Going to the Birds

mindo giant antpitta-with-angel

Ex-Farmer-cum-Birdman, Angel Paz, owner of the Paz Bird Refuge in Mindo with a Giant Antpitta.

We wake up at 3.00am, yawning and stumbling around in the dark, getting dressed in warm clothes and trying not to wake other guests at the hotel, but not succeeding very well as we kick the furniture and stagger noisily down the stairs. The manager has thoughtfully left us a packed breakfast in the fridge. We retrieve the bag and then mumble unintelligibly to each other, rubbing our arms to warm ourselves while we wait for our driver, the steam from our breath clouding in the chilly air. Segundo shows up a few minutes late and we finally take off, rattling down the narrow winding track towards our destination. Headlights bounce all over the place as we navigate through mountain streams in the battered 4WD, going slowly on the bumpy road. It rained during the night. The vehicle slips and slides. Catching a few extra winks of sleep enroute is impossible.

“Oh no!” exclaims Segundo in the dark, cursing under his breath, before pulling up abruptly in the middle of the muddy track.

We have a flat tire. Wondering if we will still make our pre-dawn appointment on time, we work quickly together to change the tire, some of us shining flashlights on his work, others undoing the spare tire and rolling it to the front of the car. The road is slick. Just as he pulls the old tire off the studs, the jack falls over. Segundo moves it to another spot and jacks up the car again. This time, it stays. We help him to lift the new tire and fasten the nuts to the studs. He lets the car down and checks the studs again. After ten minutes driving, he checks them again. The clock is ticking. We don’t want to miss our appointment, but we do want to make it there in one piece. We arrive at the appointed meeting place less than a minute after our guide arrives. Everyone whispers in the dark, as if afraid to break the magic of the night before it’s time.


Following our native guide, and some wildly dancing flashlights, we make our way down a very narrow slippery track. Just barely keeping our balance, we silently follow Angel Paz, a local ex-farmer and hunter who became a passionate birdman, to the edge of a small cliff as the first grey light of dawn begins to break. Angel indicates we should stay still and remain silent. The ghostly outlines of the trees begin to take shape in front of our eyes. Then, a strange clatter begins in the trees. We can’t see the birds yet, but we can certainly hear them.

As the light increases, just on sunrise, the bizarre red heads of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock appear in the branches as they dance and chatter, all competing for the affections of the plain brown-colored female. The Rupicola Peruviana is one of only two species that live in the neotropics. The noisy mating display goes on for over half an hour, the birds leaping about on the branches, chasing each other off, calling and dancing, until the female chooses her partner. Suddenly the forest is quiet again. We trudge back to the 4WD and head up the hill to another location, snacking on our packed egg sandwiches along the way.

Another hike down a steep slope takes us deep into the forest. Angel goes slowly, shushing us with a finger to his lips.

“There it is,” he whispers, pointing to a tree branch high above our heads.


The White-Faced Nunbird dances along the branch, hopping back and forth, searching for breakfast. Angel tells us it’s a rare species that many birdwatchers have yet to spot. We have no trouble watching this avian treasure as it flits from branch to branch for a few minutes. Leaving it to find sustenance, we head back up the path, our guide whistling and twittering as he walks. On the way, a Rufous Potoo hides itself on a branch, blending into a tree. We nearly miss it, but Angel points it out with a green laser light.

“Shhh!” says Angel, stopping mid-step with his arms wide. We freeze. “There!” he whispers, barely making a sound as he points to the underbrush.

The Moustached Antpitta is hard to see at first, camouflaged in the thick undergrowth. Then, he hops around, digging worms from the ground just under the path. He flits back and forth, “hohoho”ing as he feeds on rich proteins. We silently observe as one of the most vulnerable species sings and eats.

Further up, Angel sets out breakfast for some Green Toucans. Slicing bananas and placing them on tree branches, he offers the birds almost 30 ripe plantain bananas. We sit back and wait, once again silent and unmoving in the early morning. Soon, the tree branches are buzzing with activity as Crimson Rumped Toucanets compete with Toucan Barbets, Blue Winged and Black Chinned Mountain Tanagers, until a couple of Sickle Winged Guans come in to hog the breakfast offerings. Fluttering and chirping, the birds come and go, feasting on the ripe bananas.

“Look!” says Angel, pointing up into the trees, where a red-breasted bird with a yellow head, a green coat and a black tail rests. The Quetzal. There is silence in the hide as the bird comes closer, easily spooked by the slightest movement. We freeze. Sitting just a few feet in front of our eyes, the Golden-Headed Quetzal pecks at the fruit. Cameras click. Then, it’s gone. On the ground, a pair of White-Throated Quail Doves waddle around, picking up the scraps dropped by the toucans.


We continue along the rough track, heading upwards until Angel stops us again. A rare Giant Antpitta gathers worms in her beak to feed her offspring. She jumps back and forth, stuffing food into her mouth and then vanishes to her nest in a nearby tree branch, returning a few minutes later to eat her own breakfast. Nearby, an Ochre-Striped Antpitta dances on a branch, swinging its hips from side to side, assessing the danger. “Huewee! Huewee!” It sings. We don’t move. No one speaks. Soon, they both disappear.

At the top of the path, hummingbird feeders are attracting a number of species: Velvet-Purple Coronets, Fawn-Breasted Brilliants, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbirds, and the shimmering Andean Emeralds, amongst several others whizzing by too fast to identify. There are 137 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador and we spot at least a dozen of the 49 species in the region. After a feast of raspberries picked from the vines behind the hide, we trek up the final part of the path to dine richly on a traditional Ecuadorian breakfast of Bolon (green plantain banana balls), sweet Empanadas (cheese pastries) and aromatic local coffee, before heading back into town feeling sleepy but satisfied by our early morning adventure.

Interested in Birdwatching Tours in Ecuador? Ask us how.

The Freedom Train

The 30km track from Ibarra to Salinas goes through six hand-built tunnels

The 30km track from Ibarra to Salinas goes through six hand-built tunnels

After a leisurely breakfast at the hacienda in Otavalo, our driver took us along a newly built highway through villages and small towns on the way to Ibarra, at the base of the impressive Imbabura Volcano. Twenty-five minutes later, we arrived at the newly restored train station, renovated after years of neglect and disused railway services that began over a century ago. The train was an almost forgotten historic achievement until it was resurrected and enthusiastically restored by the Ecuadorian government two years ago. Our tickets had been reserved and purchased online several weeks previously, and we exchanged our payment receipt for a paper ticket at the Customer Service desk. Half an hour before departure time, we were called to board the Freedom Train (Tren de la Libertad) which celebrates both the freedom of the African slaves and Ecuador’s liberation from Spain. We alighted the charming colonial-style Carriage Number 207, a comfortable polished wood coach with adjustable upholstered seats – although slightly narrow to fit two larger western posteriors – and got comfortable. The air of excitement and anticipation throughout the carriage was tangible. We were accompanied by twenty giggling nuns, and four families with curious young children. Two other carriages, both painted bright red, were then boarded and the train driver tooted loudly, ready to go.

Before we departed from Ibarra, our guide Jaime introduced himself and, after a quick safety announcement, began to speak about the history of Ibarra and surrounds in both Spanish and English. Unfortunately, the English translations were a little shorter than the Spanish, and we heard less than half the information in English. When we commented about this to Jaime, he improved his translations. The train took us on a fun ride  through lush green valleys and towering volcanoes, and the arid Andean savannah lining either side of the Andean River, all the while descending from an altitude of 2,210m at Ibarra to 1545m at Salinas. On the route from Ibarra to Salinas the landscapes are as diverse as they are picturesque; one of the country’s most fascinating ecosystems extends over the protected páramo El Ángel, a high-altitude forest of [native Australian] paper-bark trees and wild expanses of intriguing frailejón plants. We chugged past farmland dotted with fields of cabbages, cauliflower, lettuce and broccoli where farmers tilled their fields with horse-driven plows, cattle pastures, hillsides covered in wildflowers of all colors and varieties, medicinal herbs and flowers, prickly pears, several species of cactus and many pretty flowering succulents, alongside sugar cane fields, as well as spectacular waterfalls and the historical cotton fields, and finally the long-abandoned cotton processing plant on the edge of town. Over narrow bridges perched breathtakingly high above the river, and through half a dozen hand-built tunnels ranging from 26m to 300m which threw us all into pitch darkness for a few moments, and we arrived in Salinas two hours later.

The first narrow steel bridge over the Andean River

The first narrow steel bridge stretches high over the Andean River and valley.

The wonderful Freedom Train excursion is complemented by an interesting community-tourism twist that allows the Afro-Ecuadorian residents of Salinas to demonstrate their culture and history through dance and music. We are then refreshed by a delicious glass of chilled cactus juice in the station cafe and have time to wander through the craft shop at the train station before heading into the town square with a native guide for a peek inside the local church, which is 189 years old, and the community produce store, founded by a cooperative of growers who produce jams, sauces, chocolates, nuts, liquors and natural ice-creams from their own harvests. After sampling the Salinas version of Pina Colada and buying an ice-cream each, we wandered through the streets to our lunch stop. The Northern Andean village of Salinas has a population of around 2000 inhabitants, all descended from the slaves of the Spanish conquistadors who were stolen from Africa to work the cotton fields. Most of the inhabitants carve out a living from agriculture; cotton, sugar cane, and fruit for wines and preserves, retaining many of their original African traditions such as the ‘bomba’ music and dance.

Lunch is served in a large restaurant on the edge of the village, overlooking the fields with views of the mountains behind. A traditional almuerzo (set lunch) offered a choice of soups and chicken or meat dishes with rice, as well as a fresh fruit juice and small dessert for $5.00 per person. Chatter filled the room as people discussed the journey so far with great pleasure and satisfaction. Our local guide returned to give us a tour of the Salt Museum where he made a fascinating presentation of the mining and production of salt from the nearby mines, demonstrating how his ancestors used age-old methods and antique equipment to extract the salt and the excess iodine from the final product. After a taste of Salinas’ mountain salt, we wandered back through town to the train station via another route to board the train for the return trip home. Jaime took a break from guiding for the trip back and many dozed as we passed by the same landscape filled with numerous species of bromeliads, flowering prickly pear and other colorfully flowering plants and grasses. Our driver was there to meet us and return us to the hacienda, something we were grateful for after a long but wonderful day touring the Northern Andes.

If you are visiting Ecuador, a train tour on the newly renovated railways is highly recommended.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part One

Green tree snake

Green tree snake

Ecuador is one of the most interesting countries on the planet. The incredible diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero stand out in South America. You might think I’m being biased just because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 30+ years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while.

When I began thinking about some of the great things about Ecuador that I’d like to share with people who are thinking about visiting, I found that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question:
“What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This post, and the following nine posts will be all about what they said.

The Jungles and Forests

In a country that is made up of half rainforest, whether it’s the lush cloud forests high in the Andean Sierra with bird sanctuaries and butterfly farms, the verdant  tropical rainforests fringing the Pacific coast filled with howler monkeys, sloth and Pecari tajacu, the wild jungles of the Amazon with the richest variety of flora and fauna on earth, or the moist highlands of the volcanic Galapagos Islands with its giant tortoises, the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems, and wildlife is equal to none.

With 3500 species of orchids, 1600 species of birds, and 415 amphibian species, not to mention mammals, reptiles, insects and marine creatures such as the unique Amazonian pink river dolphins, there is no shortage of fascinating wildlife and countless species of exuberant vegetation to observe in the magical wildernesses of Ecuador. In every corner of the country there is something fascinating to explore and discover, from strange pink caterpillars that will give you an electric shock. gigantic boa-constrictors capable of swallowing a grown man whole, healing shamans who will take you on a natural psychedelic journey to your inner-self, and traditional indigenous tribes who are the fiercest warriors around, as they shrink heads and eat delicious grubs right out of the ground. Critters you’ve never even imagined abound in Ecuador. Flowers and plants that are beyond imagination thrive in the jungles and forests.

Despite its remoteness, the Amazon is alive with people. plants, creatures and adventures just waiting to be enjoyed. Historically, indigenous communities of the Siona­ Secoya, Cofan, Huaorani, Quichua, Shuar and Ashuar have been able to maintain a productive subsistence within the existing ecosystems of vast Amazonian forest preserve, estimated to cover around 12 million hectares. The Amazon ecosystem, particularly its tropical jungles, is considered one of the richest and most complex communities of plant and animal life in the world.

Esaltamontes amazon-boardwalk-in-jungle achuar

Friends from all over the world, and from all walks of life, we all agree unanimously that the forests and jungles of Ecuador, and the vast range of indigenous peoples and their cultures and traditions, and the amazing wildlife, incredible nature, countless activities, wild and tame adventures and wonderful education they have to offer a visitor to the country, are definitely not to be missed if you are thinking of coming to Ecuador.

Footprints can take you into the highlands, rainforests and jungles of Ecuador and show you a wonder-world of nature and eco-fun.

Point Break – Mompiche

Many people come to Mompiche just to surf the Point Break. In the season – November to April – this tiny remote fishing village that barely earns its spot on the Ecuadorian map, becomes a haven for surfers from all over the world. Hostels fill up, restaurants are teeming with diners, and the pristine beach is smattered with the bright sarongs of rapidly reddening sunbathers. Vendors walk up and down the white sand hawking fresh coconuts, tropical fruits and tasty ceviches. The rest of the time, it’s pretty quiet. Don’t be fooled by its reputation as solely a surf beach. Aside from surfing, there are many other activities and tours you can do in Mompiche.

Wakeboarding, Mompiche style when the wave-action is a little slow.

Wakeboarding Mompiche-style when the wave-action is a little slow on The Point.

Naturally, there are plenty of water sports on offer along the 7km white sand beach. Body-boarding and surfing aside, you can also go kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, motor-boating and fishing. All year round, you can see the colony of Blue-footed Boobies on The Point, as well as Brown pelicans, Great and Magnificent frigate birds and even the odd Pink flamingo. From June to September, during the annual migration of the Humpback Whales, local fishermen offer trips out to San Francisco Peninsular to view these enormous marine creatures as they make their way south on the Humboldt Current. Lucky visitors often see mothers and their calves playing in the sea as they travel past Mompiche bay. Frequently during the whale-watching season, leaping whales can even be spotted from the beach. On public holidays and fiestas, a para-sailing outfit sets up shop on the beach and sometimes there are bay tours on a catamaran.

If you’re not a water baby, but enjoy spending time on the beach anyway, Doña Fabiola offers horses for rent. Mompiche’s version of Mrs Doolittle, Fabiola takes very good care of her horses, as well as her ever-growing menagerie of dogs, cats, ducks, chickens, turkeys, geese and an abandoned calf named Anabel, which she hand-feeds thrice daily. The well-maintained horses are in lovely condition and can by hired by the hour or for a half- or full-day tour with a guide. There are two tour options: a leisurely walk along the beach and back, or a more adventurous tour through the mountains behind Mompiche, passing by lakes, through dense jungle trails and spotting plenty of wildlife. Depending on the fruit seasons, you can even pick and eat exotic tropical fruits directly from the trees.

You can also go with a Native Guide and hike along Mompiche’s fascinating river, learning along the way about all the exotic water plants, tropical fruit trees you didn’t even know existed, and the magical medicinal herbs the ancient Chachi tribes used and the modern locals currently use to cure their ills, also visiting the Secret Waterfall and taking dips in refreshing pools as you go. A hike along the river takes most of the day and is an education in Mompiche’s jungle flora and fauna in itself.

Miguel, who has lived in the mountains his whole life, takes half-day hiking tours through the jungle. With intimate knowledge of every tree, plant and flower, as well as all the species of wildlife in the area, hiking with him is truly an eye-opener. Sometimes he just stops mid-step. Using sign language, he tells you not to move. Then, straight away so as not to alarm you, he tells you to listen. And then he’ll point out the creature making the sounds he heard while you were noisily opening your water bottle. He will also protect you from any danger long before you even know it’s there. En route, he’ll cut coconuts out of the palm trees to drink and feed you with seeds and weeds, roots and shoots you did not even imagine were edible. Most of the trails are moderate to difficult. But even if you’re a novice hiker, and enjoy the solitude of the jungle, a trip into the wilds with Miguel is definitely for you!

If you are lucky, you can see families of Howler Monkeys in the trees along the path.

If you are lucky, you can see and hear families of Howler Monkeys calling from the jungle.

There are numerous hotels and restaurants of all grades and varieties, as well as kiosks selling freshly made fruit juices and milkshakes made from all the wonderful tropical fruits available in the area. The best “superfruit” juices to try are Papaya, Borojo, Jackfruit and Guanabana (Soursop). Bananas, naturally, are a staple food on the coast and fresh juice blended with a banana is more like a milkshake without the milk. Of course, just like everywhere there are reputable places to stay and eat – and some not so great. Some of the local delicacies not to miss are Corviche, Muchin, Encebollado, Encocado and Ceviche.

If too much action is not your scene, there are also some wonderful options that don’t cost a penny: a leisurely stroll north along the gloriously unpopulated white sand beach, followed by a spot of hammock-surfing and a siesta are also “activities” in which you can heartily participate while visiting Mompiche. If relaxation is your thing, shiatsu massage, relaxation massage and yoga are also possible in this tiny village.

A short hike southwards will take you to either the Cemetery on top of The Point, which has a spectacular view of the bay, or go further to Black Beach, a short cove covered in shimmering black titanium sand. Further south, the islands of Portete and Bolivar can be explored on foot (with a river crossing), or visit Jupiter by boat.

Towards evening, people-watching and sunset-gazing along Mompiche’s ever-changing beach-front promenade can also be extremely educational and entertaining, and also breath-takingly relaxing.

Sound good? Ask Footprints how to get to Mompiche.

Behold the Boobies

Blue-Footed Booby

Blue-Footed Booby

One of the most amazing and wonderful things about Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands is the wildlife. The rich diversity of creatures to be found in the air, on land and in the sea is mind blowing. One of my favorite air critters is the Blue-Footed Booby (Piquero de Patas Azules).

Some interesting facts about Blue-Footed Boobies:

  • Blue-footed boobies are normally found on arid, tropical, and subtropical islands off the Pacific coast of South America (especially in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador).
  • The Sulidae family includes ten species of long-winged seabirds including the genus Sula, which comprises six species of boobies. Scientific name: Sula nebouxii
  • Subsisting on a diet of fish, these large seabirds can live for around 17 years.
  • They have a wingspan of nearly five feet in length. They weigh 1.5kg.
  • The blue of the webbed feet comes from carotenoid pigments obtained from the diet.
  • Blue-footed boobies use their vibrant blue feet in a showy mating dance ritual.
  • Habitat loss and egg collecting currently threaten the species.
  • Blue-footed boobies have a large, but little known, colony on Mompiche Point.

The mating ritual of the Blue-Footed Booby is a spectacle to behold indeed. The synchronized movements of both birds and the male’s high-stepping strut to show off his blue feet to attract the female is comical and highly entertaining. The bluer the feet, the better. The smaller male birds kiss and peck and clack beaks and whistle, kicking up their feet to show the prospective partner how beautiful and fabulously blue they are. Flaunting his blue feet and spreading his wings, presenting his mate with building materials for the family home, ensures he won’t be left out in the cold.

Blue-Footed Boobies also use their large webbed feet to protect their young and keep them warm. Eggs are laid in nests on the ground. After the brood of one to three chicks hatches, both parents feed and care for their babies. Breeding pairs usually only stay together for about one year then, unable to resist the urge to go dancing once again with their bright blue-suede shoes, they go off and find a different mate. Galapagos is home to about half of the world’s breeding pairs.

Exceptional divers, Blue-Footed Boobies wrap their long wings around their streamlined bodies and plunge into the water like spears from as high as 80 feet (24 meters) to catch small fish. They also dive from sitting positions on the surface of the water. A large flock of diving boobies is an impressive sight as they circle and dive over large schools of anchovies and other small fish, popping up like corks to swallow the catch.

People travel from all over the world to come and see Blue-Footed Boobies in Ecuador – especially visiting Galapagos to find flocks of Sula nebouxii, and observe their weird and wonderful mating ritual. They can also be found on Isla de la Plata, and here in Mompiche.

Would you like to see a colony of Blue-Footed Boobies? Ask Footprints how.

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