I can’t remember the last time I had to be up at 6am, but here I was in a hostel in Quito, Ecuador getting ready for my next adventure: radio tracking Spectacled Bears in the Ecuadorian Andes for 2 weeks. The meeting point was a house on the other side of town where the Andean Bear Project’s Project Coordinator Sarah lives. It would have been cheaper to negotiate Quito’s Metro public transport system but knowing my luck it would have been a disaster. So a taxi was the safer option. When I arrived I met the other volunteers that would be on the project while I was there. Kerry, the Volunteer Coordinator; Rachyl, from Canada who had just finished a PHD on grizzlies in the Yukon; Sam, from USA who had just finished her degree; Nicola an English girl that now lives in Melbourne; Alejandro and Spanish guy studying Ecology in the USA and Alex, a young 17 year old girl who was to be an artist for the project for the next 2 weeks. 3 of us were to be with the project for 2 weeks and the other 3 for 5. Although 5 weeks would have been more fun it would have just been too expensive for me at nearly $200 a week roughly.
Once we had paid and left our emergency contact details with Sarah we walked up to the main road with all our stuff. We waited a few minutes for the metro bus that would take us to the main northern bus terminal and when it came we piled on rapidly as it paused on the road side momentarily.
Back at the bus station I had been at the previous night we got a bus 2 hours back to Otavalo where I had been at the previous day. Here we stopped for lunch and did the grocery/market shopping making sure to stock up on snacks, sweets, and in only my case booze. Then finally we got on another bus that took us a further 2 hours out to the tiny mountain village of Pukara where the “bear house” was located. Town’s population: 60-100 people!!
The bear house with Bobby our adopted dog in the foreground.
We settled into the girls’ dorm and Alejandro was lucky to have the boys’ dorm all to himself. The beds were all bunks with at least 1 or 2 thin foam mattresses that were so worn in the middle that when you laid down you were swallowed into the middle and felt like a giant human hotdog. Sleeping in these beds after hiking all day left me with a very sore back most days.
The girls dorm
We had met Armando Castellanos (the project’s founder and director) in Otavalo and he had a room to himself downstairs. The house was rustic and basic but very homely. The bathroom was outside on the side of the house with the sink for washing dishes, clothes etc. The office was a large room downstairs next to Armando’s room and only contained a desk, a bed, the radio tracking equipment and some books, maps and other reference material. The kitchen and dining area was in a large room built onto the front of the house. Outside we had a small vegetable garden and hammocks on the veranda which we widely appreciated after a hard days trekking.
View from the front of the house
The crew with Celia the housekeeper at the front
Alex and Kerry in the office
The bathroom on the side of the house
Sam washing at the outside sink
That afternoon we did a half trek along a nearby path to see if we could here Frida’s radio collar signal (a bear that spends a lot of time in the valley that was below). We didn’t get a radio signal on ay of the bears. We tried the channels of all the bears as a matter of procedure. I was soon to find out that this was a common occurrence. The bears are unpredictable and have very large home ranges, especially the males. Just because you heard them in one valley one day, it didn’t mean that they would still be there the next.
I quickly fell back into the routine of work. Other than my short stint at Pisco Sin Fronteras helping to rebuild houses after the 2007 earthquake this was my first time I’d had to get up early for work in a long time! We usually got up between 6 and 6:30am and had a quick breakfast and made our lunches and depending what trail we were to walk would be ready from 7am with lunches, water, notepad, pens and radio equipment packed into our bags.
Tuning the radio
Listening for bear collar signals
There were supposed to be 3 morning buses at 7am 7:30am and 9am. But these times were not to be relied upon. The buses all came from different towns and made their way back to Otavalo but the time they drove by our house depended on the amount of times the driver stopped and how fast he drove. Sometimes all 3 buses came by before 7am and then we had to hitch a ride in whatever vehicle would next come by we’d usually be in the back of a small open top truck with whatever else they were carrying. Possible the craziest of these was a ride with a few dozen crates of empty beer bottles. It was my 2nd day and I was going out with Kerry and Nicola to walk ‘Valle de Osos’ one of the regular trails that was downhill but took all day. I don’t think the truck had any suspension and we were all clinging onto the 3 bamboo posts that had been fastened across the top of the truck and getting thrown nearly a metre in the air at the slightest bump. Kerry told us that this was surfing ‘Intag style’ (Intag is the central mountainous area of Ecuador west of Quito where Pukara was located).
Hitching a ride in whatever we could
Surfing intag style
Every trail has a name and certain premarked station stops that serve as our radio listening check points and rest stops. There were about 10 different trails in all and each day we would break off into 2 groups with either Kerry, Alberto or Samuel as the leaders. Alberto and Samuel were 2 local men that had been working with the project for a long time and we needed to be with at least one of these 3 leaders until we were confident we knew the trails and all their station points off by heart. Often Bobby the dog would come along if we just walked from the house to a trail. He was owned by a neighbour but as he spent so much time at the bear house he had unofficially been adopted as the bear project’s dog. He wasn’t well liked in the community as he often attacked chickens and other dogs but to people he was lovely. One walk he had a precarious river crossing. Obviously in the past a part of the bridge had broken so in typical South American style they repaired it with some thin tree trucks and barbed wire. We managed to cross but Bobby got halfway and then laid down and started crying. Samuel just watched in astonishment as we all stalled the trek to help Bobby cross the bridge. He kept saying he’s just a dog, push him off, he can swim. But looking at the rapids below we weren’t so confident.
Raychl crossing the bridge with Bobby
Packed into the back of the school truck
The trails all varied in difficulty and we gradually built up to the most difficult ones. Although we were usually home around 2pm we were all exhausted after 6 or so hours of trekking in the mountains of altitudes of 2000-4000 metres above sea level. I really started having trouble with my asthma and found I had to use it sometimes 3-4 times a day. It felt strange to be dependent on my ventalin inhaler again having not had serious problems with my asthma since I was about 12 years old.
But not matter how difficult the climb, even if we didn’t hear the bears it was always completely worth the effort for the spectacular, breathtaking views we were getting to appreciate each day, views that most people wouldn’t see in their lifetime. I felt extremely privileged to have the opportunity to not only track Spectacled Bears in the Andes Mountains but also to live in this tiny isolated village in such a beautiful corner of the world. Pucara, like many of the surrounding villages is a small, self-sufficient community. But unfortunately like many of these places the lifestyle doesn’t really appeal so much to the younger generations. Most youths complete a basic education and then make their way to Quito to find their fortune. Unfortunately without a proper education most of them end up in low paying factory jobs or worse. The result in the town in a population made up of children to the age of 16 and adults over the age of 40 or 50.
A waterfall seen on one of our treks
Kerry and I at the end of the Valle de Osos trek coming bck into the town. This is the school in front.
In the group at the bear house I was the only one who had been travelling away from home for a while, other than Kerry who had been Volunteer Coordinator for the past 4 months. So I was used to going for long periods of time not giving contact with home. All the other volunteers however had come out to Ecuador almost exclusively for the bear project and almost every afternoon walked up to the general store with their phone cards to call home... leaving the hammocks to me!
Relaxing in the hammock
Initially I was a wee bit apprehensive of the food we would be having. With the town so isolated I was sure it was going to be traditional South American dishes of rice, rice, potatoes, fried bananas, fried meat and uh rice. Celia, our cook and house keeper was a local resident that lived in the house opposite us. Fortunately she had been working at the bears house and cooking for international volunteers for quite some time and Kerry and Sarah had gone to great lengths to ensure she was able to cook some western dishes. These dishes included shepards pie, corn bread, stir fry, etc and were certainly an unexpected and welcomed delight. Though old habits die hard and she often went a little overboard with salt in the salad or sugar in the freshly squeezed juices.
When Celia wasn’t working she would sit on our veranda with her daughter and weave things with a string made locally with flax like plant fibres. She made to order so I asked her to make me a large bag so that I can always be reminded of my adventure here when buying my groceries back home in Aus.
The plant that Celia’s weaving fibres come from
I felt a little sorry for Alex who instead of coming on the trails each day went into one of the local village to paint murals of the Spectacled Bears. The sights were chosen on their positioning and willingness of the owner(s) to have a mural painted on the wall. So, many of the murals were on walls of main streets, bus tops and schools. There were some around already that ast volunteers had painted but none as good as the ones Alex was able to paint. At only 17 years old and fresh out of school we were all amazed at her talent. As the aim of these murals were to help educate the local community on Andean Bears, the project and conservation in general she always included the website and a little conservation message underneath the painting. She came back at the end of the day to tell us about the reactions from the public and a large amount of the comments suggested the people had no idea what the animal was or that it exists in the area. Many asked her why she was painting a ‘panda bear’ on the wall!
Alex painting in the community
The biggest threat to the Spectacled Bear is habitat destruction and fragmentation. Armando has been researching bears for many years, has written many scientifically published papers and is one of the world’s leading experts on this species. The current research that we were helping with is using radio signals to triangulate the location of the bears to determine their habitat range over time.
Agriculture, especially maize farms, is the biggest business in the Intag area and unfortunately the maize farmers see the Bears as a pest and shoot at them. The bears with a dwindling habitat and foraging range see the corn fields as an easy meal. Some of the funds of the projects then are used to pay local farmers for the portion of their crop that they have lost to a hungry bear as compensation providing they don’t shoot at the bears. So part of our job was also stopping in at local farms along the trails and talking to the farmer, asking about recent activity including sightings and assessing the damage.
Listening for bears in a field
Listening for bears on a hike into jungle terrain
The regular rain in the area generally ensured the paths were very muddy and we all had gumboots but sometimes it was very hard to judge the weather. As sod’s law if I wore my gum boots it was dry and if I wore my walking shoes it rained buckets. The house had a little cobbled path that led from the veranda around to the kitchen and down the drive. It didn’t extend around the other side of to the bathroom which meant we had to walk across the yard which was compacted mud and slippery as buggery, especially in the damp, dew-filled mornings. One morning in the first week as we were all getting ready I heard an almighty crash. I came running out of the kitchen with everyone to see Nicola lying on the ground, blood beginning to pour from her head. She had slipped over on the mud and split her eyebrow open on one of the stones of the path. The poor girl then had to go to the hospital for stitches. She had a couple of days off and as much as she tried to keep it clean the wound became infected and she had problems for the rest of her stay (she was only there for 2 weeks also). This was a real shame as it meant she had to miss out on the camping trip. As the weather was finally drying up after a long wet season Kerry and Samuel thought it might be about time to do a trek to a mountain lake in the top paramo grasslands at nearly 400m above sea level. We were all extremely excited, even Kerry who had never done this trek before. As it was going to take us a full day to get there we decided to make it a 3 day trip.
The first day I did a trail with Sam called Casa Pumba. It was a road that led to the next village by the same name. This is where Samuel lived and that night we camped at his place. As we got there with time to spare we willed away the afternoon playing with the puppies and eating tons of granadillas that he grew on his farm. Grenadillas I think are my favourite fruit so far that I have discovered in my travels around SA. They are a type of passionfruit but are much sweeter and less tart than normal passionfruit. Although they taste delicious many people are put off at first by the frog spawn-like appearance of the pulp inside. I really wish i could bring some back to Australia and start a farm
The next day we were up before 5 and had to jump into the back of the school truck on its way out to the most furthest out village where it starts picking up children for school around 5:30am. As the Andean Bear Project uses some of the money the volunteers pay to fund this bus as a part of its effort to support and involve the community it wasn’t too much effort for it to pick us up on the way. Rachyl, Sam, Alejandro and I got the truck but Kerry and Samuel stayed behind to go pick up the horses which they rode to the town we were dropped off in. As it was the furthest out village it was our last point of community civilisation before we headed out to paramo. The 2 horses that Kerry and Samuel picked up were to be our pack horses that we all chipped in some money for. Rachyl, Sam and I also put in for 2 extra horses so we could take it turns to ride through the mountains on horseback.
The sun had risen by the time we were all packed and ready to go and we began the long journey up. I was glad to have a horse 2/3 of the time but sometimes when my horse was racing and slipping up what felt like a sheer cliff face I wished I could just be walking. We had to do a river crossing that was so deep and strong I thought it was going to sweep the horses away. We had gotten off the horses but it was still nerve-wracking as the bottoms of the packs were brushing the water either side of the horses backs and the horses look like they may lose their footing at any time and get swept under. Although we had to go up and down as we crossed valleys and mountains we did notice a gradual change in the vegetation the higher we got until we eventually got to the paramo grassland. Just before this we got to walk through some amazing wild flower vegetation and Samuel pointed out a species of paramo blueberry that tasted delicious and was a nice little sugar booster.
The horses crossing the river!
When we finally got to the lake it was an impressive sight. Samuel said the water was the highest he had ever seen it and that we couldn’t use the normal campsite because it was underwater. The lake appeared to be an area Samuel had visited several times before. He made us all laugh when he disappeared into a hidden spot in the bushes for a few moments only to emerge with a bag full of pots, sugar and a local sugar cane alcohol in an old soft drink bottle that he had hidden there on his last trip almost a year previously.
We unpacked the horses, set up camp: erecting tent, collecting water and firewood.
The mountain lake we walked to
On horseback through paramo grassland
The horses were happy to finally be relieved of the packs. The silly black and white horse was enjoying the roll so much that he rolled off the edge into the river by our camp and it took us a few minutes to lasso him and guide him to an edge where he could climb out. I was dark by the time we were done setting up but we had a good fire going and cooked some spaghetti rice veggies and a tomato sauce. As we had a few north Americans in our group it had been compulsory to get smore ingredients. Smores are an American campfire favourite where a marshmallow and a piece of chocolate are lightly melted over the campfire then sandwiched between 2 biscuits. Yummmm so good, I only wish we had bought enough for 2 nights.
The next day after breakie we trekked up to the top of a nearby peak hoping to hear some of the bear signals but got nothing. It was chilly during the day and freezing at night. My little sleeping bag although small and travel friendly didn’t do much against the night’s chill, even with all my clothes on. That afternoon everyone went for a swim in the lake but the idea of trekking through mud out to the freezing water for a dip then coming back through the mud wasn’t too appealing to me. Instead I went to collect blueberries and eventually Sam and Raychl came to help me and between us we picked half a breadbag full of the tiny things. That night we made another simple dinner this time with a pesto sauce. Samuel had also spent all day with fishing lines dangling in the river and he wasn’t disappointed. He managed to catch a lot of trout which we had with dinner and the rest he wrapped up to take back with him the following day.
For dessert I stewed some of the blueberries with some sugar, and made a crumble topping by roasting some of our breakie oats and then cooking them with a bit of butter and sugar. The result was delicious. That night it rained heavily and in the morning it didn’t stop so our plan to leave early was ruined and we just lay in bed for a few more hours listening to the rain pound the roofs of our tents. At about 11am the rain started to slow to a sprinkle so we packed up the camp as quickly as we could and set off. Due to the rain Samuel said the river we had crossed on the way in would now be too high so we had to take an alternative route back through the wilderness. The rain had made the paths impossible slippery and it was treacherous enough for the horses without us being on the back so we had to walk most the way. As sod’s law would have it I didn’t have my boots and being as clumsy as I am I was constantly slipping and falling over. At about 4pm I just gave up and marched through the mud knowing that if I took my time I would just fall too far behind.
Stopped for lunch on the way back
Slipping and slidding back down.
It was well and truely dark when we got home and the shower although simple and not very warm felt like luxury. That night there was a going away party for a young German guy who had been living in the community for the past 8 months. It was difficult for us to muster the enthusiasm but we still went across the road for a few drinks and dances with the local characters. Later that night we found out that Bobby, our bear dog was dead. They tried to say that he was hit by a car but we heard the truth from our German friend that Bobby had been poisoned and left for 2 days to die slowly. Bobby’s official owner wouldn’t even let the German guy put him out of his misery as he was hoping he might get better. This was heartbreaking news and we knew there were several village folk who hated Bobby and we were angry that he had suffered. The next day no one was in the mood or really had the energy to go trekking so we had a lazy day to take time and bury Bobby. RIP Bobby.
That night was the village’s fortnightly panela making party. Panela is a moist yet solid lump of raw sugar. The process was started earlier in the day boiling large amounts of sugar cane for 4 hours then as the mix reduces down to a syrup it is constantly to worked until it forms moist granules at which point it is worked into balls of panela. Once the morning lot was done they repeated the process for the afternoon. We attended for this session and even got to help. Some of the sugar cane juice is also put aside to make ‘puro’, the sugar cane spirit that is a favourite with the locals.
The men making panela
Helping to mix the panela
That day I had also made a tiramisu (or as close as I could with the ingredients available) and Kerry used the left over blueberries to make mini blueberry cheesecakes. As this was mine and Nicola’s last night we had a feast. The woman making the panela across the road were also offering Coy meals. Coy is the Spanish word for guinea pig!! It is a traditional South American dish and I knew I had to try it once so we ordered one between 3 of is to share. The sight itself of the whole guinea pig dead on the plate was a shock. There wasn’t really much meat on it so it was literally only a taste and now at least I can say I have tried it!
The coy (guinea pig)
The next day Nicola and I were up ready for the 9am bus which came at 8:30am. We said rushed goodbyes and sadly left the bear house to head back to Otavalo and then Quito. But that is all for the next chapter.
So until then... Adios Amigos!!!!
BTW for those who are wondering, no I didn't get to see a bear my whole time here haha!