Quito to Rio: crater lakes, volcanoes, and inching our way up to 5000m

Quito sits high in the Andes, in the north of Ecuador. We ended up staying there on four separate occasions, in between excursions to cloudforest, volcanoes, and the Amazon rainforest. We became fond of our favoured hostel, Posada del Maple, and the tiny restaurant of just four tables run entirely by a friendly but slightly melancholy man, where we would go for a delicious dinner.

For its relatively small size, by South American standards, Ecuador’s geographical diversity is extreme. If you want to see as many habitat types as possible within as small an area as possible, Ecuador should be your destination. The Andes run north-south down the length of the country in two parallel cordilleras. High peaks (Chimborazo, at 6310m, being the highest), erupting volcanoes, and high altitude plateaus give way to the western and eastern slopes dropping down to sea level (or near enough, in the case of the Amazon basin). The peaks are so high that they have formed an effective barrier between west and east for numerous species. As a result of this isolation, many species have evolved separately on each side: species on one side will often not be found on the other. The forest starts high and stunted, before transforming into lush and permanently shrouded high elevation cloudforest, and then emerges from the clouds as tropical forest. Not only are these forests highly diverse, but their differing species composition mean that overall diversity is higher still. And the habitats do not end there. The Amazon extends eastward, while in the west coastal rainforest gives way to mangroves, the coast, and 1000km away, the Galapagos Islands. Over 15% (1600 species) of the world’s birds can be found in Ecuador, and it this level of diversity that has led to Ecuador being declared one of 17 megadiverse countries in the world.

Our next destination was a couple of hours south of Quito, the small town of Latacunga. Driving along the Pan-American Highway, the route took us through the ‘avenue of the volcanoes’, but sadly they were all invisible in the clouds. We arrived in Latacunga at Sunday lunchtime, to find a hot, sunny and sleepy central square.

Latacunga main plaza

The town seemed pleasant, but largely deserted, and we found a friendly little hotel to stay in overlooking the square. Later, as the heat gave way to fat raindrops, we took a taxi to a shopping mall on the outskirts of town to pick up some food supplies. Everywhere in town was shut, so we were surprised to learn that the shopping mall would be open. Its large plate glass windows looked at odds with the low, ramshackle buildings spreading out from the pretty town centre. Inside, the whole town was there. It was buzzing with families. Rain started leaking through the roof. We found a huge supermarket and stocked up, and as we stepped back outside we caught a breathtaking glimpse of Cotopaxi rising above thunderous storm clouds. This was our main reason for visiting, to see Cotopaxi and another volcanic sight, Quilotoa crater lake.

First we headed to Quilotoa. This meant driving up a winding road, higher and higher, leaving Latacunga (at 2670m) far below us. All around was a patchwork of vivid green, with cultivated fields extending up and over every possible hillside. We paused for the requisite souvenir shop stop, unavoidable on any tour, but also highly valuable for local communities to benefit from tourism. Inside were original paintings, Andean scenes, women in traditional dress, an Andean take on Noah’s Ark.

Andean Noah's Ark

Most striking of all was a huge picture of an Amazonian scene. We weren’t allowed to take a photo of it, but what was so arresting, other than seeing the depths of the jungle portrayed here high up in the Andes, was that it was not a celebratory image. Oil leaked from a pipe, flames glowed in the distance, an oil drum floated on its side. Texaco was named and shamed. Ecuador’s relationship with oil extraction from the Amazon is something for a later post, but it was interesting to see that even here it was a highly emotive subject.

Quilotoa itself is a stunning lake, surrounded by the jagged rim of the caldera. We were now at 3800m, the highest of the trip so far, and we coated ourselves in sunscreen and set off for the descent to the lake and back. Our tour guide was hopeless, so it was only later that we learnt that it is still active, and that if you look closely you can see bubbles rising from the depths.

Quilotoa crater lake Ecuador

Quilotoa crater lake Ecuador

The next day we set off for Cotopaxi. Low clouds had meant that other than our glimpse from the shopping mall, we hadn’t seen Cotopaxi at all, so we were excited to wake to a bright and clear day.

Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

Cotopaxi is 5897m high, and is still active. Treks to the summit, with a midnight start from the refuge at 4800m, are popular, but we weren’t quite ready for that. Instead, we were heading to the glacier line at 5000m. Even getting this far was a breathtaking challenge, from the low oxygen levels alone, and the views were stunning. The altitude was deceptive, as the valley floor was about 4000m high. From the slopes of Cotopaxi we could see numerous other volcanoes, and it felt like we were on top of the world.

Walking up to the refuge on Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

View from Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

The ground turned from ash to an iron-rich red before disappearing under the ice. We toasted our success with a shared cup of aguardiente on ice from the glacier, and watched a fox walk along a ridge above us. Clouds began to blow in as we started our descent.

Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

Red earth as the weather changed Cotopaxi volcano Ecuador

Then it was a return to Quito once again, before an adventure into the jungle…


The invisible moth: a beautiful illustration of natural selection

Moth camouflage Ecuador cloudforest Bellavista

This moth, found in the cloudforest in Ecuador (at Bellavista, which I have written more about here), blends in perfectly with its background, even down to the lichen spot mimics on the tips of its wings. The purpose of colour patterns such as these is to make the outline of the moth hard to detect, thus making it difficult for predatory birds to distinguish it against the bark of the tree. The success of the camouflage is a question of life or death for the moth. A moth that is a poor match is more likely to get eaten, and one that is a good match is more likely to live. Therefore the next generation will be dominated by descendents of moths that were successful at blending in. This is natural selection, famously stated (and often misunderstood) as ‘survival of the fittest’, with the most camouflaged moths in this example being the most fit. The predatory birds provide the ‘selection pressure’ on the moth population, which has evolved in response to this pressure to be so well camouflaged.

However, the process is dynamic: the birds are also responding to the moths. A bird who is better able to pick out a camouflaged moth against the tree will be better fed, and better able to raise a brood. So again those most successful (the fittest) will contribute more to the next generation than those less fit. Greater visual acuity will in turn select for better camouflaged moths, and so on, resulting in an ongoing coevolutionary relationship. In evolutionary biology, the ‘Red Queen hypothesis’ relates to cases such as these. The name refers to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, where Alice is told by the Red Queen that ‘here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place’.

Quito to Rio: the cloudforests and hummingbirds of Ecuador

We landed in Quito just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, watching tiny fireworks silently exploding over the city. At that point, the full extent of our plan was to reach Rio in time for a return flight 15 weeks later. After a couple of days wandering in a jet-lag and high-altitude daze around Quito’s busy streets, we escaped to Mindo, two hours away by bus. This journey took us up and out of the valley in which Quito sits between volcanic peaks, and then wound down into the wet and lush cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes. Mindo is a quiet little place, surrounded by forests and hills which often disappear into the clouds. We arrived in the rain at dusk, and made our way along virtually deserted streets to our accommodation at Cabanas Armonia. This is an orchid garden masquerading as jungle, and we were led to our little cabin, one of a handful tucked away amongst the plants. After the dry, thin air of Quito, the humidity, the smell of the wet vegetation, and the chorus of frogs, were wonderful.
The path to our cabin, Cabanas Armonia, Mindo, EcuadorPrivate ensuite cabin with hammock, Cabanas Armonia, Mindo, Ecuador

Highlights of our stay at Cabanas Armonia included lazy birdwatching from our private hammock, with toucans and hummingbirds among the many species that regularly passed by. Wandering through the garden finding some of the roughly 200 species of orchid that are grown here was fascinating. Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador

Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo Ecuador Orchid cloudforest Mindo EcuadorAnd having a delicious breakfast, outside, with a frenzy of hummingbirds zipping around so close to us that we could feel the air from their wings, made getting out of bed easy. Breakfast terrace Cabanas Armonia Mindo Ecuador

Breakfast Cabanas Armonia Mindo Ecuador

The family that owns Armonia maintains feeders for the hummingbirds, and these tiny birds drink litres of sugar water between them every day. Watching and listening to them whirr, chirp and squeak is hypnotic. 

And catching them with your camera becomes an endless challenge.

Hummingbird Mindo EcuadorHummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo Ecuador Hummingbird Mindo EcuadorHummingbird Mindo EcuadorHummingbird Mindo Ecuador

Hummingbirds have co-evolved with the flowers that they feed from, sometimes resulting in such close relationships that the length and curve of a beak perfectly matches the dimensions of the host flower. This ensures that the bird has access to nectar and the flower is guaranteed a pollinator. However, in other cases, as in one frequent visitor to a flower next to our cabin, species bypass this reciprocal relationship and simply pierce the base of the flower to access the nectar without any pollination benefit to the plant. Hummingbirds were a frequent sight on our Andean journey south, through Ecuador and Peru, and as ever Attenborough explains it best:

In between poring over our guidebooks and hatching a tentative plan to visit Ecuadorian jungles, volcanoes and colonial cities en route south to Peru, we went for walks in the countryside around Mindo. Strolls along the roads leading out of town led through verdant green valleys, coffee plantations, dripping tropical vegetation, and sightings of gaudy tanagers, toucans and aracaris, and a stunning quetzal. We took a rickety ‘cable car’, more accurately a cage on a wire, across a steep valley to walk along trails that linked a series of waterfalls in the forest. And we tried to reconcile the warmth and tropical surroundings with Twelfth Night celebrations in the church, and the curious nativity scene outside it.

On our way back to Quito a week later we had arranged to visit Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, 1000m higher up the mountains than Mindo. We got off the bus at a small village called Nanegalito, and were quickly approached by the driver of a pick-up truck taxi who drove us up the steep and winding single track lane to the lodge. The lodge is an incredible place, within a private reserve that protects 700 hectares of hugely biodiverse cloud forest. There is an extensive trail system, comfortable accommodation, excellent food, and it is renowned for its birding. Such luxury and biodiversity meant that the lodge itself was way beyond our tight backpacker budget – but it is still possible to stay and explore the reserve: a small research station doubles as basic hostel accommodation, but incredibly, very few people make use of this. This is a big shame because the forest around Bellavista is like nothing we had seen before – huge tree ferns, and trees dripping with multiple layers of vegetation, shrouded in ethereal mist and cloud which sometimes broke to reveal the  precipitous view down to the valleys below. The trails were easy to follow, and took us up and down steep ravines to hidden streams. Bellavista cloudforest Ecuador Bellavista cloudforest EcuadorBellavista cloudforest EcuadorBellavista cloudforest Ecuador

Bellavista cloudforest Ecuador

Ecuador (108) Ecuador (102)The research station accommodation was basic, but we had a warm bed and a hot shower, and pots and pans to cook with over a gas stove. Fellow residents included scientists from the States, their Ecuadorian research assistants, a couple of temporarily captive birds that were the focus of their studies, a sink-full of beetles collected for a small project, and a noisy mouse who helped itself to a chunk of banana in the kitchen. The captive birds were, of course, early risers and woke us from their room next to ours with an ear-splitting duet at dawn. Electricity is from a generator that is only run for a few hours a day, and as we were virtually on the equator it got dark about 6. Evenings were spent quietly by the light of candles and headtorches, listening to the myriad noises coming from the forest.  Ecuador (97) Ecuador (96)Ecuador (95) Ecuador (94) Ecuador (93)

It was the duetting of the birds that interested the scientists, as explained by Dr Eric Fortune in this video. The song he plays is the one that woke us each morning. It would wake the dead.

After ten days of cloudforest meanderings we made our way back to Quito, pausing to pose at the equator for a photo, bedraggled in wet and muddy clothes from the last hike along the trails that morning. Everything we had was damp, and had been for days, and just as the humidity had been so welcome after the dryness of Quito, returning to dry land was also a great relief after such a soggy time. Our clothes soon covered every available surface in our hostel room, and were dry by the morning.