Ecuador: Guinea Pigs and Condors

The highlands of Ecuador are an invigorating stop either before or after a trip out to the Galapagos Islands. The city of Quito is in the highlands at an elevation of 9,350 feet (2,800 meters) and the Antisana Ecological Reserve is at about 12,000 feet. The thin air at Cusco and Quito can be noticeable to most travelers and a problem for a few. In general a slow pace, lots of liquids (including the local brew of coca tea) helps, but some will get headaches or find themselves panting a bit. Machu Picchu is about 8,000 feet (2,430 meters) and is not considered a significant problem elevation. (As a matter if fact, commercial airplanes are pressurized to an effective 8,000 foot elevation with increases and decrease designed to match the air pressure at take-off and landing locations.)

The highest we traveled was when we were at the Antisana Ecological reserve and though the peak of the volcano named Antisana reaches upward to 18,714 feet (5,704 meters), we stay more than a mile lower than the perpetually snow-covered peak. The day-trip to Antisana offers a view of rural Andean Ecuador. The montane forests are left behind and the grassy slopes predominate. This is the land of the Andean Condor, Carunculated Caracara, and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch – and wind, lots of wind.

Like most older Latin/Spanish heritage cities much of Quito’s charm and history is located near plazas and churches. The focal point of city life, at least on the weekends, is the central plaza. It is here that picnics and family gatherings occur. It is here that ice cream and Coca-Cola will be sold from carts and young couples (still often chaperoned) get to know each other. It is here that the statues and monuments are erected and the pigeons thrive.

This monument is adorned with a condor in flight as well as two pigeons at rest. The Andean Condor remains an icon of the highlands. The Andean countries treat the condor with respect and awe. Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, and Ecuador all have folkloric tales involving the bird. The name condor is from the Andean (Quechua) language’s word kuntur. The Quechua language is still widely used in the mountains and, as depicted in the wall painting below, is still the local way of referring to this majestic bird.

The highlands of the Andes are referred to as either paramo or puna. Often the paramo is the northern grasslands above tree line. The vegetation here is low, dense, and adapted to wet boggy ground. The puna often refers to the dries high grasslands as found in Chile and Argentine. However, neither of these terms id so specific as to eliminate overlap of use. The image above is out a coach window but gives the idea that these highlands are a) lower than the snow and rocky mountain typos, and b) rather lush in a sparse sort of way. The Andean Gull, Carunculated Caracara and Stout-billed Cinclodes are the common birds here. It is also a place where the White-tailed Deer has been introduced.
The reserve is pretty much at the end of the road a couple hours fro the hectic center of Quito. There is a smallish building for staff and rather nice toilets for anyone. From here you can walk to the lakes for fishing or wander about birding. There are rather few visitors to this site despite it being less than two hours from Quito. On the drive up to the reserve we saw seven different Andean Condors. It was very exciting for all – even those who had no interest in birds. These birds, with wingspans about the size of a sheet of plywood, evoke awe in most anyone who sees them.

Condors are dependent on large carcasses for food. Much like the United States there are fewer and fewer large carcasses around. In the USA we eliminate the bison and elk and deer are not common enough to support our remaining California Condors. In South America it is the same; large herbivores have declined and dead cows are very rare. The Andean Condor’s often glide to the west and winter along the coast of the Pacific Ocean where they eat Elephant Seals and other marine mammals that die along the shore.

The Carunculated Caracara is a common bird the the high grasslands. It  walks about looking for whatever it can find on the ground. Where they remain common they can be seen in groups of one hundred or more. The word “carunculated” is an adjective that describes the bird’s bare red skin around the face. In most cases carunculated refers to wart-like bumps or wattles as seen in chickens and other fowl.

The Carunculated caracara forms a super-species with the White-throated and Mountain Caracaras. This is a situation that occurs when population get separated for long periods of time; usually by an ice age lasting tens of thousands of years or by continental drift. The populations slowly adapt to their new circumstances and over time develop differences from their original type. In the USA this can be seen by looking at a field guide to the birds and comparing Black-throated Green, Townsend’s, Hermit, Golden-cheeked (and probably Black-throated Gray) Warblers. They look as if they share an ancestor don’t they? The population ancestor-bird was divided by ice and they remained isolated for thousands and thousands of years. They adapted and changed. When the ice melted (receded or withdrew) the groups were quite different and are now considered to be separate species.

Incidentally, by most definitions we are still in, though perhaps the very end of, the Pliocene-Qauternary Glaciation period. This definition can hold as there are still ice sheets (Alaska, Greenland, Arctic, and Antarctic) in existence. This period has now lasted about 2.6 million years! Within that period the amount of glaciation (and the depth of the seas and the amount of open land)  has varied in cycles that seem to be occurring in 40,000 and 100,000 year time frame. The glaciation has advanced and retreated many many times during this long period of time.

The high windswept grasslands of the Andes are home to the Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. This bird is reminiscent of the North American junco group. They are hardy sparrow-types and remain in cold habitat in the winter. 

Once back in Quito you may want to stop in a neighborhood to try one of the Ecuadorian food stuffs that you may never find anywhere else in the world; guinea pig. Much the way pork, chicken, sausage, bratwurst, or steaks will be barbecued for you as you travel Route 66, in Ecuador a sidewalk barbecue option is the smallish mammal we think of as a third grade classroom pet. The Andean people were not able to locate extensive amounts of protein in the olden days. There were able to grow cereals and other carbohydrates (especially potatoes) but there were no great herds of harvestable mammals. They took to raising small mammals much they way you might keep a coop of chickens. In many places Guinea Pig is a meal of special holidays but it is also available throughout the year in many locations. City dwellers as well as country folk will still raise a few guinea pigs for holiday meals.

There are a surprising number of bones in the rather lean animal. From my observation they have not been bred to have large pectoral muscles, gluteals or any thing else. There isn’t much meat. Baby-back ribs, spare ribs, special cuts of meat and such are not possible with such a small creature. You simple rasp meat off the bones with tongue and teeth.

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