Jardín Botanico La Orquídea

After visiting the monkey sanctuary that Monday before departing for the Shuar village in the rainforest, we continued with our original plan to visit Jardín Botánico Las Orquídeas (“The Orchids” Botanical Garden). We were definitely ill prepared for how awesome the visit would be. In 1980, accountant Omar Tello bought 7 hectares of pastureland just outside of Puyo—where the rainforest had once thrived. His patch of barren land was just like thousands more surrounding the area in that it had been stripped bare of vegetation so that it could support horses and cattle. But he had a plan to change all this. His dream was to restore this degraded patch of broken, grassy land to a lush, thriving tropical rainforest habitat. He started by erecting a fence to enclose his land, then he set about correcting the damages that the livestock had done to the soil. He used natural fertilizers and worked minimize soil erosion and was rewarded before too long by finding a few new plants species sprouting in his reserve. Each new species did its small part in stabilizing the ecosystem and gradually, the reserve’s biodiversity grew. Eventually trees began to sprout as undergrowth lived and died, continuously enriching the soil, and when the trees were tall and shady enough, vines began creeping their way up the trunks in search of sunlight as moss slowly followed, inching along year by year. Today his small patch of jungle, young as it still remains only 30 years later, boasts a higher floral biodiversity than any part of the jungle within hundreds of kilometers.

But as he worked to restore the vegetation in his reserve, Mr. Tello also began to catalogue animal life. Every species he found, he meticulously photographed and identified, slowly building a digital archive of the restoration process. At first, only destructive cicadas were to be found in the barren fields, but slowly butterflies, moths, and beetles began creeping in (no pun intended), and their presence allowed predators such as spiders and scorpions to follow along. Milipedes and a variety of snakes followed, and before too long, jungle frogs began to appear. Soon after, bats and monkeys and other mammals arrived, and the ecosystem finally, after 30 long years, began to resemble that of a healthy patch of rainforest.

In the Garden museum nestled among the vines of the garden jungle, you can follow the explosion of faunal biodiversity along the walls, each year labeled as a heading with photographs of the new creatures discovered in the garden that year. With thousands and thousands of documented new species, it’s impossible for him to display them all, but the series of cross-sectional slices of the new inhabitants of the jungle really gives you a sense of how each successive level of animals is more sensitive than the last, and can only thrive when the ecosystem has been properly stabilized by all of the predecessors.

With a left-to-right sweep of his arm around the room, Omar commented that “It took so much effort to stabilize the ecosystem enough to build the biodiversity up this way” but then with a slash of his arm around to the left he said, “but the slightest disturbance in the ecosystem, and you begin losing species in order back the other way”. His display really drove home the fragility of the ecosystem, as none of the successive species could thrive without the support of its predecessors. It’s incredible how complex the web of life really is.

Meticulously put together, Mr. Tello's catalogue of insects moving into the park each year

Meticulously put together, Mr. Tello’s catalogue of insects that had moved into the park each calendar year

Some fuzzy inhabitants

But with that, we began our tour in earnest, which turned out to be a 4 hour hike, circumnavigating what felt like the whole park as Mr. Tello stopped periodically to introduce to us what felt like all of his best friends. He went through all of the medicinal plants, describing in incredible detail how indigenous people once used this plant to treat diabetics, that plant to help facilitate cervical dilation for childbirth, this plant to treat stomach ulcers, and a combination of those plants to treat for cancerous tumors. Keeping in mind how many complex modern drugs (especially antibiotics) are manufactured by minorly modifying chemicals found in natural plant remedies, it completely blew my mind to learn about the hundreds (and I’m sure Mr. Tello could have kept going into the thousands) of natural treatments discovered by ancient peoples. Granted, Omar was mixing the knowledge and uses of each plant accumulated by a multitude of different indigenous peoples over thousands of years, but it’s still impossible to try to imagine how all of these remedies were discovered. It was incredible, each plant seemed to have at least 5 uses—the bark of plant X was ground up for poultices, the meat of the stem ground to use for paint, the leaves crushed to treat ulcers, the seeds harvested and used for artisanal decorations… and so-on ad nauseam.

But clearly the pride of his park was its namesake–the orchids. His garden boasts over 300 different species of orchid, and it felt like we met each one. The white orchids with their symbiotic spider companions who protect them from hungry insects, the beautiful yellow ones that can only find the right amount of sunlight about 5 meters off the ground—so they grow on the side of trees, the miniscule red ones that stay out of the sun by growing on the underside of trees’ leaves, and hundreds more. It felt like he knew every single orchid in his park, and was like a proud parent showing them off. There was one orchid (pictured below) that I noticed had been tied onto a tree. When I inquired, he told me that this unlucky guy had fallen off in a storm, and he found it and rescued it, retying it to the tree at the proper height.

If you looked close enough, you could find dozens of plants that had been "repaired" by Tello's caring hand.

If you looked close enough, you could find dozens of plants that had been “repaired” by Tello’s caring hand.

It was a wondrous experience in that forest, and even after 5 hours, it felt like the garden and its caretaker remained an endless fountain of surprises and knowledge. I’ve been in contact with Mr. Tello since that day, and I’m considering asking if he’d be willing to sponsor me if I apply for a Fulbright to do research there. It really was an incredible experience.

Not bad for what was a pasture only 30 years ago

Not bad for what was a pasture only 30 years ago

Mr. Tello

Mr. Tello

Monkeys!

Last Monday, in preparation for our week in the jungle, we planned on spending the day in Puyo’s two incredible botanical gardens to learn about the flora and fauna native to the Amazon. But when our guide at the first garden didn’t show up, we found ourselves with half of a day to kill, and happily fell back on our backup plan—the monkey rescue center/sanctuary just outside of Puyo. This center was set up in 2001 by a Swiss couple who had a concern for the degradation of the environment, and wanted to do what they could to help out. Because monkeys are awesome, they chose to set up this rescue center/reserve to protect the furry little critters who suffer from a horrible variety of abuses at the hands of human beings. There’s a fairly large market  for illegally trafficked monkeys, and they are often horribly mistreated and even mutilated. The center does what it can to rescue monkeys from the hands of their abusers, and offer a sanctuary where they can be medically treated and psychologically rehabilitated. Many of the monkeys are unable to return to the wild due to either psychological/social or physical damage, but here they’re offered a quality alternative with veterinary healthcare, a ton of space to roam, monkey companionship, and constant affection from the staff/visitors.

Sweet little squirrel monkey

Cheeky little squirrel monkey–clearly adapted to the loss of her right forearm during her abusive past

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This monkey—aptly named Bruja (Witch)—has clearly adapted to the injuries left over from her past abuses well enough to thrive in the sanctuary (she’s stealing chapstick out of my pocket in the first photo). Despite warnings that she wasn’t very friendly, she rode around on my shoulder for most of our time in the reserve—letting me pet her and even falling asleep in my hand at one point. A lot of the squirrel monkeys (of which Bruja was one) are  free to roam around the sanctuary while some of the larger or more aggressive species were contained in large, lush, fenced-in swathes of the jungle. Because it was a slow day and we were getting along quite well with our new monkey friends (one of the refuge employees named me “monkey whisperer”… kind of a big deal, I know), we were allowed into one of the enclosures to meet Sandra and Bebe (pictured below). Bebe was a typical teenager—too full of energy and jealousy–so he’d climb all over you, nip at your fingers and feet, and pull your hair, especially if you ignored him to pay attention to Sandra. Sandra, on the other hand has a reputation for being docile and affectionate—one of the staff members described holding her as the closest thing she’s felt to holding her own kids. I’ve clearly never had kids of my own, but after Sandra spent 20 minutes latched onto my face a la “Alien” (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google “Facehuggers, Alien”) in an  affectionate—although admittedly somewhat smelly—hug, I’m not sure the staff member had ever held a kid either. Not to mention, the whole time she was latched onto my face, I was blindly fighting off Bebe who thought it’d be a nice moment to start removing chunks from my calves.

Bebe

It was a pretty overwhelmingly awesome experience, worth a dozen times over the $2.00 price of admission, and it’ll definitely remain one of my treasured memories from my time here in Ecuador.

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Another squirrel monkey