Saturday, July 10, 2010

In the land of emeralds

Before we get started here´s a pcture of Pululahua Crater that I wrote about last time around.Believe it or not there´s a charming little hostal down there with a wind turbine and solar panels and a 70-something retired electrical engineer trying to start an organic farm.

Far from this eden-like paradise down on the sticky-humid northwestern corner of Ecuador lies a gritty frontier backwater called San Lorenzo where I wrote my last update. Many concerned readers have contacted me regarding the secret drug-smuggling submarine factory that was discovered in the mangroves near this town. Indeed it was no coincidence that the 150 militia raid came on the heels of my visit to the area. Check out this photographic proof:
Above you can see the manglares de mataje where the base was hidden and below the town of San Lorenzo.
I´ve been working for the DEA all along. I can admit this now that I´m done in Manabi province where the Colombians can´t reach me for retribution. Bird watching is the ultimate cover for any spy. It´s an excuse to visit far-flung out of the way places and carry around high-end optical equipment and cameras.

But this blog post is going to focus on the past week I´ve spent in the province of Esmeraldas, meaning "emeralds." Enterprising Americans supposedly relieved the area of all its precious stones years ago, but the name still sticks.

With my work finished in the mangroves, I headed south down the coast to Sua.

This was the view from my private room that cost $8. I sure will miss the Ecuadorian prices when I´m back home.

From Sua I backtracked briefly to head inland toward Bilsa Biological Station that contains one of the largest rare patches of remnant lowland wet forest left in Western Ecuador and the Choco mega-diverse bioregion. En route I met the first gringo I had encountered in several days, a lovesick and hungover Swiss guy who scarcely new where he was going. His goal, Baños, being some 12 hours distant (it was at this point 2 in the afternoon) I suggested he come with me to Bilsa.

We made fast friends and promptly got stranded in Quininde where we had missed the last camioneta for la Ye de la Laguna. Fortunately it was Saturday night and the grand finale of Quininde´s cantonization day. Some sort of a celebration of political independence celebrated by fireworks and of course Salsa dancing. It made a perfect substitute for the 4th of July that I was missing back home, only it came a day early.

The fireworks were probably the most exciting I have ever seen. Not becaus eof theirhigh quality per se, but because of an almost complete disregard for the safety of spectators . They numbered in the thousands and pressed close to the arsenal of mortar tubes stationed in the city park, a concrete slab surrounded by a 12-foot high steel fence, just to make sure nobodycould escape ground zero should anything go awry. Many of the mortars seemed to have blast radiuses greater than the height that they ended up exploding so that glowing fireballs were raining into the crowd. Car alarms were going off everywhere fromthe shockwaves and everyone was constantly dusting fallout from their heads and shoulders.

The next morning "Dan" and I got up early to catch the pickup to la Ye, a 2 hours ride, which was followed by a 3-and-a-half-hour tromp down the muddy clayey "road" to the Bilsa station. That bulldozer was there to graded the road to make it passable for vehicals with 4WD, but most transport is made by horse or donkey.

The station had a few confused volunteers and researchers, but the folks who would have resmebled volunteer coordinators or directors were away on vacation unfortunately. Of course, I didn´t need any help or coordinating and set right out each and every day to look for rare Choco endemic birds with a Danish birdwatcher who used my presence to get out of volunteering responsibilities.

On my first day I got some great looks (but but no pictures) at the famous and rediculous-looking Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, an endangered species I had been trying tofind for some time. On my last day I saw probably the rarest bird I´ll ever see anywhere (except for maybe Okarito Brown Kiwi), the highly sought-after, but seldom encountered Banded Ground-Cuckoo. A large endangered terrestrial bird.

From Bilsa I left for Mompiche, a quiet off-season surfer village, and then to Bunche to visit some interns from Great Wilderness who had been working on community development projects with cacao farmers there all the while I had been at La Hesperia.

I´m currently blitzing my way south to try and dodgethe Colombians and meet up with my new Danish friend in Cuenca so we can do some birdwatching together in Podocarpus national park in southern Ecuador.

Hopefully I can sustain my phenomenal luck.

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