.  It takes eighteen months for a man to grow out his hair long enough that it can be harvested for wig making, and as part of their practice, the Wigmen run a school that houses and feeds and educates the men while their hair is growing.  During that period, the men must be celibate, live away from their families, and learn and adhere to the highly ritualized practices that the elders impart to them, including sleeping against a wooden post that is specially constructed to keep their hair from being flattened.  Visiting with the Wigmen, I could not help but feel both admiration and sadness for their valiant efforts.  Without the money of visiting groups like ours, I wonder whether the Wigmen would even still exist today, much less whether they will still be there in ten years’ time, Birds of Paradise feathers and Hornbill beaks lavishly and yet reverently decorating their headwear, just as they have for hundreds of years.

But they are men of the mountains, and no one should underestimate them. Certainly, I do not.

The sleeping post which young Wigmen must rest against so as not to disturb their hair

The sleeping post which young Wigmen must rest against so as not to disturb their hair

Birds of Paradise feathers are among the most prized in the headdresses of the Wigmen

Birds of Paradise feathers are among the most prized in the headdresses of the Wigmen

 

 

The Highlands

 

A Hulu Wigman in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

A Hulu Wigman in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Well, my adventures continue apace, as we travel to some of the most remote and isolated places on Earth.  Truly, there is nothing quite like this country, which extends from the ocean and wet tropics to mountains higher than the Alps, and deep valleys where it is downright cold at night and the suspicion among tribes – even those in the next valley – runs as deep as it has for centuries.

The sign greeting us at the airport in Tari

The sign greeting us at the airport in Tari

When we landed in Tari up in the Highlands of PNG, there were throngs of people at the airport.  When we inquired why, we were told that they were waiting for the delivery of The Post Courier, the daily newspaper which our plane carried and that had news of the continuing corruption scandal with the Prime Minister and some of his cronies.  To see some men with headdresses and skirts made of leaves, sporting bare chests, machetes and partially painted faces waiting for the daily paper was a juxtaposition that captures one of the many mysteries about PNG.  Add to that the fact that even the most desolate stretch of road has little stands to top up your minutes and data plans for your cell phones that even the most traditional people have, and you begin to understand this country that I am traveling in, a place at once a throwback to decades, if not centuries, ago, and yet one where little smart and bright eyed village girls chat you up and share their dreams of becoming lawyers and scientists.

PNG is a richly diverse country culturally, with over 800 spoken languages, many of them used in just one village due to the extreme difficulty of getting anywhere, and especially in the mountains.  The first white men came to The Highlands only in 1930, led by three Australian brothers named Leahy, who came and did what most colonizers do: they looked, they took and they profited handsomely at the expense of the local people, irrevocably altering the course of their lives in the process.  A fascinating 1982 documentary called First Contact details that era in the Highlands, and it interviewed local Highland people who were alive at the time of the Leahys and knew and worked for them, or in the case of the women, were sometimes literally sold to the brothers as common law wives and bore mixed race children with lighter features and hair, some of whom we saw as we passed through villages.  The film also interviewed the two surviving Leahy brothers, and the difference in perspectives is not only fascinating, it is deeply disturbing. A group of us watched it on a rainy afternoon at Ambua Lodge (it rained almost all of the time we were up there- and this is the dry season), and I recommend it highly for anyone who plans to visit this part of PNG.

The men of the Highlands often wear some type of natural hair ornamentation

The men of the Highlands often wear some type of natural head ornamentation. This is Thomas, one of our local guides. 

 

A ribbon tailed Austrapia, one of many Birds of Paradise that we've seen so far

A Ribbon Tailed Astrapia, one of many Birds of Paradise that we’ve seen so far

A man and his head wear, a common sight up in the Highlands

A man and his head wear, a common sight up in the Highlands

A Berry pecker

A crested Berrypecker

We stayed at Ambua Lodge, a series of thatched roof huts in a spectacular setting and, most importantly, with wonderful fruiting trees that drew all manner of gorgeous birds, including several species of Birds of Paradise.  To see these gorgeous birds up close, long tails fluttering behind them like banners on small planes that fly over beach towns, throats that turn iridescent shades of blue and purple when the light hits them, is to feel yourself part of something truly magical and mystical.  I forgot the rain, my worsening sinus and ear infection and the general discomfort of hours spent on buses, and just appreciated a beauty so ancient and sacred and, frankly, so designed to lure and woo (after all, what bird needs a four foot long tail?) that I understood in my bones why every female bird within miles was drawn to the males’ extraordinary displays.  We watched a male Ribbon Tail Astrapia fly across the road one morning and then settle in a nearby tree and preen himself, deftly swishing and tossing his pristine four foot long white tail.  I can only imagine the envy that all of the  men in our group must have felt just then.

 

 

Rubber Plantations and The Coast

A rubber plantation

A rubber plantation

A pied cormorant

A pied cormorant

Spotted whistling ducks in a pond near the coast

Spotted whistling ducks in a pond near the coast

A Bee eater, one of my favorite birds here

A Bee eater, one of my favorite birds here

 

Each day, we head out in a different direction to find new birds. No matter where we go, though, I’m always glad to leave Port Moresby behind.  I want to be charitable towards it, because I am a visitor, but after four days of using this city as a base, I have to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that Port Moresby is without doubt the ugliest, dirtiest and least charming city I’ve ever been in.  Period. Not only that, but the world travelers that make up this group of birders have collectively been just about everywhere, on every continent, and none of them could think of a less appealing capital city than the one in which we currently find ourselves.  All of which makes getting on the bus at 5:15 a.m. every morning considerably more tolerable in my opinion.

Today we headed towards the east coast of Papua New Guinea, about sixty miles from Port Moresby, in the hopes of picking up some shore birds and, along the way, various and sundry others, like the Emperor Fairywren, which made a brief but memorable impression (but which, alas, I could not photograph due to its fleeting appearance in a dark wooded area), and the totally adorable Dusky Lori, which flies in great flocks around cocoanut plantations.

As some of us on the trip find spending hour after hour looking for specific birds tedious, I won’t linger on them much today.  Instead, what I found most compelling – and thought provoking – about was the three hours’ ride through the rural PNG landscape, all of it desperately poor, without basic sanitation services, electricity, decent roads, medical services or even shops, except for roadside stands that seem to sell primarily betel nuts, a mild narcotic that stains the teeth and gums bright red.  Perhaps betel nuts are so popular here because it makes people forget just how abject their poverty is, just how little their government provides them, and just how huge the gap is between rich and poor, the latter seeming to be high government officials who are mired in yet another corruption scandal, while almost everyone else scratches out a living mostly from subsistence agriculture. We pass plot after plot of small gardens, all of them being watered by hand from jugs or buckets that women carry up from streams and rivers. There is not a tractor to be seen, an irrigation system in sight, or even an animal like an ox or horse that could minimize the hard labor involved in trying to grow enough food to just stay alive.

For a long stretch of road, all that I saw was mile upon mile of perfectly planted rubber plantations on both sides of the road. They are the source of all the rubber that makes our tires and the rubber fittings for our expensive binoculars, just to name a few things.  Each tree has a rubber bucket on a peg, which calls to mind the wooden stiles and metal buckets used or the maple sugaring industry throughout New England.  But whereas miles of plastic tubing have replaced the gathering of maple sap in most places, here in Papua New Guinea, the dirty and hard work of collecting rubber sap is done by men, women and children who live in the most rudimentary of shack, basically a raised and, if they are lucky, enclosed platform. Fire, their source of heat and cooking fuel, as well as garbage disposal, is omnipresent here inside the shacks and outside.  As we pass the workers, they wave cheerily at the bus load of white tourists while we cover them in yet another layer of grit and grime that not only coats every tree within 200 yards of the road, but probably the lining of everyone’s lungs, as well. A few miles later, the coconut plantations begin and stretch right to the coast, and I see little boys with small machetes already at work, walking in their fathers’ bare footsteps. They, too, give us a cheerful greeting, a huge smile and a curious glance.

At moments like those, I find it hard to care about birding in exotic places, about whether I have the right binoculars or if I will ever see over 5,000 bird species in my lifetime, as many of the people have who are on this trip. It is a contrast of wealth and poverty so stark, so jarring, and seemingly so unrectifiable to me, that I took no heed and very little pleasure in the birding today.  There but for the happenstance of life, of being born into a privileged family in the developed world, would stand I. Or you.

The ocean and the beach, which was totally deserted for miles

The ocean and the beach, which was totally deserted for miles

 

The Bird in Paradise Sees Her First Bird in Paradise

A male Ragging Bird of Paradise in a lek in Varirata National Park

A male Raggiana Bird of Paradise in a lek in Varirata National Park

The day began at 5:15 a.m., (well, actually I was up at 4)  getting on the bus and heading off in the perpetually smoky and already hot Port Moresby morning, past the piles of plastic trash that plague this city, but which the dark discreetly obscured.  An hour later, up a rutted, steep and winding road we arrived in Varirata National Park, waking up the maintenance men who sleep there in tents during the work week. The park is up around 900 meters, well above the morning mist, and we savored the cool and fresh air that lacked the acrid bite of Port Moresby’s. Twelve of us stood around like a flock of drab house sparrows in our quick dry outfits, eating our boxed breakfasts while we waited for first light and the morning chorus of bird song to begin.

I confess that I’m still ambivalent about being a part of a birding tour, especially one with nine other people and two guides, none of whom I had met until yesterday.  It makes for a lot of people trying to see the same birds at the same time in often cramped spaces, and it means that just because you don’t want to stand in the same spot of forest for an hour waiting for a single bird, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to.  There are real trade offs to this kind of arrangement, but there are also great advantages:  meeting interesting people who share your interest, and having excellent guides who make all the arrangements for you and who know pretty reliably where a certain bird can be found. I signed up for this trip primarily because PNG is not a country that I would feel safe traveling in alone, and the logistics of a trip that includes all that this Rockjumper tour does would be pretty daunting. And besides, Rich and Clayton, our guides, are flat out fantastic at what they do.

So there we were.  The morning went by excruciatingly slowly for my taste.  The birding was slow, which meant lots of standing around or moving ten feet in one direction only to be told to move back ten feet because the bird that we had been hearing for thirty minutes in one spot suddenly was calling from behind us.  By lunch, I was feeling tired and grumpy, even though we had seen some terrific birds, like a pair of Brahminy Kites sitting on a nest, a Pink Spotted Fruit Dove, and a gorgeous Variable (Dwarf) Kingfisher (actually the first of eight species of kingfisher we would see today!). I was thinking it was going to be a long afternoon, and it didn’t help that we kept hearing, but not seeing, male Raggiana Birds of Paradise somewhere close by, the one bird that all of us really wanted to see.

But after lunch, rested, revived and rehydrated, we headed to a part of the park where Rich told us there had traditionally been a lek, or display area, although he warned us that of late the birds had been especially skittish in proximity to humans and not to get our hopes up.  Still, I know my heart wasn’t the only one beating fast as we walked up the hill that overlooked the lei, and not a minute after we arrived, a gorgeous male Raggiana Bird of Paradise flew into full view, calling loudly and settling on a branch about a hundred feet away. Seconds later, another equally vocal and gorgeous male appeared, and over the next ten minutes, they called, they preened, they flew past each other, and they swooped up into the air, only to drop down again just as quickly, like fighter pilots in an air show. I hope their females were watching.

It’s hard to describe the other-worldly beauty of those birds with their blue beaks, yellow heads, black throats and incredible russet and yellow  feathers that hang down in long arcs.  Back lit in the dim forest light, the birds glowed like sunrise and sunset all in one.  It was, and will always be, one of the most wondrous things that I have ever seen. We all stayed for a long while, but after my fellow birders had their fill and left to walk down the hill towards another target bird, I lingered behind to watch  them for another ten minutes, alone in the natural cathedral, filled with gratitude and awe.

 

The Most Bio-diverse Place on the Planet

The approach to Napo Wildlife Center in Ecuador's Amazon basin is by canoe

The approach to Napo Wildlife Center in Ecuador’s Amazon basin is by canoe

An arm of the majestic and ancient saba tree

An arm of the majestic and ancient saba tree

 

A hoatzin rests on a branch close to water

A hoatzin rests on a branch close to water

A lot of destinations flaunt superlatives in their self-descriptions, and most of the time I don’t care about them one way or the other.  I’m not going to travel out of my way to see the planet’s largest ball of string, or its supposedly friendliest people.  Contrarian that I am, I might even go in the opposite direction of whatever attraction is clamoring for my attention. But when a place not only calls itself the most bio-diverse on the planet, but has science behind that claim, I am not only interested, but feel compelled to go.

That’s how I find myself in Yasuni National Park in Ecuador.

Nobody stumbles on Yasuni or Napo Wildlife Center, one of a handful of lodges located in the approximately 2.5 million acre national park and UNESCO biosphere reserve. Several hours east of Quito in Ecuador’s Amazonian basin, you have to want to come here enough to find your way to Coca, a dumpy little city that is the jumping off point for this part of the Amazon basin, then take a two-hour motorized boat ride on the Napo River, after which you disembark and transfer yourself and your luggage to a narrow canoe for a two-hour paddle up the dark and exceedingly narrow Anangu creek.  Fortunately, someone else does the paddling, so you’re free to use your hands to keep the Napo Wildlife Center-issued rain poncho around your body when the predictable deluge hits five minutes into the paddle and persists for the duration.

The experience of entering a different world begins the moment you pull away from the dock and open your eyes and ears to the Rousseauvian tableau of animals that gawk, squawk and even whistle at you as your canoe glides past them in the dark fecundity. Among my favorites on the journey: eight giant river otters, including a frisky juvenile who ignored persistent warnings from the adults to stay away from us; all six species of kingfishers found in the Amazon basin; a gorgeous zigzag heron sitting on a nest; three of the 11 species of monkeys found here; tapir, peccary and capybara tracks on the banks; and countless hoatzins, peculiar birds that eat only fruit and look eerily prehistoric. If only I had been here three days ago, when a couple in their canoe was lucky enough to see a pair of jaguars crossing the creek just ahead of them.  Even here, where gaudily colored toucans sit on a tree outside my door and steal eggs from a cacique’s nest, seeing a jaguar doesn’t happen every day or even every month.  But it does seem tantalizingly possible.

You emerge from the  narrow creek onto a lake on which Napo Wildlife Center sits.  It’s a small lodge comprised of 11 thatched cabañas mostly perched on stilts, so that when the rainy season returns every year and the water rises, the houses are still above, and not in, Anangu Lake. The lodge is owned and largely  run by the Kichwa community, one of seven distinct indigenous cultures in this area.  They also own and have control over 53,000 protected acres of land within Yasuni National Park on which there is no hunting, fishing or, most important, drilling for oil. It is that confluence of factors that causes this incredible bio-diversity to continue to thrive.  Scientists have  recorded 185 species of mammals, 180 species of reptiles, 600 species of fish, 100 species of amphibian and over 650 species of birds within this protected preserve.  The flora diversity is equally astonishing, with more species diversity in one square hectare than is found in most countries.

From my porch I see turtles, caimans, raptors, shore birds and dozens of other species of wildlife.  In the early morning, my guide and I cross the lake and walk through the still-dark canopy as owls, tinamous and other night creatures murmur their way towards daylight. We climb a 150 foot tower cradled in the massive arms of what Marcelo said was a 450 year old saba tree. Everywhere we look, the tall and virgin canopy endures, and macaws, eagles, toucans and other canopy birds perch placidly on the giant treetops like corks on top of opened wine bottles.  “The big birds from across the river have migrated over here,” Marcelo, my guide comments. “The noise and destruction from the oil companies have sent them this way.”   Indeed, far off in the distance I hear the faint sounds of heavy machinery, some of the same equipment we saw on barges on the Napo river and harbingers of roads to come. Oil is to Ecuador what gold is to Guyana, and much of the reserves lie in the Amazon basin, under the national park.  The 100,000 or so indigenous people who live in the park are split between those who want to keep oil exploration out of the area, and those who don’t, but a poll of the indigenous people showed much stronger support for relying on eco-tourism, which preserves the land and cultures of this area and returns money to the community, than on oil revenue.

All of the revenue earned at Napa Wildlife Center and its sister property, Yasuni Lodge, benefits the Kichwa communities, and hundreds of their members are employed here as guides, managers, carpenters, housekeepers, cooks and the afore-mentioned canoe paddlers, who skillfully navigate the watery shallows that wend their way through what may well be a  patch of the greatest bio-diversity on earth.

 

 

 

 

 

In the Ecuadorean Countryside

A mountain lake in Cayambe-Coca National Park

A mountain lake in Cayambe-Coca National Park

A view to the mountains

A view to the mountains

Guango Lodge near Papallacta

Guango Lodge near Papallacta

Free range chickens outside their hen house.

Free range chickens outside their hen-house.

High montane flora

High montane flora

A rufous-bellied seedsnipe  at 15,000 feet in Cayambe-Coca National Park

A rufous-bellied seedsnipe at 15,000 feet in Cayambe-Coca National Park

Torrent ducks on the Guano River near the hot springs resort of Papallacta, about 40 miles east of Quito.

Torrent ducks on the Guango River near the hot springs resort of Papallacta, about 40 miles east of Quito.

Travel writers seem to focus exclusively on the Galapagos Islands as Ecuador’s prime tourist draw, but having spent the last ten days on the western and eastern slopes of the Andes, I think they’re missing a more authentic Ecuador that also deserves to be discovered.

With birding as the organizing principle for my trip, the Ecuador that I’m experiencing – by car – is mostly rural countryside with small towns and villages, spectacular national parks, nature reserves and small lodges that offer comfortable accommodations, excellent food and wonderful wildlife in addition to birds.  There are pristine rivers full of trout and bass; challenging hiking trails on which you won’t see another soul; hot springs to soothe the most tired of muscles; and countless farm stands and simple eateries that all feature local foods, though that’s really not a term that needs to be touted here. Almost everything I’ve eaten here has been local, from fresh mozzarella to trout to chicken and most of the produce, including delicious mushrooms that were served in a soup last night here at Cabañas San Isidro where I’m currently staying.

Less than an hour east of Quito, for example, and at altitudes of up to 15,00 feet, Cayambe-Coca National Park offers stunning scenery, mountain lakes, hiking trails and the very real possibility of seeing two of its famed inhabitants: the spectacled bear and the least seedsnipe, both of which inhabit the upper reaches of the park. Though I didn’t see bears the day we were there, we did see the seedsnipe, and both my guide and the driver had separately seen bears on their last visits, less than two weeks earlier. There are no admission fees to that or any of  the parks or reserves that we visited, and on the day we were there we only saw four other people, two of whom were rangers.  The high montane flora, for anyone interested in plants, is simply spectacular, as are the vistas, although visitors accustomed to American national parks will be struck by the lack of any amenities, including bathrooms.

Heading east another half an hour past the park at about 11,000 feet is the town of Papallacta, which sits in the shadow of two volcanoes, the Cayambe and the Antisana, which are the sources of the hot springs that have turned the area into a popular tourist destination for Ecuadoreans. Accommodations in the town range from very simple to quite upscale, with virtually all of them offering access to the springs, and one or two offering full spa services.  There is also quite a nice, little botanical garden in Papallacta, as well as an excellent small inn, Guango Lodge, a few miles down the road. I stayed there and savored excellent Ecuadorean food, wonderful hiking trails along a river, and hummingbird feeders that drew hundreds of the tiny creatures every day.

Everywhere you look in this part of Ecuador there are rivers, waterfalls, farms that cultivate crops on steep slopes, and huge tracts of preserved land that keep the area appealingly wild and filled with wildlife like tapirs, pumas and agoutis. Driving the countryside in search of birds, we passed countless small farms with chickens or cows.  This area, in fact, is known for its dairy products, including cheeses, butter and ice cream.  At times, if I didn’t look too closely at the flora, I could imagine myself in Switzerland.

If this part of Ecuador doesn’t have the polish of European or North American mountain resorts, it makes up for it them with its dramatic beauty that co-exists harmoniously with the seemingly timeless traditions of farming and living from the land.