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Volunteering in Guandera forest reserve

Two weeks labouring in a 3,000 metre high cloud forest

semi-overcast 14 °C
View Where are we now? on lonsdale77's travel map.

Arturo, the secret garden driver, eventually deposited us at the office of Jatun Sacha. It really wasn't too easy to find in the suburban sprawl of Quito. The meeting only involved completing some papers and handing over our contribution. It felt a bit unnecessary and could have been done remotely but maybe it's appropriate for their younger volunteers. We then checked into a hostel and quickly headed out to shop for the few things we needed for our upcoming work – gardening gloves and rubber boots. Our hostel was on the edge of the Mariscal Sucre, the night-life quarter of Quito. Many funky restaurants and bars are concentrated around the few blocks that make up this area which is enjoyed by both locals and tourists. That first night we were able to find a long-awaited Vietnamese restaurant, called Uncle Ho's, and run by a friendly Irish guy (his old business partner was American-Vietnamese). They were out of spicy squid but we found some other dishes that turned out to be a pleasant surprise, including a good phó (typical Vietnamese soup).

On the renovated La Ronda

On the renovated La Ronda

The next day we explored Quito's old town, another jewel of colonial architecture. We liked the picturesque streets, some of which had been charmingly renovated. We also liked the busy plazas and two of the many churches. The first, La Compañia de Jesús, was stunning inside with lots of gold leaf, the extent of which we hadn't seen since Salvador de Bahia (Brazil). Annoyingly, you couldn't take any pictures despite the pricey entry fee, fortunately the San Francisco church provided a few for the photo album instead. In comparison, the Basillica del Voto Nacional had little ornamentation but did have big Gothic turrets and spires and was adorned with gargoyles in the shapes of jungle animals. You could climb all the way to the top of one of the 72 metre clock towers passing a souvenir shop, a café and then using metal ladders to reach the very top. The height could cause a touch of vertigo, even from inside the stone towers. You could also cross a bridge, running over the main nave and just below the external roof. That lead to another tower into which you could climb via a small metal staircase. This staircase was a little exposed, venturing outside of the main wall. I popped up, but by this point Barbla had had her fill of heights. In any case, we had run out of time and the church was closing. For more photos of Quito, click here.

Stone armadillos on Basílica del Voto Nacional

Stone armadillos on Basílica del Voto Nacional

In the evening we headed to a posh Japanese restaurant to satisfy our sushi cravings. These turned out to be very creative with many including lots of components, one involving plantain, and another one representing a volcano which was flambéed on our table. The next morning we were off early to reach our forest reserve, Guandera. We weren't too sure how long it would take but we knew we needed to be there in daylight. In the end it wasn’t too bad a journey. Five hours on a bus towards the Colombian boarder, stopping at the town of San Gabriel, and a 20 minute taxi to the village of Mariscal Sucre (not including the 10 minutes waiting for the taxi driver's wife to join us). There we met Jose, director of the station and our boss for the volunteering work. We took the chance to lighten our rucksacks of non-essential gear at his house in the village. Next, we took a small truck up more hills for 20 minutes, saving a good 1.5 hour hike. It's a collectivo, but as we ordered it and paid the full USD6 for the journey, any locals going that way got a free ride. That left only a 45 minute hike to our home for the two weeks. We walked through the beginning of the reserve, following the river through cloud forest, and started to appreciate the beauty of the place. We made it in time for cafécito (afternoon tea rather than a small coffee, in this case) – some home made herbal tea, bread and jam. We met two younger volunteers who'd already been there for some time and would outstay us too; Sophie from France and Daniel from Germany. There was also Daisy, Jose's daughter, who was acting as the temporary cook. The last of the family were Faffy, a feisty cat, and Beethoven, a super-friendly Rotweilller.

Guandera is one of the five private forest reserves owned by the Jatun Sacha foundation (www). It is relatively small, but has some very special habitat with 500 hectares of cloud forest, including the fairly unique Guandera tree (more later), and above that 500 hectares of páramo (high-altitude moorland, previously seen near Cuenca). The reserve ranges between 3,000 and 4,500 metres, with the house at 3,300 metres. The reserve, with pre-appointment, is open to visitors, welcomes volunteers to help with the maintenance and scientific work there, and houses Ecuadorian research students as well. As I hope the photos show, it's a special, beautiful place and we were very glad to contribute a little.

Guandera reserve in sunshine

Guandera reserve in sunshine

Guandera house

Guandera house

The next morning we started work properly. A bridge needed building as the previous one had been washed away by a flood a few months back. The new main beams had already been laid across the river, but we needed planks to build a more substantial walkway. So we spent the day cutting and splitting logs from trees which had fallen in the flood. Given the trees were oak, it was hard heavy work, compounded by blunt saws. During the day I broke a small bow-saw blade and we didn't have nails to secure the planks. Both would need to wait for the following week when Jose would get some money from the foundation. To me, it felt frustrating they were so cash-strapped that there wasn't a spare blade (USD 2.50) and a supply of useful bits and pieces around the house, but Jose was used to it. In fact he was very happy to have got so much done that day, and we felt good but tired for the successful hard labour. We had enjoyed being in the forest, worked well together and chatted our way through the day in Spanish, English with Barbla and Sophie slipping into a bit of French.

The weekday routine at the reserve had long been set. Each morning we'd be up early for breakfast at 7am and start work by 8am. We would work through to lunch at 12pm and start again by 1pm until around 4pm for cafécito. Dinner was at 7pm and it was a rare night for people not to be heading to bed around 9pm (it would normally involve Jose getting excited by a game of Uno). Food was necessarily simple, both for cost and because it had to be carried in by horse each week. We would eat mountains of soup, rice and potatoes to sustain us in the work. But it was dull, really dull. We could only add interest by adjusting the mix of rice-soup-potato in each dish and then throwing in a major amount of aji (local spicy sauce, approaching tabasco). One lunch time when a tuna salad was served I was over the moon with excitement. And Barbla ate the over-cooked pasta, provided one evening, with gusto. However, despite the dullness, the food was always prepared well and much appreciated.

At night it got pretty cold, made worse by the damp weather. We were sleeping with four blankets piled on top of our sleeping bags, and whilst there was a hot shower, you didn't want to use it too late at night as the water would cool down rapidly with the chilly air temperature and feel cold by the time it reached you. So we were a bit shocked to find they only occasionally lit the open fire in the kitchen. The chimney didn't draw well and the fire-wood was damp so fires were saved for very cold evenings only. Anyway, Barbla and I decided this was one routine that would be changed for our two weeks there. I would usually get the fire going each night, but it was a busy job to sustain it for the evening hours with damp wood. However, it did warm everyone up a bit, dry our work-gloves and add a bit more cheer to the room. Each afternoon, after cafécito, I went to work on the wood pile, cutting more and smaller pieces so they could dry better. I also started a stockpile by the fire to dry it for the following nights. It helped, which left me time to make suggestions on how to improve the chimney design.

Barbla and Faffy by the fire

Barbla and Faffy by the fire

In that first week we also re-dug a trout pond beside the river which had been filled by the flood. Over two mornings we were able to shift several cubic metres of sticky mud and stones, then re-lay rocks at the bottom. Jose hoped to get some baby trout in there soon and, in time, augment the food at the house as well as sell some to the village to supplement income for the forest reserve. Over lunch I tried to sell him on the idea of building round ponds and creating a vortex to force the trout to swim harder, an idea I'd seen somewhere else in Ecudaor, but my conceptual physics explanation didn't translate too well and he liked his simple approach. Other tasks included rebuilding sections of paths, and weeding around the house and the small gardens which exhibited local orchids, bromelias, and plants of the páramo. Even in these surroundings I find weeding mega-dull, so I would plug into my iPod and look forward to the more heavy duty jobs (or run off to carry a few firewood logs). The weather could be variable, swinging between sunshine and showers. Extended heavy rain would have us retire to the workshop for sign-making or other indoor tasks. Barbla and I knocked out a few signs for path directions and Sophie was completing a mammoth welcome sign. Dan was identifying, drying and presenting specimens for the herbarium (and so was happy for the evening fire to help with this).

A new trout pond

A new trout pond

With no permanent cook, Jose had to disappear several times down to the village in search of a new one. The previous cook had been sad to leave but needed to return home as her kid was starting school. Jose was having trouble convincing people to come join him in a forest for 5 days a week. One lady did arrive one evening and we tried to make her feel welcome with a prime spot by the fire and a game of Uno, but she had changed her mind by the morning. By the time we left, Jose thought he had found someone to join soon. I hope so as Daisy wanted to get back to her normal job in Ibarra. It was a shame Jose was away so much as he was always enthusiastic and chatty, with much information about the forest and life there.

One night when Jose was away, Beethoven decided he wanted to see how hedgehog tasted. We woke up to find him very upset with a mouthful of spines which meant he couldn't eat. We tried a few times to hold him and remove the spines but he would never keep his head still. We even tried to mix up a bit of a sleeping pill in water and shoot that into his mouth, but he wasn't having it. We were balancing up whether to try to drag or carry him down to the village veterinary, or wait for him to get hungry and weaker. Jose returned and with the extra pair of hands we had another attempt. This time Sophie had found a large rubber band to wrap around his muzzle and keep it stable whilst nurse Barbla pulled the spines out with large pliers. The other four of us held him off the ground as he thrashed around and whimpered. He also chose to show his displeasure by pissing on my leg, an act I’m sure is considered lucky in certain parts of southern Germany (you know, at least he didn't sink his teeth into you). It was probably only 10 minutes, but that's long enough to try to hold a strong Rottweiler off the ground. With all the spines removed, he soon forgot all about it and returned to following us around the forest as we worked.

Dave and Beethoven

Dave and Beethoven

Towards the end of the first week, the dull food and cold evenings were starting to drag for me (Barbla was maybe closer to revolt) and our minds wandered to the forthcoming weekend. We planned to visit Otovalo, and in my mind at least, the cafés there started to seem like they would kick any Parisian Michelin starred place into the gutter. In the end, I probably wouldn't recommend Otovalo's cuisine over Paris, but the change was much appreciated and you could take a beer or glass of wine with it (alcohol is prohibited in Jatun Sacha reserves, and to be honest I wasn't that interested in carrying it up and down all that way). The town itself is famous for having the largest indigenous craft market in South America. Each weekend, the whole centre is covered in stalls selling pretty handicrafts - jewellery, paintings, carved wooden items, alpaca weaving and much more. There's plenty of local food on sale too. A large chunk of whole roast pork, served with four types of corn, was a top Saturday lunch treat and was followed by fresh fruit juices. Many of the locals are decked out in traditional dress, and the whole place is good fun for the weekend. We enjoyed the day perusing and haggling over some souvenirs and presents. We were also able to get some very dirty laundry done, clean ourselves up and catch up on news, emails and the blog. For more photos of Otovalo, click here.

A plate of pork and corn in Otavalo's market

A plate of pork and corn in Otavalo's market

Refreshed by the weekend we returned to work with new enthusiasm and enjoyed both the work and the conditions a bit more. In the second week, we managed to finish the bridge with the newly acquired nails. Even with me being responsible for nailing the thing together, that solid oak bridge should last a good 10-15 years as long as there isn’t another major flood. One day was spent slicing and collecting old rotten wood from the forest and a specific type of moss from more open areas. Both are used for the cultivation of orchids, which is one of the income streams for the foundation. As well as growing his own orchids, Jose would send these materials to the other Jatun Sasha stations so they could cultivate their local orchid types. All stations would send these plants to Quito for sale. Later in the week, we visited Jose's orchid garden behind his house in Mariscal Sucre and the range of plants he had growing in such a small place was impressive. That day we had a lighter workload as we tended to his organic garden in the village. This was much appreciated after the previous day slogging away on a heavy piece of road repair. With all the recent strong rain, the access road to the start of the station had become seriously rutted and it was very difficult to pass even with a 4x4 truck. We re-dug the drainage ditches on both sides of the road with large hoes , moving the material into the centre to fill those ruts. Jose would later ask for the municipality's road-roller to come compact it down. I was so knackered after this that I probably didn't speak during lunch. So that afternoon I was ecstatic to learn we were going to work on the potato fields. After three more hours of turning over soil at 3,300 metres, I was truly spent. At dinner lifting the fork to my mouth seemed a chore!

The new bridge

The new bridge

Whilst we worked very hard for the first four days of each week, Friday was set aside for exploring the reserve. Both weeks we took a similar circuit, the first time was ably led by Daniel. The second time Jose joined us and provided a running commentary on the forest and plants we passed. On the journey, we put up a few more of the new direction signs. I also took a machete to clear some fallen debris we'd seen on the first week's trip. By this time I was improving with this excellent tool, though I couldn't hack through 5-10cm branches as quickly as Jose would. Anyway, this walk first took us steeply up through the cloud forest to the area of Guandera trees at around 3,500-3,600 metres. The Guandera trees are fairly unique. They are able to grow to 30 metres high at this altitude (though very slowly; 1-3 cm per annum). They deploy air-roots too so provide a dense habitat for wildlife, orchids, bromelias and mosses. Jatun Sacha's Guandera reserve holds some of the last remaining super-high Andean forests and as such is very special. Above the forest we quickly transitioned into the páramo and continued to walk up to around 4,000 metres. Taking a rest, just off the top of a ridge, we saw more chupayas with pretty blue flowers but slightly different to those we'd seen in Cuenca (see previous posting). Dependent on the cloud movement, the view over the valley could be grand. Volcanoes would occasionally be visible on the horizon. The region is very agricultural, and up to around 3,000 metres, there are well-kept fields mainly growing potatoes or raising cattle. Páramo topped similar hills, but forest was sporadic. Though it's difficult to grow much above 3,000 metres (our tiny organic potatoes were evidence of this), forests have still been lost over time so the reserve had an important habitat to preserve. On these walks, we had really hoped to see the endangered Andean spectacled bear, but maybe we need to put in six more months at the reserve to earn such a treat. We then started our descent to head home, I at least had some more path clearing to look forward to.

Chupaya and frailejones in the páramo

Chupaya and frailejones in the páramo

Towards the end of the second week, we realised we had settled in better and were enjoying it much more than the first. We would quite happily have stayed for another week or two to work with Jose, but Colombia was next and we had appointments to keep there too. It wasn't just the physical work in a beautiful forest, I also had ideas for that chimney, wood store and trout ponds to test out. It felt we had done a lot in the two weeks but had seen there was always more to be done. We never actually planted new trees, which is something they do there. A lot of our work was catching up on the effects of the flood. We had originally thought we would work four weeks for Jatun Sacha but had swapped two of those for the whale research, and we felt perhaps a little guilty that the whale experience was more of a holiday than this more physical contribution. Anyway, we decided to pay for a chainsaw for Jose. Despite his vitality and fitness at 70, an old shoulder injury was causing him some problems and he'd talked about saving money for a chainsaw several times. He was hoping to buy one next year if he saved up carefully. The USD400 he needed was around the same we would have paid for those extra two weeks so it all seemed to fit. It was a happy final lunch when we gave him the cash, plus our boots and gloves for subsequent visitors or volunteers. We left that afternoon to walk all the way down to the village, where we luckily timed it right to catch a direct bus to Tulcan (Ecuador's last town before Colombia). Whilst we crossed the border the next morning, Jose and Sophie headed to town to buy that chainsaw, and thanks to Sophie, we soon had pictures of him testing it back in the forest. For more photos around Guandera, click here.

Jose and new chainsaw

Jose and new chainsaw

As I said above, by the second week we had become more accustomed to the conditions and were relishing the tough but useful work in this little reserve. We had really enjoyed working with the small group of Jose, Sophie, Daniel and Daisy and seeing that an extra two pairs of hands can make a difference. It felt better suited for me than one of the larger Jatun Sacha stations, where you can join up to 40 others clearing the same patch of land of invasive plants (e.g. the San Cristobal experience, as we understand it). It was a pleasure to work in such beautiful surroundings (rain permitting) and learn a lot about the forest and life in the area from Jose. I highly recommend this station as a great volunteering experience for those with an interest in nature. You may also get to loose a bit of chub too with the simple food and honest labour (Barbla thought it was the best weight loss programme ever)!

Sophie's new welcome sign

Sophie's new welcome sign

Posted by lonsdale77 16:22 Archived in Ecuador

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Comments

Looks soo fun (plus that plate of pork and corn...yumm)! glad to see you two looking well :D

by em

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