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El Pahuma is a 375 hectare (925 acre) cloud forest that provides a home to over 300 species of orchids, Spectacled Bears (Tremarctos ornatus), Plate-billed Mountain Toucans (Andigena laminirostris), and a uniquely diverse group of stunning montane forest species. The reserve, located just an hour from Quito, offers visitors trails that wind through spectacular forest, under plunging waterfalls, and past breathtaking views of the Andes. Equally suited for early-morning birdwatchers, all-day school groups, or families on a short weekend outing, El Pahuma offers something for everyone.
The rugged mountains of El Pahuma were used by pre-Columbian people to transport goods between the highlands and the coast. Parts of the trail, worn deep into cloud forest soil by the passage of thousands of heavily-loaded porters, can still be visited in the upper reaches of Pahuma. The Yumbo Trail offers an experience like no other, in which you are literally walking in the footsteps of history. The reserve takes its name from an ancient Quichua word for “flattened hill,” in reference to a site along the trail where exhausted caravans would rest for the night.
The establishment of the reserve was Ceiba’s first conservation project in Ecuador. We worked with the landowners, the Lima family, to put in place South America’s first conservation easement. The agreement protects the forest, while providing income to Lima’s who operate the reserve as a destination for ecotourists, birdwatchers, student groups and researchers. Their management of this beautiful forest for over twenty years has set an example throughout the region of how conservation can work by keeping lands in local hands. Indeed, many similar operations have sprung up, and now the entire area is a popular weekend destination for Quito families seeking a leafy respite from the city, as well as international tourists longing for their first views of wild orchids and brilliant hummingbirds.
Spectacled Bears, vegetarians that skillfully climb trees in search of their favorite avocado-like fruits, silently roam the forests of El Pahuma
The El Pahuma Orchid Reserve directly benefits the conservation of thousands of species of cloud forest plants and animals. These misty and mountainous forests are well-known to support an exceptionally diverse biological community that includes numerous endemic species: plants or animals found nowhere else on earth. In fact, thanks to the varied topography that creates many different micro-climates, Andean cloud forests harbor up to ten times more endemic species than lowland Amazon rainforest!
Among the most arresting examples of diversity in the Andes are the eye-catching orchids that decorate the forest of El Pahuma. These range from Stelis and Pleurothallis with tiny flowers smaller than a pinky fingernail to enormous blooms as large as a hand like Dracula and Stanhopea. Some of these orchids live on the ground, but most find a home on the trunks or branches of trees, where thick moss provides nutrients and a spongy storehouse of water. El Pahuma has gathered hundreds of examples, mostly from fallen trees, into an accessible Orchid Botanical Garden near the reserve’s entrance, so that visitors can readily appreciate and photograph some of the forest’s incredible diversity of orchids.
Trees are not only home to orchids and mosses, but also to many of the animals that live in the cloud forest. One of the more iconic animal species that calls El Pahuma home is the Spectacled or Andean Bear (Tremarctos ornatus), a mainly herbivorous mammal named for the markings around its eyes. The bear requires large areas of habitat as it migrates in search of fruiting trees, and has become an icon for conservation in the region. El Pahuma is a core piece of the Andean Bear Corridor (“Corredor del Oso”), an effort to link forest owners together in an effort to protect and connect critical habitat for this threatened animal.
The soaring hills of the Andes, and the myriad fruiting trees and bushes they support, provide important habitat for a wide variety of birds, many of which cannot be found beyond the cloud forest. At these elevations hummingbirds reach their peak diversity: on a given day, as many as 40 species or more can be found in the region! Hike along the reserve’s trails and you may see the spectacular blue breast of a Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, the bright green of our two species of Quetzal, or a glowing array of hues in a mixed species flock of flamboyantly-colored tanagers.
Fog and rain settle in the afternoon over the aptly named cloud forest, which captures much of that water and sends it downhill to feed some of the greatest rivers of South America.
Conservation of El Pahuma’s steep forest helps protect the livelihoods of farms and communities downstream. A series of beautiful streams and tall waterfalls are found in the reserve, and these drain into the Pichán and Alambí rivers that bound the northern and southern limits of the reserve. Cloud forests have the highest water capture rates of any ecosystem on the planet, as moss-covered trees absorb moisture directly from clouds and add this “horizontal precipitation” to impressive rainfall totals. Combined, the water from Andean forests charges virtually all major river systems in South America. Rapid deforestation in northwestern Ecuador is linked not only to critical losses of plant and animal species, but also to steep declines in water quality and flow rates of local rivers. El Pahuma’s forested slopes deliver steady water supplies to major regional river systems that reach all the way to the Pacific coast. El Pahuma has been declared part of a broader water conservation zone for the Municipal District of Quito, as Ecuador’s rapidly growing capital increasingly relies on protection of natural areas to guarantee its booming water needs.
Stay for a few hours, or a few days! El Pahuma has everything a visitor might need to live comfortably and hike easily in its enchanting and biodiverse forest.
El Pahuma offers all the facilities a day visitor, or overnighter, could want. Several kilometers of well-marked trails explore both the lower and upper slopes of the mountain. Waterfalls are readily accessible, just a few minutes’ walk from the entrance. The Botanical Garden displays examples of cloud forest plants, with a particular emphasis on the stunning orchids for which the region is rightly famous. Next to the garden, our Eco Center provides visitors with information about cloud forests, their ecology and diversity and importance to people, and offers a comfortable back porch from which to observe hummingbirds flitting between flowers. Hungry? There’s a restaurant located right at the entrance, serving local delicacies or providing quick snacks. Sleepy? We’ve got you covered! The Eco Center has bedrooms upstairs available to those wishing to spend the night, and rise early for the best birdwatching hours.
The Lima family -- Marixa, Roberto, Rene, Ruth, Miguel, and Efrain -- are true conservationists, and have inspired the success of dozens of sustainable forest protection projects in the region .
The El Pahuma Orchid Reserve is a 100% locally-managed conservation project. The Ceiba Foundation directed and financed the reserve’s establishment, training of staff and owners, and construction of trails and tourism infrastructure. We continue to participate in strategic planning and guidance, and provide regular financial assistance for maintenance and special projects. The reserve provides the owners of the reserve with a sustainable income that is an ecologically sound alternative to logging or pasture; it also provides an educational destination for many of the region’s school children, and a site for advanced field studies by international and Ecuadorian university students. El Pahuma has catalyzed a local awareness of the value, both economic and aesthetic, of protecting forests. Where once there were few, today there are over a hundred ecotourism destinations in the region that provide income for their owners while protecting habitat for wild species. This ethic has spread within the surrounding communities, who increasingly take pride in the strides their region has made towards becoming a top ecotourism destination.
Opportunities to explore the cloud forest abound, from bird watching to photography, soaking under waterfalls to hiking, or just relaxing over a delicious meal in front of scenic vistas
Visiting El Pahuma is easy, whether you are a single ecotourists, a family out on a weekend, a school group looking for a field trip, or a researcher studying the cloud forest. The reserve offers meals and accommodations, and has already helped thousands of people visit and work in the cloud forest.