Countdown to Galápagos

Today’s slide show: Images from Yanacocha.

Today’s audio update: Guide Luis Die offers some background on the significance of Ecuador’s cloud forest.

Today’s 360-degree view: On the edge of the cloud forest.

The quiet, calm cloud forest

Galápagos! We’re coming for your blue-footed boobies! Your famous marine iguanas! Hide your penguins and candelabra cactuses, your hieroglyphic hawkfish and 441 beetle species! They won’t be safe in your lava tubes or your scalesia zone. Over the next seven days, we intend to snorkel your reefs and hike your volcanic heights to locate your hammerhead sharks and giant tortoises. Give up your feral goats, your flightless cormorants, and your concentric pufferfish! If not, our well-stocked pleasure craft the Parranda, her crew, and her 15 deep-pocketed tourist passengers will lay siege to your archipelago until you yield. Resistance is futile!

But that’s tomorrow. Today, we prime ourselves for our inevitable conquest of Galápagos, the land Charles Darwin made famous, with a side trip to the anti-Galápagos, the cloud forest of the Yanacocha ecological reserve. We are Jack Shafer, your humble narrator; Luis Die, a nature guide who has led Galápagos trips for 14 years; multimedia wizard Steven VanRoekel; and Steven’s primary love unit Carrie Eiting.

The Yanacocha reserve is 20 miles northwest of Quito, Ecuador’s mountain capital, where we have a one-day layover. With Luis at the wheel of our 4 x 4, we make it to the Yanacocha trailhead in 60 minutes and start hiking at 7:30 a.m. Our brains are not yet acclimated to Quito’s 9,400-foot elevation, and the additional 1,000 feet of altitude we’ve gained makes us extra headachy, extra dizzy, and a little more daft.

Why visit the cloud forest the day before our Galápagos foray? In part, I’m avoiding the recommended day trip to one of the local Indian markets. Every time I visit an ethnic market, the unwanted noise of an old NPR All Things Considered segment unspools in my head. “At the mercado, the campesinos bring their maize to sell“—cue the ticky-ticky ethnic music and crowd noises—”but drought has withered the crops and buyers turn away.” I can’t stand it.

In avoiding one touristic cliché, I eagerly embrace another, thinking the Yanacocha hike will sharpen my eyes for Galápagos, because Yanacocha’s wildlife is as shy as Galápagos’ is outgoing. This soggy mountain reserve is everything that the sea-locked, dry Galápagos is not. The cloud forest gets its name from the foggy clouds that bathe it with humidity, producing the reliable drip, drip, drip of moisture that irrigates the earth and sustains the remarkable biodiversity. In Galápagos, 750 miles west, only a stingy inch and a half of rain falls each year. The desert climate stunts the variety of plants and animals, as do the islands’ isolation from the continent. Galápagos has just 11 species of orchids compared to Ecuador’s thousands. Part of Yanacocha’s cachet is that it’s a bit of a secret spot with very few visitors. Except for a trio of young Ecuadorian yuppies swathed in Gore-Tex and brandishing Swarovski binoculars, we’re the only visitors on the trail today.

In the cloud forest, no single tree species dominates the ecosystem the way Douglas firs or oaks do in the climax forests of North America. At first gander, the cloud forest is an unvariegated blur of green. Luis explains that the cloud forest eschews the endgame of the climax forest for its “imbalanced equilibrium,” in which one set of plants might dominate and then recede only to dominate again later. If we were to revisit the Yanacocha reserve 100 years from today, we couldn’t accurately predict which plants would dominate, but we’d still recognize the cloud forest’s overarching pattern of shrubs, ferns, and trees.

For most of our 10-mile-round-trip hike, the sun shines through patchy skies and we gaze down on the clouds that span the valleys. Our hike follows the path of an aqueduct that waters Quito, and we take several subterranean shortcuts through service tunnels bored through mountainside. During our long march, Luis expertly fans the pages of The Birds of Ecuador,identifying maybe 25 of the preserve’s 160-plus birds: Tanagers, conebills, tapaculos, flower-piercers (which extract nectar from flowers by biting their way in), finches, and more. The rifts and folds of the high Andes create countless microclimates that isolate plants and animals and command them to evolve together. The skill set that might favor a nectar-eater in this valley could very well cramp his style in the next valley over and encourage a different bird to reproduce.

Sword-billed hummingbird in flight

A dozen or so hummingbird species compete in the 2,400-acre reserve for territory and bragging rights. Bright red feeders filled with sugar water draw the hummers out of the wild and into the open alongside the trail, just 6 feet from us. Carrie shoots Gatling gun bursts from her Canon as Steven drapes his Sony MiniDisc recorder and microphone near a feeder to capture the zizzzzing of the sword-billed hummingbird’s wings. The sword-billed’s 6-inch (I’m guessing) bill is as long as its body. It’s only a matter of time before other hummingbird species start receiving spam e-mail explaining how simple it would be for them to add sword-length elongation to their bills.

The great sapphirewing, the tyrian metaltail, the spectacled whitestar, the buff-winged starfrontlet, the sapphire-vented puffleg, the golden-breasted puffleg, and the rainbow-bearded thornbill hummingbirds all make appearances, with one bird strafing Steven’s red fanny pack after mistaking it for a feeder. The profusion of birds more than makes up for the no-show of Yanacocha’s premier hummer, the black-breasted puffleg, which attracts hard-core birders from around the globe to this spot.

Although the cloud forest is a thousand-fold more diverse than the parched and isolated Galápagos, we see no non-bird animals in the reserve all day. The cloud forest climate is too cold for reptiles to survive, and the existing mammals, including weasels and skunks, are usually hunkered down out of sight. Luis recounts the tale of the graduate student who studied Yanacocha’s incredibly rare spectacled bear for four years but never eyed one.

By early afternoon, the clouds finally rise to blunt the UV-laden sun, gray-scaling the reserve’s colorful birds into silhouettes on tree branches. But if the birds call from their perches in the fog, Luis can name many of them. We arrive back at the 4 x 4 at 2:30 p.m., tired and sore and with our heads still pounding from the altitude. Carrie speaks for all of us when she says she’s starving, and we demolish a bag of Ruffles.

Cruising back down the mountain past Quechua Indian brick houses, I contemplate the coming conquest. Galápagos, bring on your charismatic megafauna! Or else!