Last updated on December 31st, 2018 at 12:01 pm
Ecuador’s Cloud Forest
Ecuador is a small country which, in terms of ecosystems, punches well above its weight. There is the utterly singular Galapagos Archipelago in the east, the vast Amazon rainforest in the west, and those great dividers the Andes Mountains running through the middle of it all. It is easy to fill a two or three-week itinerary with these regions, and remain oblivious to a special place to the north which, is located in any other country, might be the main drawcard for nature lovers. I am talking about Ecuador’s biologically distinct cloud forest, and the small town of Mindo at its heart. Read below for my experience exploring the beautiful terrain of Ecuador’s Cloud Forest in Mindo, Ecuador.
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Only a 2.5-hour drive from Quito, along well-paved and scenic roads, the mountainous watershed surrounding Mindo (pop. 3,000) is the perfect day trip from the capital. Even better, it doesn’t require boarding another plane, like those visiting the Amazon, are obliged to do. Higher in elevation than the Amazon rainforest, at 3,000-9,000ft, the cloud forest plays host to its own menagerie of wildlife dwelling beneath low-lying cloud cover for much of each day. The larger of these include sloths, howler monkeys, jaguars, pumas, coati, tayra, and the last remaining short-faced ursine, the spectacled bear. More commonly spotted are the many species of butterfly, frogs, orchids, and birds.
That last one is the reason both amateurs and experts alike make their way to Mindo’s cloud forest. The sheer number of birdlife concentrated in the area, well over 400 species, makes this a world-famous hot spot for eco-tourism. There are trogons, toucans, tanagers, cotingas (a family comprised of the cock-of-the-rock, the umbrellabird, among many other species), and dozens of different hummingbirds. The cloud forests of Ecuador are one of the best places in the world to observe these tiny flitters, and a number of quality lodges have been built, some very recently, to cater to those interested in exploring in depth. These lodges introduce the question: is it worth staying longer?
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Excursions in Ecuador’s Cloud Forest
As a day trip from Quito, you can experience time outdoors in a gorgeous setting with several active excursions and lunch before returning to the city. You can take a cable car across the forested valley, hike to half a dozen waterfalls or inner tube down river, with time for some impressive zip-lining in the afternoon. Oh, and there is the thrilling Tarzan Swing! This is fun for the whole family, and you don’t need to be bird aficionados to enjoy the visit.
My girlfriend and I don’t consider ourselves birders, and we enjoyed photographing the hummers. The thing about enthusiasm? It creeps up on you like a jungle vine. We found ourselves staying a night at Sachatamia Lodge, just up the hill from Mindo. There were a number of feeders arrayed around the main building, so while we ate eggs and fruit for breakfast, the birds enjoyed their faux nectar right outside. Staying a night here allowed us more time to explore, and as our guide, Sandra was equipped with binoculars, scope, and over 20 years of experience she knew where to look.
Check out Day 3 of the Luxury Galapagos & Ecuador Train Tour, it’s a fantastic example of adding the Mindo Cloud Forest as an excursion to any tour
Lodges in Ecuador’s Cloud Forest
If we had wanted to maximize our sightings, waking early to witness the orchestral birdsong, there are other lodges even better situated. One of these is Hosteria Septimo Paraiso, where stays of 2-3 nights are easily justified. Perhaps even better are those lodges located within a protected reserve, and there are two top-notch choices in this category.
Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve is around 20 minutes uphill from Mindo, and the lodge itself boasts a four-story geodesic dome with a restaurant and viewing platform. Officially certified as an Eco-lodge, the surrounding property of over 2,000 acres allows for truly world-class birding.
A more recent development in the region is the stunning Mashpi Lodge, a blend of nature and luxury atop a forested plateau removed from Mindo and really anything else. A guide described it to me as like being in Jurassic Park, with jeeps taking you deep into the primary forest, a sky bike ride thru the canopy, and highly experienced guides. I recently booked a 4-day/3-night stay for a family, the ideal amount of time to experience one of the newest and most sophisticated additions to Ecuador’s cloud forest.
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Final Day in Ecuador’s Cloud Forest
On our final day, my girlfriend and I found ourselves with Sandra at the venerable Birdwatcher’s House. This isolated property was built by Vinicio Perez, one of Mindo’s first bird guides, and within the span of fifteen minutes, we spotted maybe two dozen species of hummingbirds and tanagers sipping and fighting around his colorful clump of feeders. There were bird hides constructed for photographers intent on not spooking their subjects. He also let us try the oyster mushrooms he has begun growing, which often appear on the menu for his guests. It was a relaxing place, where the wildlife is never far away, and as we drove back to Quito, it felt pleasant knowing there were many reasons to return.