Peer through the layers of green.  So many textures.  So many species in the same square foot.  
Pause.  So many sounds: the symphony of birds, the splashing of the water over rocks.  
Breathe.  So many smells mingling together to form a rich, complex, earthy odor.  
Water, water, everywhere.  
Sit silently aside the crystal clear stream, or among the forest layers, steadying your breath with the drip, drip, drip.  

This is the Cloud Forest of Ecuador.


Since I arrived in Ecuador, I’ve been hearing about the Intag Valley.  I’ve been reading about this valley, and asking others about its sights.  Finally, last weekend, my friend Ava and I grabbed three days to scratch the surface of this magical place.

Set in the high mountain Andes at about 6,000 feet in a Cloud Forest, the Intag Valley is home to about 17,000 people, mostly working as subsistence farmers, or promoting a little tourism to protect this special place.  After Googling about Cloud Forests, and the Intag Valley, I learned the following from a few different sources:

Cloud Forest: a wet tropical mountain forest at an altitude usually between 3000 and 8000 feet (1000 and 2500 meters) that is characterized by a profusion of epiphytes and the presence of clouds, even in the dry season.

According to the United Nation’s World Conservation Center, cloud forests comprise of only 2.5% of the world’s tropical forests, and approximately 25% of those are found in the Andean region (i.e. Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia).  The cloud forests of the Intag River Valley are at the confluence of two of the world’s hottest of the biological hotspots.  One of these hotspots, the Tropical Andes Hotspot, is considered the single richest hotspot on the planet, and it contains approximately 15-17% of the world’s plant species and nearly 20% of its bird diversity.  For these reasons, Ecuadorian cloud forests are considered to be on top of the list of threatened ecosystems.

And it’s only a few hours from my house!

The first part of the adventure was braving the bus ride down, down, down into the valley.  The road was so steep and curvy that the driver had to pull over to let people off to puke.  Not me!  (Here’s my promotional plug for my wonderful stomach-settling PSI Wrist Bands.  I wear them everywhere I travel, and I never get motion sick!)  

With little more than these directions: “get off the bus at the yellow church and walk up the dirt road for an hour,” we ventured into the agricultural valley of Santa Rosa and into the cloud forest.

Along the road, we spotted banana and coffee plantations and a wide variety of other plants.  
Even though we were at a lower elevation, it was surprisingly cold in the forest.
At last, our cabin came into view, and our wonderful host welcomed us into this sweet little room in the treetops. 

The hammock overlooking the forest was the best of all.  Cuddled in a wool blanket, I relaxed out here much of the night listening to the nocturnal sounds of the forest.

In the morning, the cacophony was earsplitting.  Sleeping in this cabin was like being in a tree-house.  The windows are only screens and the sounds of the birds infiltrate the air. 
Time to hike!  It’s was a beautiful day!

In the United States, we spend so much money on proper hiking boots.  Here, they just walk in their Wellies.  High rubber Wellington boots are the norm and are passed out to the tourists.  They are a must as you wade across the streams, navigate a trail of deep, soggy mud and step over logs well into their state of decomposition.  

We hired a guide, Roberto, to take us deep into a primary forest of old growth trees.  Without his machete, we never would have found the quickly overgrowing trail. 
With his guiding, Roberto helped us to understand and appreciate the cloud forest.  We learned a lot about the adaptation of plants and animals in this unique environment. 

           Centipedes, salamanders, butterflies, a toucan, a Cock-of-the-Rock bird and a really cool weasel-like mammal called Cabeza de la Mate were the highlights of the day. 
Epiphytes, Orchids and Bromelides.  
Moss, Lichen and Fungus.  
Strangulating vines, and the damp earthy smell 
of a deep, wet, forest. 
A native fig tree, at about 500 years old. 
We also learned about how this forest is under threat from international mining companies looking for gold and copper.  The local people have been fighting the destruction of their valley for years, but the Ecuadorian government is currently selling off the mining rights to reap the profits.
So, so, sad.
This tree is called a Blood, or Sangre Tree because when he cut into it with his machete, a red liquid seeped out.  This liquid is well known to heal cuts or wounds,
as well as work as a great sun block.

About 5 hours later, wet and muddy, we emerged into the clearing back at our cabin.  A shower, a glass of wine, a little scrabble game, and a wonderful fish dinner from a trout farm down the road rounded out this perfect day.

The next morning, as we turned down the path and headed for home, I looked back for a final glimpse at this reserve.  The forest seemed to swallow up the cabins and the view.  But I didn’t mind.  I know I’ll be back to enjoy the wonders of the Intag Valley again and again.