The San Antonio cloud forest: birds, orchids, and more


The San Antonio Reserve

Masdevallia rosea


The San Antonio forest reserve, owned by Luna Runtun Adventure Spa, is an 80 hectare conservation area which protects a prime example of high elevation cloud forest (elevation about 2400m to 3300m) in a magnificent wilderness setting. This moss-covered forest is rich in epiphytes (plants that grow on trees, such as orchids and bromeliads) because of frequent mists and high humidity, and the exuberant vegetaion supports a wide variet of birds and insects. Although this forest is relatively easy to access, it adjoins the vast and mostly inaccessible Sangay National Park, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This enormous protected area permits the survival of some of the Andes' most threatened species, including the Mountain Tapir and Spectacled Bear. Both these species can be found in the San Antonio forest reserve, a tribute to its wildness. A Mountain Tapir and its young were seen in the reserve recently, so there is a breeding population present in the area. A day or a week spent here will never be forgotten!





The flora and fauna of the reserve


Sobralia rosea grows along the access road

   The hike to the forest begins in the dramatic valley of the Rio Ulba, about 15 minutes' drive from Luna Runtun. The elevation at the start of the hike is about 2000m. There is a climb through pasture of 30 min to 1 hr depending on fitness; after the climb the trail reaches good forest and levels off at about 2300-2400m. Even during the climb it is possible to see birds such as the Inca and Turquoise Jays, Mountain and Subtropical Caciques, Black-chested Eagle, and a pair of the rare resident South American subspecies of the Peregrine Falcon, which nests on the cliffs visible to the west. Sometimes the rare translucent silvery-blue Morpho sulkowskii, the Andean Morpho butterfly, can be seen.

  Once inside the forest, anything is possible. The trail contours along the valley of the Rio Ulba, occasionally visible several hundred meters below. Forest birds in this section include the Masked Trogon, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Andean Guan, Emerald Toucanet, and numerous species of tanager. Plain-breasted and White-throated Hawks are possible, and occasionally a Black-and Chestnut Eagle makes an appearance. By paying close attention to the mixed flocks that pass through the forest, many species of spinetail and woodcreeper can be seen. In the undergrowth are several species of brush-finch, including the very rare White-rimmed Brush-Finch.

 The plants inside the forest include many species in the African Violet family (Gesneriaceae) and as the trail progresses further up the valley, orchids and other epiphytes such as bromeliads become increasingly common.  Not all orchids are epiphytes, and the ground along the trail is a good place to see Ponthieva maculata and various species of Elleanthus, Sobralia, Cranichis, and Epidendrum. In the trees it is possible to see Cyrtochilum macranthum and species of Odontoglossum, Maxillaria, Pleurothallis, and Stelis.

After about a half hour of level hiking, the trail passes through an old landslide with more open vegetation. Here is a good place to see the spectacular Golden-crowned Tanager and hummingbirds such as the Tourmaline Sunangel, Collared Inca, and Tyrian Metaltail. Orchids are especially abundant in this more open habitat, and include Ida (formerly Lycaste), Elleanthus, Maxillaria, Chrysocycnis, and many pleurothallids.

Ida (formerly Lycaste) hirtzii

After passing this open area, the forest becomes taller and the more delicate genera of orchids begin to appear. Among the most diverse is the genus Lepanthes, including L. muscula, L. transparens, L. imitator, L. jubata, L. gargantua, L. acarina, L. biloba, and others. Masdevallia rosea is one of the showiest of the orchids in this section. Other plants of interest on the side of the trail include Pinguicula, a carnivorous plant with shiny, sticky leaves. Birds of this forest include one of the most strikingly beautiful of Ecuador's birds, the Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan.

       The center of the reserve includes an old clearing where the previous owner built a prmitive cabin. It is here that the Mountain Tapir with young was most recently seen. This clearing is also a good place to see the Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Hooded and Grass-green Mountain-Tanagers, and other birds. At dawn it may be possible to see Oilbirds flying from the oriente to their nest cave on the west side of Tungurahua, the highest Oilbird cave in the world.

From this clearing it is possible to go down to the river below, where White-capped Dippers can be found and where Torrent Ducks may be possible. Alternatively it is possible to go upwards towards the paramo of Tungurahua, where additional birds such as the Rainbow-bearded Thornbill can be seen. Orchids of this high-elevation area include Odontoglossum species and Draconanthes aberrans.


Draconanthes aberrans

     This forest is rich in scenic, ornithological, and botanical wonders, including a spectacular white orchid new to science (it is in the process of being described scientifically). One of the most spectacular waterfalls in the Baños area can be reached by following the Rio Ulba upstream from the reserve. Another spectacular waterfall can be found higher upstream, though this requires an overnight stay. Each of these waterfalls is almost 200 m high!