Passage Note #73B - Ecuador Cloud Forest: Pacha Quindi
After waiting for two months, we had been notified that Linda’s long-stay visa for French Polynesia was finally ready to be picked up at the French Embassy in Quito. She also needed new pages for her Passport from the US Embassy, the last one used for her Ecuadorian visa extension obtained in Manta two months prior. So off we went on the 8 hour bus to Quito to do our embassy business.........and take a side trip to the Mindo cloud forest area which we had been excitedly anticipating for some time.
Pacha Quindi means “Hummingbird Place” in Quechua and is an apt name for this private reserve in the misty cloud forests of the Mindo area, 1 1/2 hours northwest of Quito, located on Andean slopes between the capital and the Pacific Coast. Lonely Planet says: “With more than 350 recorded bird species, the Mindo area is one of the best birdwatching sites in all of South America; a mecca for birders”; it is more well-known these days and no longer considered as off the beaten path as it was a few short years ago.
But Pacha Quindi feels like a secret treasure. It is virtually hidden - an unmarked oasis a few kilometers down the dirt track from the popular (and expensive) birder accommodation of Bellavista Lodge. You have to have a driver who knows where the place is (owner Tony had arranged that for us) and who will take you the scenic back way (the Nono route) through the mountains and past trout farms along streams and waterfalls in the mist. It was late afternoon by the time we drove past a few small homes at a muddy intersection called Tandayapa and arrived at Pacha Quindi in the rain - after unsuccessfully stopping for lunch at a trout restaurant (it was closed) and having to help our taxista change a flat tire.
We first met Tony Nunnery when he was leading an upscale birding tour at the Canopy Tower Lodge outside of Panama City, Panama where we spent New Years 2013. He is an expert bird guide whose services are in demand, bringing welcome extra income to his modest earnings from birders who stop at Pacha Quindi and donations from a few devotees. He invited us to come out and stay at the rustic self-serve cabin on his property when we returned to Ecuador. Finally, here we were.
The taxi driver stopped at a pile of dirt by the side of the road, the only evidence of human activity in the area. Beside it a trail led downward through the thick vegetation to an obscured iron gate with a bell. We rang it and heard Tony’s slight southern accent sing out a welcome from below and tell the driver to take us and our bags to the cabin and he would meet us there. We returned to the road and a few meters away found another concealed trail leading uphill into the forest to our abode above.
Our small wooden cabin, nicely camouflaged except for the gaily painted outside picnic furniture, had a separate concrete outhouse and shower a few yards away from the sleeping quarters and kitchen/living room. It was indeed rustic with running water but no electricity. We had gone with our taxista to a supermarket in Quito and bought all our food for the 3 day weekend. We cooked, ate, and read our books in the evening by candlelight. In the early morning hours, the only hours of sun before the afternoon clouds closed in and rain began, we sat peacefully on the long front porch with a view of the mountain tops through the trees and flowering plants attracting hummingbirds in front of us.
Later in the morning we made our way downhill to Tony and Barbara’s larger, very comfortable wood house where a full length elevated deck overlooked a green garden and “lawn” clearing. Close to 20 hummingbird feeders literally keep the place buzzing.
Pacha Quindi is like the Grand Central Station of the air. Hummingbird whir-bys are constant and occur within inches of your head; the sound of their wings are a loud buzz in your face. Sometimes the little birds hover in front of your eyes and check you out before darting off again. We half-expected a winged blur to stop and discover it was Tinkerbell - the Disney version of the fairy surrounded by sparkles - before zooming off again. And as luck would have it, hummingbird activity reaches its peak February through March. Tony figured we saw 20 different species and 3,000 individual birds in just the first afternoon we were there observing (he estimated the number of birds by a formula of quantity of feeder fills divided by how much each bird consumes).
We sat on the porch in the midst of the action and easy conversation turned to the commonalities of living off the grid, religion, alternative medical treatments, Tony’s southern upbringing in Mississippi, how he and wife Barbara had met in Germany (she is German), the future of Pacha Quindi, and the politics of living in Ecuador. Tony had been a teacher in his former life whose avocation was music and songwriting. He played some of his songs for us on an old tape recorder and on the even older upright slightly-out-of-tune piano that sat next to their kitchen.
Suddenly, what had been hectic activity turned very frenetic and even more feverish as hummingbirds started zipping by wildly and began flinging themselves hell-bent into the windows. “What’s going on?” we asked quite alarmed. “Oh”, said Tony nonchalantly, “They are just letting us know the feeders are empty and need to be refilled”. Tall and thin with an easy smile, bandana wrapped around his head and gum boots to his knees, Tony got up, mixed up a fresh batch of sugar water and set off on his rounds. As he replenished each feeder with liquid sustenance, hummingbirds alighted on his shoulders and hands. He was like the Pied Piper of Colibiri (spanish for Hummingbird).
Preserving this corner of the cloud forest ecosystem with its focus on hummingbirds has been the passion and life’s work of Tony and his wife, Barbara Boltz for the last 20 years. They have amassed hundreds of hectares to patch together a large reserve, removed the alien grasses and other plant species introduced from previous clear-cutting and cattle grazing/agriculture, and reforested the barren slopes. Our admiration grew anew as they recounted the effort involved - we had always thought you just leave the jungle alone and it reclaims the land again naturally. Not so. First you have to remove the invasives. Not an easy task by any means. They have relied on the work of volunteers who come and stay for weeks at a time in the cabin. These volunteers also help them maintain the extensive trail system through the natural habitat where it is possible to spot spectacled bears, diminutive deer, countless other bird species, orchids, and three newly discovered species of lizard.
They live a simple and spartan life in remoteness and relative isolation; they have no car and few neighbors. Twice a month a taxista friend drives them into Quito for necessities, supplies, food, medical attention, and internet.
After some hiking and lunch, Linda spent hours watching and photographing the hummingbirds around the feeders while Barbara gathered her drying laundry on the roof deck area before the drizzle started and did some chores in the greenhouse. Chuck helped Tony get some donated solar panels operational so they could keep their battery bank full. We brainstormed about their website and the marketing challenges they face.
We admire Barbara and Tony and consider them to be ecological pioneers and serious conservationists who have dedicated themselves to making a difference in their world of nature. It was a special weekend and unique opportunity and we look forward to keeping updated on the development of their dreams at Pacha Quindi.
More information about hummingbirds:
You don’t have to be a birder to be captivated by hummingbirds - especially once you understand the behavior, abilities and anatomy of the smallest birds in the world. There's a great video “Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air” (Nature series for pbs.org) that will amaze you. There is even a segment about the rare Marvelous Spatuletail Hummingbird and its peruvian ambassador, Santos Montenegro. We met Santos, stayed at the reserve in northern Peru, and captured our own pictures of this marvelous bird . See Passage Note # 51 .
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #73B