Gary and Dona's, and Ram and Dawn's, and Joe and Esther's

Amazing Birding Trip to Ecuador

March 2011

Part 1: Getting There

When Dona and I were in Honduras in early 2010, we had a great time looking for some colorful tropical birds. We sent a postcard to Dona's nephew Ram with a list of some of the birds we had seen and a note saying "Nyah, Nyah, Nyah Nyah-Nyah," since we knew Ram was an avid birder. He sent us a note back saying maybe we should take a trip together.

We told him that sounded like a fun idea, and in late 2009 Ram sent us a note saying he had reservations for six of us at a variety of birding hotspots in northern Ecuador. It would be he and his girlfriend, Dawn, and his good friend and birding buddy Joe and his girlfriend Esther who were from New Jersey. We scraped the savings barrel, made plane reservations, and started practicing our Spanish.

We also checked our passports. Since we had recently been to Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize, we were in pretty good shape. My passport expired in July, 2011, so I thought maybe I should renew it. I took some pictures and sent in my renewal form, but the passport agency sent the application back with an explanation listing several possible reasons the photos were unacceptable, but it wasn't clear which reason they thought applied in this case. In any case, there was only about four weeks left at that point, and the application says to allow six weeks, so I figured since it was still valid I would renew it when we got back.

The big day arrived and we left Missoula at the crack of dawn, with our bags checked clear to Quito. We changed planes in Denver, switching from United to Continental, and flew on to Houston, where we sat around for about four hours waiting for check-in to begin.

About an hour before the plane was supposed to leave, the agents showed up at the gate and announced that we should all step up and have our passports checked, and that then they would begin boarding. When Dona and I got to the front of the line we handed them our passports. I assumed this was a security check; maybe it was. Anyway, Dona got hers back, but the agent looked at mine, then nudged the other agent next to her, pointed at my passport, and mumbled something. The other agent looked at the passport, then looked up at me and said, "You're not going on this flight."

We were stunned, to say the least. The agent informed us that Ecuador requires you to have at lease six months left on a passport when entering. Even if you have a confirmed return ticket. He said if they let us on the plane, the immigration people in Quito would put me on the next return flight and charge the airline $25,000.

At that point we had to decide whether Dona should go ahead without me. It seemed dumb for her not to go, but in the end we elected to stay together. The agent told us he would tell the baggage folks to pull our bags which were checked through, gave us the phone number of the passport agency. He informed us there was only one flight per day, and this was it; and the next two days were full. He booked us standby on the next two planes and confirmed on the third day; and gave us a piece of paper with seven lines of gobble-de-gook printed on it. He said it showed that we were standby the next two days and had reservations the third day.

We shuffled aside, then went down to the Continental disaster resolution desk or whatever they call it, where the agent informed us it was the originating airlines duty to check our passports; that would be United. She said if it had been them they would have paid for our hotel since it was their screw-up; but since it wasn't, the best she could do was give us a coupon for a discount. Probably no better than our AARP discount, or a thousand others. Anyway, we went over to United and talked to them, and they insisted it wasn't their problem since the ticket was on Continental. In the end, it's our responsibility, but it would be nice if the airline would tell you ahead of time what the situation is.

Our plane was supposed to arrive in Quito an hour before Ram and Dawn's, so our original plan was to hook up with them at the airport and travel to the hotel together. We needed a way to let Ram know we wouldn't be there. He doesn't have a cell phone, and we didn't have Dawn's number. What we did have was an email address for the hotel in Quito, so we sent them a note. We had a schedule of the places we were supposed to be overnight, plus some names of places we would be during the day. Most of the overnight places were birding specialty ecolodges, but some were just towns. Some had email addresses, and some did not. We sent an email to Ram on the theory the hotel might have a computer and he would check it, and we sent a note to the hotel asking them to inform Ram of our situation. The message was something like

"Got kicked off plane due to passport problems;
coming down in the next three days.
We'll find you somewhere.
Party On!"

We also asked the Quito hotel if they could rebook us for some time in the next three days. Nope, they were full.

I knew there was a passport office in Houston, but you can't call them. Or at least an ordinary citizen can't. The number you call ends up being in New Jersey or D.C. or someplace like that, and all they do is make appointments for the various offices. The earliest appointmet they had was at two in the afternoon the next day. They informed me I would need the following to renew my passport the same day:

We retrieved our luggage and headed for a the hotel. I printed out the passport form and filled it in. Then we found a nearby Wallgreens drugstore that did passport photos. It was about half a mile away, so we walked to it. Houston is definitely not designed for walking. We had to cross a four lane highway to get to a sidewalk, which only went about half-way. We had to switch back and forth across the highway a few times before we got to the drugstore. But after an hour or so I had two passport photos.

So now I had everything I needed except the plane ticket -- all I had was that piece of paper with the seven lines of gobble-de-gook printed on it. In addition, the two o'clock appointment seemed like it was too late to make the flight the next day if we could even get on it.

I decided to just show up at the passport office and see if I could get in early, so the next morning we grabbed a Taxi and showed up at the passport building about 8:00. We had our luggage with us on the optimistic theory that I would get a passport and we would make a beeline for the airport. There were security guards at the building entrance, and I couldn't take any luggage in with me, so Dona stayed in the lobby with the luggage while I went up to the passport office on the fourth floor. When I got there, there were about a dozen people in line ahead of me. The line went to a pre-screening / scheduling person who checked that you had all your papers in order. When I got up there and gave him my application it took him awhile to find me in his list of appointments, since my appointment wasn't until the afternoon. He reminded me that my appointment was for that afternoon, and I gave him my sob story about being kicked off the plane the day before and hoping to make the one in the afternoon. Being a reasonable person, he passed me on. I took a seat and waited for my number to come up. Hooray for helpful government employees!

After another wait my number came up and I presented all my stuff to the passport agent. When he asked about my plane ticket, I showed him the paper with the seven lines of gobble-dee-gook on it and told him the airline person said it meant I was standby for two days and confirmed on the third. He said "Let me see that, I used to work for the airlines." Hooray again! But then he said he probably couldn't get me a passport that day because I didn't have a confirmed reservation for the next day; the standbys didn't count. I told him my sob story and he said, "I'll check with my supervisor, but I don't think he'll let me do it." Hooray again for helpful government employees! He went off for a while and when he came back he said he could process it. But then he informed me their computers were down and they wouldn't be up until at least ten o'clock. He sent me on my way and said to come back at 10:00 to check.

Dona and I had brunch and wasted some time, then I went back up to the passport office. Their computer had just come up, and in fifteen minutes I had a new passport! Whoppie!!!

We now had time to burn, as the flight didn't leave until 4:00 pm. Rather than take an expensive cab to the airport, we asked around and discovered a bus station a block away where an express bus went to the airport every hour. For something like $5 each, we were there in no time.

We made our way to the gate, then whiled away time until the agents showed up. We made sure we were on the standby list, and proceeded to wait. In due time the plane was boarded, and they hadn't dismissed us so we knew there were open seats. They did their last boarding call a few times, and we anxiously looked around the concourse for anyone running our way, but still no-one showed up. As we looked around, we saw a woman ambling down the way, dawdling and looking at all the shops; she looked like a space-cadet, day-dreaming. But she eventually wandered up to the counter, pulled out a boarding pass, and got on the plane. The agents made one final call, then called us up and informed us there was one open seat.

Aaarrrgghhhhh! If Dona had gotten on the day before, we would be golden. Now we had to decide again whether to split up or not. We decided to stay together again.

The day was mostly shot, and it was difficult to focus on much of anything. We called a friend of Dona's who lived in Galveston but he was tied up. Our hotel didn't seem to be near much of anything we were interested in, so we wasted the evening reading and playing scrabble. We also spent some time thinking about how we were going to meet up with the rest of the group if we ever got to Ecuador.

We had a somewhat detailed itinerary for the trip as a whole. We knew what ecolodge or hotel the group was staying at every night except one. We also knew all of the places they would be going to look for birds. Most of those were associated one way or another with the ecolodges, but some were private farms or national park type places.

The next day was my birthday. When I got up I declared, "All I want for my birthday is to get on the plane!" When the time came, we showed up and waited. Low and behold, my wish was answered! We got the last two seats. Whoppie! We were on our way to Ecuador, two days late.

On the plane we started looking at the map and re-reading Ram's messages about our itinerary to try to figure out how to meet up with them. Since we were arriving late, we would be spending the night in Quito. What mattered was where would the group be the next day, and where would they be the next night? As luck would have it, the next night was the one night where we didn't know where they would be. All we had was the name of a town. It was a little town in eastern Ecuador, on the lower slopes of the Andes as they fall into the Amazon basin. I figured it can't be too big, and in the worst case we would just show up in town and look around for some gringos. But during the day they were starting out at a place called "Angel Pas". That was a guy's ranch. We had vague directions for how to get there. In any case, we knew what roads got us in the general vicinity. Quito is long and skinny, running North to South. Every Latin American country has good bus service, so I figured we would just catch a bus early in the morning. We had a guide book of some sort that told us there were two bus stations, one in the north end of town and one in the south. There is only one main road to the area where Angel Pas was located, and it leaves from the north.

Our next problem was to find a hotel in Quito. The guy sitting next to me on the plane was from Quito, so I practiced my Spanish and asked him if he could recommend an inexpensive hotel near the airport. We were arriving late at night, and didn't want to be wandering around looking for a place to stay. He thought for a while gave me the name of one. When we got in we negotiated for a taxi to the hotel. It wasn't cheap, but it wasn't expensive.

We asked our taxi driver if he would give us a ride to the bus station at the north end of town at 05:30 in the morning, and he agreed. We crashed, anxious to get as much sleep as we could given our early departure. Quito is over 2800 m (9000 ft) elevation, so that didn't help us any for being energetic. Fortunately we live above 1200 m (4200 ft), so we are a little aclimatized.

The next morning our taxi dropped us at the bus station, where things were just coming alive. We asked for the bus to Nanigalito, the nearest town to Angel Pas' place. According to the description Ram had been sent, Angel Pas' place is reached from a crossroads six or eight km past Nanigalito. The directions were pretty vague; you turn off and wander up a hill until you get there. It didn't say which side of the road or which way... The directions were vague because they were from a lodge which arranged tours, and it said a driver would meet you in Nanigalito. We didn't have a pre-arranged driver, so we asked the bus driver to let us off at the crossroad. We figured everybody knows their neighborhood, and someone would point us in the right direction. Just before we got to Nanigalito, we realized that there was likely to be absolutely nothing at the crossroad, so we should get off in Nanigalito and hire a taxi. Too late... the bus had stopped and let everybody off, and a flood of people was piling on. Besides, the driver's helper didn't want to let us off; he knew we wanted the crossroads, and we weren't there yet.

Five minutes later, we were deposited with our packs at a wide spot in the road where a dirt side road took off to the North. There was nothing there, except a beat-up brown Toyota pickup with the hood up, a pile of junk in the back, and a guy tinkering adding oil to the engine. We walked over and asked him if he wanted to be our taxi. He said sure. We asked him if he knew where Angel Pas was. He had no idea. A minute later another car pulled over, and our Toyota-Taxi guy asked him if he knew where Angel Pas was. He said he did and gave some directions. We piled in the Toyota and headed back down highway a bit. We came to a dirt two-track that headed up an Andean hillside; our driver turned off, somewhat tentatively. It was steep and badly eroded. I checked to see if the truck had four-wheel drive; it didn't. After about a km of winding around and heading ever upwards, with the road getting steadily worse, we came to a farmhouse of some sort with a delivery truck picking something up. Our driver asked him if this was Angel Pas' place. He said no, and this road didn't go there. He gave us new instructions, which our driver seemed to like better. We returned to the main road, then headed back the way we had come. This time we turned off on a slightly better road. After checking at a couple of places along the way where noone was home, we came to a place with a van parked in the driveway. I got out to ask them where Angel Pas' place was, when Dona noticed a small sign that said "Angel Pas". Hallelujah!

As we pulled in, a man came up and I asked him if Ram Papish's party was there. He said yes and pointed to the van and said it was theirs. We looked in the back and judging by the camera bags and other stuff we figured it probably was. We thanked our Toyota-Taxi man and paid him, but he was in no hurry to leave. The other guy said our party was probably down one of the trails not too far, so we grabbed our cameras and followed him. After a bit we saw a small group of people paying a lot of attention to something; as we ambled up, Dawn recognised us and ran up to give us hugs. Then Ram noticed, and his jaw dropped.

United at last, we could relax and start enjoying what we had come for.

Ecuador from the Bus Ecuador from the Bus