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.
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.
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 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.
On the highway heading from Quito to Mindo, there is a small dirt road leading up into the mountains just before the town of Nanegalito. It is normally a way to the subtropical cloud forest of the Bellavista Reserve but the road is in bad condition and not recommended for the faint of heart. But just a short distance up the road, before the worrisome parts, there is a small home called Alambi. Most people just drive on by, not even realizing that this property provides a small oasis for hummingbirds and those that appreciate seeing them. It is a spot where you can stop for a few minutes, an hour or two and include a meal, or overnight in the beautiful home itself. All you need is a reservation.
We only discovered Alambi because on our first visit to the Bellavista Reserve, our driver was replaced last minute by the caretaker of this property. He had us visit for a few minutes so that we could marvel at the plethora of hummingbirds in the small garden. Since then, I have been waiting for an excuse to return.
I found the reason a few weeks ago when I planned a trip with friends to the Bellavista Reserve. Our itinerary included a morning visit to Alambi where, for the very reasonable cost of $10, we breakfasted on the back patio with a view of at least a dozen hummingbird feeders and the constant movement of tiny birds. I found it very hard to sit down even for the excellent breakfast of scrambled eggs, croquettes made of yucca stuffed with fresh cheese, home-made ají, freshly squeezed orange juice, freshly brewed coffee, and a bowl of fruit salad. The breakfast was stellar but I couldn’t get enough of the birds, their tiny feathers shining in the morning light. Both my husband and I photographed prolifically. Here are some of the better shots of the morning.
If you prefer larger photos, click on any photo and you will be taken to a new page where you can scroll through the entire album at your leisure.
Hiking at Chirije comes in a couple of different forms. You can head to the beach and hike for miles. Or you can head back to the little museum and find the trail hidden just behind it and head out and up into the tropical dry forest. There you’ll find a gigantic Ceiba tree, it’s wide trunk impossible to embrace because of it’s size. Birds are everywhere, their song easy to hear. With patience, it’s possible to spot many. The easiest way is to find the local food source. In February, that meant cactus fruit and the birds where having a hey-day. But seeds bursting from pods were apparent as well. There are a variety of food sources that will keep these birds coming back year round. Recent rain meant muddy trails and small, inconspicuous mushrooms. But damp ground makes great habitat for mosquitos, another favorite snack for many a bird.
As the coast of Ecuador becomes more popular, land like the dry tropical forest that surrounds the lodge at Chirije will become even more scarce than it is today. According to The Nature Conservancy, land like this should have the highest of conservation priority. In Ecuador, less that 25% of the original dry forest remains.
And that makes me worried. There is a push to increase tourism to the area, a push I very much understand and support. But I am afraid that the environment and sustainability might go out the window. We were speaking with the the mother of the owner of Chirije and she was talking about a new coastal highway that would bring in thousands of newly middle class Ecuadorians but it might just rip out even more dry tropical forest. This gracious lady used to run an organic shrimp farm but has found that the organic feed needed for the shrimp was too expensive and today her farm is just like hundreds of others that dot the coastline here. Chirije markets itself as an eco-lodge but how long before it is just like hundreds of other places to stay along the Ecuadorian Coast?