Fog followed us from the coastal city of Guayaquil to some 8,000 or 9,000 feet into the Andes. On a tour to see orchids and aroids in their natural habitats in Ecuador, we could make out enormous anthuriums in the mist, a few bright orange Erythrina flowers, along with bright yellow epidendrums, but not much else. In Cajas National Park, however, the clouds were below us and the paramo stretched across the mountains as a lovely deep green skin.
Just as we approached this ecosystem, we drove through stands of red-barked Polylepsis trees that grow higher than any others. Layers of thin red, orange and black bark, not unlike melaleuca bark but thinner, covered the small trees with their compound thick leaves. Bunch grasses and waterfalls, deep valleys with rushing streams were glorious, even without the sun.
Going higher, we found a family of llamas munching on anything green. The patriarch was a huge, dark brown guy with a black face. His females and juveniles were wonderful mixes of brown, white and gray.
Then to the top, more than 12,000 feet. Clumps of cushion plants and tiny windflowers. Among the most enchanting were orange and yellow Gentianella hirculus which resemble hot air balloons only half an inch tall. It was a subtle and engaging landscape that made us stoop to see the details.