Updated: Feb 12, 2020
We had an opportunity to join an organized tour north to possibly view the endangered Andean spectacled bear. The trip originated in Cotacachi and headed north through Ibarra toward the Colombian border. As we neared the border, we turned off the Pan American Highway and up into the hills to a small town. This was the transition area from modern paved roads to narrow country lanes, sometimes paved, sometimes cobblestone, sometimes dirt. There was a small moment of confusion as the maze of narrow roads in the village confused our guides for a moment and we stopped as they discussed the route to take through the village. The discussion was successful and we headed back into the village taking a circuitous scenic meander through the village then continued on.
The narrow hillside roads provided beautiful panoramic views as we wound our way through small villages and fields along steep mountainsides. As we wound our way up the valley the houses became fewer, replaced by orchards of Mandarina, pastures of cattle and small finca (farms). We got to the floor of the valley and came upon a large fast flowing river cutting through natural levees built by flood waters over time.
The landscape varied from arid to forest to jungle as we continued along for a while then began to climb up the mountainside again. At one point we descended to cross over the river and then wind our way back up the hills into farms and small villages again. We climbed up along the mountainside into a steep sided narrowing valley until we come to a stop at several buildings with an entry marked by a huge sculpture of three bears.
The guides patiently waited while we collected our photography gear and we proceeded down through a small orchard to a tree house style observation platform and a view point on a steep cliff leading down to the river some 200m below. Our guides pointed to an Avocado orchard on the facing hillside and after a few moments the first bear appeared. It’s possible see the bears with the naked eye, but several of our party had large telephoto lenses and shared with us so we could all get a good look. The bears were of medium size, dark almost black fur with a white mask around the eyes that gives them their name. There were a number of bears sighted, some in the avocado grove and another that was above the grove on a debris pile. We spend a time enjoying our views of the bears before they disappeared for their mid-day naps and we headed back to the vans to continue the tour.
The guides took us farther up the valley and into the cloud forest up a steep dirt and grass road. The street tires on the vans eventually weren’t able to traverse the increasingly slick terrain and we came to a stop, disembarked and continued on foot. We were walking along a steep ravine to our right and pastures to our left when one of our guides whistled at the cattle in the pasture. It must have been the meal whistle as the herd came over to the fence looking for handouts. Unlike the cattle in the lower elevations, these were fat and clean, with some seemingly artistic black and white markings. One of our party finds a very large caterpillar on one of the shrubs and we all stop to take pictures of it. The color is a lavender tone and the body is covered with bristles, it’s almost impossible to determine which end is which.
We continue on until we get to a large boulder set along the path/road. It’s on the edge of a cliff overlooking the river and a waterfall cascading into it from another stream. Our guides explain that this boulder is an ancient road marker and map of the villages in the area indicating the various markings carved into the stone. We look out over the valley from this location and can imagine an ancient traveler stopping as he crested the ridge behind us with the valley spread out below and wondering “where do I go from here?”.
There is an ancient burial ground further on and we ask how long to hike there. There are a variety of answers and we are reminded of a rule you learn in Ecuador. Time is a concept we learned in small increments of minutes to hours as we grew up in North America. In Ecuador, time has been measured over the centuries in terms of parts of the day, days of the week, seasons. So hearing it’s a “half hour” here could easily mean half a day. We decide to not continue up the ridge when an Ecuadorian family comes down and confirms that it will take much longer than a half hour to make the trip. We proceed down the road at a much more leisurely “photographers’ pace”, stopping to admire the large variety of bromeliads growing wild among the trees.
One of our party gathers and collects several smaller varieties to take home and hardly makes a dent in the myriad of plants in reach. We reach the vans and head back down the ridge into the small village nestled into the hillside.
We stop at the village church to use the facilities and a cowboy stops by on his horse to chat. Lynn observes that one hoof is unshod and I observe the saddle, basically an “x” frame of wood with pieces of tire used for cushioning. Relieved and rested, we embark back downhill and stopped at the houses where our bear trip started. We are introduced to the owner, who has adopted the bears, welcomed them onto his finca and watches over them to protect them. He shows us a short video about his efforts with the bears, who are beginning their 3rd generation from the first bear who moved into this valley. He explains that she came along a path that animals have used for many years and shows us remote footage of the path. There are Pumas, Bears, Deer all using the same path along the mountainside. She settled on his farm, a male joined her and they had several cubs, including a few females. The females then attracted more males, and there are now 28 living around the avocado grove he planted to provide them with food. The older male had an unfortunate mishap and fell into the river valley, killing him. We are shown his skull that was collected when they went down to lay the older bear to rest.
We are then introduced to his family, who provide us with a generous indigenous meal of soup, corn, potatoes and a choice of chicken or trout. Our host gives a brief tour of some cottages he has built to be able to rent for overnight guests. He explains the bears are much more active in the mornings and afternoons when the weather is cooler. We had arrived just in time to get the brief view that we had before they settled in for their midday nap. Then it’s time to pack up and board the vans for the trip home. Along the way we make a stop at the river crossing and get out to explore.
The river was large and lively, moving quickly as a function of its volume and the slope it was traveling along. I walked along the banks and found a treasure trove of various rock types that could have kept a geologist busy for hours.
We load back up after one more photography session and head for home, once again having seen so much more than the rare Andean bears we had originally booked to see.
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