Monday, 24 December 2007

Cloud Forest

Half an hour in the back of a truck and 600m of vertical ascent brought us out on the top of the hillside that overlooks the Black Sheep Inn. From there it was just a short walk under the watchful eye of our young guide Rodrigo, to reach the entrance to the cloud forest.

The landscape at the crown of the hill is a good example of the local high altitude Parámo. In many ways it reminded me of Dartmoor or the Quantocks, the low growing grasses punctuated by pine and low growing shrubs.

As we dropped down off the far side of the hill we were almost immediately enveloped by light cloud. The damp mist still allowed a good 50m or so of visibility and rendered the forest with a magical tranquility. The old growth forest was dripping with moss and lichen, pendulous tendrils reached for the floor, obstructing our path. Every so often the shrill call of an iridescent blue bird would cut through the silence. At each turn of the path we came across a different orchid, nestled into the damp bed of moss at the crux of a branch or covering a fallen log. For the most part, the orchids were out of season and the only evidence of flowers were long bare stems. However, we were lucky enough to see three separate orchids in flower, most of which seem to have been Oncidiums, although one of them may have been an Odontoglossum (anyone who can identify them, I’d be interested to know).

After a brief stop for lunch we began our climb to the top of the hill. Unlike yesterday, the walk was more manageable; it looks like the acclimatisation is beginning to pay dividends. As we began our descent on the far side of the hill, the clouds began to clear and we were treated to another breathtaking panoramic view of the gorge and plateau. The cloud level seemed a little higher today and more broken, so the fields were positively glowing.

Halfway down the descent we came across an old lady milking her three cows. As we said hello, she beckoned us down for a taste of the milk. After decanting a pint or so of the warm, frothy milk into a metal container she intimated to me to have a taste. Slightly tentatively, I raised the bowl to my mouth and took a gulp or two. Although deliciously warm and creamy, I thought I’d adopt a cautious approach and hand it back. She wasn’t having any of it! A pint and a half, some small unidentified floating bits (grass I hope) and a milk moustache later I handed back the bowl. It managed to illicit a toothless grin that was more than enough reward.

It’s strange to think that it’s Christmas tomorrow, although we hear many ‘Feliz Navidads’ when we are out walking, it just seems too warm and a long way from home, family and friends. Tomorrow we will take a day off from hiking and relax around the lodge, playing games and gorging ourselves on banana is Christmas after all!

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