After battling our lack of comprehension of the bus system and language on our trip to Mitad del Mundo, we had gathered some much needed experience for our next journey to the Cloud Forests of Mindo. With bags in tow and a busy day of commuters getting out of the city we pressed onto a crowded bus at La Marin and pushed our way into a corner. After a surprisingly brief forty minutes we had arrived at one of the main northern bus terminals, La Ofelia. Luckily familiar with the station we made our way to the area from which private co-operatives run bus services to a select few towns north of Quito. We found the co-op and bought our tickets to Mindo (buses are pretty much all $1 per hour of travel time) and had time to spare. Snacking on empanadas we sat and waited with a TV blaring what looked like the Ecuadorian Wiggles dancing to bad Latin American pop music. Even as we entered the bus surrounded by families going to Mindo or the surrounds for their holidays we could feel the tension of the city falling away from us. A little Ecuadorian boy took an interest in us and began to prod our chairs for attention and run and hide. Emmily made him a crane and he asked in rapid Spanish if it went fast like a jet plane he had been gazing at earlier. He seemed to like this new toy as it allowed him to annoy the other passengers further by poking them incessantly in the head with the beak of the crane. Eventually he gave up and disappeared back to his family.
It was a relief to see the honeycomb of concrete bunkers of the outer suburbs give way to fields and before long we were winding our way into the mountains. The views were impressive with sweeping valleys and steep crags of forest or fields engulfing the bus. Small shanty shops dotted the path of the bus with the occasional vender jumping aboard to sell soda or snacks. Large cups full of salada de frutas and cream, chips taken from larger packets and sealed in small plastic portions, dried fruits, ice cream and agua. Eventually we turned down into a valley to enter the town of Mindo. A small town which was initially a farming town had now been bitten by the bug of tourism and was starting to develop and grow rapidly. We were dropped off in the main street just a short distance from our hotel which we had booked earlier. Casskaffesu was a hotel and restaurant owned and run by an Ecuadorian man and an American woman, Luis and Susan. They were incredibly warm and welcoming couple and the hotel was gorgeous. A bit more expensive than the hostel options in town, it was well worth it. A lush and jungly front garden parted for stairs onto a balcony wrapping around the front of the restaurant. All the buildings were made in beautifully uneven painted stone and concrete. Large raw stones poked out randomly giving it the feeling of a natural wall. The restaurant had vaulted ceilings of dark wooden beams with a bar for liquor and a bar for coffee, with surfaces decorated with indigenous pottery and photos of the local bird-life. The restaurant opened onto a central courtyard with the rooms wrapping around it. Our room was lovely and from outside we had a view of the lush mountains in the distance.
Before leaving Australia we had gone to the doctor to procure shots for the various tropical diseases that were necessary for the trip and during the consultation the doctor had brought up the optional vaccinations, particularly that for rabies. Rabies although fairly rare is a particularly horrible disease which is nearly always fatal. The vaccinations for rabies do not make you immune, but simply give you more time to get to a hospital for treatment. Without the shots you have twenty-four hours and with the shots you have three days. This, coupled with the cost (very, very expensive) made us decide to risk it. We would not be going anywhere remote enough to not be within twenty-four hours of a hospital and wouldn’t poke the monkeys while we were away. Still we were nervous and developed a habit of calling any dog we saw ‘rabies’. Luis and Susan had just got a puppy and we became very fond of ‘little rabies.’
After a good nights sleep to the roar of jungle insects we decided to spend our first day in Mindo going to the waterfalls. We caught a ride in a ute/taxi up a winding path for a few kilometres to the site of the Tarabita, the Spanish word for cable-car. For the small price of $2 per person we were soon cruising 150 metres over the jungle canopy to the trail-head on the side of the opposite mountain. We were given a map which Dotahn promptly lost and pointed in the direction of most of the falls. The cloud forests, although not officially classified as jungle, is a sub tropical rainforest and is quite dense and really beautiful. The trail hugged the mountain down into the forest and within a few hundred metres we saw a luminous green python slithering through the undergrowth. The first waterfalls we came across were a large downpour leading to a smaller series of bumbling rapids. A rickety wire and wooden bridge spanned the river leading to a less-worn path and a weathered wooden ladder was built beside the waterfall. Dotahn decided to explore the ladder, but unfortunately there was a locked gate at the top and a sign in Spanish saying something about a family water park. We assumed it was only open on weekends. We continued with some trepidation across the bridge and pressed on along the path which had become all the more fun in its treacherous run through the thick forest along small rock ledges. Iron ropes secured into the cliff side kept us from slipping down to the river below and eventually we came upon the site of the family water park on the other side of the river. A concrete water slide, scary jumping platform from the top of the waterfall and a tiled pool were still being built, in preparation for the larger crowds on weekends.
We pressed on to another set of beautiful waterfalls, encountering butterfly’s, strange insects, caterpillars and countless birds. Another family had come to the falls for a swim and we sat down in a peaceful spot for a picnic lunch.We had purchased some vegetables in the town and brought them back to our hotel to wash them for lunch. Susan happened to be a nurse and particularly careful with cleanliness. She explained to us a few things about Ecuador. Due to the lack of education about hygiene in the farming communities and some of the habits of the farmers, it was not the quality of the soil or the use of pesticides which could cause illness from fruit and vegetables but the human faecal matter present on a lot of the produce. She herself got Hepatitis from a salad sandwich and was bed ridden for three months. ( Yes we got our Hep shots) She said it was therefore necessary to soak all vegetables in a disinfectant solution (natural ones are available) and to peel and cook things where possible. Sated and happy from our peaceful morning we caught the tarabita back across the valley and walked the six km back into town.
Of all the activities available in Mindo we had compiled a smaller list of things that we must do while there, so the next day we started with a trip to the butterfly house. The garden leading up to the butterflies was pretty and home to a dozen or so hummingbirds, flitting playfully amongst the trees and fighting over a number of feeders hanging from the branches.Inside the butterfly house we were shown the life cycle of the butterfly, from a small container of eggs the size of grains of sand, to larvae to caterpillars which hardened into their various chrysalis and split to reveal their final form as the butterflies. Each butterfly sat for three hours for its wings to dry before flying for the first time. The butterfly house had a large range, the largest in size being the Owl Eyes butterfly which was the size of an open paperback novel and had the face of an owl on the outside of it’s wings and brilliant blue on the inside.
After having our fill of butterflies we headed further up the road to Mindo ropes and canopy, one of two canopy adventure companies. We climbed the hill and were met by an elderly woman who took our payment and belongings, all the while speaking friendly and indecipherable Spanish. She called to a young boy who spoke English and strapped us into harnesses, helmets and gloves with leather grooves implanted into the palms. We ascended a large staircase to the first zip-line. Towering above the canopy of the cloud forest each of the thirteen zip-lines differed in length, height and speed. On most of the zip-lines rollers were clipped over the line and onto the harness while you used your hands to control your speed by pulling down on the line behind you. A few, however, were far more elaborate and frightening. The first trick line Emmily tried the ‘Superman’, tied to one of the instructors with her legs in the air and her arms out she flew across the canopy, like Superman. Dotahn tried the ‘butterfly’, another tandem trick. He was tied upside down to an instructor with his legs up over his shoulders and his arms splayed. All the rest of the lines were done solo except for one where we both went down together. One line we were bounced up and down severely to gather speed (aptly named the kangaroo) and some of the lines were incredibly fast and long. On the other trick line we tried a trick called the ‘bat’. Attached in a crouching position upside down we flew over the forest face first. It was really exhilarating.
Considering that Mindo and the cloud forests of Ecuador have the widest range of bird-species in the world we decided to organise a bird watching tour with a local guide. William was born in Mindo and grew up in the forests being shown a lot about the medicinal value of the plants and the local ecosystems. He went to university to study tourism and had spent the last twelve years studying the local birds. He was young, friendly and spoke English very well, but most importantly he really knew his stuff. We set out at six in the morning armed with binoculars, cameras and William with a large scope and tripod. We walked up into the forest along the road and were really quite lucky with our spotting. William would use a variety of bird-calls and could spot a tiny bird from a mile away. We walked over twelve kilometres and saw three species of Toucan, Hawks, a Kite and a whole bunch of different and colourful species of smaller bird. William got particularly excited when we saw a rare type of Falcon which was not from the area and rarely seen. We had not been bird-watching before and knew very little about birds, but both enjoyed it despite the hour of the day and the strenuous walk. It was interesting to hear about the development of the town and the impact of tourism on the area. Apparently just ten years previous the are had been dominated by farming. Apart from high in the mountains, most of the forest was being cleared. With the increase in tourism in the area the farmers saw the benefits and profits which could be had in preserving the natural beauty and the forests had returned. You could not really tell that a lot of the area had so recently been grazing pastures. The area was much happier and the community closer with the increase in tourism. William asked about our travels and where we were going next, telling us he would love to travel abroad but could only ever afford to holiday in other parts of South America. It really put into perspective how lucky we are to live in Australia. We managed to save for this trip on minimum wage jobs, yet William has an education and a high paying job in his community. This really illustrates the disparity between our countries. Us, as the lowly paid in Australia, are rich here in Ecuador. We have more more money and opportunities on a minimum wage than the relatively well-off people of Ecuador.
That evening we went out for pizza and met a young couple from the US who were both marine biologists. We spent an interesting evening talking about diving and the impact of the ‘Aquarium Trail’ on the ecosystems of the ocean. Their favourite place to dive was interestingly enough, Herron Island. This is a little girl who was playing with emm through the pizza restaurant window
For our final day we went hiking on the Yellow House trails, an area of private property which you could walk for a small fee. A lovely woman met us at her gate and gave us a map to the area. We walked all the trails and it was a serene place. Young, dark jungle, moist and warm. We settled on a small platform overlooking Mindo and had a picnic lunch before heading back down to town.
Our last night before heading off to Banos was spent soaking up the atmosphere of the quaint little town, watching the children running around playing with bottle caps and soccer balls. Listening to the community singing together to the rhythm of drums and guitar around a fire, mixed with the hum of the night critters.