A couple of weeks ago, we visited the cloud forest of Ecuador. We stayed for a couple of days at the tiny town of Mindo, a two-hour drive from Quito, and I felt like staying in this mellow place for at least a year. Seeing the big leaves of the tropical trees, and looking at the numerous butterflies and hummingbirds, reminded me of a comment a friend made while we visited the rainforest exhibit at the Academy of Science in San Francisco. I remembered him saying when we got inside the exhibit, “This looks like Disney.” I responded, “No, this is like the cloud forest or the rainforest in Ecuador.”
I realized the extent our past experiences impact how we see things in the present, and I was really happy to be showing my kids what a real cloud forest is like. It also made me fear that with the destruction of primary forests and habitats around the world, our descendants may end up getting the chance to experience only small, sealed samples of habitats. Not to say I don’t value the importance of places like the rainforest exhibit at the Academy of Science. They do amazing work in preservation, research and exposing the general public to the diverse habitats around the world.
To get to Mindo, we drove for about half an hour north of Quito and we arrived at the “Mitad del Mundo” monument, a monument literally marking the equator. The name “Ecuador” came as a result of the location. We made a quick stop there for the kids to step on the line dividing the world in two, but we didn’t stay to experience the exhibits as we wanted to reach Mindo by lunch (there is a planetarium, dances, shops and other things around the monument). Then we headed west towards the northern coast. The cloud forest is located in between the mountains and the coast in an area where you are literally with the clouds. To get there, you usually have to cross a ridge in the mountains from the valleys in the highlands and descend down towards the coast. After we had driven up the mountains from the middle of the world, we made a quick turn and went a little further up to see the crater of the Pululahua volcano. The Pululahua is a mountain that erupted centuries ago closing its crater. In the area where the crater used to be, there are now a couple of subtropical towns with a gorgeous view from above, or to where you can go hike. This time we enjoyed them from a lookout, but years ago I enjoyed the hike all the way down to the crater with my husband.
After the visit to the Pululahua, we headed down to Mindo. Before arriving, we stopped at a river where the kids went into the water and we ate a picnic. You can also visit the Nambillo ecological reserve on the way. Once we arrived in Mindo, we went to a tiny chocolate factory and coffee/chocolate shop where we had a delicious coffee and chocolate. We left the car while we walked around town to look for a place to stay. We got lucky as it was a delicious, sunny day.
Walking around the hotels and hostals in Mindo is a trip in itself into the diverse habitats of the surrounding areas. You find places on the lower budget (about $10 to $20 dollars per adult, kids half price, including breakfast) like El Descanso, which has a veranda that overlooks a large garden with a diversity of hummingbirds coming to drink water, or Cabanias Armoria hostal where there are many orchids and other flowers. There are a bunch of mid-range hotels, but still very affordable, including Caskaffesu that has a restaurant with excellent food and is owned by an American woman and an Ecuadorian man (who also have an organic coffee plantation), the Mariposario, a hostal that owns a private butterfly exhibit which is worth the visit even if you don’t stay there, Mindo Gardens, 15 minutes from town and with a rushing river and hummingbirds nearby. In the more expensive price range, and not so close to town, you can find spectacular places like Sachatamia, 15 minutes before arriving to Mindo that has an ecological reserve with walking trails and ziplines, TerraBambu an eco-hotel built in Bambu, located 27 km from Maquipucuna Natural Reserve, with a pool and, as well as others.
After visiting and enjoying the features of many little hostels, we stayed at a cheap place in town and walked for dinner to a pizza place called El Nomada which has delicious thin crust, oven-baked pizzas. We had smoothies for desert sitting on swings across the street at a little place owned by a Portuguese immigrant. That evening, walking around in the awesome subtropical weather in this super mellow place, paying very little for lodging and dinner and having the kids talking to people in Spanish, is when the longing developed to move from beautiful but expensive San Francisco to a small place like this. In the big cities we have access to museums, restaurants, shops, shows, many classes, and all that a big city offers, but sometimes that all comes with stress and leaves us with no time to enjoy all that we struggle for.
There are many things you can do in the surrounding areas of Mindo including river rafting, canopying, hiking, seeing the waterfalls, visiting a couple of the ecological reserves such as Maquipucuna or the Mindo-Nambillo, etc. We choose the next day to visit the waterfalls of The Reina and a couple of others nearby. We drove about 15 minutes up from Mindo to a place where we crossed from one mountain to another via a “Tarabita,” which was a hanging metal basket that operates in what looks like an upside down train line. There we hiked from one waterfall to the next all day, bathed in the shallow water below the falls, looked at the forest and the butterflies and listened to the birds. Watching the pleasure that my son and daughter had in the water, I felt like we were fully experiencing our own version of Disney.