Day 4: Páramo to Cloud Forest
by Lindsay, Melissa, Julie and Tara (Team Malarone)
We ate an early breakfast and packed up to head back to Communidad Cumbijín. On the bus ride up to the community, we learned about the cultural significance of guinea pigs (cuy in Spanish) and how they are used in medicinal ways, which date back to pre-Columbian Incan tradition. We continued further up in altitude (13,255 ft) to the Parque National Llanganates, a community-protected area of the páramo. After a winding, uphill drive we opted to walk the scenic route to the Laguna Anteojos, two lakes that look like eyeglasses when viewed from above. The vegetation in the páramo acts like a sponge to slowly release the large amounts of fresh water that flow down from the surrounding mountains. As we meandered up to the lakes, we had to remind ourselves to not just take in the panoramic view, but also to observe the microhabitats that consisted of a huge diversity of flowering plants, lichens, mosses, horsetails and grasses.
We then loaded back onto the bus and drove to the site of the Cumbijín community’s alpaca project, which is supported by Heifer Ecuador. Once there, the project director introduced us to the community’s herd of 76 alpacas which were given to them two years ago by the Morochos community, a Heifer-supported project that previous Ecuador Culture and Ecology Institutes have visited. This illustrates one of Heifer International’s 12 Cornerstones of passing on the gift.
The director of the alpacas debriefed us on their care regimen; which includes deparasitizing, clipping down nails, and filing teeth. Due to a wet climate, the vegetation is fairly tender, therefore the alpacas’ teeth were not worn down as they naturally would be by tougher vegetation. We anxiously awaited the alpacas’ arrival as they were herded up the road to meet us. Without a sound, they walked past us, evidence of how their padded toes don’t negatively impact the soft ground of the páramo. Cameras were flashing in an attempt to capture the quirky, yet adorable camelids.
After about 30 minutes of watching the alpacas interact with each other and graze, it was time to let them return to their pasture.
When the alpacas left, the park rangers invited us in out of the cold and shared with us Sunfo, a sweet, minty, warm tea made from a native plant that helps detoxify the body. Then we returned to the Cumbijín community for their annual festival. We feasted with the locals on typical Andean food — fava beans, cow cheese, chicken and cilantro soup, rice and beef, and a drink called chicha, a lightly fermented drink made from maize and spices. After lunch, we went to the community square to enjoy costumed dances to celebrate St. Andrew. We were honored to be invited to watch another community tradition, Torros del Pueblo, a sport that includes horses, bulls and brave young men. Unlike in bullfighting, the bulls are not injured. The first bull was released in our honor and we enjoyed the spectacle.
Once back on the bus, we drove north of the equator and headed up to the cloud forest. We reached our final destination, Bella Vista Cloud Forest Reserve, after traveling on a road that would keep out the faint of heart and tender of tush. We checked into our Swiss Family Robinson-style accommodations and on our way to dinner, checked off team goal numero uno: to see the newly-described olinguito, a two-pound, omnivorous, raccoon-like mammal. (We were especially excited to see the olinguito because one of the Museum’s researchers, Dr. Roland Kays, was involved in the field verification of this mammal.) A few olinguitos started visiting the Reserve’s humming bird feeders a few months ago and have become fairly regular evening visitors. This sighting was the perfect welcome to the cloud forest and the beginning of our next eco-adventure.