We arrived back in Quito from the Galapagos (really feeling the altitude this time as we flew, rather than coming overland from Colombia) and spent a night in a hostel in the old town. By chance it turned out that we were staying on the same street as the bus company that runs buses north of the capital to the cloud forests around Nanegal. We decided we'd get the 10am bus the following day and so spent the evening relaxing and reflecting on the amazing time we had in the Galapagos
The bus journey to Nanegal was relatively uneventful, except for the burst tyre we suffered just outside Nanagalito - there was a huge bang, but the driver carried on until we got into town when he enlisted the help of some passengers to change it. The bus got really busy in this town with people and animals all down the aisle. The experience of getting really close to the animals in the Galapagos wasn't quite the same as sharing our seats with a cockerel in a rice sack.
We got the driver's mate to drop us at the side of the road by the reception to the Santa Lucia Cloud Forest. We were met by Katherine, a woman from London helping out for a few weeks, and Jorge our guide. We hopped into a minibus which drove us through a little village to a river where we had to get out and start the walk up to the lodge.
The guidebook particularly recommended this place as it's a community run eco-project. We weren't quite sure what to expect, but we'd been told it would take about an hour to walk up the hill so we'd packed extremely light. This was lucky as we soon discovered that "cloud" forest is obviously just a romantic synonym for "rain" forest. It started chucking it down very soon after we got out of the minibus.
We both had our anoraks with us, but stupidly hadn't thought to bring any drysacks so the few clothes we'd brought started to get quite wet. Luckily Jorge offered to put Jim's big camera inside a bin liner he was carrying so that was spared a soaking. After about a 10 - 15 minute walk along the road we came to the trail. There was a sign marking 3.2kms to the lodge and judging by the bit we could see it was all going to be up hill.
It took us over an hour to reach the top. We only took one break to catch our breath, as we'd got to the stage when we both just wanted to get there. The trail was steep and quite difficult in some places - we really didn't stop to admire our surroundings too much as the weather was decidedly minging.
The lodge, when we finally got there, was very nice. The four people swinging on hammocks on the porch looked pleased to see us. We were soaked through and really thirsty. After gulping down loads of homemade lemonade we had a quick tour and then settled down to a delicious hot lunch. After we'd finished eating we got chatting to the two other travellers staying there.
Morgan and Tania are a Canadian couple studying in Toronto; they'd arrived the previous day and were keen to join us on a bird walk the following day. We discussed the options with Jorge and decided we'd get up ridiculously early (3:45am!) to leave the lodge at 4am to go and see the mysterious Cock of the Rock Lek. I have to admit that neither of us had ever heard of this bizarre ritual until we got to Santa Lucia, but it sounded as if it would be worth checking out. At least that is if the rain ever subsided!
Once we'd both eventually dried out (I was practically sitting on top of the wood burning stove in the end) and luxuriated in the lovely (hot!) showers with the best views we've had from a bathroom since the Gibbon Experience in Laos, it was about time for dinner. It was a delicious homemade pizza, salad with vegetables from the garden and a well-deserved bottle of wine.
As well as Tania and Morgan there were two English volunteers Nicholas and Tim at the lodge. We were told that they didn't mind having slacking tourist staying as it meant they got cake for pudding in the evening. Apparently if we weren't there, there was none for them. Despite the bottle of wine and the bonhomie we were tucked up in bed by about nine - I think the prospect of climbing out from under the covers so early was making us a bit sensible.
When the alarm did go off it was a bit of a shock. We got dressed in the dark (the lodge has no electricity) and were outside in our Wellingtons and head torches in no time. The walk was going to take about an hour and a half. We set off in single file in the pitch black - it was quite eerie.
Now for the idiots guide - a Lek is apparently where male birds congregate to attract the attention of the females nesting nearby - it's a bit like a disco for our feathered friends. They get there and make an almighty noise and flash their feathers in the hope of winning a mate. The male Cocks of the Rock we were hoping to see are bright red with a black tail and grey wings. They're about as large as pigeons, but prettier and much noisier.
We arrived at the Lek site a few minutes before the birds did and so the five of us waited quietly for them to fly in. We knew straight away when they did - the noise was striking. We managed to get quite a good view although getting photos wasn't easy. The Lek was discovered a few years ago, but it has moved by a few dozen metres. Jorge said he thought it was because of the people coming to watch - some aren't as quiet as others.
After about forty minutes the birds flew off and we walked back down the path a short way to have breakfast. Jorge did us proud - he gave us tea, apples, homemade bread, jam and biscuits. While we ate he explained that September was the best time of year to see the Cocks of the Rock as there could be as many as 25 - 30 of them - we saw about 8 or ten of them.
By the time we'd eaten it was just coming up to eight o'clock. Jorge asked what we wanted to see next - of course Jim lobbied hard for toucans so we set off back along the way we'd come. We were going much more slowly than on the way there so could take time enjoying all the orchids and other plants. We failed to see many birds at all for the few couple of hours and Jim and I were seriously thinking about turning back - it was 11am, we'd been up for over seven hours and been walking for most of that time. We were hungry and tired, but then we saw a toucan and forgot all about our gripes. They were amazing! So cool and nonchalant!
We followed this first one for about an hour - he was perched quite high in a tree and just sat there for us to take pictures. After that one we caught another half or dozen or so. They were brilliant and made up for us being cold, tired and having wet feet!
Several dozen photos later, we got home for a late lunch and spent the afternoon reading, lazing around and watching dozens of different humming birds from the hammocks. Dinner was welcome later and then another early night. The soaking we got the day before had given me a chill and I was feeling a bit sorry for myself.
We woke the following morning to see a lovely blue sky - so unfair that the weather had cleared just as we needed to get back to Quito. We went outside to marvel at the view and then had some breakfast. We left at just after eight to walk back down to the road with Katherine and another of the guides. The walk was much easier on the way down - and the views were gorgeous - it all made up for the pretty miserable walk up.
Jim has become obsessed with Toucans. I blame the current edition of the Rough Guide to Ecuador which has a particularly bright one on its front cover. His new obsession has led him to book us two nights in the Bosque Nublado Santa Lucia.