Sunday, 17 August 1986

ECUADOR August 1986: Coca Falls, Mindo & Cotopaxi

Part two of a blog recounting a trip to Ecuador with Nick Preston.  More unreliable memories and scanned degraded slides of poor quality to start with.

Coca Falls and return to Quito (8-11 August)

Getting on the bus we told the driver that we wanted to get off at Cascada de San Rafael, the local name for Coca Falls.  He appeared to understand and we tried to get some sleep, something I never find easy on a bus.  At 01:00 the bus stopped and we were told this was it.  It was pitch black with no lights on anywhere, not that we expected any, but we knew there was a road down to the falls and it didn’t seem immediately obvious where we were.  We asked the driver and he indicated that it was a little way further on, although why he’d not stopped there was a mystery and while we were pondering this he drove off.  We walked about half a mile without seeing a turning but were so wrecked that we feared we might walk past without seeing it in the dark.  We found a flat dryish area just off the road put up the tent and crashed out.  We were up at first light but there was no sign of the falls, a road to them or anything at all.  We were not certain we were going in the right direction or how far it might be but there was no traffic on the road and we had little choice but to start walking.  This we did hoping the falls might be visible around the next bend.  It was not until almost mid-day after the road had been climbing for a while that we came to a turning and heard the falls.  The bus must have dropped us ten miles short of where we’d wanted to be.  Had we not made ourselves understood or did the driver not really know the turning?  Never trust a driver!  We spent two days at Coca Falls camping in the parking area and living on basic supplies bought in Coca.  We mainly birded the approach road taking a narrow trail down to the foot of the falls once – up close the falls were too noisy to hear ourselves let alone any calling birds.  Highlights were Booted Racket-tail, White-tip, Wire-crested Thorntail, Coppery-chested Jacamar, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (up to three males daily), Golden-winged Manakin, White-tipped Spadebill, lots of Tanagers including Paradise, Golden-naped and Golden-eared, Golden-collared Honeycreeper and Olive Finch.  We saw hardly any other people during our visit which suited us very well while camping/birding although it wasn’t so helpful when it came time to move on and a lift would have been most welcome.  Taking our experience of there being no morning traffic on the road we birded around the Falls until mid-day before leaving and fortunately only had to walk for an hour or so before a bus came along. 

as the morning progressed it was clear we had been dropped nowhere near where we wanted to be, the lesson being not to trust a Driver.  The distant volcano was nice though.
 at least further up the road a river was visible and soon we could hear the Falls
the falls were very impressive when we finally reached them

me at the foot of Coca Falls
forest at Coca Falls
Ornate Flycatcher

leaving Coca Falls
We flagged it down and arrived in Baeza late afternoon.  We found a very nice guest house, Hotel Samay, on the main road, with a superb male Gorgetted Woodstar feeding on the flowers in the front garden.  A banana free cooked meal was a welcome change too.  The next morning we caught a bus to Quito.  The first was very crowded with standing room only but we decided to get on it rather than wait for the next.  I was looking forward to seeing Papallacta Pass having already crossed it in darkness when we arrived but I would have needed to be about four feet tall to see anything out of the windows when standing.  Back in Quito we visited the Viasa Office to reconfirm our flights and the Post Office to send cards home.  We returned to the airport and had better luck hiring a car, although a two seater pickup was all that was available.  Fortunately we could fit our bags in the cab, albeit not out of sight, so it would have to do.  We negotiated our way out of Quito as it was getting dark and slept in the car in a layby near Nono.  I had seen just 4 species all day!

Mindo and Cotopaxi (12-17 August)

We were up at dawn and drove to Tandayapa where we spent most of day on the Blue House Trail which was excellent.  We saw a brilliant White-faced Puffbird plus Buff-tailed Coronet, Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, Crested Quetzal, Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, Green & Black Fruiteater, Turquoise and Collared Jays, Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush and some nice tanagers.  Late in the afternoon we drove down to Mindo where we found a cheap(ish) and very forgettable guest house, had a meal and bought some snack type supplies to keep us going in the field.  We spent all of the next day on the Yellow House trail, thankful that Ecuadorian’s did not regularly paint their houses a different colour.  The lower elevation was obvious both due to it being much warmer (verging on hot) but also the birds which did not stay active for long.  Despite this we had a reasonable day seeing Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Golden-headed Quetzal, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Uniform Antshrike, Ochre-breasted Antpitta and a not quite so interesting selection of tanagers.  We left Mindo early the next morning heading back to Nono and made frequent roadside stops, especially before the Obelisk and at Tandayapa Pass.  We soon saw our main target, Toucan Barbet, which we’d failed to find earlier.  It more than lived up to expectation – superb.  We also saw Sickle-winged Guan, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Golden-headed Quetzal, Powerful Woodpecker, Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia and many tanagers including Glistening-Green.  We arrived at Nono late afternoon and as there was nowhere immediately obvious to stay drove up a dirt road to high above the town.  We saw Tit-like Dacnis and Shining Sunbeam but as the sun dropped so did the temperature and we quickly put up the tent.

early morning near Nono
later morning near Tandayapa

Plate-billed Mountain Toucan

Blue House Trail
Black Flowerpiercer
Toucan Barbet

absolutely superb
Blue-winged Mountain Tanager
a rather distant Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia
Golden-headed Quetzal
American Kestrel at dusk near Nono
We were up at first light, welcoming the warming sun as we took down the tent.  We spent several hours birding above Nono but misinterpreted our directions to Yanococha (we probably went too high to start with) and never found the right place.  We saw several high altitude hummers (Black-tailed Trainbearer, Great Sapphirewing, Shining Sunbeam and Tyrian Metaltail), Tufted Tit-Tyrant and Hooded Siskin but not much else so decided to head back down to Nono and Quito.  From there we headed south to Cotopaxi, an easy drive once clear of Quito.  Having a pickup made it easy to give lifts to the few locals who flagged us down, without us having to try and maintain conversations with them in our poor Spanish!

above Nono it was very cold camping at altitude

further above Nono

approaching Cotopaxi
We arrived at Cotopaxi and spent the late afternoon around the marsh and the nearby hillsides and found a deserted hut to camp out in.  From the middle of the marsh I rescued an inflatable airbed that had blown there but it had a slow puncture and so was hardly worth having got wet and cold feet for.  A Tawny Antpitta on the hillside was an obvious highlight and we also saw Carunculated Caracara, Puna Hawk, Yellow-billed Pintail, Speckled Teal, Slate-coloured Coot, a selection of waders including Baird’s, Pectoral and Western Sandpipers and both Yellowlegs, Andean Hillstar, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Andean Tit-Spinetail Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch – all fairly typical high Andean fare.  It was a cold night and we spent all of the next day at Cotopaxi birding the hillsides around the marsh and low huts.  We saw Great Horned Owl, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Short-billed Marsh Wren and most of the species seen the previous evening.  No new birds for me but I did see 8 Tawny Antpittas.  After another cold night, it would have been warmer in a tent, we again looked around the marsh and nearby hillsides, seeing 4 Tawny Antpittas and Blue-mantled Thornbill, before taking the tent down.  We decided to drive up to the mountain refuge but our pick-up soon started to struggle and pretty much gave up about an hour’s walk short of it.  We continued on foot - it was a steep climb and we were feeling the effects of the altitude although it was the first time I managed an ascent ahead of Nick.  In the clouds just below the refuge at about 15,500ft a quetzal flew past me.  Unfortunately my views didn’t allow me to identify it but it still seemed an amazing record when there was no vegetation higher than 6” to be seen anywhere.  We continued past the refuge to the edge of the glacier but only because it was there – we saw very few birds at this altitude.  We headed back down and left Cotopaxi late afternoon to drive back towards Quito before turning off to Santo Domingo.  Once on Santo Domingo road the journey became a nightmare with poor visibility due to periods of heavy rain and low cloud.  The road was only wide enough for two lanes of traffic with constant hairpin bends making overtaking difficult.  Most of the other vehicles were buses going way too fast or trucks seemingly very slowly.  We would be stuck behind a truck for a mile before a straighter bit of road allowed us to safely overtake, only to find another just around the next bend.  It then got dark which made visibility even worse, and some of the lights on other vehicles were almost useless.  At least we couldn’t see how much of a drop we were driving by.  It was the worst drive I had done and we arrived early evening feeling absolutely shattered.  We stayed in the first hotel we found, the Roma.
Cotopaxi, on the Equator but with a permanent icecap

Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant
the marsh at Cotopaxi
Speckled Teal

our pickup and refuge

Tawny Antpitta

Bar-winged Cinclodes
Stout-billed Cinclodes

Andean Hillstar

Baird's Sandpipers, not the first volcano I'd seen them on following on from Volcan Irazu in Costa Rica the previous summer
me ahead of Nick on a climb, recorded for posterity!

getting higher
the mountain refuge
views back down the way we'd come
the marsh just visible in the middle right distance

clouds coming in
me on Cotopaxi

approaching the icecap
Nick on Cotopaxi

me by large icicles

the weather cleared as we were leaving

returning to our abandoned vehicle
a final Tawny Antpitta

it allowed a close approach
but the film scratched by dirt in the cassette

last views of Cotopaxi

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