First thing's first, I need to introduce our traveling companions and good friends from the Jatun Sacha Foundation. Dr. Ivan Morillo is a biology professor at La Universidad de Quito, and is the director of the Jatun Sacha Foundation- he is an amazing and friendly man who has opened up his life, his reserves, and his home to us. We have had many enjoyable hours with him, and I’m sure there will be many more to come. Also traveling with us and helping us immensely is Geovanna or as she prefers to be called Geovy (pronounced "Yo-vee"), she has been the Zoo’s liason at Jatun Sacha for quite some time
. She is a real pleasure to be around and her sense of passion for Jatun Sacha and these reserves is unmistakable, it is incredible and awe-inspiring to see the passion and the work she puts into this while really expecting nothing in return. She loves her country and the biodiversity it holds and just wants to help save and preserve it. The world needs more people like Geovy. The other member of our immediate party is David (pronounced “Da-veed”), he is Ivan’s nephew and our driver for most of the way to the reserve. David is very genuine and fun. He has been helpful in more ways than one, and has gotten quite used to having our backs in sticky situations. We’ve had a really good time getting to know him over the past few days
We left Quito around 8am on Sunday and ran into some problems almost immediately. To leave Quito in the direction of Bilsa you have to travel clear across the city from where we are staying, and unfortunately there was a marathon going on downtown-which caused us to have to divert our path and instead circle around the entire city. This added an extra hour or so of driving and did I mention traffic in Quito is pretty intense all day long? Add a marathon to that and you have some annoying setbacks. When we finally made it out of the city the nearest major city, of which the name escapes me at the moment, was having a parade. Of course the parade took up the majority of the street all throughout the city! More delays, yes please! About the time we make it through that little hurdle, we find ourselves ready for lunch. We stopped at a Cevicheria in Quininde, which had some of the best fish I’ve had in a long time (Pesco apanado, or fried fish). After lunch we decided to explore the city for a bit, mainly in search of botas (boots) for the muddy trails of Bilsa. We found our boots in no time and were finally able to continue
! Quininde is the nearest major city to Bilsa, but still a LONG way from the reserve. It took another hour or so to reach the rocky trail that extends to La Y de la Laguna-which means exactly what it sounds like “The “Y” of the Lake.” Basically this town is built on a fork in the road, to the right you have Laguna De Cube and to the left you have Bilsa. All of these reserves are encompassed by Mache Chindul which is in itself another protected area of forest.The road to La Y was very rocky and muddy at most points. Usually Jatun Sacha uses the truck that we broke the night before to traverse this terrain, because it's a lot higher off of the ground. Since that was out we had to use another car and it was much lower to the ground... which caused us to have to stop and get out many times while David tried to power through. About halfway through the trail we came to a bridge, and on that bridge was a truckload of passengers that had broken down on said bridge... With no way around them we had to sit and wait for about an hour while they fixed their truck issues.After that it was more stopping, going, stopping, going... but we finally made it to La Y around 5:30pm.
We waited in the Y for an hour or two for our ride to Bilsa. The ride to Bilsa is one of overwhelming and humbling intensity. During the rainy season (now) there is a massive truck owned and operated by this crazy, and hilarious fellow named Victor
. Ivan, the director of Jatun Sacha, is convinced that Victor made a pact with the devil and that’s the only reason he is still alive today! If you met Victor you would instantly understand what I’m talking about, hopefully the videos and pictures will do justice. The last time I came to Bilsa we rode mules for the entire way, which took about five hours, so I was thinking that this would surely be a piece of cake!
From the Y it takes about 3-4 more hours to reach Bilsa. It is one singular, excessively muddy road that seems to go on, and on and on… and on. Since it rains almost constantly the road is very wet, the mud is about 2-3ft deep and solid in VERY FEW PLACES. Luckily the views are beautiful, but unlucky for us our trek to Bilsa was in the dark. All of our delays caused us to lose the comfort and advantage of daylight. Victor goes back and forth between Bilsa and The “Y” all day long, so we all had great faith in his abilities to get us to Bilsa safely, but within minutes of loading up the truck (with 600 pounds or so of rice, corn, and fruit, as well as 15 large cans of propane, and about 10 or so passengers and all of their bags) and heading out on our trek we began to doubt his sanity and his skills. He drives the truck very fast and very hard, and since he drives this road all day it is very worn down with the weight of his truck. The tire tracks he makes on the road extend down very deep in most parts, which makes the journey even more bumpy
. I did mention that we are not riding in the cab of the truck, right? You have to hold on very tight for risk of being thrown overboard, there are certain points on the road where the truck is so tilted that you can touch the ground with an outstretched hand. If that’s not enough excitement, the road goes through a mountain and is surrounded by steep cliffs on both sides! Hopefully now that I’ve painted an in depth picture of all of this you can vividly imagine our experience. All of this being in the dark makes you feel like you are going to fly off to your death at any moment. After about 30 minutes of this it became completely dark and Victor’s headlights weren’t working… so he was seeing everything in front if him only with the light from Stacey’s headlamp, to make matters worse it started to rain pretty hard. After what felt like forever he stopped and hit the lights for a bit and managed to get them up and running. The next hour included several times of having to get out of the truck and walk because the road go too intense for us to be in the back, but as soon as we all stepped out Victor managed to charge up the road, and we would then hop back in.
Eventually we came to a small wooden bridge, surely too small and fragile for Victor to fit this massive truck on. We all got out, grabbed our packs and said our goodbyes, it was now time to walk the rest of the way to Bilsa. We get a good five minutes up the road and all of the sudden we hear this loud roar, it sounded like a dinosaur for a split second, the earth was rumbling beneath the tremor of this massive force. Sure enough, the closer it gets the sooner we realize…It’s Victor. He has charged over the bridge and wants to take us all on another ride. We get back into the truck and go for another five minutes or so and we are finally at a very small village where the truck can no longer progress forward
. In the dry season it’s possible for the truck to make it all the way to the reserve, but with the condition the roads are in at this point there is just no way. Now we have a 1.5-2 hour walk ahead of us, all in very deep and unforgiving mud (still in the dark!). The trail goes up and down and up and down, there was a lot of getting stuck and slipping and sliding- My boot got stuck at least twice on the way down there and my feet just came flying out and landing in the mud. For gringos we all did pretty well, but it is certainly jaw-dropping to see the natives (who were of course guiding us in our dark peril) just fly up and down these roads like it’s nothing. They all have 6 pack abs by the way and weigh next to nothing. After a grueling two hours we finally make it to the reserve. We meet with the director of operations and eat some much needed dinner. Then it’s off to bed, as we have a day full of hiking trails and finding animals the next day.
I am writing this now after returning from the Bilsa Bio Reserve, and I'm trying very hard to compose my thoughts and eloquently release the experiences of the past two days onto "paper." I apologize if this is too lengthy, but there's just so much story to tell! I will start from the beginning…