A bed in the clouds

Ecuador's mysterious cloud forest has more bird and plant species than the whole of the US. Sarah Barrell explores its ecological riches

It's dusk in the Ecuadorian cloud forest, and, as far as the untrained eye can make out, high tide. We are, in fact, several hundred metres above sea level. But standing in a small clearing in a forest that carpets a sharp, pyramidal mountain, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd been cast out into the misty Pacific. White nebulous matter rolls out around us like a milky sea, obscuring the neighbouring peaks and mossy valleys below. It's all I can do to stop myself stepping off the edge and stretching into a languid breaststroke. The Peruvians call it "the eyebrow of the forest", but this hardly does the place justice. As my Andean companion suggests, "eyelash" would be more apt, for where cloud forest occurs, in a verdant arc above the rainforest and below the harsh brow of the sierra, nature could not be more seductively dressed.

It's dusk in the Ecuadorian cloud forest, and, as far as the untrained eye can make out, high tide. We are, in fact, several hundred metres above sea level. But standing in a small clearing in a forest that carpets a sharp, pyramidal mountain, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd been cast out into the misty Pacific. White nebulous matter rolls out around us like a milky sea, obscuring the neighbouring peaks and mossy valleys below. It's all I can do to stop myself stepping off the edge and stretching into a languid breaststroke. The Peruvians call it "the eyebrow of the forest", but this hardly does the place justice. As my Andean companion suggests, "eyelash" would be more apt, for where cloud forest occurs, in a verdant arc above the rainforest and below the harsh brow of the sierra, nature could not be more seductively dressed.

It has taken us longer than expected to reach Santa Lucia, one of Ecuador's growing number of cloud forest eco-lodges. It's a two-hour drive from Quito, during which we've dropped 2,000 spectacular metres from the "Avenue of Volcanoes", the country's celebrated mountainous backbone, and then hiked up through the trees to the lodge. From Ecuador to Chile, Peru to Venezuela, cloud forest is found at elevations of between 1,200 and 3,000m. Santa Lucia sits at 1,900m and is perched on an impossibly precipitous peak. It's as though you have reached the summit of the world; one step more and St Peter would surely be waving his celestial clipboard at you. Heaven's receptionist has not been far from my mind since the two-hour hike up from the nearest village became a struggle for survival. With cloud forest comes rain and wellies, which are not easy to trek in. I pull it off with all the grace of an octopus on roller skates.

The struggle is worth it. The following morning, woken by the rising sun, we set out along one of the lodge's nature trails that had been expertly cut by British volunteer organisations. Small plaques indicate abundant endemic tree varieties - areas of Ecuador's cloud forest are thought to contain more species in a single hectare than the whole of the United States.

Santa Lucia is a former farming co-operative turned conservation area, and is a flagship project for the conservation charity Rainforest Concern. It is home to 50 species of mammal and 380 species of bird. Even if we hadn't had the expert guidance of the farmer-turned-conservationist Pancho Molina, it would have been impossible to miss such exotic creatures as the flame-faced tanager and violet-tailed sylph hummingbird, which dart through the canopy and catch the light like tiny shards of stained glass.

While walking, Pancho indicates the first plant he learnt the name of in English. "A German tourist was taking hundreds of photos of this plant, one that we used to cut down for grazing land," he says. "I thought: 'this is how we make a living from protecting the forest rather than farming it'." In 1988, Santa Lucia's watershed was granted protection by the Ecuadorian government and Pancho teamed up with 12 other farmers to create the reserve. Today, with the help of international volunteers, he teaches villagers how to guide, record botanical information and replant the previously farmed forest. We pass the lodge's nursery where Iris, a volunteer from California, is helping to record flower species. "This place is like a living biology lesson," she says. "The other day a cloud passed through the lodge's front door and out the back."

The flat, dense expanse of jungle we walk through certainly lacks the cloud forest's undulating drama. You can follow pre-Colombian trails that link Santa Lucia with neighbouring Yunguilla, another successful community-run tourism reserve. Along the way you'll scale hundreds of metres of mountain in a handful of kilometres, stepping out suddenly into clearings that sparkle with the mist of towering waterfalls.

Lowland forests were traditionally thought more biologically diverse than their montane cousins, but contemporary studies are showing that for floral variety, cloud forest is a richer environment. Mercifully, what montane forest lacks is the biting beasties indigenous to the jungle. Due to the elevation there isn't a thing here with a pernicious sting. It's one of the rare places where you don't have to suffer for the exotic.

There's certainly no suffering at El Monte, a lodge in a misty valley 20 minutes south of Santa Lucia, near the cloud forest tourism town of Mindo. Built by Mississippi-born Tom Quesenberry and his Ecuadorian wife Mariella Tenorio, El Monte's riverside cabañas combine traditional Ecuadorian structure with Elle Decoration style. Like Santa Lucia, the lodge uses sustainable power: no electricity but plenty of ingenuity. In the cathedral-like open-plan kitchen, a smart chrome food blender, powered by a bike pedal and chain, provides me with a welcome organic juice with fruit fresh from the kitchen garden.

It's mid afternoon and the wet season rain has not relented. Life goes on, if a little more waterlogged. Tom and I set off along the riverbank in search of a breed of reptile that walks on water. I fail where the "Jesus" lizard excels, and instantly fall knee-deep into a stream. Ten minutes later though, somehow my soaking socks have been forgotten in favour of a frog hunt. Tom is telling me about a new species recently found by a visiting US herpetologist during a stint at the Mindo Bio Station, El Monte's research centre. "It's amazing," he says. "You find species here that have never been seen anywhere else, then you find another, utterly different, over the next hill."

Another living biology lesson unfolds, and, as with everything in the cloud forest, it comes with superlatives. Rare hummingbirds dart close to our heads. The orchids dressing the mossy trunks around which they hover represent just a few of the 3,500 species found in Ecuador, the highest density on earth. Tom and I wonder if these superlatives extend to Mindo's human inhabitants. Due to protests over the construction of an oil pipeline in the region, this peaceful village may harbour Ecuador's highest proportion of criminals: it seems that every conservationist and trader in this burgeoning eco-tourism town has been arrested while trying to protect the environment.

As we walk to the top of the El Monte's eponymous mountain, boot-high in blankets of busy lizzy, it's easy to see how this place would bring out the eco-warrior in even the meekest of armchair conservationists. Toucans chatter overhead, their iridescent plumage somehow etiolated next to the metre-long scarlet bromeliads over which they flock. A beetle of such metallic peacock blue that it must surely be an impostor from outer space scuttles around what looks like a jellyfish stuck to a tree. Tom tells me it is just your average cloud forest fungus.

At the top of the hill we take an ingenious contraption across the Nambillo river, a "cable car" (read glorified milk crate powered by a lawn-mower engine) that connects El Monte with the vast Bosque Protector Mindo-Nambillo reserve. Juddering across the gorge, clouds spilling out beneath us like smoke, I'm left gaping, gasping and pointing: suspended like a gorilla in the mist.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

Rumours about that the first direct flights are soon to begin from the UK to Ecuador, but BA's continuing retreat from Latin America suggests otherwise. Meanwhile the main routes to Quito are via Madrid on Iberia (0845 850 9000; www.iberia.com), via Amsterdam on KLM (08705 074 074; www.klm.com) and on BA to Miami, where you transfer to American Airlines. Return fares are typically around £600, though occasional specials are available.

Santa Lucia lodge is 80km north-west of Quito. Buses (fare $2.50/£1.40) make the two-and-a-half hour journey from Quito several times daily to the village of Nanegal, where you can catch a taxi or local bus (10 minutes to the nearest village of Marianita). From here the hike up to the lodge takes around two hours, wellies permitting. Private transfers from Quito can be arranged for $45 (£24) one way.

STAYING THERE

The writer travelled with Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) which offers fares to Quito from £647 return with KLM from London via Amsterdam. It can also arrange stays in Ecuador's cloud forest. Two day/one night full-board packages at Mindo's Bellavista lodge start at £195, including transfers and guided walks.

Santa Lucia (00 593 2215 7242; www.santa-lucia.org) offers doubles from $45 (£24) full-board including a guide.

Two days and one night's full-board accommodation in a double cabin at El Monte (00 539 22 765472; www.ecuadorcloudforest.com) costs $86 (£45) per person, including activities, a guide and entrance fees.

MORE INFORMATION

Ecuador Tourist Board: 00 593 2 2507 559; www.vivecuador.com). Metropolitan Tourism Convention: www.quito.com.ec. EcuadorVerde: 00 593 2290 6021; www.ecuadorverde.com

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