My flight from Atlanta arrived in Quito late Friday night, Feb. 13th and I spent the night in the new Quito International Airport. They seem to be very proud of this airport which opened in 2011, and it is more modern than the old one I had been through in 2007 and in 2009. However, there was no place to sleep or even rest except for a few hard metal benches, while I waited for my 6 AM flight down to Loja.
The airport in Loja is not really in Loja. It is about 45 minutes from there in the town of Catamayo. My friends Marco Jiménez and his son Marco Jiménez Leon were there to greet me and off we went to start our 13 days of exploring the forests of the province of Zamora Chinchipe looking for plants in the family Costaceae.
My first priority on this trip was to find the relatively unknown species Costus zamoranus, so we headed south for the Mayo Chinchipe region to the type location for that species near the village of Valladolid. The route south from Loja takes you through a cool arid region where most of the tourists stop at the bustling town of Vilcabamba, the home of latter day hippies and ex-pats.
The area does have its own natural beauty, such as the sandstone structures known as the “cathedrals” but we passed on through (or around) this tourist trap and climbed over the mountains until we descended into the valley that stretches on across the southern Ecuadorian border with Peru. This area is known as the Mayo Chinchipe region and there have been archeological finds here indicating the area was settled as long as 5000 years ago. There are indications that these early inhabitants were some of the first to use cacao.
From A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE :….. the Mayo Chinchipe culture which extended all the way from the tropical rainforest at the headwaters of Rio Chinchipe near the current city of Valladolid ….. Cacáo appears to have been used in several ways, including a liquid, since its residues in some vessels designed with very narrow necks suggest it was poured from them.
The first thing I noticed as we descended into Valladolid was the utter lack of forested areas . Most of this region has been cleared, and except for a few forest fragments here and there, I could see there would not be many places for a vulnerable plant like Costus zamoranus to grow.
We went on into the village and found a restaurant for lunch, then we went around the corner to the “new” hotel Marco had heard about. After a half hour or so trying to find the proprietor we settled on the “old hotel” Marco knew about. This no-name hostel had reasonably clean rooms with a shared toilet and cold water shower downstairs so it was acceptable at $5 per person per night.
Once settled in to our lodgings we headed up a trail that followed the river looking for Costus. We walked in the rain far up the trail which was completely deforested and then bushwhacked our way into some heavy jungle-like brush along the river, but did not see a single Costus.
Marco and son are specialists in orchids and have written the first of several volumes of the Orchids of Zamora Chinchipe. They told me there are over 1600 species of orchids in the province. They found an interesting one on this trail and stopped to take photos for a future volume.
Here is a YouTube video from the government of Zamora Chinchipe province with Marco and son at a ceremony naming an orchid as the symbol of the province.