Terrestrial habitats, such as forests, grasslands and wet peatlands, contain large volumes of carbon in their biomass and soils. Yet these habitats are being destroyed or degraded at an unprecedented rate, releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. Avoiding the imminent loss of existing habitats prevents the release of stored carbon, whilst enabling the regeneration of degraded habitats gradually re-absorbes atmospheric CO2.
This small reserve has an amazing amount of biodiversity. It is most famous for one of its endangered inhabitants, the Black-breasted Puffleg Hummingbird. Though we didn’t catch sight of one, we will be back during peak season and crossing our fingers that we’ll see at least one and get a great picture to share with the rest of you. But even while missing this endangered bird, our trip was a success. We added a half dozen new species to our life list and might have added a few more if we wanted to brave the afternoon fog and cold. But damp had penetrated our fingers and toes and we decided to make it a short day. In order to stay longer, I have a few suggestions of items you will want to bring:
- water – it’s easy to get dehydrated at high altitude.
- hiking boots or other shoes/boots that are comfortable for walking but can also handle mud.
- sun hat – when the sun is shining, it’s strong; help protect yourself from the elements.
- snack or lunch – you can hike for hours here so bring some energy food.
- wet weather gear – rain and/or heavy fog can come at any time.
- cold weather gear – a pair of gloves for those who get cold fingers and warm socks for those who get cold feet.
- bug dope for the no-seeums – I was unaffected but my husband had a ton of angry red bites the next day.
- flashlight – yes, there is a possible hiking trail that takes you through a tunnel; more below.
- Camera with extra battery
After you’ve packed your gear, you’ll need to know how to get to the reserve itself. Below is the written description but if you’re a visual person, this map might help.
A hop: Find your way to Avenida Occidental (aka Avenida Antonio José de Sucre or Avenida Mariscal Sucre (not to be confused with the neighborhood of the same name!)). This is the major thoroughfare that runs North/South along the westside of Quito.
A skip: Exit at Machala (running primarily to the East) and head up the mountain away from the city. This street can have many names – you might see Machala, you might also see Belen Historico or even Belen Suizo. About 500 meters up the road, bear to the left. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the signs heading towards Nono. Follow them! The good news is that this road has recently been paved all the way to our turn off and beyond. You will wind your way up the mountain through pueblos, protected lands, farms, and more. You’ll also get some great views of the city but be warned, there are very few places to turn off and take photos. It’s just too dangerous. The distance from Avenida Occidental to our turnoff is 5 miles or approximately 8 kilometers.
A jump: You’ll feel very far from Quito by this point even though it’s only 5 miles away. Just before our big jump, you will find a stop light near a church. The stop light is supposedly always red. At this point, start looking for the Yanacocha Reserve sign! It will be on your lefthand-side next to a tall black metal gate, which should be open. The road looks like it belongs to a farm, the house on one side, the pig sty on the other. It’s open to the public. Just turn and start heading up the mountain. This is where you lose the pavement and the road from this point on is primarily dirt with some gravel and/or broken down cobble in sections. If it has recently rained, you may find muddy sections. On a dry day, this road was manageable without using four wheel drive. From this point to the Yanacocha Reserve it is 5 miles or approximately 8 kilometers. You will pass farms and spectacular views. You’ll drive through Campamento Pichan where a guard might be standing at the entrance. No worries, just drive on through. And finally, a little further up the mountain, you’ll see the last sign for the Yanacocha Reserve and arrive at the parking lot!
Now that you’ve arrived, here is what you can expect. First, you’ll sign in at the little hut. Residents pay a nice low fee of $3 a person and non-residents pay a grand $15 each. Remember to bring your identification with you. Grab your backpack and get ready to hike. My guess is that we walked 2 miles out to the main sugar feeders but I didn’t clock it (need to invest in that GPS!). The good news? The main trail is relatively flat and we rarely felt the breathlessness that comes with high altitude hiking. However, you can hike as far as you want as there are side trails galore heading both up and down the mountain slope. The majority of the trails intersect back with the main trail making the combinations endless. You can check out the trail map before entering the main trail. No paper copies available.
We stuck to the Trocha Inca trail on this visit and went as far as the small protected area near the largest grouping of sugar feeders. There is a small bathroom at this point and it’s also where the trail splits. You can go further out Trocha Inca or you can hike through a small and very dark tunnel which leads to another set of trails including one that returns to the main parking lot. If you do choose to take the tunnel, I highly recommend bringing that small flashlight. It’s pretty dark in there.
Our hike started and ended with birds. Immediately, we heard the twittering in the treetops. Some birds were high up the mountain slope, others further down, and more were in the bushes alongside the trail. We saw many different tanagers, but no pictures I’m afraid. We could hear hummingbirds at regular intervals. Sometimes we just heard their sharp peep, peep notes from high among the tree tops but at other moments we could hear the fast beating of their wings, a thrum that I can feel better than I can hear. It makes the back of my neck tense and I always hope beyond hope that as I turn to look, I will catch a hummingbird in mid-flight. No such luck this time. We also heard the sorrowful tones of trogons near the Masked Trogon trail. Next time, I’m headed down that trail in hopes of capturing one of those beauties guarding their little section of wooded paradise.
We also saw a large variety of flowers from wild fuschia to tiny tear drop white bells that reminded of the arctic heathers that grow prolifically in the Alaskan Tundra. The hike alone would be worth have been worth it just for the variety of plant life.
Our main goal was to visit the hummingbird feeders and see how many different species we might photograph. And we were in luck. Even though the weather changed as we approached the main bevy of feeders, the fog and damp didn’t slow down the hummingbirds. In fact, I wondered if the cold made them even more active as they needed more sugar to fuel their tiny, active bodies. The most common hummingbird was a slender Buff-winged Starfrontlet. They were easy to spot because the have a little square of buff colored feathers just where their wings meet their main bodies.
The largest hummingbird in the area was a dramatic fellow, dark and somber in the foggy conditions. We never saw the male sitting still enough for a photo, but he has the smallest flash of red at the base of his throat. Otherwise, he is dark blues and greens and purples, the colors of a powerfully painful black eye. These Blue-mantled Thornbills owned the feeders when they arrived and wouldn’t allow the other hummingbirds to come near while they were taking their turns.
Another dashing fellow was the Sword-billed Hummingbird. Much smaller than some of the others, his plain colored green, brown, and black feathers where outshone by the striking quality of his extra long beak. It shone glossy black as if it had been polished and was longer than the body of the bird itself. I was struck at how difficult it must have been to sip from the sugar feeders that don’t allow entrance of a beak so long but he managed it nonetheless.
Up around the corner from the bathrooms were two little trails that led to more feeders. One glade held a regular sugar feeder and an open feeder, which was attracting a large flock of Masked Flowerpiercers, all bright blue with black masks covering their faces and startling orange eyes, and a smaller group of Glossy Flowerpiercers, their gorgeous black bodies marked with a flash of Provencal blue. Hidden among the branches, however, was a beauty of a hummingbird, bright flourescent green with turquoise markings at the base of his beak. The little white dot near his eye only enhanced the rest of his brilliant colorings. When we arrived home and I was admiring this little fellow’s picture, I noticed he had cute puffy white feathers at his feet – definitely a puffleg of some kind. After gleaning the pages of my favorite guidebook, Aves del Ecuador (Ridgely and Greenfield), I’ve identified him as a Sapphire-vented Puffleg and I want to return and take more photos so that we can better see his colorful tail.
At this point, we decided to turn back. The view we should have been able to see from the final glade was impossible to enjoy. The fog had seriously rolled in and we were left with minimal visibility. While walking back, the trail was quieter, sounds muffled by the invasive fog. At least it wasn’t raining. We did run into a flock of Rufous Wrens making havoc in the reeds. They were anything but quiet and fairly easy to follow though a little harder to capture in a photograph because their constant busy-ness meant that they didn’t stand still. As they hopped through the brush, they lead us to an even better find, a pair of Streaked Tuftedcheeks. These two were almost impossible to photograph as the were digging into tree trunks searching for insects their tails serving for balance so that their heads could swivel and swerve at an amazing speed. They were deep in the darkest part of the forest and even with my highest ISO setting, it was tough to get a good photograph. What a challenge these birds can be!
While we had passed many people on the way into the reserve, we saw only a couple on the way out. I was happy to see many Ecuadorians visiting. We’ve heard that the locals don’t appreciate the rich diversity surrounding Quito but I think we have heard wrong. It isn’t only visiting tourists you’ll find on the trails, but local school kids with a teacher or two (yes, even on the weekend) and families just out for an afternoon stroll. And just to illustrate how small a place a huge city like Quito can be, we ran into a bird guide that we met on the other side of the mountain near Mindo. He was sharing his excellent bird spotting skills with a large group of birders, all foreigners from Europe or the United States. But he stopped to give me a Quiteño kiss on the cheek and we parted ways. I secretly wished he could abandon his large group and tag along with us because with his skills, we would have seen even more birds, I’m sure. Maybe next time. Let me know if you want to join us!
If you would like to make a donation to the World Land Trust and keep places like Yanacocha thriving, here is a link: https://support.worldlandtrust.org/form.asp?id=722.