After Cayambe Coca, we returned to Puembo Garden. The civil unrest had quieted but it looked like it was heating up again. The plan was to head back to the mountains on Day 14 to the Antisana Volcano and surrounding area and then return to Puembo for our last night before an early trip to the Quito Airport for our flight home. So far our decision to chance it had paid off and we were glad that we had not bailed out early and flown home. We learned, however, that several tours had been canceled and even that some people had come to Ecuador only to find that their trip to the Galapagos had been called off. Now with the unrest returning, there was concern whether we could get to Antisana. That night at Puembo we learned that the road would most likely be open so our guide and driver would pick us up in the morning and head out … unless conditions changed overnight and we would find an alternative.
Jorge and Jorge were right on time as usual and all systems looked good for our trip to the Antisana. We would be higher than we were the previous day – over 14,000 feet. The weather looked great – blue skies and not as cold. Now the challenges would be finding the birds we sought, not getting sun burned in the thin air, and … breathing. We had been at high or really high elevations for all of the trip except our time in the Amazon, mostly over 6,000 feet and often over 10,000 feet. Cindy had a small headache one afternoon, but otherwise we were surprisingly unaffected by the elevation. We did not do any strenuous hiking but we had expected at least shortness of breath. This day at 14,000 feet Jorge was careful to tell us to take it easy.
On the way up to the Antisana, our first stop was at Tambo Condor an ecotourism site in Ecuador that includes a restaurant, lodging, feeders and adjoins an overlook which is the best place in Ecuador to find Andean Condors which often roost on the cliffs across the river. The garden attracts other birds including many hummers. I had seen an Andean Condor in Peru and got an ok photo. Here the first hope was just to see one of these magnificent birds – the heaviest and with the largest wingspan of any bird of flight in the world. The second hope would be that one would soar close enough for a photo.
It is best to arrive early before the rising heat creates thermals that the Condors ride away. The Condor overlook is about two hours from Quito. We fortunately had no road closures from demonstrations but Jorge was not the world’s fastest driver. The weather was perfectly clear but when we arrived at around 9:00 a.m. it was not yet too warm. The bad news was that the condors were pretty distant, across the river valley, pretty far away. The good news is that there were Condors – lots of Condors – some soaring above the cliffs and others perched on the cliffs possibly with some prey. Altogether we counted 15 Andean Condors – a very high number. Online statistics vary but the number of wild Andean Condors in Ecuador seems to range from a low of 50 to a high of around 100. Whatever the number, this was a large concentration. Scope views were great but good photos were hard to come by due to the distance.
The photos above were the best I could get. The Condors never came any closer and in fact sometimes soared further away. The wingspan of an Andean Condor can reach 10 feet and they can weigh up to 33 pounds. By comparison, the California Condor of the U.S. has a wingspan of 9.5 feet and weighs around 20 pounds. A Wandering Albatross has the largest wingspan of any bird – 12 feet. Some interesting facts about Andean Condors: They live for about 50 years in the wild although a captive one lived for 80 years at a zoo; they may soar for 150 miles in search of food and flap their wings when soaring about 1% of the time; they do not build nests – laying eggs on rocky outcroppings; they pair up for life unless one dies or they fail to reproduce. They are quite spectacular with their wing patterns and unique heads. I have cheated and added photos taken by others to show just how awesome they are.
At Tambo Condor we also had three hummingbird species – Sparkling Violetear, Shining Sunbeam and Giant Hummingbird. The latter was a new species for the trip but not a lifer as I had seen them in Peru in 2013. Still it was fitting that we would see them here with the Andean Condors as they are the largest hummingbirds in the world just under 10 inches long.
We would return to Tambo Condor for lunch, but now we headed further and higher to Antisana National Park and the Antisana Ecological Reserve, created in 1993 and formed around the Antisana Volcano. We were now definitely above the tree line and had beautiful views of the two volcanos – Antisana and Cotopaxi and the surrounding 120,000 hectares (about 464 square miles). Cotopaxi is 19,347 feet and Antisana is 18,875. As with our birding the previous day, we were looking for mountain specialties. At the Mica Lagoon we found Slate Colored Coot, Silvery Grebe and Andean Ducks. All were new for the trip and very closely resembled our American Coot, Eared Grebe and Ruddy Duck respectively. I had seen the Andean Duck in Argentina in 1989 but the others were World Lifers.
I was there to see birds, but the scenery was breathtaking.
In addition to again seeing both species of Cinclodes, Andean Gull and Plumbeous Sierra Finch we also had Plain Capped Ground Tyrant, Many Striped Canastero, and Paramo Pipit. A little lower down we had many Carunculated Caracaras, a pair of Aplomado Falcons, Cinereous Conebill, White Sided Flowerpiercer, Streak Throated Bush Tyrant, Cinereous Harrier, White Browed Spinetail, Andean Lapwing, Black Winged Ground Dove and our 51st and last hummingbird of the trip – Ecuadorian Hillstar.
My photo of the Ecuadorian Hillstar was one of my worst of the trip. It was downhill from the Restaurant at Tambo Condor where we had a very nice lunch. It was visible for only a few seconds and never came any closer. Disappointing but I was glad to see it and get any photo — I guess.
I cannot end my blogs on Ecuador with such a terrible photo. Coming back down to Tambo Condor a single horseman came down off a hillside and crossed the road in front of us. Not a bird photo but a great “taste of Ecuador” shot.
It was a late lunch at Tambo Condor and then a two hour plus drive back to Puembo. We were getting word that there were threats of expanded demonstrations and possible road closures the next day. It was decision time. Our flight from Quito to Miami was due to depart at 6:40 a.m. We were supposed to get there at least 2 or even 3 hours in advance. With no road problems that would mean leaving Puembo around 3:00 or 3:30 a.m. The plan was for Jorge and Jorge to pick us up then and get us to the airport. Plan B if there were road closures was for them or Mercedes to take backroads which would add an hour to the trip. None of that sounded good if there were demonstrations and in the back of everyone’s mind was the possibility that the demonstrations would move on the airport.
We developed and followed a Plan C – pack up early, go to the airport right then and spend the night there. Not real appealing but safer. So we skipped dinner and repacked, said goodbye to Mercedes and Puembo Birding Garden and went to the airport with Jorge and Jorge. We had probably our worst dinner in Ecuador but ok for a Plan C. Apparently others had the same idea as the lounge area which at least had some recliners and dark areas was pretty full. Not helped by two loud mouths who had to be told to shut up, we probably got at most a few hours of sleep. Processing at the airport was easy. We should have bought some alcohol at the duty free store because hours later, to our shock, there was no customs check in Miami. Our plane departed Quito a half hour or so late, but was eventless to Miami where we had a long layover before our connecting flight to Seattle. It was late by the time we got back to Seattle, grabbed an Uber and made it to Edmonds. But we were home feeling we had dodged a bullet.
It had been a great trip. Great people. Great places. Great food. Great weather. No illness of any kind. New horizons, new experiences. Many photos reminded us of all of the above. Cindy became interested in photography on the trip and together we had close to 10,000 photos. As I wrote in the first blog post about this trip, I had hoped to see more than 500 species in Ecuador of which at least would be lifers to get my World List to a nice round 3000, and I also said it did not quite work out that way. Our final totals were 451 species in Ecuador and 207 Word Lifers. So quantity fell short, but no complaints at all about the quality – of the birds and everything else. We had changed some plans due to the civil unrest but that probably did not entirely explain the shortfall. We were a little light in the Amazon and a little light in other places as well- again as to numbers. It really doesn’t matter because there will be other trips – maybe even back to Ecuador someday.
Without question, the hummingbirds were the best bird group but the tanagers came very close and I really loved the Barbets. We didn’t do well with animals other than birds but it was the totality of the experience that was so pleasing. It was especially rewarding to me that Cindy had such a great time – no issues getting up and out early, no issues with the towers at Sacha, a beginning interest in photography, greatly improved birding skills and identification skills. Moreover a new love for this kind of adventure – out of the ordinary in extraordinary places. We have talked a lot about new trips and signed up for a trip to Tanzania in 2023 as soon as we got home. Writing these blogs has reminded me of many parts of our visit and has made me want to go back – or to Colombia or to Panama or back to Costa Rica or to Indonesia or…or… or … After two down years from Covid, it was so great to make this trip. Let’s all hope our travels can continue,