Dave Looks for Plants

Journal of a plant explorer

Ecuador trip 2007

RESERVA RIO GUAYCUYACU

This was my first trip to Ecuador.  I had arranged most of my itinerary, beginning with a visit with Jim and Mimi West at their small reserve on the Rio Guaycuyacu in Imbabura province.  Jim met me at my hostel in Quito and we went by bus to the junction of the small road leading to the village of Pachijal.  There we waited for a local, open sided bus, known as a “ranchero” that was so crowded with passengers that we had to sit on top where it was loaded with supplies.    This took us to the end of the road where all of the passengers offloaded and most of them with their supplies, crossed the Rio Guayillbamba in a cable car, known as a tarabita.

Unloading ranchero

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We walked a couple of kilometers down a trail to Jim and Mimi’s place on the Rio Guaycuyacu.  Here I spent the next few days studying the plants in his garden and exploring the surrounding area.  Jim and Mimi had lived there many years, cooking on a wood stove and tending to the many tropical fruit trees, which he is best known for, that are growing on his property.

Jim West

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BILSA BIOLOGICAL STATION

On May 22nd I left Jim West’s place on my way to the next stop on my itinerary – a biological station in the Bilsa reserve, deep in primary forests of western Ecuador.  The trip there was an adventure in itself – back on the ranchero to the main highway, then on buses to the town of Quinindé.  From there I boarded a Toyota pickup truck with 24 adults and 3 children crowded in the back and hanging on the sides, headed for the community known as the “Y” de Laguna.  I was standing in the back facing front as a few of the women were seated on a bench facing me.  One of these women was hardly 12 inches from me holding a baby, and opened her blouse to breast feed as I tried to maintain a casual and disinterested look at the scenery passing by. The truck had a flat tire along the way to the “Y” and the passengers had to get off and help lift the truck to change a tire.  When we finally arrived after several hours on a bumpy road, I spent the night at a local man’s house.

The next morning my contact there told me that I would need to buy some rubber boots because the mud was so incredibly thick and deep at Bilsa.  To get there, I had to ride on the back of a mule for nearly five hours.  At some places, the mule sunk down in the mud to its belly.

Finally we made our way to the biological station where I was greeted by John Clark, a botanist with the University of Alabama.  For the next several days I walked the trails at Bilsa looking for Costus.  The most exciting species I found was a plant that currently is included in the species Costus guanaiensis but soon will be published as a new species.  (More to be added about this at a later date.)

My guide at Bilsa was Don Vicente Quiñonez. He is celebrated in the region for his music and has produced several CDs and DVDs. In the gallery below you can see him with that new species and also playing his guitar at the biological station in the evening.

Bilsa mud

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MOVIN’ ON SOUTH

On May 27th I left Bilsa for the next stop on my itinerary – the Rio Palenque Science Center.  It was pouring down rain during the long mule ride back to the “Y”, and my bags and backpack were loaded in some rice bags.  I climbed in the back of the Toyota pickup for the trip back to Quinindé where I waited for the next bus headed south.  Finally a large air-conditioned “expresso” bus headed for Guayaquil stopped and picked up me and another passenger who had some chickens in carry cages.  This was a luxury bus and as I boarded, all muddy and looking like a  bum, there were few seats and most passengers made it clear they did not want a muddy gringo sitting next to them.  Finally I found a welcoming traveler who invited me to sit next to him.  I asked him to help me know the right place to get of for Palenque.  It was already dark when the bus stopped and let me off, and so I had to walk in the dark, still loaded with my rice bags full of my gear, for couple of kilometers to get to the science center.  The shower, meal and bed that night sure felt good.

The next day, my contact at Palenque Science Center, Freddy Villao, showed me around the trails, accompanied by another biologist named Ronald from Gualaquiza.  Here we saw several rather common species of Costus.  

On May 29th Ronald went with me to the next place, a small and little known reserve called “Juaneche” where there is a protected area called “Bosque Protector Pedro Franco Davila“.  The local ranger, Juan Castro, took us on some trails there and I collected seed from Costus macrostrobilus.  Ronald told me about another place near Guayaquil called Fundación Ecológica Andrade where I could meet up with a man named Orlanco Carillo.

So the next morning (May 30th) I headed out on my own taking a series of buses and working my way farther south to the Fundación Ecológica Andrade.  It was nearly impossible to figure out exactly where to get off that last bus, and I found myself standing along the highway in the middle of nowhere with no idea where to go next.  Finally a young man on a moto came by and told me he knew about the place I want to go.  So I hopped on the back of his moto and we drove back up the highway several kilometers, and to my relief I found the place and Orlando was there waiting for me.  The next day he took me to Churute and we looked for Costus and found what must be the southernmost population of Cosus villosissimus

The next morning, May 31st, Orlando helped me flag down the right bus to take me to the town of Piñas in El Oro province.  This is a pretty little town in the foothills of the mountains with steep, hilly streets reminding me of San Francisco, California.  The next day I took a bus to a tourist area called Reserva Buenaventura, about 20 kilometers out of town.  Here I saw lots of Costus lima and another plant like the new species I had seen at Bilsa.  A few days prior I had injured my finger and it had gotten terribly infected, but luckily there was a doctor’s office right downstairs from my hotel and for about $5 he drained it, cleaned it, wrapped it and gave me some antibiotics to take.

Ronald and Freddie at Rio Palenque

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ZAMORA

The next location on my itinerary was the town of Zamora in the southeastern part of Ecuador on the other side of the Andes.  I took buses first to Loja and then on to Zamora.  I really had no specific plan other than the Podocarpus National Park and to look around for any other places to go.  After spending a day there I asked a taxi driver if he knew of any other good places with forested areas that I might go.  He told me he had a “buena idéa” and took me to a house on the outskirts of town.  No one was home there, but he said he knew where the man’s wife worked.  He said that this man loved plants and knew the entire region very well.  I had no way of knowing that this would lead to an introduction to someone who would become one of my very best friends in Latin America – Marco Jiménez Villarta.

Marco’s wife called him and he said he would take the afternoon off and we could go to a forested area nearby to look for plants.   The next day he took the entire day off and we went by bus to a place in the Rio Nangaritza watershed, a town called Guayzimi.  Here I saw for the first time the species Costus amazonicus, although I did not know what it was at the time.  Also in that region I saw the huge plants all along the road sides that I later found out is a form of Costus asplundii.  As it turned out, I would be returning to that area during two future trips in 2009 and 2015, traveling with Marco and his son Marco Jiménez León.

Rio Bombuscaro at Podocarpus

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GUALAQUIZA

The final place on my itinerary for this trip was a place where there was a record of the very rare Costus geothyrsus which was said to be at the Mission Bomboiza near the town of Gualaquiza.  When I was on the bus from Loja to Zamora I had happened to sit next to a lady who by total coincidence was a Peace Corps worker at the Mission, and I had explained to her that I was planning to go there in a few days after I left Zamora.  So on June 6th I left the bus station in Zamora on an express bus to Gualaquiza – or so I thought!

Little did I know what was in store for me:  being trapped in that town, meeting a local hermit with a pet monkey, meeting the Padre Eduardo at the mission, being threatened with machetes by Shuar Indians, and finally escaping from the town by hiding in the back seat of a car, pretending to be a relative of a sick elderly woman.  If you want to read more about all this you will have to go to the full story of “Huida desde Gualaquiza“.  It is written in Spanish so you might have to let Google translate it for you if you cannot read Spanish.  The Bing Translator does not seem to be working but you can right click on a page and then select “translate to English”.

Hugo with his pet monkey

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