How can one possibly describe three weeks in the highlands of the Central Andean Mountains and the low rain forests of Amazonia, other than simply unforgettable. Over a year in planning, this unforgettable adventure turned out to be ever so much more than Jane and I had envisioned. It started out simply enough as a two week bird photography tour to Peru, but then we extended the trip with an additional week of bird photography in Ecuador. We rationalized the additional week to maximize the adventure since we would already be in South America. All in all, we were gone nearly a month when you throw in travel time.
We commenced our travels by flying from San Diego, via Dallas/Fort Worth, to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. As is our custom, we arrive a day before the start of the photo tour and experienced a hasty exploration of Quito’s historic district, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded in 1534 by Spanish conquistadors, on the ruins of an ancient Inca city, Quito has one of the best preserved historic centers of Spanish America, according to UNESCO. Situated at over 9,000 feet in elevation, we experienced our first signs of breathlessness as we wandered along the steep, narrow streets of Quito.
Every Monday morning there is a changing of the guard ceremony in front of the presidential palace in Quito. This ceremony includes a lot of pomp and circumstance with a military band and mounted soldiers in elaborate, historic uniforms. We stumbled upon this festive celebration during our exploration of the old city center. The Plaza Grande, filled with locals and tourists alike, was inundated with scores of street vendors hawking their trinkets and treats. After the ceremony, and away from the crowded plaza, Jane consummated some intricate negotiations with a street vendor for several colorful scarves.
The next day we met up with David Hemmings of Nature’s Photo Adventures (www.naturesphotoadventures.com) to start our Ecuador bird photography tour. Our first destination was the Tandayapa Bird Lodge located about 70 kilometers (43 miles) northwest of Quito. By car, this trip took about 2 hours and that should give some idea about driving conditions in and around Quito. In general, streets in all metropolitan areas we visited are narrow, with limited sight distance, and extremely congested with people and cars. Streets are aligned in a random, haphazard grid system dating back to a time when there were no cars. Drivers compete fiercely for any space between vehicles, much like bumper cars, particularly as multiple cars and buses attempt to make turns onto the many one-way streets. That is why you need a local driver who knows the rules of engagement and shortcuts to avoid the most congested areas.
We arrived frazzled but without incident at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge to enjoy our first foray into photographing the unique hummingbirds of Ecuador. The Tandayapa Bird Lodge is located in the rain forest and we certainly had our share of rain during our brief visit. Several times we had to retreat inside to avoid the worst of the rainy weather. We surmised that we experienced more rain during our two days at Tandayapa than during the entire San Diego rainy season. The chef made up for the inclement weather by creating some extraordinary deserts for us.
From Tandayapa, we traveled to the Cabanãs San Isidro, located about 187 kilometers (115 miles) to the southeast. Unfortunately, that meant we had to go back through the labyrinth of streets in Quito again. Scenery along the way, however, was fantastic and more than made up for this inconvenience. We journeyed through narrow, winding canyons with high, steep towering mountains, covered with pristine, verdant rain forest vegetation. Gigantic waterfalls were encountered dropping hundreds of feet from the steep mountain sides. We also crossed over one of Ecuador’s highest Andean mountain passes, Papallacta, at over 13,000 feet.
Of the lodges we visited in Ecuador, Cabanãs San Isidro was by far the most luxurious. Our room was like a large sun porch, spacious with a huge bed and tall, floor to ceiling, windows on three sides. Lodge facilities were some distance from the main, dirt track leaving us with the feeling of being absorbed into the rain forest. The grounds had abundant, vividly colored native flowers, hosting butterflies that fluttering from flower to flower collecting nectar. We also encountered some unique bird species at this lodge that were a challenge to photograph.
From Cabanãs San Isidro we backtracked about 50 kilometers (30 miles) along the paved highway to the Guango Lodge. This time we did not have to traverse all the way back to Quito. Guango is a large property and we ventured out on several trails along the Rio Quijos looking for birds to photograph. Although the lodge is popular with birders we were the only overnight guests at Guango during our two day stay. We did have a few birding groups stop by to share the spectacle of feisty hummingbirds competing for sugar water at the many feeders scattered throughout the property. Jane added a few new species to our bird list while we were at Guango.
Guango Lodge was our last bird photography location in Ecuador. From there we traveled back to Quito and then flew to Lima, Peru, for the next phase of this unforgettable adventure. In Lima, we met Dali and Neil Solomon who joined us for the two-week Peru portion of the photography tour. We did not dawdle in Lima but continued on to Cusco the gateway to Machu Picchu. Far from being the quaint and charming small village we imagined, Cusco was a sprawling, bustling city with nearly half a million people and its own congested maze of streets and byways.
From Cusco we continued on to Machu Picchu. That excursion turned out to be a unique adventure of its own. By car (with a driver guide) we maneuvered through the hectic traffic jams of Cusco and through the high and dry Andean highlands from an elevation of over 12,000 feet down to the small village of Ollantaytambo at 9,000 feet where the habitat begins its transition to rain forest. At Ollantaytambo we boarded a train that follows the Urubamba River down to an elevation of 6,700 feet at Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo). The train ride was a pleasant, relaxing break from the tense, “back seat driving” along the busy, two-lane highway from Cusco. All in all, by car and train, it took most of the morning to arrive at our destination in Aguas Calientes even though the overall distance is only about 120 kilometers (75 miles).
Aguas Calientes is a hodgepodge of buildings built on steep mountain sides. There is no vehicular traffic in the town. All provisions, supplies and construction material arrived by train and are transported by hand, mostly in wheelbarrows, from the train depot to final destinations. The town subsists on tourism and is crowded with inns, hostels, B & B’s, lodges and restaurants of assorted price range and quality. Our lodge, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel was one of, if not the, best in town. It was a pleasure to stay there, removed from the hustle and bustle of the main village. The gardens are well tended with hummingbird feeders strategically located throughout. We were able to photograph some very colorful species of tanagers that were feeding on bananas.
To get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu requires a bus ride from town up to the citadel. Bus tickets and departures are carefully monitored to control the total number of people entering this historic icon of the Inca civilization. We visited the Inca ruins twice, once on the afternoon of our arrival in Aguas Calientes and again the following morning. Each time, the entrance gate was crowded with visitors queued to gain access. Once inside the historic site, however, the crowds quickly dispersed into the vast area of this ancient Inca city.
Machu Picchu did not disappoint. Even after seeing many published pictures of the ruins and reading about the Inca civilization, being there and seeing this magnificent edifice with its many buildings, temples and terraces was indeed a gratifying and humbling experience. Sitting quietly on the same bedrock that the citadel is built upon and contemplating Inca life at this remote location, deep in the rain forest jungle, it was not difficult to develop a deep appreciation for the ingenuity, creativity and vision of the people living and worshiping here. Visiting Machu Picchu had been a long time “bucket list” item that has now been realized.
After the majesty of Machu Picchu and the ambiance of the Inkaterra Hotel, we continued with our Peru bird photography tour. We journeyed back to Cusco and then on to Peru’s Manú National Park and Biosphere Reserve. According to our guide Steve Sanchez (www.perubirdingexpeditions.com), the park is as large as Switzerland. To put that in a context familiar to us, Manú is twice the size of Yellowstone National Park and about three times larger than the state of Delaware. It is a big, remote, rugged place!
We approached the park from the south, a long 150 kilometer (93 mile) drive from Cusco. Most of the approach to the park was on a rough graded, dirt track that became even rougher, muddier and slower as Juan, our driver, maneuvered the many switchbacks and drainage dips within the park. Rain also hampered our progress as we were blocked by a substantial mud slide that has washed out a portion of the track. Fortunately, we were able to backtrack to our first accommodation in the park, the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Station. That is when we came to appreciate how remote and primitive lodges in Manú National Park are. The room was small, rustic with few amenities, but in general adequate. The downside was the lack of hot water and electricity. The biological station created its own electric power with a generator, but only ran the generator for three hours in the evening from 6 to 9 PM. During our stay, there was a generator failure and power did not commence until about 7 PM, about an hour after sunset.
By the time we left the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Station, the mudslide area had been sufficiently restored to allow us to slowly and cautiously pass over the damaged roadway, and we proceeded to the Cock-Of-The-Rock Lodge, just 35 kilometers (22 miles) further into the park. Here our room came equipped with candles to light the cabin when the generator was not operating. Hot water, however, continued to elude us when we learned that the water supply to the water heater had been damaged by recent, heavy rains. Regardless of these little setbacks, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Cock-Of-The-Rock Lodge. In addition to hummingbird photography, this is where we encountered a Woolly Monkey troop that liked to raid the dining hall at the lodge.
The national bird of Peru is the Andean cock-of-the-rock and only a 15 minute drive on the Manú Road from this lodge was an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek, a traditional place where male Andean cock-of-the-rock birds assemble during the mating season and engage in competitive displays that attract females. The best time to observe this display ritual was during the late afternoon hours, which in a dark rain forest is not the best for photography. We visited the lek twice and observed the birds perform their competitive displays from a crudely built, wooden blind. It was most fascinating and intriguing to watch. Several males would swoop in from the dense forest and perch on tree branches where they could be observed by females and competitors. The birds would then proceed to show off their bright red plumage by bowing, jumping along their perches, spreading and flapping their wings, all the while vocalizing loudly with sharp calls. Then, as if an alarm had sounded, they one-by-one disappeared back into the dense forest.
Just as we assumed our adventure had reached its peak, we departed the Cock-Of-The-Rock Lodge for the Amazonia Lodge. This required not only another 45 kilometers (28 miles) of navigating the treacherous Manú road but also a 20 minute ride in a long, narrow, wooden boat on the Madre de Dios River. Just this voyage was sufficient reason to rate this trip as an unforgettable adventure. The photography at the Amazonia Lodge was challenging but had its rewards with some unique species, including the rufous crested coquette hummingbird and the prehistoric looking hoatzin, added to our bird list and portfolio.
From the Amazonia Lodge, it was a long haul back to Cusco where we dropped David Hemmings off at the airport for his flight back to British Columbia, Canada. Dali, Neil, Jane and I spent another day and half in Cusco where we enjoyed some guided tours provided by Tours By Locals (www.toursbylocals.com). After that, it was a flight back to Lima and then home via Miami. Nearly a month from start to finish this will always be remembered as one of our incredible journeys.
Images of the many birds photographed can be viewed in the Ecuador Birds and Peru Birds galleries. Images of Machu Picchu are in that gallery.