Exploring Ecuador’s Los Cedros Reserve

4/15/2020
By Teresa Nichta

This rainy February, we visited Los Cedros Biological Reserve in Ecuador.

Roo Vandegrift, and crew, are filming Marrow of the Mountain; a documentary about the mega-mining now in Ecuador. “In 2017, the amount of land available for mining expanded by hundreds of percent, leaving huge swaths of Ecuador’s most sensitive and biodiverse habitats at the mercy of international mining interests. These concessions appeared suddenly and were sold without public knowledge or consent, especially affecting the mineral-rich and endangered Choco Rainforest.” Roo invited MTBC to conduct a bat survey, which could support litigation to stop the illegal gold mining and help protect the reserve’s unique flora and fauna. The data is to track diversity and endemism at Los Cedros, and analyses are submitted to conservation groups and government agencies, like Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the Ecuadorian state Institute for Biodiversity (part of the Ministry of Environment).

Los Cedros Biological Reserve consists of 17,000 acres of premontane wet tropical forest and cloud forest. Of this, 2,650 acres is formerly colonized land, while the remainder is primary forest. The reserve is a southern buffer zone for the 450,000-acre Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, and both are part of the Choco Phytogeographical Zone. The Choco region is one of the most biologically diverse and endemic habitats on Earth.

Part of its charm is the journey to get there. Monica and I left our Quito AirBnB at 5 am to board a 3-hour long bus ride to Chontal, where we met Marc Dragiewicz of Eyes of the World Films. It was then just a short 30-minute truck ride to the trailhead. 

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Hunting for Flowers with a Shaman

The following morning, the four of us hiked along the nearby Rio Leon valley’s steep cliffs searching for the cactus Vinicio had found flowering earlier in the week. We were extremely disappointed to find the flowering was perhaps finished or close to it. Merlin and National Geographic almost decided to postpone the trip for another time. But locals advised us to visit the shaman, so we paid a visit to his 300-yr.-old home.

The Shaman’s son, Juan Valdi, and his wife Sabine offered to help us find the rare cactus we sought. As a shaman himself, Juan had considerable knowledge of local plants. Driving into the Valdi family’s 1000-hectare ranch in the Rio Leon Valley, the Ecuadorian equivalent to the Grand Canyon was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.  Looking over the edge of the narrowly-eroded dirt road, cut into a nearly vertical canyon wall, I asked Merlin if he must drive so close to the edge. Looking down a thousand feet or more made me a little nervous, especially when we had to drive over washed-out areas. These we had to drive across on five-inch diameter by ten-foot long logs laid side-by-side to form bridges that seemed incapable of supporting a car. 

 

We hiked for miles through sometimes nearly impenetrable stands of thorny acacia, agave, and a variety of cacti, all ready to impale the unwary. At times we descended as much as 1,500 feet down into chasms on narrow, often slippery trails, only to end up climbing back out exhausted and empty-handed.

 

 

 

Finally, after three days of failure and lots of discouragement, Juan decided to take us to a site near the small town of La Cria where we found our first flowering specimen of the cactus we’d come to photograph. It had just a single bud, but we were thrilled. We cut a 14” section of the bud-bearing stalk, carefully with heavy gloves impaled it on a pointed bat net pole, and began the two-hour drive back to our base. We could only hope that the bud would still open.

With Juan driving, Merlin carefully held the cactus stalk only a foot or so from Juan’s arm, hoping not to impale either Juan or himself as we lurched along the heavily rutted road, maneuvering past boulders and landslides caused by heavy rains. Finally, on a hairpin curve, our rental car sank to its axels in mud, and it looked like we would have to spend the night, not a great idea, since we had been warned that this was a major drug-running route after dark. Nery finally dug us out with a machete and a netting pole. The next day, our colleague Ralph Simon arrived with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle!

 

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