Cloud forest? To those unfamiliar with the term, it conjures up images of a mysterious fairy tale setting where a princess sits locked in the mist obscured tower of a beautiful castle. In reality, it's just as magical and rare. In fact, cloud forest characterizes only one percent of the earth's forests, but at the higher elevations of the upper montane in Ecuador, cloud forests are even more rare.
On a recent trip to the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, I had the opportunity to learn about this unique ecosystem and explore the enchanting cloud forest for myself.
Bellavista means "beautiful view" in Spanish, and it certainly defines the reserve accurately. With 360 degree views of the Andes Mountains, lush untouched tropical forest, and vast displays of brightly colored birds and flowers, the only word to describe it is breathtaking.
Although the landscape is absolutely stunning, the brightest star of the show at Bellavista is the birds.
With 340 species of birds recorded in the area, and 24 species of hummingbirds regularly visiting the reserve, the cloud forest is a bird lover's paradise.
The distinctive sound of hummingbird wings buzzing and the sight of their aerial acrobatics quickly become commonplace to visitors because there are so many flying around fearlessly throughout the day. You can easily find yourself standing so close to those diminutive dynamos of the bird world that you can feel the wind of their beating wings on your face and see their tiny tongues as they sip nectar from bright red and orange flowers.
Being able to get so close to the hummingbirds provides a unique opportunity to not only watch their behavior and interactions, but also to see a rainbow of iridescent plumage that would normally be moving too fast to see in green, blue, black, white, pink , purple, and yellow blurs. At Bellavista, hummingbirds actually land on branches and feeders so that you can see their patterns and colors clearly.
Then, of course, there are the other amazing bird species within the cloud forest.
It's a truly awe-inspiring experience to see the steep, sun-kissed Andes set against a clear blue sky and hear the monkey-like call of toucan pairs singing duets in the distance, all while watching brightly colored tropical birds flit in and out of your vision.
Even if birds aren't your thing, you'll still find a lot to see in the cloud forest. One of the more exciting things to see is the newly discovered mammal species called the Olinguito. One member of the docile, raccoon sized species lives near "Juli's Balcony" at Bellavista and I was fortunate enough to see the cute little critter myself early one evening as it ate small pieces of banana left out for it by staff members. Tentatively reaching out with monkey like hands to take the small bits of fruit and holding onto a branch with its prehensile tail, the face of the Olinguito almost looks like a teddy bear.
According to Nelson, one of the naturalist guides at Bellavista, the Olinguito was raiding food stores and stealing eggs from the reserve for months before being "discovered." Being the first new mammal identified in the Americas in 35 years, the Olinguito garners a lot of attention and is quickly becoming a sort of mascot for the lodge. With both a male and female spotted, the Olinguito is sure to become one of the more visible mammals at Bellavista in the future, and another good reason to visit.
Although the wildlife at the reserve is spectacular and the views are amazing, the thing I was most struck by is the complexity of the ecosystem in a cloud forest.
Hiking the well-marked trails on the 700 hectare (1730 acre) reserve, through bubbling streams and dense foliage, gray-green moss and lichens carpet nearly every surface.
Epiphytes, or "air plants" that grow on other plants and throughout the trees, are more abundant in the cloud forests of Ecuador, Columbia, and Peru than anywhere else on the planet. You'll find beautiful bromeliads, Spanish moss, ferns, and even orchids clinging to other plants throughout the forest. Some host trees are so heavily festooned with hanging gardens of air plants, that they're almost entirely concealed and difficult to identify.
By the way, it may interest you to know that the long Tarzan vines seen hanging from trees in the cloud forest aren't vines at all, they're strong, thick, epiphyte roots reaching for the ground.
Arguably the most beautiful flowers in the subtropical rainforest are the orchids, and you'll find them in abundance at Bellavista. With elevations between 1400 and 2600 meters above sea level, and average temperatures of 14 to 22 degrees Celsius, many unique species of orchid find it a perfect home. As with most flowering plants, orchids are in bloom year round at Bellavista because it's located on the equator.
The incredible complexity of the cloud forest ecosystem is eye-opening, to say the least, and it's something that the folks at Bellavista take very seriously. Working with universities and foundations all over the world, the reserve has an active research station where research groups come in to study all aspects of the subtropical rainforest and it's inhabitants.
Dedicating itself to sustainable ecotourism activities and land preservation, Bellavista and it's naturalist guides strive to educate tourists about the cloud forest ecosystem, but they do it in a way that's fun and exciting. Hikes are geared toward education and deeply connecting to the surroundings, as guides stop frequently to point out unique facets of the cloud forest habitat or offer perspectives on its conservation. What I really loved about their views on conservation was that it wasn't preachy and "in your face," but stemmed from a deep love and reverence of the their subtropical rainforest home.
With so much of the majestic and misty cloud forest turned into farmland and grazing fields in the past, conservation is an important mission.
If a visit to the cloud forest in Ecuador is something you'd like to do, there are a few things you should know before planning your trip. The dry season runs from the middle of June to early October, but that doesn't mean you won't see any rain. It often rains in the afternoon throughout the year, and humidity averages 95 percent year round, so bring a rain jacket. Unless it's a gully-washer, rain is not an issue and guided hikes continue regardless of the weather.
In addition, it might be a little cooler in the cloud forest than you expect. Daytime temperatures in the dry season are usually in the seventies and the nights drop down to the fifties. If you go during the wet season, temperatures are a little cooler
Lastly, you should know that hiking in the Andes can be somewhat challenging. If you don't live in a high altitude climate, be sure to take it easy. Bellavista grooms their trails, marks them well enough to go hiking without a guide, and even grades each trail for difficulty, but Ecuadorians must be a lot tougher than I am. Their "easy" trail was easily the equivalent of a "moderate" trail in the US.
They have another trail marked "slippery / suicidal" and I'd say that one's pretty accurate. That trail requires you to use a ladder and ropes, sludge through a stream, and rock climbing around waterfalls, but it's totally worth it.
Although I'm certainly not a princess, the cloud forest is a marvelous and magical place worthy of any fairytale. With simple and comfortable accommodation, relaxing atmosphere, delectable authentic food, welcoming staff, and friendly and knowledgable guides, Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve makes exploring the cloud forest of Ecuador an impressive and spectacular adventure.