In the cloud forests of Mindo, I rediscovered the fresh joy of mountain air. After two months in the equatorial heat on the coast and in the Galápagos—and a 12-hour odyssey by bus and taxi—we arrived for a one-week stay in Mindo, a small valley town about two hours west of Quito. We had traveled there to meet friends who had flown into Quito, but it was much more than a stopover. It was a change I didn’t know I needed.
Mindo is only minutes from the actual equator but because its altitude is around 4,000 feet, temperatures range from the 50s F at night (cool enough to want a warm blanket) to the 70s during the day. We pulled out long pants and shirts, layers we hadn’t unpacked in months, and struggled with hiking boots that had stiffened from lack of use. We stayed in a mountain lodge so isolated that our taxi needed to ford a stream to reach it. We arrived in the rain at night. Mud pooled in the rutted dirt roads. We wondered if we would ever be able to leave the lodge, and in the end wondered why we would ever want to.
This lodge was a little Eden all by itself, with new surprises daily. On the grounds were playful agoutis (puppy-sized brown rodents with snub noses and chubby round butts), a fuzzy, short-eared rabbit (we first thought it might be a wild guinea pig and then wondered if it was a gremlin), myriad songbirds and parakeets, and an occasional toucan. The flora was tropical—hanging orchids, brightly colored bougainvilleas—yet we were in the mountains. We started each morning in our own private yoga studio with a view of clouds sifting through ridges across the valley, swam in a pool fed by the rushing river that we could hear from our rooms, and sat in a gazebo frequented by several species of colorful hummingbirds.
It also rained. A lot. Every afternoon, and nearly every night. While the mornings were typically dry enough for hikes and other outings, we often retreated to our lodge by around 1 or 2 to avoid the rain that inevitably set in for the rest of the day. When we arrived that first night and asked if we should expect a lot of rain, our driver said (in Spanish), “Of course it rains a lot now. It’s winter!” This thoroughly confused us because we had been told at the coast that kids were on summer break from school. And if we were south of the equator, wouldn’t April be, well, fall?
We later learned that, duh, when you’re at the equator there ARE no seasons. There are no solstices or equinoxes, so there’s never any official, “start of winter” or any other season. Invierno (winter) is just a word folks use to indicate the time of year when it rains more than other times of year. And that time is different in different regions. Here in Mindo, turns out March/April is the rainy season, so they call it invierno.
Because everyone else apparently knew it was the rainy season, Mindo—which is small but boasts some natural wonders that attract tourists from Quito and beyond—was quiet. So we were able to explore the wonders mostly by ourselves. As a scenic valley in the cloud forest, Mindo is at the transition point between the coast and the Andes. Three main rivers and scores of streams pass through the lush, green valley. Its biodiversity is renowned even in Ecuador, where the four zones (Andes, Amazon, Coast, and Galápagos) offer more biodiversity than almost anywhere, especially for its size. Mariposas (butterflies), aves (birds), and cascadas (waterfalls) are particular draws here, so we made sure to seek out all of them. They were true to our expectations, and even they contained many surprises. The photo at the top, for example, is a butterfly still clinging to the chrysalis it just came out of, surrounded by rows of glittering silver and gold chrysalises that I never knew existed!
And there were many other unexpected wonders that made our time in Mindo so fresh.
Cool air! After my first winter ever in a hot climate, I wondered if I could ever enjoy being chilly again. I felt I had completely adjusted to wearing flip-flops everywhere, to never needing a jacket, to feet-in-the-sand, open-air restaurants, bars, and shops. But that first night when we pulled up a warm blanket, breathed in the mountain air, and then savored a hot cup of coffee in the morning, it all came flooding back. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not craving a sub-zero day, frozen fingers, or March sleet. It was just good to remember that the mountains have just as much draw for me as the beach.
Monkeys! After not seeing a single monkey on a tour of a jungle park near the coast that promised near-100% chance of seeing them, we were surprised to see monkeys in the wild on two occasions in Mindo. The first time, we were walking down a dirt road and were startled by a capuchin (like a large spider monkey) that lept out of a tree onto the wall of a nearby house. He snarled and seemed to chase us for a bit and we remembered stories of monkeys attacking people in other countries, so we hurried on our way. The second time, we were breathing deeply at the end of a yoga session when another capuchin crashed through the leaves outside. Disturbing the peace and yet more a part of it than we were, he munched a pink banana (yes, they have pink bananas here!) before disappearing into the canopy surrounding us. We said a little “namaste” for the privilege of sharing that moment of nature’s everyday marvels.
Hidden stories! Juan, a tech support manager from Spain, and Sonya, a meeting planner from Guayaquil, met 15 years ago online while both were in their 50s. They hatched a plan: she had just been given the rights to live on and care for 1,000 hectares high in the cloud forest; they would build a homestead there and create a destination for nature lovers. He flew over, met her and her family for the first time at the airport, and five days later they were married (in an event she planned) in the hills where they would build. There were no roads; all the guests arrived by tractor. Even today, we got there by driving 45 minutes up a rutted mountain road (standing in the back of a pickup truck and ducking to avoid branches), then hiked 30 minutes along a muddy trail, crossing multiple rivers on bridges made from metal pipes and bamboo. Juan then guided us into the forest along trails and steps he had built over years and continuously maintains—alone, with machetes and hand tools—until we reached two spectacular waterfalls. Then they served us batidos (smoothies) and told us their story. We had expected a walk in the woods and some waterfalls—what we got was a window on two lives that took a radical turn and intersected in a remote, beautiful, hard-scrabble place.
Sky-rides! A more popular (and easier) way to see waterfalls are the tourist attractions called the Teleférico and the Tarabita. Both carry people between sharp green peaks through and over thick tropical trees; the first is a chairlift, quite similar to ski lifts, and the second an open gondola that can carry up to six people. Both are driven by small car engines that an attendant will fire up on demand as groups arrive: the Teleférico took us to a path to the Tarabita, which took us to a network of rugged trails connecting seven waterfalls and several swimming holes—a popular destination for families on the weekend. Another attraction is ziplines, on which strapped-in riders fly above the cloud-forest canopy, seeing mountain views along the way before an attendant halts their descent. Ziplines certainly provide more of an adrenaline rush than chairlifts, but either way, I had not expected to fly with the birds here. It was fascinating to see the forest from ground level, leaf level, and soaring above the canopy.
Chocolate! We had been underwhelmed by the Ecuadorian chocolate we had found in stores—until we got to Mindo. Here we happened upon a chocolate shop that makes its own rich, dark bars in multiple cacao percentages and tropical flavors. They also offer tours, and we were surprised to learn that the entire operation was onsite in a series of ramshackle, bamboo-roofed buildings. We saw trees with yellow cacao fruits, which we were told are better than red ones but take longer to grow, so most chocolate comes from the red. We tasted the sweet (but not chocolatey) gel that protects the beans inside the fruits and is used to make chocolate syrup. We learned that fermenting the beans for three days in banana leaves removes bitterness. And of course we sampled every variation they produce until we could eat no more (except for the bars we brought home of course). We learned that cacao trees grow better closer to the coast, and yet we had to travel to the cloud forest to find someone who turned it into gold.
In truth, it’s not just Mindo that has been marked by fresh surprises almost every day. Mindo really called it out for me, but it’s been no less true anywhere we’ve been in Ecuador. Perhaps that’s because we have the time to seek out new experiences; perhaps it’s because we had so few preconceptions about what we would find in Ecuador; perhaps it’s because this country is just full of surprises. No matter the reason, the freshness of each day’s experiences continues to captivate us and keep our curiosity soaring. I guess that should be no surprise.