Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve: More Than A Research Station

The Welcome Sign

The Welcome Sign


For those of you that are regular readers, you already know how much we love the Bellavista Reserve. It was one of our first trips in Ecuador. In fact, we hadn’t yet moved into our home but were still living in a hotel when the van from the Bellavista Lodge picked us up and transported us a meer 2 hours away into an environment so very different from the big city of Quito.

The problem with living in Ecuador is that we can’t afford to escape the city every weekend. Lodges like Bellavista, though beautiful and well-worth visiting, can add up and our budget just can’t handle it. That’s why I was thrilled to learn that we could stay at the Reserve’s Scientific Research Station for just $18.00 per person, per night. It’s not as nice as staying at the Lodge but for a family that is comfortable with tent camping, it’s a definite step in the right direction.

One of the bedrooms at the Bellavista Reserve Scientific Research Station.

One of the bedrooms at the Bellavista Reserve Scientific Research Station.

Inside the Research Station, you’ll find a hallway with rooms on either side. Six of them, in fact, each with bunk beds to sleep 4 people per room. We comfortably slept 13 people, all but one sleeping on the bottom bunk. Bedding was provided by the Lodge. The Station can hold up to 24 people and a small house just outside can sleep another 4-6, but at twice the price.

Further inside the building is a large dining room with bench style seating and colorfully painted walls. Next to that is a galley kitchen, long and narrow, and well-supplied with dishes, cups, glasses, and silverware. There are some very large pots and pans for cooking for large groups. A stove with three huge burners is hooked up to gas. There are bottles of potable water as well as a sink for washing dishes. That water is cold water only indoors but showers had wonderfully hot running water! And believe me, a hot shower after hiking a muddy, strenuous Cloud Forest trail is a beautiful thing to have. In fact, the toilet facilities were more than adequate with flush toilets and toilet paper (sometimes not found in Ecuadorian establishments). The Lodge provided a towel for each of us. We placed our own bar of soap and hand towel at the community sink.

We also brought our own iron cast skillet, sharp knife and chopping board, stove-top percolators for coffee, as well as dish towels just in case. All came in handy.

To keep costs down, we supplied our own food and cooked our own meals. We did take turns cooking as the kitchen is narrow and having four different families try to cook individual meals at the same time would have been a fiasco. If you end up with dishwashing duty, try for breakfast as you will be able to look out the kitchen windows directly into the cloud forest.

If you don’t want to cook, you can always hire the Lodge to provide meals at the Station. Or you can hike (30 minutes) or drive (10 minutes) to the Lodge and enjoy the meals over there. Check the current prices before making this an option.

The dining room looking into the kitchen at the Bellavista Scientific Research Station.

The dining room looking into the kitchen at the Bellavista Scientific Research Station.

There is no electricity and the Station is nestled into a bowl at the bottom of a hill where you see very little sun. It gets dark quickly. We brought extra candles (and once we drank enough wine, we had a great way to hold them) and our headlamps. Any kind of camping lantern would be a bonus. The outdoor patio with tables and chairs was a wonderful place to sit in the evenings. It was pleasant, if chilly, with very few bugs. And we could use a gas powered lantern safely while outdoors. But nighttime brought other guests, well after we went to bed. If the sound of little critters bothers you, just remember you’re in the wild and a few animals are to be expected. Though none of us had a middle of the night encounter with any creatures, we do know they don’t like banana bread. One bite was taken from an entire loaf wrapped in aluminum foil. But one bite only. If I had to guess, I would like to think that an olinguito had somehow found a way in and was touring the kitchen for an easy meal.

The parking lot on the left and the Research Station roof on the right.

The parking lot on the left and the Research Station roof on the right.

The Research Station is located on a backroad with only a locked gate to hint that it might even exist. It’s well hidden and difficult to see from the road providing a layer of privacy. The drive down is steep and in wet weather could possibly require a 4-WD vehicle. Parking at the bottom is tight. We managed to fit 5 vehicles with a series of multiple point turns that would do our driving instructors proud. Of course, you don’t need cars to get here. The lodge will help you with transportation if need be.

In case you can’t tell, I can highly recommend staying here. It was a great place to spend time with friend. Our teens hung out on the patio chatting and playing cards while the more adventurous of us disappeared into the Cloud Forest for hours at a time. Below, you’ll find some of the great photos I was able to take on a single weekend. If you prefer to see the pictures in large format, click on any single one and you can view a slideshow of them all.

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What to Expect at Cascada Condor Machay

Selva Alegre - the street could be nicknamed Cuy Row as there were several restaurants selling guinea pig, a local delicacy.

Selva Alegre – a guiding point on the way. This street could be nicknamed Cuy Row as there were several restaurants selling guinea pig, a local delicacy.

The gateway to Rumipamba... just so you know you're on the right road.

The gateway to Rumipamba… just so you know you’re on the right road.

Little did we know that the hardest part of getting to the waterfall, Condor Machay, wouldn’t be the hiking but the actual driving directions on how to get to the trail head. We knew we were looking for a road that led from Sangolquí to the back, north entrance of Cotopaxi National Park. Like all Americans, I went to the internet to find better directions. And it was a hunt. Many places offer trips out to the waterfall and tell you to call them for a guide.

Just in case you’re visiting the area and are without your own transportation, here they are:

But since we live locally and have our own vehicle, we really wanted to get there on our own. I finally tracked down a website with brief instructions… so brief in fact that when I try searching for that same website again to share with you, I can’t find it. It’s complicated by the fact that the waterfall also goes by the name of El Nido del Condor, the Spanish translation of the Condor’s Nest, which is what Condor Machay means in Quichua. Luckily between the Cantón Rumiñahui and my imperfect memory, I’ve pieced together a google map that should help any intrepid traveler.

And let me tell you, the trip out is well worth it. The area in this part of Canton Rumiñahui is beautiful – rolling hills, hidden canyons, a river valley, occasional farms, and lots of wild areas. You will need a high clearance vehicle to make the trip, mainly for the road work going on in the small town of Rumipamba. Expect lots of dirt and gravel, a filthy vehicle at the end of the day, and great pictures from your hike.

When you arrive at the parking lot, there will most likely be someone there collecting a small fee for watching your car, especially if you hike on the weekend or on a national holiday. If you hike mid-week, it’s likely your vehicle will be left on its own. Use common sense and don’t leave expensive items in your car. If you must, put them where they can’t be seen.

To hike to the waterfall, you will take the trail immediately to the right of the parking lot. The left trail takes you to other cascades and sounds wonderful as well. If you get there before we do, let me know what it’s like!

The trail is well maintained with several bridges crossing the Rio Pita. Each crossing gives a pretty view of the river and often of the vegetation alongside. Though the hiking is not strenuous, the trail is long. A slow hiker like myself should plan on a couple of hours one way, especially if hiking on the weekend. As slow as I am compared to my 6-ft tall sons, I was still passing people on the trail, however. A beautiful day will bring out all kinds of folks and that means having patience on the trail. It also means picking up little candy wrappers on the way out and back. I wish I could convince all Ecuadorians that even small litter is bad for the environment.

One of the many bridges crossing the Rio Pita.

One of the many bridges crossing the Rio Pita.

Lunch in front of the Cascada Condor Machay.

Lunch in front of the Cascada Condor Machay.

We hiked during the rainy season and the water was pouring off the mountainsides. We saw several cascades coming off the rocks. The river itself was running fast and had some areas had fairly healthy rapids.

Birding was next to impossible because there were so many people. However, we did spy the nest of a Caracara. These large, dark birds often look like vultures high in the sky. We watched one settle on the rock side before it disappeared for a few moments in a small depression behind it. Eventually, it re-emerged and started tearing apart it’s prey. We assume it was feeding a youngster further back in the nest.

We were lucky enough to see a few orchids as well, though it was a tad early in the season. Keep your eyes above the trail, especially in damp areas where the sunlight can penetrate the forest. Orchids like damp but they also seem to love a little sun during the day. We had good luck looking along the rocky mountainside where the stream runs through the mountain.

But the highlight of the trip was the waterfall itself. The rainy days helped swell the stream that feeds the waterfall and it was rushing of the mountainside to the pool waiting beneath. We enjoyed our lunch while seated at the foot of this marvelous natural wonder, the wind occasionally blowing a light spray of water over our tired bodies. A few people bravely stuck their bare feet into the cold water but no one ventured into the pool itself. The strength of that falling water demanded respect.

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Hiking Pinchincha

On the Teleferico heading up the mountain!

This weekend new found friends and local Ecuadorian family offered to take us on the Teleferico to hike to the top of Pinchincha. That’s the volcano that erupted back in 1999. It benignly looks over the city of Quito and is most often covered by clouds in the late afternoon. That meant an early start so we could increase our odds of seeing a view once we got to the top.

For those of you who haven’t heard of the Teleferico, it’s a cable car that will take you up the mountain-side. It doesn’t reach the peak but it comes within a 2 hour hike of it. As of this last weekend, it cost $8.50 for a non-resident and $4.50 for a resident, for a round-trip ticket. Trust me, it’s well worth the money! You could chose to hike a dirt road instead but its hairpin-turns meander up the mountainside and it could take you a few hours to reach your final destination. Better to just cut to the chase and hop on the Teleferico!

We chose a wonderful day for the adventure. The sky was clear when we arrived with clouds building up in the far distance but certainly not immediately threatening. We caught glimpses of both Cayambe and Cotopaxi, snow covered volcanos near Quito. But more impressive were the views of this huge city. Although only 2 million people live here, the city is very, very long and it could take upward of 2 hours to transverse the entire place. Yet the city is very narrow, fitting into this high mountain valley by pushing up the sides of the mountains. The only places left to grow are to the north and to the south. It’s very apparent from up high that the growing is still taking place. It is no longer possible to see the northern boundary even from the height of the top of the Teleferico. At the southern boundary the houses look so small that it is almost impossible to make them out in the distance.

A view of southern Quito… houses as far as the eye can see.

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The Trails at Bellavista

Marker on the trail - stream any which way you go.

Marker on the trail – stream any which way you go.

Imagine walking outside of your house, climbing a hill of maybe a hundred meters and seeing a completely different kind of habitat. If you live in a city near a park, this might actually happen but for most of us our home territory is pretty homogenous. But that is what you’ll find at Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve. Unbelievably, a change in a hundred meters can mean different trees, different insects, different frogs. And, believe it or not, it means the difference between seeing one kind of tanager and another. So while you can see many birds just by staying in one place, you increase your odds of seeing more by heading out to the many hiking trails on the reserve. And boy, are there a lot of trails!

The trail to the waterfall. Rubber boots recommended.

The trail to the waterfall. Rubber boots recommended.

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