Mule-Back Riding and Howler-Monkey Watching

It started out one morning when I decided to explore the bird life around Puerto López. After bypassing lots of beach getaways and whale-watching boats, I finally found a travel agency which offered a guided birding tour of San Sebastián, the humid forest within Machalilla National Park.

The next morning, I waited at corner at 6:00am. A man named Joel picked me up on his motorized scooter. We had been driving through the warm dawn on dusty back-roads for less than half an hour when we arrived at Rio Blanco, a community within the commune of El Pital. The whole town was populated by thirty families, only around 250 people. I met my birding guide, a middle-aged man named Gastón. We were served breakfast in his house by his mother: queso fresco sandwiches, a fried egg, tea of hierba luisa, and tomate de árbol smoothies.

Garzon's house in Rio Blanco where we ate breakfast.

Garzon and his mother in the kitchen, as seen from the dining room table.

Then we set out on our horses: mine, a small red mare named Amelia, and Gastón's, a stubborn brown mule named Yomayra. Pretty soon we had to switch mounts because my little mare was actually more stubborn than Gastón's mule!

Amelia, my stubborn-as-a-mule horse.

We rode up the Bola de Oro trail through bamboo and dry moss. We crossed a stream where I watched a beautiful hummingbird hover and dip its bill underwater multiple times to drink. We paused at a crumbling wooden hut where tourists can camp and eventually reached the summit where we could see all the way to the ocean from a two-story wooden mirador, or lookout.

The view from the mirador.

Gaston and I took a timer-selfie on the lookout platform.

We heard the incessant hooting of howler monkies, and Gastón led the way on foot down a steep wooded slope towards the rucous. Then, there he was: a big, black, furry male howler, grunting to the all the world. Occasionally a distant troop across the valley would return his howls.

We sat and photographed for fifteen minutes, and we were about to turn back when a female with her baby on her back climbed into view. It was incredible!

Mother and baby howler.

By searching on the internet, I determined that these guys were probably Ecuadorian Mantled Howlers, Alouatte palliata aequatorialis.

We scrambled back up the cliff and continued on the longest horseback ride of my life. Gastón rode behind me, cracking a rope and grunting "mula" over and over to make Yomayra move. It detracted from the peacefulness of the experience, and by the time we started our descent, my right knee was aching from the short stirrups. I rode with my feet loose, except when my mule decided to gallop through the dips or when I feared for my life on the long, steep downhill stretches.

This spiny walking stick was trying to camouflage on my mule's saddle.

When we finally returned to the village of Rio Blanco, Gastón's mother had prepared a delicious lunch of sopa de yuca y pollo (cassava and chicken soup), seco de pollo (sauteed chicken), limonada (lemonade), arroz (rice) and papaya.

I asked if I could come back for a birding tour on foot someday, and I was immediately invited to spend the night. Ecuadorians are such generous hosts. We made plans for a night in the future when I would return so Gastón and I could start our birding walk before dawn.

I rode back to Puerto López on the back of another motor scooter, this time with Gastón's brother. The warm, overcast skies promised rain. Right now we are in the middle of the wet season, but it has rained only twice. The drought has killed the corn and left the earth dusty and brown, so the first raindrops were very welcome.

As we rode, I noticed a big male green iguana in the desert scrub. We pulled over to take photos of him and his pregnant bride.

Handsome in green and black.

The pregnant female was a bit more shy.

I returned the next day for an overnight, but that is a tale for another day...