Antisana Reserve: November 14-15, 2009

The months of September through December are usually cold and wet in the highlands, but this year the weather has been shockingly clear and sunny. Day after day the storm clouds fail to appear in the afternoon, and the sun blazes on as the air pollution in Quito builds to insupportable levels. The paucity of precipitation has created an energy crisis in Ecuador, which runs primarily on hydroelectric power and purchases electricity from neighboring Peru and Colombia. Economically and politically, then, these are challenging times for this modest Andean country. For the intrepid adventurer, though, the extended summer has allowed for extensive exploration in the highlands, where the paramo is unseasonably dry and navigable.

My friend Mark Thurber, author of Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador, recently proposed a weekend trip into Antisana Reserve, where we were to trek in to the base of a little-climbed peak called Plaza de Armas, camp, summit the following morning, and then hike back to El Tambo, a hamlet off the road near Papallacta Pass. Normally, this would be a disastrous time for such a trip, but this year it made perfect sense as Antisana has been visible from Quito throughout the day these last few weeks. The reserve is, of course, the last refuge of the Andean Condor in Ecuador, and our party had the most awesome condor sighting imaginable an hour short of our campsite. Spread wide along a steep ridge, we watched dumbstruck as a juvenile and two adult Andean Condors made pass after pass in the air just over our heads. Indeed, Ron Mustain, the senior member of our group, claimed he was close enough to jump on the back of one as it soared by right underneath where he was standing.

Camping out in the paramo is always a risky endeavor as temperatures regularly drop below freezing at night and thunderstorms are not uncommon. Fortunately, the skies continued to be clear as we settled around our campfire and listened to the Andean Snipes calling around us in the growing darkness. The ground was covered in frost the following morning when Mark, Louis, and I set out to ascend the rocky 4500m peak rising from our campsite. Hustling up a long and scenic ridge, we took in great views of Variable Hawks and Carunculated Caracaras as they rode the early morning thermals. Nearing the top, we startled a pair of Rufous-Bellied Seedsnipes that arched magnificently in flight ahead of us, landing just at the base of the summit pyramid. Approaching cautiously, I managed to get close enough to capture their gorgeous plumage in a photograph before they took to the air again, this time diving far below us and calling boisterously all the way.

The hike back to civilization was just as fine as on the way in, if a little less inspiring. Who would want to leave such a spectacular scene with all of Ecuador's famous peaks forming a dramatic background for such hallowed and iconic wildlife? The birds were only part of the spectacle, too, as White-Tailed Deer were sighted on multiple occasions; our guide and horse driver even claimed to have startled a Spectacled Bear as we were admiring the condors on the previous afternoon. Passing by the same ridge on the way back, we spotted a pair of condors again, probably the same birds as before, swooping in for a tight landing on a huge, exposed cliff far across the gorge from us. With the sun high in the sky and the mighty peak of Antisana in the background, we could have watched for hours.

Notable birds seen: Andean Condor, Aplomado Falcon, Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagle, Carunculated Caracara, Variable Caracara, Andean Snipe, Rufous-Bellied Seedsnipe, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Blue-Mantled Thornbill, Glowing Puffleg, Many-Striped Canastero, Stout-Billed Cinclodes, Tawny Antpitta, Paramo Ground-Tyrant, Brown-Backed Chat-Tyrant, Red-Crested Cotinga, Grass Wren, Black-Backed Bush-Tanager.
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