Santa Lucia Reserve, Choco Andean Region, Northwest Ecuador
By Katrina Huntley
Clawing for the Clouds
It’s a far from a painless hike to reach the Santa Lucia Eco-Lodge in the heart of Ecuador’s cloud forest. In fact, on the first uphill climb every tourist and volunteer is puffing and panting like hell, covered in mud and hoping to dear God the top is near.
It gets easier every time, though perhaps never as easy as our host Eduardo, age 60, makes it appear. Eduardo is a member of the cooperative that operates the lodge. He steps over the ridge of the mountain, huge smile beaming, not a bead of sweat on his face.
Nothing to suggest he had just made the almost vertical climb of nearly 2000 meters in under an hour. To top that, his lovely wife is just a few steps behind, teeth showing, dry as a nut, and making us all feel like serious gym dropouts.
The panoramic views from the top across the thick cloud forest are spectacular; and well worth the suffering. The lush green hills spread for miles, while the small villages of the valley can be seen far in the distance below.
The stunning scenery is matched at every spot in the lodge, even from the shower and toilet you can see clouds trickling down over the mountains and floating past at chest level. It is nothing short of serenity.
The Santa Lucia mountain lodge is your home for five days out of the seven, and includes three hearty meals a day, hot running water and a hammock with your name on it whenever you want to put your feet up.
Santa Lucia welcomes short-staying visitors and long-staying volunteers as well as those with specific projects they want to carry out on the forest, forming part of Santa Lucia’s ongoing dedication to the conservation and preservation of the region.
After just a few weeks at the lodge, you can feel your strength increasing, the hike up just a small example of the challenging tasks ahead, particularly if you stay as a volunteer.
Hard manual labor can range from weeding the organic garden, to rebuilding worn-down trails and carrying huge logs, heavy mallets, or getting involved in the continuing reforestation project. All are on the possible list of jobs to do as willing volunteers work alongside the local workers, gaining knowledge about the Cloud Forest and its mechanics, and rapidly improving Spanish along the way.
Due to a serious lack of detailed research and documentation carried out on the Choco Andean Cloud Forest region, Santa Lucia has also set up two ongoing monitoring projects that volunteers can work on.
One of these documents closely the abundance, species and particular habitat of some of the 370 types of beautiful birds that live here, while the other focuses on the over 300, often unique varieties of orchids that grow here freely.
Dedicated volunteers and experts set up the projects and Santa Lucia is now training new volunteers on how to continue the work, learning specifics about the documentation and conservation of the vital habitats these plants and animals need.
Short staying tourists meanwhile, avoid the hard work and are instead left to explore the beauty of the surrounding forest as they wish – though some of the trails are still pretty tough.
There is a self-guided walk that takes explorers on a tour lined with numbers, while a leaflet describes the plant and animal species visible, different stages of the forest and ongoing conservation projects in the area.
A marvelous afternoon waterfall trek is another option and takes walkers past three fresh waterfalls of varying heights and form, the first releasing cool water from 25 feet into a small pool, before trickling into a stream and disappearing underground- ‘cascadas’ two and three equally as precious.
Guided walks are taken by trained experts who are always enthusiastic about getting visitors out on early morning hikes to spot some of the rare species of birds such as the Plate billed Mountain-Toucan and the strange-looking Cock-of-the-Rock Lek. Alternatively, you can go puma spot on your own, though the sighting-success rate is pretty low.
Also alive and well in the area is the endangered Spectacled Bear, native to this area and seen by some lucky tourists, but because it is a shy, nocturnal animal, there are no guarantees.
If all that walking is a bit too much there is nothing more pleasant than longing round the lodge, swinging in the hammocks that circle the home and watching the flood of hummingbirds that flit to and fro from the well-placed feeders, hovering gracefully or perching on the ledge bowing their heads rapidly.
The clouds usually set in by afternoon and soon visibility is practically zero, it’s a strange, mystical feeling as clouds float through the lodge-like thick steam- no doubt following the smell of Rosario’s great cooking.
Wife of Eduardo for twenty-eight years, Rosario is the cheffess of the kitchen, her cooking renowned at the lodge- particularly her desserts.
She tells me that its still pizza and her infamous chocolatinas that are the favorite with visitors, (rich oat filled balls mixed with chocolate and sugar and a hint of brandy), yet with clean dishes every day, it’s obvious every meal is enjoyed and ravished by the tired tourists when they come back from the days trekking or working.
Keeping in with the locals
On the weekend everyone makes it back down the mountain to spend the weekend in the volunteer house, La Delicia, where dogs and chickens run underfoot and the kids play the local dance music at full pelt for much of the day.
This is the chance to meet the locals in their space, and when we got wind of a neighbor having a BBQ we headed straight over expecting the usual skewered kebabs and coleslaw. The reality was a huge wallpapering table filled with meat from an early morning slaughter.
Mary, the neighbor, had a look of relief on her face when we arrived; she had managed to obtain a bigger grill from a local after overlooking the fact that her desperately small two-man outfit was not going to be sufficient.
Four hooves protruded from a nearby tree- all that remained of the bull-while Mama Charu, an expert in butchering, uses a huge machete-type knife to separate the meat from the internal organs and everything else you would normally throw away.
The latter parts are then all thrown into a giant pot and boiled up into a foul-smelling soup, served up on special occasions or in restaurants – Soup 31 – as the local delicacy is known.
The gathered group slurps the soup and chew happily on the tough meat being handed out on polystyrene plates. “They just eat and eat until it’s all gone,” Mary chuckles as she passes around more cooked meat. It was certainly a lesson in gorging.
Lodgers are taken most weekend evenings to the nearby rural village of Nanegal where there is one internet shop, a karaoke bar, a group of nuns who run the pharmacy /doctors and a handful of restaurants with a two-choice menu, chicken and rice or meat and rice.
While for starters, the locals prefer the aforementioned soup and though we’d given it a miss at the BBQ, one brave volunteer from Canada decided to give the specialty a whirl. She finished the dish to everyone’s surprise, plinking her spoon in her bowl, and commenting that the soup had been quite good, though a little salty.
Cock fighting is still widely practiced and sees some of the best dressed locals attend the weekly events, all sporting their nicest clobber to bet a days wage, sit back and watch two cocks at each others throats for the evening.
Other more favorable local past times include the competitive card game Cuarenta (forty) which involves working in teams to match cards and score points- not as easy as it sounds – while there is always a weekly football game going on, as well as the local 3-a-side Ecuvolley in which teams hit a weighty ball over a ridiculously high net and take extremely seriously.
The Ecuadorians are always up for a field-type-party, regular gatherings taking place on the plot of grass outside La Delica, where locals assemble with a few crates of beer and a barman – a lad of about twelve who efficiently fills plastic cups and passes them round, never letting anyone go without.
Strong personalities shine in Santa Lucia, along with local jokes, bad singing and poor attempts at typical English phrases. Great fun. And this is what it has really been about, an extended stay at Santa Lucia allows you to not only see the beauty and life of the magnificent Cloud Forest and what is being done to preserve it, but allows you to get close to the locals, learn the slang, ride in the back of pick up trucks and enjoy some of the tasty local cuisine.
Birds and Binoculars
With more than three hundred and seventy birds in the area, Santa Lucia is a paradise for enthusiasts. The forest is filled with incredible calls and colors, the largely untouched cloud forest in Ecuador home to some of the rarest birds in existence.
Due to difficulties in exploring this dense region, there has been little published research done, and Santa Lucia is now taking steps to change this.
Arturo Alba is the general coordinator of the Santa Lucia Bird Monitoring Project and with the help of trained experts and volunteers, they have begun to catalog the population of birds in the region, their abundance, and their habitats to help in the future preservation of the animals.
Data is taken from a number of fixed points on various beautiful trails, and it is these walks that tourists too can explore with the chance to see rare birds native only to this area including the plate-billed mountain toucan, the mustached and giant antipitta, the white-faced nunbird, and the cock-of-the-rock lek. With all these and thousands of other species, bird lovers will certainly not be disappointed.
Formation of the Santa Lucia Cooperative
Santa Lucía was originally formed as an agricultural cooperative in the 1970s, with the objective of providing cultivable lands to a group of twenty landless local campesino families. For many years the members struggled to earn a meager living from activities such as cattle-raising and cultivation of naranjilla (a local fruit) and other crops.
But gradually the realization grew that the cloud forests of Santa Lucía were more valuable for their natural assets including beautiful vistas and waterfalls, and a wide diversity of animals, birds, and plants.
In the late 1980s, Santa Lucía’s lands were officially declared part of a Protected Forest, and the focus of the group began to shift from cattle-raising and crops to conservation and sustainable development.
Fortunately, in part due to the relative remoteness of their lands, Santa Lucía still retained over 80% of its original, primary montane cloud forest, with all its diversity of plants and wildlife.
With the help of volunteers and an IUCN-funded project written by Peace Corps volunteer Russ Parsons, Santa Lucía began the first steps towards developing a conservation plan and their first sustainable development project – a community ecotourism operation.
Katrina Huntley is a professional freelance journalist from Leeds who loves Marmite, mayonnaise, and having a good laugh – preferably while traveling.