Our favourite place so far!

Trip Start May 01, 2010
1
25
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Trip End Apr 30, 2011


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Where I stayed
Santa Lucia

Flag of Ecuador  , Pichincha,
Monday, July 5, 2010

We have just arrived back in Quito after spending 3 days in the magical Santa Lucia reserve. The reserve is run as a co-operative of 12 families. They bought the land back in 1976 and started to clear it for agriculture. However, over time the environmental problems of clearing the land became apparent and so they decided to look into more sustainable ways of making a living from the land. In the 1990s they identified eco-tourism as the way forward and so built an eco-lodge using wood that had fallen in the forest and cleared trails for hiking. With help from organisations such as Maquipucuna and Rainforest Concern in the UK, the Santa Lucia reserve was born. Today it is visited by travellers and volunteers and also by University students. During our stay, there were some students from Sussex University doing their dissertations.

We have already seen some amazing places on our travels but Santa Lucia is definitely our favourite so far. It is hard to describe the beauty of the place, it is truly magical. During the morning, the skies are clear and the views from the lodge are spectacular. The lodge is perched on top of a precipitous mountain at around 2000 metres and is surrounded by mountains and valleys cloaked in cloud forest. Compared to lowland rainforest, the cloud forest feels much more benign and peaceful and has a fairytale quality. It is damp and mossy and the trees constantly drip water onto the ground below. The reserve is over 1800 acres in size and is situated in the Choco-Andean bioregion, a biodiversity hotspot. There are 400 species of bird, 45 species of mammal, including puma and the endangered spectacled bear (spotted here a week before our arrival!), and thousands of tropical plants, including an amazing diversity of orchids and bromeliads.

The journey to Santa Lucia involved a two hour bus journey from Quito to Nanegal, a small highland town. From here we were met by staff from the lodge who drove us for another 40 minutes down a bumpy dirt track to the trailhead. Here our luggage was loaded onto mules and we hiked up through the cloud forest for two hours. It was tough going but it was a pleasure to be in the forest and we saw a plate-billed mountain toucan, a crimson-rumped toucanet, a toucan barbet and a golden-crested quetzal! When we reached the lodge, it was midday and the cloud had descended as it does every afternoon, giving the whole place an ethereal feel. It was not until the next morning when we woke up and saw the incredible views around us.

On our first and second day, we were guided by the wonderful  Fransisco ‘Pancho’ Molina, a farmer turned conservationist. Being mountainous, the walking is hard but thankfully the elevation means that the temperature is nice and cool. On our second day, we hiked to a series of towering waterfalls, spilling down through the greenery, and went for a very bracing swim in the river! During the afternoon, we sat outside on a bench next to the lodge watching hummingbirds, including the violet-tailed sylph and the booted racket-tail, tiny, exquisite birds with shimmering colours and long tails.

 The morning of the third day, we set off at 4am with another guide, Mauricio, to see the cock-of-the-rock lek, a group courtship dance. The lek site was a two-hour hike away so with torches in hand and much slipping and sliding, we eventually reached the right place just before sunrise. We sat down on a wet bench and waited expectantly in the darkness. First we heard a call from one bird, a loud squawk, followed by another and another. Gradually more and more males joined in until we were surrounded by a cacophony of sound. As the dawn sky grew lighter we were able to see the birds themselves in the undergrowth just metres away. They are quite bizarre looking, with a bright red head and neck and prominent fan-shaped crest and look rather comical when performing their dance. After about an hour the birds started to move away and the show was over for another day. On the walk back to the lodge we spotted a club-winged manakin, famous in the birding world for producing a mechanical sound with its wings.

We were truly sad to leave the Santa Lucia this morning. The reserve is a natural paradise, the lodge itself is cosy and a fine example of sustainable living and the staff are warm and welcoming, making us feel at home and keeping our bellies full with wholesome, tasty food! If anyone reading this blog is considering visiting Ecuador, then we wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Santa Lucia!
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