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  • Writer's pictureRomy Jansen

It's a Wild Life! - Four Different Stories

What happened in Ecuador and Peru since our last blog? It is time for a blog with four totally different stories. Sometimes it feels like we're just summing up lots of different bird and mammals we encounter in other blogs. Therefore, in this blog, we give a more detailed story about an evening, afternoon or morning in our 'normal' daily live. Enjoy reading :)

Unlimited empanadas?

In Peru there is a place called ‘La Plataforma’. It is a remote place up in the mountains, where one can observe some really cool bird species like the very rare and endemic Scarlet-banded Barbet. However, we had read that the road towards this village is incredible difficult and super muddy. The locals could only go up with specially adapted 4x4’s to get to this town. Those cars have higher clearance and are extra powerful to get through a thick layer of mud on the road. In the past tourists rented those 4WD jeeps to get to this remote place. When Rob prepared this place back home, we thought we would spend a lot of money to rent such a car, to stay at a hotel and to eat in local ‘restaurants’ in the village. But last year we heard someone went up with a motor taxi (tuktuk). We really hoped we could go with our 2WD Forrest. And guess what: We did! The road was like many other roads we drove in South America and not even the most difficult.

The weekend we arrived, there was an annual soccer event. The whole town was one big fiesta with lots of people from the area gathered together. We were happy that we didn’t have to sleep in the local hotel, because the music was extremely loud and the music speakers were in the local bar next to the only hotel. The hotel owner was also a bird guide. So we asked him if he was willing to join us the next morning at 6:00 am. We agreed on a meeting point near our wild camping spot. A little bit further away from the town. As real Dutchmen we were ready at 6:00 am, but no guide. When he didn’t show up we drove down to his hotel, only to find it locked. Some knocking didn’t help, but luckily a drunken friend of his showed up from the pub next door, still playing music as loud as the evening before. Wildly gesturing to us we should stay put and he would arrange everything, the friend went in and lifted our guide from his bed, ready to bird. As we only have 2 seats in our car the guide said he would go on a motorcycle. But this morning he told us he didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle. We were surprised, because even really young girls and boys ride those motorcycles here in South America. So the guide and drunken friend went through the village. The drunk woke up other people by shouting, and this way we lifted another local from his bed to give our guide a ride to the forest to finally start birding. Luckily, the birding was great and we saw lots of cool species, including the rare Barbet! Because of the event, there was a lot of street food. And one woman made really delicious empanadas with cheese for 1 soles (€0.25). The first evening we bought 15 empanadas. The next morning we ordered 25 empanadas for that evening. And the last day we ordered again 25 empanadas, but when I came to pick them up. The lady looked sad and said she wasn’t able to make them, because we bought so many empanadas that all the cheese in the town was sold out. Haha oops!

Although we saw great species at La Plataforma, the rate of deforestation is depressing driving up and at la Plataforma. We have seen quite some agricultural fields where once had been forest during our trip, but this was one of the first places where the evidence of very recent large scale deforestation was evident. Trees lying everywhere, burned fields etc., all to give way for a monoculture of corn as feed for cattle for our meat consumption. Rob took some time to photograph this part of South-America as well. Hopefully, these pictures can raise awareness and help to protect these forests with all the abundant wildlife in there..

Participating in the Olympics

If one monkey species was the hardest, toughest, roughest to find so far during our World Travel, it was for sure the Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey in Peru. Last December we already tried for four days to find this monkey. We took a motor taxi –tuktuk- for 30 minutes on a bumpy road to get to the start of a trail that would take us 2 hours to get to the right area. Pretty ok you would think, if only the path was gravel and flat. Unfortunately it was going up and down, very steep at times and then we had to crawl on our hands and feet to get up the slippery slopes at times. The cattle that use the same trail don’t improve it either, as they make deep muddy pools with their hooves, creating a pattern of small slippery hills interchanged with mud puddles. Locals used slippery wood to make ‘one-beam-bridges’ to cross muddy puddles. We felt like we participated in the Olympics while holding our balance on those bridges. After this walk we reached the most basic wooden shelter where we would spend our time. This shelter has 4 bunk beds, a drop toilet and some dirty pots and pans to cook on a fire. Yes, back to the real ‘dirty’ basics. Luckily, Rob was able to make a fire to keep us warm and to make a cup of tea. In the meantime the guide searched for the monkeys and would pick us up when he found them. Water had to be taken with a 20L jerry can from down at the river, which was reached once again by a very steep muddy trail. During those 4 days in December 2022 we went with our guide into the forest to search for the Woolly Monkeys. The guide was 50 but at least twice as fast on these small mountain trails on the steep slopes of the forest. Despite our effort we didn’t see any monkeys. We weren’t looking forward to do the walk again, to sleep in the basic shelter and to climb the slippery trails again, but we were determined to find those monkeys.

So we decided to come back this year again in July. This time two students were also present. Therefore the trails were a bit cleaner and we had nice company as well. The first afternoon we stayed at the shelter and talked about their study and our travel, while the guides searched for the monkeys. They said the monkeys had come down to the shelter the afternoon before; if only we were that lucky! When the guides came back, they had heard the monkeys just before dark, so they knew where to start searching the next morning. We decided to start walking at 5:00 to get to the place on time, before the monkeys would wake up and move again. With barely any sleep, due to the hard mattresses and many people in the shelter, we went up the mountain in the early dark morning with three guides. Trying to be as fast as we could, going through streams, under fallen trees and over slippery slopes. Around 06.00 we heard a sound, but later these turned out to be the common Marañon White-fronted Capuchins. The guides split up again and while we were running up and down everywhere; following our inexperienced guides that didn’t seem to have a plan at all, we heard the Woolly Monkeys again. On a lookout the guides said they saw them, but besides not having binoculars or anything, they just pointed to a faraway hill and said in Spanish: “in that green tree on the hill.” Luckily we brought a laser pointer and with that they pointed somewhere, but all the black spots we saw were clumps of vegetation when zooming in on the camera. Then the guide that split off, Wilder, shouted from far away. Lots of ‘WHOOOOE’-sounds later it was clear where he was and we started racing there, as that was the sign he had found a group. It took ages, chopping our way through the vegetation on a very steep slope, up and down. Every time Wilder gave a shout it seemed to be coming from double the distance that we just climbed since the last shout. In the end our legs could barely take us any further and even though we knew the Monkeys were close we barely had any energy left to continue. Luckily the Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkeys stayed in the same area for a while and we were able to catch up after 3 hours of running the mountains. Rob was so exhausted, that he wasn't even able to grab his camera. But when Romy said she would make a record shot, because we really wanted a picture of those freaking monkeys, Rob found his energy back and said 'Let's make it a better photo instead!'

We got great views of a big group, with adult males, females, youngsters and babies! An amazing experience and at the same time: a big relief because we didn’t have to do all the climbing again. After the Monkeys had taken off to the other side of the ridge we went straight down the mountain for what seemed to be an endless descend on a 50-60 degree slope. After two hours we finally reached the cabin, took some rest and ate our breakfast before we made the two hours walk back again. In the end, it felt like we won the Olympics by seeing this incredible mammal.

Poor Man’s Galapagos

July is a good time to do whale watching in Ecuador. We skipped the Galapagos Islands due to budgetary and time constraints. But there is an island, called Isla de la Plata (aka ‘Poor Man’s Galapagos‘) near the coast where some bird species live like the Blue-footed Booby. Romy really wanted to see this bird and Rob really likes boobies; we loved seeing this silly-looking birds with their really blue feet. On the island we walked a trail and were able to see them very close by. We also saw some nice other sea birds and sea lions. Although many of them we've already seen multiple times, it never gets boring to see them again! After the walk, we jumped in the water for some snorkeling. We saw some cool fish and a Green Turtle. A nice change, because we love that kind of nature as well besides all the birds and mammals :) On our way to the island they took time to observe whales. It was a great experience to see Humpback Whales breaching near our boat. What an incredible creatures!

A Sleepless Night

Just when we wanted to drive towards the south of Ecuador we got a message from a birder we had recommended a lodge ‘Mashpi’ in the north of Ecuador to. The message included a picture and the question: “Observed this morning. Can’t find what it is, do you know?” Rob opened the picture and even though blurry it was clearly a Pacarana!

For those who don’t know, this species is quite enigmatic and elusive and rarely seen in the wild. After getting some more info we turned the car around and 2 hours later we were back at Mashpi again. We got the update that they walked towards an Antpitta in the morning on the main road and at 05.47 encountered the Pacarana casually sitting on the road. The flashlight didn’t bother it and it walked along the road and sat again, doing this a couple of times before it took off onto a steep slope around 05.51. As this rare mammal is nocturnal and the slope was quite steep we figured the Pacarana would have a burrow of some sorts there and it might reappear there that evening. So just after 18.00 we stationed ourselves in some chairs at 100m distance and scanned with the thermal camera. It started to rain, so we huddled under umbrellas, hoping the rain would stop. Romy set out walking the road around the corner, to be sure the Pacarana wouldn’t come off the slope at another spot. We agreed she would flash her green laser 2 times if she would see anything. After Romy went walking a couple of times, Rob saw 2 flashes and ran over there, and we got nice views of Central American Woolly Opossum. We were able to get good shots and went back to our chairs. After 2 hours the rain had stopped and now it just dripped from the trees still. After more than 3 hours Romy walked the road again for the umpteenth time. Rob was selecting the Opossum pictures from the viewer of the camera and was therefore night-blind. Then suddenly laser flashes, not two, but a continuous stream. Flash-flash-flash-flash. Half-blinded Rob got up, started to run, ran back to get the flashlight from the chair, grabbed frantically around in the dark to find it, during what seemed to be an eternity while behind Rob laser flashes kept going off. Flash! Flash! Flash! Rob turned on the flashlight and ran as fast as he could, faster and faster. FlashFlashFlash! The flashing kept going. Rob finally got to Romy and asked her “Where?! Where?!”. Her answer was: “You’re standing right next to it!”. Rob looked to his right and there it was, a real Pacarana, within less than a meter from him!!! It apparently had come to the road within the 2 minutes Romy had passed the spot and turned around. It had come to the other side of the road, and was walking towards Rob sitting in the chair, but Rob storming towards that spot had made it go back to the side of the road. The Pacarana, a large male with a darkish head, went to the gully next to the road again. It was only that we knew it was there that we were still able to observe some small eye-shine and heat in the thermal camera, otherwise we would have walked straight past it. We waited for a while and it came back on the road, allowing for some nice pictures. It actually walked straight towards Rob lying on the ground. It went from side to side on the road, allowing for great views of this awesome looking, slow-moving and weirdly walking rodent (the biggest in South-America after the Capybaras). After a while it moved down the very steep slope, in a small gully that seems to be used more often by wildlife.

Excitingly we walked back and spotted a Northern Black-eared Opossum at the lodge. We went to bed around 22.30 but couldn’t sleep until 01.00 because of the adrenaline. The alarm was set at 04.00 again and we waited at the same spot to see if it would cross the road again to go back to the presumed burrow. It didn’t, but we were still impressed by this amazing encounter!


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