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Rappelling the cascades

Scaling waterfalls at La Hesperia

semi-overcast 24 °C

Fridays at La Hesperia are either hike days or days free for weekend travel. Every second friday, we hike one of the reserves many trails. These hikes vary in length and difficulty.
The reserve ascends in altitude from 1,100 metres to 2,040, which takes in three ecological environments: pre-montane evergreen, low montane and high montane (cloud forest). As you can imagine, this change in altitude means some pretty steep trails, and as there is a river running through the reserve, it also results in some fairly significant waterfalls.
One friday, Raul suggested the 'rappelling hike'. The vote (including mine) went in favour of this adventurous sounding expedition, and we were advised to wear our wellies and not to bring backpacks, even small ones, as they would get entangled with the rappelling harness. We set out at the usual time of 8.30am; there were five cascades to descend and the hike would take about 4 hours.
After walking for half an hour or so, Raul set up the rope beside a waterfall of some 25 ft. in depth - we weren´t actually rappelling through the water, just down the face of the rock close to the fall. It took some manoeuvering to get the hang, so to speak, of the harness, but it was very safe, with Raul taking it on and off each volunteer, and Ceri, our very tall, longterm volunteer, waiting below in case he needed to catch any falling bodies...
I loved it! The adrenelin was pumping, and the way the harness fitted around the torso made me feel well in control. We had to place our feet very carefully and control the speed of the descent by letting the rope out slowly or quickly. It wasn´t too long before I felt comfortable with the technique and really began to enjoy myself. The only regret was that the falls weren´t higher - I think the deepest one was around 35 feet. I can see how absailing has its attractions...

Some of the rock descents were only 15 feet or so, and for these we used a simple knotted rope without a harness. This was a little scary at first, but there were footholds and our arms had become pretty strong from weeks of tough labour on the reserve. We also had to scale UP rock faces - an unexpected element of the morning´s hike. Raul appeared to run up the bare face of the rock without any support whatsoever, tied the rope to a tree or around a rock at the top, and up we went towards his waiting hands! No harness here either, but Ceri was below, shoving us up as far as his long arms would allow, and the knots, which were at regular intervals on the rope, were perfect aids in our ascent, along with the natural footholds on the rockface. It had to be said that wellies were not the best footwear here, but we needed them for the river walking parts of the hike. Ceri was happy, as he said it was the only opportunity he got to feel everyone´s ass...
But, however enjoyable the rappelling itself was, the highlight of the hike for me was something completely different, which we were lucky enough to see: halfway down the biggest cascade, Raul spotted an alcove in the cliff-face opposite. He pointed it out to us, and with enormous excitement we realised that the dinosaur-sized branches which were carefully placed on the ledge were in fact a nest: it was the nest of a barred hawk! It was very hard to get a good photo of the baleful chick, sitting in solitary splendour on its giant structure, but we tried with our zooms..
The noise of the crashing water was so great that we hardly heard another sound - the anxious screams of the parents overhead, as they watched this strange and threatening procession of aliens descending past their impassive fluffball, who seemed less put out than they.
We moved on as quickly as we could, but even so, getting 14 people down the fall took an hour, and the parents were very agitated. Raul was thrilled because he said it was the first time a chick had been located on the reserve with both parents evident. This would go down in La Hesperia wildlife records.
Raul, happy with his discovery, takes a well-earned rest after his morning's exertions

Posted by Eleniki 12:50 Archived in Ecuador Tagged volunteer Comments (0)


From the plant to the cup

sunny 26 °C

P1010268.jpgCoffee beans, unripe

Halfway up the steep cobbled path to La Hesperia from the village of La Esperie on the Santo Domingo highway, a small coffee plantation nestles beneath the graceful shade of some banana trees.

The banana trees produce an extraordinary 'flower' along with the fruit

The enormous leathery banana leaves wave gently above the coffee plants like the swaying ears of adult elephants protecting their young. It´s a good combination.


I had never seen coffee growing before, so I was happy when one of the daily jobs allotted after breakfast was to pick the dark red, ripe berries, bring them up to the hacienda and harvest the fresh beans inside.
P1010267.jpgCoffee beans ripening

The beans are very pale and wrapped in a thin protective membrane, or 'cascara', like the skin of a peanut once it has been shelled. The beans, in their protective layers, are left for up to a week to dry in the sun. If there´s a lot of rain, this can take longer. We picked some cocoa beans as well, which would be made into chocolate at a later stage.
P1000799.jpgCocoa beans

When the time came to de-husk and roast the coffee beans, it was written up as one of the day´s jobs and I was quick to volunteer. What a delight! A whole morning ahead of me, hand-processing our own coffee!

The job of de-husking was fiddly and delicate. Lola, our cook and wife of Raul, the head worker on the reserve, showed me how to use an antiquated mill, or grinder; the kind of contraption I remember my grandmother using to make marmalade.
It was difficult to get the measure of - if the wings were too tight, I crushed the precious beans prematurely; if they were too loose, it was completely ineffective, allowing the beans through, still in their thin coats. I ended up finishing the job with my hands and would probably have been better off doing it this way from the outset. I blew the husks off as they came away, eventually leaving me with a bowl of fresh, pale coffee beans.
P1000800.jpgCoffee bean husks
P1000801.jpgCoffee beans, fresh

Now came the enjoyable part. I poured the beans into a dry pan and 'toasted' them for over an hour on our ancient outdoor gas stove. The aroma was divine and it was a pleasure to watch the beans slowly darkening to a familiar and unmistakeable rich shade of brown.
Every so often, Lolita would come out to check on me, as it would surely have been a shame to have the tiny but valuable crop burnt to ashes. After some seventy minutes, she pronounced the process 'termine' and the coffee 'listo'.

I admit to a certain small amount of pride at breakfast the following morning when 'my' coffee was served up in a steaming pot. Ah, the small pleasures of life...

Posted by Eleniki 11:58 Archived in Ecuador Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Tropical Montane Cloud Forest

Here comes the science bit...

-17 °C

If any of my friends, family or colleagues ever wonder in passing what I am up to at any given moment between now and the middle of November, the likelihood is that I am crunching my way through a forest track, slithering down a hazardous mountain path, or cutting grass in a verdant cloud pasture for the farm goats or horses. We live literally all of our time outdoors here in this stunning landscape of no seasons.
The way it goes is, if the sun is out, it's hot, and if the clouds are down, it's raining. But always balmy at La Hesperia. Only in the higher altitude of Quito, and other locations throughout the Andes, is it cold. The lower you get, the warmer the climate. And with climate change, nothing is forecastable. It's been raining here even though it's still the dry season (until November) and who knows, it may be dry during December. We had an earth tremor last week. I was in bed when the volunteer house started to shake. It lasted several minutes. Your mind goes through all sorts of explanations as to why your bed is moving- and an earth tremor is way down the list. But that's what it was. Part of everyday life here.

With all this in mind, I thought I might put down some facts about this beautiful and unpredicable country and its cloud forests. The problems which exist in Ecuador, environmental and social-political, I will write about another time soon.
Ecuador straddles the northern and southern hemisphere. Bordering Columbia, Peru and the Pacific ocean, it covers Amazon, highland, coast and the Galapagos Islands. Ecuador is a multiethnic, multicultural nation with a population of 13 million, comprising 14 indigenous groups. It is one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world, its extreme geographical and climatic variations facilitating the evolution of thousands of species of flora and fauna.
Eduador has 10% of the world's plant species (25,000 species of trees); c.8% of the world's animals and 18% of the planet's birds (c.1,640 bird species, 4,500 species of butterfly, 350 species of reptiles, 375 species of amphibeans, 1,550 species of mammals, 800 species of fresh water fish and 450 of salt water fish). The country has 46 ecosystems, from sea level to 6,400 metres in a total area of 256,370 km sq. Despite its tiny size, Ecuador is home to rain forest, cloud forest, mountains, islands, deserts, valleys and snow-capped volcanos.
La Hesperia is in the western range of the Andes at an altitude of 1,100 to 2,040 metres: 814 hectares in the middle of the Rio Toachi - Chiriboaga, an IBA (important bird area) and is part of two important bio-regions: the tropical Andes and the Choco Darien of Western Ecuador, one of the top five bio-diverse hotspots on earth.
La Hesperia contains three types of forest: pre-montane evergreen, low montane and high montane (cloud forest). The reserve is home to 287 species of birds; 40 mammal species; 63 butterfly genera; and a huge diversity of epiphyte plants. Several species of endangered trees are reproduced in the nursery here. In Tropical Montane Cloud Forest (TMCF) clouds cover the vegetation most of the year round, enabling it to capture moisture (horizontal precipitation). This phenomenon allows the forest to flourish even in the dry season.
In TMCFs and their surrounding area, horizontal rain provides up to 50% of the water for the hydrological cycle that humans, animals and vegetation depend on. Ecuador's TMCF has an altitude range of 1,400-3,500m. Its enveloping cloud reduces solar radiation and vapour deficit, wetting the canopy and suppressing evatranspiration. TMCF also conserves water by consuming it over a long period of time. This results in a high proportion of epiphytes (bromelias, orchids, lichens, mosses, fungi and filmy ferns) and a corresponding reduction of woody climbers.
Reasons to preserve TMCFs:

  • Their biodiversity is comparible to tropical rainforest, but cloud forest has not received equal public attention.
  • Endemism: TMCF has a high level of endemic species; ie, species found only in specific ecosystems, which therefore do not occur anywhere else in the world.
  • Climate change: special characteristics of TMCFs make them excellent sites for monitoring the impact of global climate and air quality change.
  • Ecological sensitivity: TMCFs are highly susceptible to disturbance; if their ecosystem is disturbed, it takes longer for them to be restored than lower altitude forests.
  • High deforestation and habitat loss: TMCFs are disappearing at the alarming rate of 1.1% per year, which is 0.3% higher even than rainforest loss.
  • Insufficient research: we do not know half of the benefits of TMCFs. However, we do know that they inhibit erosion and that horizontal precipitation is an important part of the hydrological cycle.

Current threats to TMCFs:

  • Expansion of subsistance agriculture by local people.
  • Wood harvesting for fuel.
  • Commerical logging.
  • Hunting.
  • Introduction of non-TMCF species.
  • Tourism and recreation.
  • Telephonic/media station construction.
  • Unlawful development.

Much of Ecuador's forests are in need of preservation and restoration. 22% of the national territory is under governmental protection through the national parks and reserves programme. There is more forest in private reserves covering another 78,000 hectares or so, but much of this needs better monitoring and protection. Public and private sectors need to be incorporated in more diverse endeavors. The government alone cannot do it - it must be a shared responsibility.

La Hesperia's goals:

  • To preserve the biodiversity of TMCF.
  • to protect the local watersheds and existing forest through reforestation; monitoring human impact; and environmental education.
  • to protect the existing forest.
  • To maintain the reserve as an important bird area.
  • To work toward sustainable development.
  • To create community development programmes.
  • To restore degraded areas both inside and outside the reserve.
  • To educate the public in conservation and ecologicy.
  • Research
  • To share the reserve with locals, volunteers, research students and visitors.


La Hesperia is also striving to become a model of integrated farming where agripractice works with forest preservation. It also seeks to promote environmentally friendly economic activities which also benefit locals.

Posted by Eleniki 14:44 Archived in Ecuador Tagged volunteer Comments (1)

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