Travel: A trek through the land of the cock-of-the-rock

High up in the Ecuadorean cloud forest, a group of teenagers is fighting deforestation - with the latest in eco-tourism.
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The Independent Culture
"THE PICASSO Foundation?" I was intrigued. "No, not the artist," Mariella corrected me. "The Fundacin Pacaso is named after an iguana." That made more sense - unless the iguana was named after a 20th-century cubist. Maybe it had both eyes on one side of its head?

Whatever the reason behind the name, it was the story that caught my imagination. High in the hills of the Ecuadorean cloud forest, a group of young boys had pledged to protect the land from the devastating effects of deforestation.

Ecuador has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world and, with the government seemingly unable to halt the process, private landowners are stepping in to try to preserve the landscape. I had heard about one organisation, Red de Bosques Privados del Ecuador, that had been set up by a group of landowners to conserve the land through tourism and community action. Conserva-tourism is seen as the next step on from eco-tourism. Rather than simply focusing on a passive appreciation of the landscape, this involves education and regeneration of the environment. But a group of 14-year-olds banding together with high ideals gave an interesting twist to the concept.

I had wanted to go to the cloud forest for some time and had been reading up on the various lodges at the South American Explorer's Club in Quito. Bellavista, a well-established centre for birdwatching and trekking near the small town of Mindo, seemed the obvious choice - particularly when one of the girls who worked at the club recommended the cabanas owned by Tom, an American biologist and environmentalist, and his Ecuadorian wife, Mariella. Including a number of other activities, they organise treks through the land owned by the 14-year-old boys' Fundacin Pacaso.

The nature reserve surrounding Mindo is the Bosque Protector Mindo-Nambillo, covering 19,200 hectares on the west slopes of Pichincha. There are two ecological organisations based in the town, the Amigos de la Naturaleza de Mindo and, of course, the Fundacin Pacaso. It sounded perfect. But first you have to get there...

"Hello, hello?" Clare and I questioned into the darkness.

Giovanni, our guide, had disappeared down the flooded track. We were alone squelching through the mud with only a swarm of fireflies to light the way. It had all seemed so straightforward when I had talked to Mariella on the phone. We would catch the bus to Mindo, two and a half hours from Quito, and would be met at Cafe El Monte.

As soon as we arrived, we were greeted with the news that six Canadians were joining us. They had just finished a mountaineering tour of Ecuador and were equipped with walking boots and backpacks and looked sickeningly sturdy and fit. We made a poor contrast: neither of us had brought our rucksacks. We had awkward "weekend" bags. I, at least, had walking boots but Clare was wearing brown suede boots.

Giovanni was to lead us to the cabanas on foot, a brisk half hour walk with our luggage in the dark down a muddy road. The Canadians strode ahead, backpacks strapped on, calf muscles toned. Clare and I trotted after them feeling inadequate, bags banging across our shoulders. The track got wetter and muddier with every step. Soon we were far behind.

"Hellooooooo?" No reply. We caught up with them at a bridge. To cross, you operated a simple pulley system. Suspended on a rope and clutching our bags, we were pulled to the other side where Mariella was waiting for us. Scrambling and slipping over rocks we were led along the final stretch to our cabana - and simple luxury.

On the ground floor there was a hammock and wooden benches. A ladder up through a trap door led to the bedroom and bathroom. The beds were built out of tree trunks with thick mattresses, brand new cotton sheets and plump, soft pillows. In the bathroom there was a sparkling white bath and shower set in varnished wood. Light glowed from a kerosene lamp and candles.

Supper that night was delicious with a green salad and freshly baked corn bread to start, followed by spaghetti, and then home-grown bananas and chocolate sauce for dessert. We drank spring water out of jam jars. "We grow as much of our own food as we can - pineapples, bananas, onions, carrots, green peppers and tomatoes." Mariella told us while we ate.

"Tourism is one of the best ways to preserve the environment." Mariella echoed an idea I had been hearing ever since arriving in Ecuador. They built the cabanas by hand, as power tools would disturb the wildlife. They carried everything across the river, installing the pulley instead of a bridge so that there would be no access by road.

Mariella has four ex-polo ponies for horse trekking, and they arrange guided tours of the forest with Giovanni, one of the original members of the Fundacin Pacaso. Many people come to the area in search of the famous Andean cock-of-the-rock, with its startling red plumage. But for those who prefer a more sedentary lifestyle, there are hammocks, magazines and games.

Giovanni woke us early the next day and we set off on a trek to a waterfall in primary forest and, hopefully, a cock-of-the-rock sighting. Armed with a machete, Giovanni led us across the swamp at the back of the main cabana. The sun was beating down as we followed him up the hill, stopping as he pointed out armadillo holes and animal tracks. Cutting open a citrus fruit, he showed us how to smear our skin with the juice to repel insects.

Slipping on the mud and undergrowth, clambering along slippery rocks, and edging along precipices, we eventually came to the waterfall. With a few deft movements Giovanni stripped off, jumped into the deafening roar and was lost in the spray.

"It's the initiation rite for the Fundacin Pacaso," he said, re-emerging dripping wet and grinning from ear-to-ear at our consternation.

We didn't manage to catch a glimpse of the scarlet cock-of-the-rock, but back in the cabana later that afternoon, a hummingbird hovered at the open window as I drifted off into a watery siesta. Life seemed just perfect.

There are no direct flights between the UK and Ecuador. The most practical route for most British travellers is on KLM from one of 20 UK airports, changing planes in Amsterdam. Fares through discount agents are around pounds 500.

For information about trekking in the Mindo area, contact the South American Explorers Club on 00 1 607 277 0488; explorer@samexplo.org

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