Text by: Bernarda Carranza
Photos: Adrián Soria (AS) + Ñan
For biologist Adrián Soria, the true treasure of El Dorado — in the legendary Llanganates mountain ridge — is not Inca Atahualpa’s gold but the sheer biodiversity of the birds that inhabit it. In 2011, when they were seeking a name for an “eco-route” that would traverse the entire province of Tungurahua, Kuri Pishku — bird of gold, in Kichwa — seemed perfect.
– The Peruvian Racket-tail, a Kuripishku specialty(MC) –
The story behind Ecuador’s longest eco-route, ironically located in its smallest province, is (spoiler alert) one in which the communities (and not those in power) win.
The story behind Kuri Pishku begins with Adrián, who was previously, in his own words, “insane” about birds. He could be found in the deepest of forests from before dawn until past 6 in the evening, forgoing breakfast, lunch and dinner…
More than once he fell into a ditch or was just millimeters from falling off a cliff in search of a new bird to cross off his list. “The insanity finally ebbed,” he admits in his Tungurahua way (lengthening his syllables and shrugging his shoulders). “I realized that people can help preserve nature.”
– Adrián Soria shows our colleague Fernando Saa how to use a birding field guide –
Adrián moved from his native city of Patate to El Triunfo, a small town on the flanks of the Llanganates, where there’s no telephone signal but plenty of trails for spectacular birding. There he stayed at the house of a local school teacher, Anita Iglesias, who would later also become part of the project.
The group of passionate naturalists began to coalesce in 2010, when Adrián offered birding workshops in Patate for people from all walks of life and professions: ranchers, professors, biologists, artists, students… There was Alirio Rodríguez, a craftsman from Poatug; Ítalo Espín, an artist and member of the Jaramillo Páramos Association of Píllaro; Carlos Díaz, a birding guide in Baños; Adela Abril, then a university student; Sergio Niquinga, a guide of the Manteles area; Anita Iglesias …
The Llanganates Conservation Project began with them and then turned into the Patate Local Support Group (GAL), a growing community of bird enthusiasts that conducted surveys to understand how many species inhabit the area. This singular group of conservationists were 100% motivated. They even took part in parades in Patate with impressive bird-adorned floats to get their environmental message across.
“The idea of the eco-route was to take the pressure off the Llanganates National Park so that tourists could also visit the local towns and villages, get to know the people… promote local endeavors,” explains Italo Espín at a small village dive in Píllaro.
The group spotted and listed over 400 species of birds in the Tungurahua area. But their goal led them to look beyond the trails to a tourism project that could support small ventures.
In 2012, after having heard more than once that they were ‘ahead of the game’, they struck lucky. The Municipality of Patate agreed to finance part of the eco-route. The group also presented the idea to the broader birding community, and the project fitted perfectly within the overall strategy of positioning Ecuador as an ecotourism destination.
– Signage, check!… along the Kuri Pishku Eco-route –
The Kuri Pishku eco-route extends for over 132 km and begins (in the north) from Yambo Lake in Salcedo, which is, surprisingly to many people, the most bird-diverse in Ecuador’s central-Andean region. The route heads southeast towards Píllaro and detours to the town of San José de Poaló as it makes its way to the entrance of Llanganates National Park.
The route to Pisayambo at 3,400 masl is 12 km from the park entrance, but the beauty also lies in the surrounding lagoons that feed the Pisayambo hydroelectric plant: El Tambo, Rodeococha, Patojapina and Quillopacha.
– Pisayambo Lake –
Italo, who is also part of the Jaramillo Páramos Association, a group formed to eliminate livestock and combat deforestation within the park, offers his guiding services in both Píllaro and the Park.
Once in town, don’t miss “his” El Pacto Cultural Center (he calls it a museum) where he exhibits his artwork: masks created in papier maché for the popular Diablada celebrations in early January (his delicious craft liquor is also worth mentioning… and tasting, Agüita de Puerco).
Continuing towards Patate, along the Píllaro-Patate road, the route brings us to Simón Bolívar’s main square. Here, the warm climate of this “valley of eternal spring” welcomes and bird-song fills the air, making one forget the urban setting. Before continuing along, stop for breakfast at the family bakery, Pan del Valle (located next to the park). You can continue to Mundug, 9 km away.
The trail to the Mundug waterfall is 2.4 km – about 1.5 hours’ walking – where interesting species include Turquoise Jay, Black-backed Grosbeak and Sword-billed Hummingbird.
– Patate’s florid main square (AS) –
Continue along the eco-route towards the small town of Poatug (8 km from Patate) where you can visit talented Alirio Rodríguez. “Don Alirio”, as many know him, is a seventy-plus-year-old artisan with the vitality of a man half his age – perhaps thanks to all those years lost within the Llanganates mountain range, when treasure-seekers would hire him and his brother Segundo as guides and porters. In a squat adobe house, Don Alirio and his family welcome us into their backyard, which doubles as a carpenter’s workshop.
“I love the natural world, ecosystem and everything that lies within the Llanganates National Park,” smiles Don Alirio, a key player in the creation of the eco-route.
His love for nature not only manifests itself in his work as a guide, but also in his artwork. Surrounded by wooden bird sculptures, Alirio tells us how, a few years ago, he discovered he had an innate talent for wood-carving.
He doesn’t cut down any trees to create his pieces. He only collects wooden debris that landslides bring down from the high páramo. The birds he carves are those of the immediate area. “Adrián and the others encourage me,” he says. “They tell me that this work is art and that nobody else does it like me.”
Don Alirio is also a musician and a poet – a true Renaissance Man. He has always been ahead of his time and his people. While neighbors criticized him for not working in the fields like everyone else, he has tirelessly sought new ways to get ahead in the world with what he loves doing. Now, his pieces have even been sold in Japan and New Zealand and he has exhibited them at several international bird fairs.
Along the way, you can lunch at La Casta, located in the neighborhood of Quinlata. Its green and lush gardens offer, apart from some ambiance for the restaurant, pleasant overnight accommodations. Or you can make your way to nearby Hacienda Manteles, which, apart from being surrounded by prodigious nature and enjoying a privileged view of the Tungurahua Volcano, has also been an important contributor and promoter to the eco-route. “Over 7,800 hectares of primary forest are protected here,” claims María Clara Durán, the hacienda’s manager, “part of the Llanganates-Manteles-Baños Important Bird Area. The trails are filled with birds”.
Continuing along the route from Patate to Baños, we can stop by the town of El Triunfo. The ideal time to visit is October. El Triunfo boasts trails to waterfalls such as Cueva de las Golondrinas (Swallow’s Cave), Cueva de los Incas (Inca’s Cave) or destinations higher up the mountain, such as Cruz Loma.
Anita Iglesias lives here in El Triunfo. Her house became the headquarters of all eco-route operations early on in the project. The air we breathe is that of environmental awareness. She makes sure to teach her students to be true naturalists:
“Every year in my classroom I get them into conservation,” she tells us and proudly shows us supplies of small binoculars for her students. Anita adapted her home to host people arriving in El Triunfo to birdwatch. Her place is called “Un Modesto Paraíso” (A Modest Paradise).
– Beautiful mountains surround Baños (AS) –
The road from Patate to Baños allows you to reach the latter from above, past the Baños antennas and across a trail hemmed by trees. The town, considered the tourism mecca in Tungurahua, is known for its nightlife, backpacking tourism and adventure sports.
“As an ecologist, I cringe at the sight of people coming to a place like Baños only to enjoy sports that often impact nature negatively,” says local birding guide Carlos Díaz.
From the lookout from where you see the Manto de la Novia waterfall, a quick 2-km-trail can produce sightings of over 40 species. Carlos Díaz is, in fact, one of the few birding guides in Baños. Years ago, he found his passion working for the Luna Runtún hotel, where he met Paul Greenfield and Robert Ridgely, when they were working on The Birds of Ecuador. He then met Adrián in Patate and quickly became part of the project. He settled in Baños, where he tells us there are over 190 species of resident birds. He has recently opened Café Colibrí with his wife, a beautiful space wrapped in plants and flowers.
The Kuri Pishku eco-route ends in Río Negro to the east, on the provincial border with Pastaza. The route is remarkable for the marvelous variety of ecosystems it traverses, from páramo, cloud forest and the deeper subtropics of the Pastaza region. From its conception, Kuri Pishku sought to be an eco-route that, in addition to offering good birdwatching, would highlight the stories of the people who live in the wild, green spaces.
“Bird tourism is conservation’s greatest ally and causes the least impact on the environment. It’s very positive since it involves the local communities, makes them stake-holders in the projects, makes them care for their natural worlds, and attracts people, bird-lovers, to remote places,” says Carlos.
Adrián looks ahead to the future. He is staunch in his conviction that the Patate area, now an IBA (Important Bird Area) should also become an ACUS (Area of Conservation and Sustainable Use). “It’s time the government invested in conservation,” he says with the same passion and reassurance with which he recounted the story of how he began the “eco-route”, that long and winding road that, lest there be any doubt, is the true treasure of this legendary land.
Some of the birds one can encounter along the Kuripishku eco-route
Birds in the high-Andean zone include Andean Condor, various ducks including Yellow-billed Pintail, Andean & (the boreal migrant) Blue-winged teals, Andean (Ruddy-) Duck or the rare Andean Snipe; Carunculated Caracara, Aplomado Falcon, Blue-mantled Thornbill and Stout-billed Cinclodes are also special.
In more extensive temperate forest, look for flagship specialties like Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, the rare Crescent-faced Antpitta, Black-chested and the rare and local Masked mountain-tanagers, Golden-crowned Tanager and the unique Black-backed Bush-Tanager.
Remember to visit Llanganates National Park with a guide. Here is the contact information of some of the people we found along the way:
Italo Espín, Llanganates guide and Museo El Pacto: +(593 3) 287 4722
Anita Iglesias accommodations at El Triunfo-Patate: + (593 9) 9559 5492 / +(593 2) 577 7026
Abril Adventures bird and agricultural tourism operator in the area of Patate: + (593 9) 9598 2871
Carlos Díaz, Baños guide: + (593 9) 9318 4936
Don Alirio Rodríguez, Wood-carving workshop in Potuag, Patate + (593 9) 6914 3780
La Casta: (+593 3) 287 0364
Hacienda Manteles: (+593 2) 254 9559 / (+593 9) 8821 909