Meanwhile, a beautiful gift to the earth

Treasures in the Ecuadorian Andes

Fred Pearce

High in the Ecuadorian Andes are cloud-covered peaks that no satellite has ever observed and no cartographer has ever mapped. Up there somewhere, rumour has it; the Incas hid their treasure when Spanish conquistadors invaded 500 years ago.

Treasure-hunters have so far failed to find the hoard. But botanical adventurer Lou Jost has uncovered a different kind of wealth: an ecological El Dorado of orchids found nowhere else on the planet.

Jost gave up life as a quantum physicist to take up botany. He has spent the last six years living in the Ecuadorian Andes, collecting dozens of new orchid species in the remote cloud forests and valleys. Most of his collection comes from Pastaza valley and mountains that surround it - home to one of the highest concentrations of endemic orchids on the planet.

The Pastaza River, a tributary of the Amazon River, has carved