We were glad to leave Quito on the penultimate day of their week long celebration of independence. We booked on to a 3 day, 2 night tour with Happy Gringos to visit the Cloud Forest Reserve and stay at the Bellavista Lodge. On the evening before our departure, it was Noche de las plazas and given that we were staying right next to Plaza de Santa Domingo, it meant we were kept up by crazy loud performances and music going on until midnight when we had to get up at 5am. It was estimated that 70,000 people took to the streets that night to celebrate across 4 plazas in the city!
It was a short two hour drive from Quito with only 4 of us in the minivan. Along the way we crossed the equator several times as we meandered through the mountain range. For the last 15km of the drive, we turned off the main road down a bumpy, gravel path that led us deeper in to the cloud forest. We paused only to see a rare Andean Cock-of-the-Rock bird, a vibrant orangey/red colour, nesting near the road side. We pulled up to Bellavista and were instantly stunned by how beautiful it was. We were shown our room which was amazing and massive! We had only booked the ‘standard’, cheaper accommodation with the agency but there was a mix up and we were given a superior room with a spectacular mountain view looking out over the cloud forest. It was a very pleasant surprise as we were expecting it to be fairly basic and similar to the lodge we stayed in the Cambodian jungle where we had bucket showers!
After breakfast, we met our guide Luis ready for our first walk. We spent most of our time with just one other couple; Katherine & Philip from the Lake District who were lovely, knew much more about birdwatching than us and Katherine took the most amazing photographs! We later met another American couple, Dane and Libby, who had over 25 years of bird watching experience! When people are so passionate about something, it is infectious. Dave and I who could barely tell a pigeon from a sparrow were suddenly saying “oooh, what kind of Tanager is that?!”.
Anyway, this particular cloud forest rose over the Andes between 900 and 2500 meters above sea level. The subtropical rain forests contain extremely high biodiversity and Bellavista is renowned for a huge presence of humming birds! We had been told that there are hummingbird feeders around the lodge but we were not prepared for what we actually saw. There were at least ten beautiful hummingbirds flitting around only a meter away from us, completely unfazed by our presence! We came to learn that Ecuador has the world’s highest number of hummingbird species at 132. The lodge has around 15 different species visiting daily. The wings of these birds beat incredibly fast, especially the Purple-throated Woodstar hummingbird we saw who sounded like a giant bumble bee! I could have literally stayed there for 3 consecutive days it was so fascinating.
The first walk was a slow one through the forest where we stopped to learn about different plant species and do some wildlife spotting. We saw butterflies, insects, frogs, a horned spider and a couple of birds from afar. We stopped at a lookout point where we had sweeping views of the dense forest whilst the clouds slowly crept across the mountaintops. We could visibly see the mist and clouds moving so quickly with the naked eye. We saw beautiful silver trees in the forest which were called cecropia and their colouring actually comes from a sort of spore coating on top of the naturally green leaves. The main purpose of the coating is to prevent the growth of epiphytes. Almost all of the other trees were covered with epiphytes, with some of the larger trees harbouring up to 200 different species of plants. From the lookout point, we were also able to spot two species of Tanagers in the distance.
We came back to a delicious three course lunch (something again we were not expecting) before heading back out again mid afternoon. We were able to hold the feeder containing the nectar that the hummingbirds drink in the palm of our hands. It was absolutely amazing and we were so amazed by how much more detail you could see when they were that little bit closer, not to mention feel the beat of their wings or the softness of the brush of their feathers. Dave filmed me whilst I had multiple hummingbirds on my hand and it’s so embarrassing to see my jaw literally dropped in sheer awe haha! We went for another walk through the forest before coming back for dinner.
The next two days followed a similar format, although we had the additional bonus of an early morning walk at 6.15am to catch the birds at their most active. The highlight for me was a bird that I (very proudly) spotted! It was called a Masked Trogon and had a really vibrant red breast and green back. We managed to see such a variety of bird species during our stay including Montane Woodcreepers, a Common Potoo and the most beautiful Turquoise Jay. One of my favourite photos was the Turquoise Jay eating a grass hopper! Dave’s favourite were the two different species of Toucans. The Plate-billed Mountain Toucan has the most colourful and gigantic beak, while its cousin the Toucan Barbet is much smaller both in size and the shape of the beak – both of these birds are range-restricted and can only be found in climates like this Cloud forest.
Aside from birds, one evening after dinner we were lucky enough to catch a brief glimpse of a rare mammal called an Olinguito. It looks a little like a cross between a monkey and a weasel but is part of the raccoon family. We did however see a Tayra weasel the following morning.
Join us next time as we head back to Quito briefly before flying out to our dream destination, the Galapagos Islands!
Thanks for reading,
Sophie & Dave