Off The Beaten Track In Ecuador On An Indian Scout Sixty

Charmed by uncertainty riding dirt tracks into the mist.

Charmed by uncertainty while advancing into the mist, I knew curiosity and wonders await.
Charmed by uncertainty while advancing into the mist, I knew curiosity and wonders await.Janelle Kaz

The mist rolls in like a tsunami, blanketing everything in its path. What was once a small, hillside town in Southern Ecuador has now turned into an eerie vision of swirling white, with only the brightly colored edges of single-story buildings occasionally poking through. Initially, the idea was to ride out to head into civilization to help orient myself in order to find a protected forest, but the added element of fog now only makes navigation more difficult.

This roadside chapel was like a muted, strange beacon, a landmark at the crest of the mountain.
This roadside chapel was like a muted, strange beacon, a landmark at the crest of the mountain.Janelle Kaz

The destination is the Buenaventura Reserve, a narrow zone of tropical cloud forest on the otherwise seasonally dry west slope of the Andes. It is this humidity which comes from the Pacific Ocean, cooling and rising toward the mountains, and which envelops the road and my motorcycle now. Having just crossed the border into Ecuador from Peru, the only navigation available to me was offline and paper maps. Leaving the small town of Piñas, more certain of where I was heading, I ventured higher into the mountainous jungle.

It was like traveling through a cloud. With so much moisture and extremely low visibility, I was forced to ride with my visor open, leaving my face soaking wet. The plus side was the ability to lick my lips and receive a drink of water.

The road to the Umbrellabird Lodge. Darkness comes quickly in the forest; thankfully I made it to the reserve just as night fell.
The road to the Umbrellabird Lodge. Darkness comes quickly in the forest; thankfully I made it to the reserve just as night fell.Janelle Kaz

At the crest of the mountain there was a small, roadside chapel—a candlelit homage to the Virgin, a ghostly beacon in the mist. With my vision quite literally clouded, I kept thinking I may have missed the way, causing me to turn around a few times until I finally found the correct dirt path. The wet earth trail took me past small clusters of houses, marked by their homemade speed bumps made of earth, while I dodged chickens and waved at farmers.

The trees soon began to grow more dense as the double-track dirt path ascended the mountain.

Traveling to conservation areas and biological reserves means you’ll be straying away from the likes of civilization. An Indian Scout Sixty at Jocotoco’s Buenaventura Reserve.
Traveling to conservation areas and biological reserves means you’ll be straying away from the likes of civilization. An Indian Scout Sixty at Jocotoco’s Buenaventura Reserve.Janelle Kaz

I made it to the reserve just before nightfall. Darkness comes quick in the forest. With my bike parked right outside of the cozy wooden cabin, I slept easy, serenaded by a choir of insects I had never heard before.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I first saw the hordes of hummingbirds which visit the lodge’s deck throughout the day. Not only were there more hummingbirds than I’ve ever seen in my life, but also more variety in one place. Other welcomed avian guests were the yellow, black, and red toucan-like aracari, green honeycreepers, and chachalacas. Most curious were the coatis, the long-faced, raccoon-like mammals with flexible noses. These olfactory appendages are pretty funny to watch as they use them to poke around in the dirt like fingers, searching for tasty grubs. An entire troop of coatis frequent the lodge, even coming up onto the deck to see what you might be up to (or more often, what you might be eating).

A beautiful, winding dirt track leads you up into the protected reserve, with the trees becoming more dense as you ascend the mountain.
A beautiful, winding dirt track leads you up into the protected reserve, with the trees becoming more dense as you ascend the mountain.Janelle Kaz

Most incredibly, this reserve used to be entirely covered by grassland for cattle. The conservation organization, Jocotoco, regenerated the area through the cultivation of endemic and threatened species. The trees now offer an ideal habitat for epiphytes, plants that grow on the surface of other plants, deriving their moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and debris accumulating around them. This group includes the many species of orchids found in the area, now severely endangered by rampant deforestation. Since the Buenaventura Reserve is the only protected forest in the region, it is the only remaining habitat available for these intriguing orchids, as well as many kinds of wildlife, especially birds.

It is in fact a particular, and notably bizarre, bird which I have traveled through the mist to see. This is not just any bird, this is the long-wattled umbrellabird, a strange and otherworldly creature. This bird is totally black, with feathers covering its head like a vegas showgirl, and a long, retractable boa of black feathers draping from his chin which it inflates to impress the females.

The strange and bizarre long-wattled umbrellabird (Cephalopterus penduliger), which inflates its unique wattle to attract females.
The strange and bizarre long-wattled umbrellabird (Cephalopterus penduliger), which inflates its unique wattle to attract females.Photo by Michael Moens

The tricky part about traveling through the mist to see a particular bird or animal is that they are wild, free to roam or fly wherever they please. The birds are indifferent to your desires to view them and don’t usually hang around when a loud motorcycle approaches. However, within the Buenaventura Reserve exists what is known as a “lek,” a chosen gathering spot in the forest where the males show off for each other in hopes of impressing a female.

I like to think this Indian Scout Sixty of mine is like an animal that loves to go on adventures and is just as happy as I am to explore the trails it wasn’t especially made for.
I like to think this Indian Scout Sixty of mine is like an animal that loves to go on adventures and is just as happy as I am to explore the trails it wasn’t especially made for.Janelle Kaz

The lek is a short walk from the lodge and I felt incredibly privileged to see one, despite it not being “high season” for them there. If you imagine the strangest, most beautiful dinosaur, yet one that is elegantly small and timelessly black, that is how this regal bird appears to me. And better yet, the call it makes sounds like a foghorn in the distance. I especially enjoyed watching the showy male aggressively rip up plant material as if he just had it out—in a revengeful way—for those trees in particular.

Cloud forests are humid, high-altitude forests, and they're even rarer than rain forests. You can help support these delicate environments by staying in reserves and ecolodges that give back to the environment, such as the Umbrellabird Lodge.
Cloud forests are humid, high-altitude forests, and they're even rarer than rain forests. You can help support these delicate environments by staying in reserves and ecolodges that give back to the environment, such as the Umbrellabird Lodge.Janelle Kaz

After a couple of sunny days and rainy nights, departing the cloud forest was just as misty as when I arrived.

From the nearby town of Portovelo, there are some adventurous back roads you can take to stay off the beaten track. Dirt trails lead toward Cerro de Arcos, where a refugio (shelter) has been built into the rock-side so that weary travelers can sleep there for the night. Incredibly, just last year a new, very rare species of hummingbird was discovered in this area, known as the blue-throated hillstar. This brings the official Ecuadorian count of hummingbirds to 135; for contrast, we have just around six species of hummingbirds that reside all year in the USA, with another six or so as migrants.

There are plenty of dirt trails extending outward from the Umbrellabird Lodge, all of which take you into very different landscapes.
There are plenty of dirt trails extending outward from the Umbrellabird Lodge, all of which take you into very different landscapes.Janelle Kaz

From there you may want to head toward the legendary town of Vilcabamba, where perhaps you’ll stumble upon the fountain of youth. Known as the Valley of Longevity, rumors of a high frequency of centenarians makes this area special, drawing an interesting collection of those hoping to increase their life span.

The newly discovered and very rare blue-throated hillstar hummingbird exists only in the remote mountain range of the Cerro de Arcos. The Jocotoco foundation is currently working to save this precious hummingbird from extinction.
The newly discovered and very rare blue-throated hillstar hummingbird exists only in the remote mountain range of the Cerro de Arcos. The Jocotoco foundation is currently working to save this precious hummingbird from extinction.Photo by James Muchmore

If you’re looking for some great pavement, the road from Loja to Vilcabamba is an absolute delight, with smooth curves taking you from the highlands of Podocarpus National Park down into a drier, warmer valley, with epic mountain views along the way.

The small southern town of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, where many come to search for longevity.
The small southern town of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, where many come to search for longevity.Janelle Kaz

If you do take this route, you’d be remiss to not stop at the Sol del Venado brewery, located in San Pedro de Vilcabamba. The brewery is set amid stunning scenery, complete with views of mount Mandango, known as “the sleeping Inca,” where UFO sightings are common. The brewery itself is extraordinary because it is one of the very few in the world to make its own malt. It does so with barley grown in the northern region of Ecuador, in the fertile soil of the Imbabura volcano.

Sol del Venado, a well-crafted, truly artisanal beer which also funds the protection of the area’s primary forest, watersheds, and all the flora and fauna which reside in it.
Sol del Venado, a well-crafted, truly artisanal beer which also funds the protection of the area’s primary forest, watersheds, and all the flora and fauna which reside in it.Janelle Kaz

As a major bonus, proceeds from the brewery help fund conservation through the protection of a huge reserve, known as El Bosque, which extends into Podocarpus National Park. This reserve is home to a plethora of plants and animals, including spectacled bears.

Parked in front of the Sol del Venado brewery, where even the malt is made by hand from barley grown in the rich volcanic soil of northern Ecuador.
Parked in front of the Sol del Venado brewery, where even the malt is made by hand from barley grown in the rich volcanic soil of northern Ecuador.Janelle Kaz

If mystical mountain passes leading to cloud forests and bizarre birds, UFO sightings, and conservation-driven craft brewery aren’t enough to keep you intrigued about our beautiful planet while adventuring your motorcycle in Ecuador, I don’t know what will.