From Northern Perú into Ecuador.

From Northern Perú into Ecuador.

This is a series of images taken from a journey that leads up from the North of Perú, near Sullana in Piura province, up through Ayabaca and across the frontier into Ecuador. Here we climb into moist mist forest, see huge volcanoes and drop down into the jungle that lies behind these.

Goat herding on the coast of Peru

The coast of Northern Perú receives some rain every year, and great inundations every decade or so when the Niño is strong. This is the fluctuation of the cold Humboldt current which, when it fails, allows warm water to generate clouds and downpours of huge scale. The last significant Niño inundated the city of Tumbes, isolated Piura and killed many people. The arroyo along which the goats are being herded has been cut by a past event of this sort. The algarroba trees - a species of acacia (Prosopis chilensis) that specialise in locations such as these - grows at least in part from water that is stored in the soil for years before being replenished with significant rainfall.

Peruvian rivers attract skuas

The Tumbes river and its tributaries receive water from highland Ecuador, and as a result are usually flowing. Large numbers of sea birds come to fish, rest and wash in these waters, as with the skuas illustrated above. Forests of algarroba flanks the stream bed.

Coastal Peru: a hawk looks for prey in the Cerro de Amotape park

As one progresses inland, North-East, so the land rises slowly and rainfall increases. The density of scrubby forest parallels this, and biodiversity increases. Much of this terrain has ben declared a series of national parks which are, I suspect, amongst the least visited on the planet. The landscape is pristine, with only a few cattle run through the scrubland. Here, a hawk looks for prey in the Cerros de Amotape national park.

Ceiba trees glow in a the early morning sun

Higher, and here on the road to Ayabaca, the ceiba trees (Ceiba trichistandra) appear. These are the source of balsa wood, the extremely light wood from which the famous Kon Tiki raft was built. (This tried to prove that South Americans had settle Easter Island. New evidence suggests that the invasion occurred in the opposite direction, with at least one wave in migration bringing people from Oceania to settle South America some 14,000 years ago.)

The ceiba have vast green trunks, in which they store water. When young, the trunks are thorny, but when older they become smooth. Their red flowers and fluffy white seeds are omnipresent. Settlements cultivate rice and other irrigated crops from the occasional rivers.

Ayabaca church, home of the Señor de Ayabaca effigy.

Ayabaca is perched on a ridge about 30 km from the Ecuador border. In addition to its attractive location, it attracts visitors because of the church of the Señor de Ayabaca, to which a pilgrimage is made every year. The Señor is a large wooden carving, mysteriously produced by a group of woodcarvers who were found by accident on a mountain road, worked in complete secrecy and vanished without reward at the end of the commission. The figure is credited with many miracles, and the region is a centre for the curandero shaman tradition.

On the streets of Ayabaca, Peru

Ayabaca is extremely isolated, being approached up a (spectacular) single track dirt road from Sullana, a trip of 5-7 hours, depending on the weather. The people have little contact with the outside world. There are ten police to manage a population of about 350,000 in the district. Unhappily, there is conflict over a huge copper deposit that has been found some distance from the town. As a result, some of the campesinos are wary of outsiders and it is advisable to travel with a local guide who can explain your presence.

The low Andes in Northern Peru

This is an area of semi-arid and rugged hillsides, covered with scrub and rough pasture. The views are, as the photograph shows, entirely spectacular. Mornings begin with Ayabaca sitting on its prominence surrounded by an ocean of mist in the valleys below. As the sun heats the hillside, so this rises, following stereotyped paths and depositing moisture as it does so. The result are very local mist forest, of which an example is shown below.

Tonnes of epiphytes weigh down mist forest trees

Here, and Oncidium orchid is blooming amidst tonnes of moss, creepers, ferns and bromeliads weighing down a tree. This is an area which is extremely rich in orchids and, in general, the flora is poorly known. I touched a pretty little herb, which promptly gave me a sting that took five days to disappear.

The Cattleya maxima is one of Peru's most spectacular orchids

A Cattleya maxima blooms in a mass of bromeliads and other orchids. This species, once common, has been collected to near-extinction. What once attracted pollinators - its huge flowers - now attracts humans.

Forest on the border between Peru and Ecuador

Across the border and into Ecuador, the rainfall - and thus the landscape - changes markedly. Tree ferns appear, and every hill is covered with forest. For those interested in wild life - birds and orchids in particular - this is an extremely important area and, fortunately, one which has suffered minimal human impact to date.

The Plaza de Armas in Vilcabamba, Ecuador

The town of Vilcabamba has become something of an expatriate colony, but retains its quiet nature. It has good hotels and other facilities, and is well-connected by road to the city of Loja. The chief attraction if the Parque Nacional del Podocarpus, a very large national park dedicated to South Americas one indigenous pine tree. The park runs from high alpine peaks down through dense mist forest to the tropical alta selva. Its biodiversity has been only slightly studied and there are surprises around every corner for the informed eye.

Epidendrons on an Ecuatorian hillside

Red Epidendron orchids glow in the sun at about 2000 m. Forest clad hills run down to the jungle below. The Epidendron genus is very large, and extremely well represented in Ecuador, where virtually every square metre of uncultivated high altitude land has an example growing in it. This group - around E. radicans - range in colour from scarlet to mauve, pink to white in every conceivable shade.

Mist forest in Ecuador, around 3500m

Mist forest is concentrated on the East side of the Ecuador Andes, where Perú has the denser and more abrupt ceja de selva. These forests have hardly been penetrated and, as much of the area is either national park or privately owned by conservation groups, one hopes that it will stay that way.

Elfin forest grown large in Ecuador

Perú has so-called 'elfin forest'. dwarf trees that grow in thickets where mist settles on the mountainside. Ecuador has the same phenomenon, but the elfs have become giants as a result of the rainfall. Each of these fine old trees supports a mat of bromeliads, orchids and ferns - not to mention tonnes of moss - and are visited by humming birds and and immense web of other wild life.

A field of white Sobralia orchids

One signature plant of Ecuador is the Sobralia, an orchid that is used in native ceremonies and for medicine. Here, a positive forest of white-flowered plants glow in the sun. These would make ideal cut flowers if it were not for the fact that they last only for a single day.

A montage of pink Sobralia orchids

Sobralias also come in shades of mauve and pink, as the montage above shows. Every road side is bright with clusters of these delightful orchids. The range from the humid jungle to about 3000m, where they encounter regular frost.

Ecuador is a volcanic country, and the rocky Andean spine is buried in volcanic deposits. Here, the volcano Antisana, near the pleasant town of Latacunga, rises to 5790m.

Antisana volcano near Latacunga

Life continues to thrive at these altitudes and levels of sulphur pollution. The picture blow shows an alpine mat typical of those found at around 4000m in the altiplano. They are grazed by large animals, such as the alpaca, and by the rabbit-like viscacha (Lagidium peruanum), which is found all along the spine of the Andes, often in huge numbers. Pollinators include bumble bees which seem largely unable to fly, and make blundering wobbles between patches of flowers. The frigid air is noticeably stiller and warmer close to the turf, and this is, perhaps, a sensible strategy.

Alpine mats in the Ecuatorian altiplano

The flanks of the volcanoes are made up of successive layers of ash, thrown up by eruptions and eroded by the elements. Here, a vivid red stream - iron oxide? - overlays something black and is capped by gray. The snow shows that the picture was taken at about 5400m, yet vegetation remains dotted about in the foreground.

Successive eruptions leave distrinct layers of ash

Once one crosses the spine of the Andes and leaves the volcanoes behind, the land drops rapidly to a more kindly environment. The alta selva is neither too hot not excessively humid - although it rains very frequently - and the plant and bird life is spectacular.

A streamlet in the alta selva

Here, a macaw preens in the morning sun. The branches of the tree are dotted with epiphytes - a large bromeliad, ferns, several orchids.

A macaw suns itself.

Slow green rivers wind their way through this terrain. The trees do not achieve the heights of the low, hot baja selva, but neither is the climate so oppressive or the insects so demanding of blood. There is a network of good quality roads, but the rivers are a major transport option and the dug-out, hollowed log is a favourite for short, cheap trips.

A parking spot for dugout canoos on an Ecuadorian river

The forest presents many interesting opportunities to explore. Here, a Maxillaria orchid puts on a show in a glade in which at least a quarter of the greenery on show are orchids.

A glade in the forest

Monkeys are common and on occasions over-bold. This one has learned to settle on top of kit bags and screech, bare his teeth and otherwise threaten to attack until fed.

A dominant monkey surveys his troop