Every year, thousands of visitors flock to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands and Amazon Rainforest for a chance to see some of the world’s most rare ecological sites. However, after a quick two-hour bus ride from Quito to Mindo, we got our first glance at one of nature’s lesser-known masterpieces: a cloud forest.
Because Mindo is uniquely located high in the western slope of the Andes, this area experiences conditions that are very different from that of a regular forest. The temperature is usually cooler and the waters run rapidly, a stark contrast to the Amazon’s lethargic rivers. The differences were easy to spot as soon as our bus started winding up the mountains; the air became heavy with moisture, an instant reminder that we were entering an area buried in clouds. This constant access to water makes the forest’s vegetation particularly green and lush, while the close proximity to the capital makes it a popular day/weekend trip. Almost 200,000 tourists and locals visit each year to participate in activities such as rafting, trekking, and kayaking. Many of these activities are located in the Mindo-Nambillo Ecological Reserve, where the monstrous forest stretches out over an impressive 19,200 hectares. The town itself, where many people eat and book their tours, was only founded in 1862 and houses about 3,000 people. Because the town and ecological reserve are so close, visitors don’t have to spend too much time traveling and can instead focus on their activities. The bus from Quito stops right in the middle of the town, so you can head off almost as soon as you step off onto the stone streets.
Eager to get our trip started, we headed off to one of town’s most popular sites right after we unloaded our bags and tied up our shoes. With over 1,200 creatures and 25 different species, Hosteria Mariposas de Mindo is Ecuador’s largest butterfly exhibition. A short brief on the 4 stages of a butterfly’s life and a quick look at the souvenirs increased our appreciation for the garden in the next room.
The garden was surprising enough to incite a large gasp from our group. Instead of encasing the butterflies behind glass or inside cages, the workers at the museum allow them to fly freely. On the right side of the room, you can see extremely realistic replicas of cocoons and wings. Visitors have to enter the room quickly so the butterflies don’t escape. But the highlight of this visit was being able to hold butterflies by attracting them with bits of banana. All around the room, everyone was coaxing the winged creatures onto the tips of their fingers. The butterflies seem to be used to people, so it was easy for everyone to get close and take great pictures. Visitors must avoid touching the wings and should not apply insect repellent before going; the chemicals could kill the butterflies.
Right outside the museum, we stopped to see if we could spot some of the hummingbirds that flutter around the trees. With 130 different types of hummingbird species, Mindo is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Serious birdwatchers often visit the town in an attempt to spot the notorious Andean Cock of the Rock. The males usually come out at around 6 AM, while the females usually appear a bit later. Our group was content with chasing down the two hummingbirds right outside of the butterfly museum; however, the quickness of the wings made it almost impossible to snap a quick photo.
After a few minutes of scurrying around the trees and waving our cameras, our group decided to stop by the town for lunch. Mindo offers plenty of cheap yet filling restaurants, including those with the typical lunch special of soup, a main course, and a drink. These usually range anywhere from $2.50 to $4.00, making it an extremely convenient option for budget travelers. The menus are also stuffed with plenty of delicious fresh fish such as tilapia and trout. There are also some restaurants, such as Dragonfly Fly Inn, that have selections great for vegetarians.
Next on our list was heading back to the reserve to scope out one of Mindo’s many waterfalls. Although it is possible to find them in many corners of the forest, Nambillo Waterfall is one of the most popular. All day long, it can be seen spewing out water from a height of 15 meters. If you’re planning on adding this to your itinerary, make sure to pack your bathing suit because there is a spot where visitors can swim and relax. At the top of the hill, there is also a small waterslide slightly behind the trees. Usually there is a cable car in the forest that visitors can take to get from place to place; however, it was closed on the day we went.
But visitors don’t have to be avid or technically trained hikers to walk to this waterfall. While the trail can be muddy in certain parts, it is doable for those who are not looking to break a huge sweat and there are ropes that visitors can hold on to while walking. In one part of the trail, visitors can use these ropes to practice their repelling skills. But don’t be scared; for those who are reluctant to do this, there is another path they can use to avoid it.
Everyone was grateful to get back to the hotel and into the pool after our walk. We stayed at a beautiful place called Hotel Bambu. The designers of the hotel made good use of the natural surroundings; to get to the pool table, Jacuzzi, and cabins, one had to walk through meticulously made paths surrounded by vegetation. Countless hammocks dripped from the trees, so I could pick and choose what site to see while I relaxed with a book. Besides this hotel, Mindo offers both luxury and budget accommodation options. This variety of choices means that there’s something there to fit the needs of every type of traveler.
The next morning, we all woke up bright and early to do something that many people were looking forward to: ziplining. There were multiple lines traversing down the mountain, so you had plenty of time to fly over the tops of the trees and soak in the sights. In total, the all of the ziplines added up to about 3,500 meters in length. Everyone on the staff was extremely helpful and the break system worked very well, so no one was nervous or worried. While it’s not possible to go down with large cameras, many people attach their GoPros to their helmets for exciting photos and videos.
Although there are many places in the world that offer opportunities to zipline, this experience was especially unique because of the different positions that you could contort yourself into. We had the option of going upside-down by ourselves or in a position called the “butterfly” with a guide. The “butterfly” position was exactly what it sounded like…a position that made you look like a butterfly. With the help of a guide, people in our group were flipped upside side-down with their legs spread and pushed down the cable. Because of this position, we were unlikely to forget about one of Mindo’s most famous winged creatures! If you would rather watch your friends zip down the mountain instead of participating, you can also walk down on a separate path.
Next on the list was another thrilling outdoor activity: tubing. We hopped back into the pickup trucks and drove to a large river next to the butterfly reserve that we had visited the day before. After everyone strapped on helmets and lifejackets, the group received a safety brief and climbed into the tubes. Many tour companies offer this fun activity for around $6 and you can easily book your spot in town. Each tubing experience is dependent on the time of year. During the wet season, the rivers are fast, the waves are fierce, and it only takes about 15 minutes to get down the river. But during the dry season, the ride takes about double the time and is more of a way to relax and unwind.
Visiting a butterfly garden, swimming in a waterfall, ziplining, and tubing only make up a small portion of what Mindo has to offer. If you decide to take the trip to the forest up in the clouds, don’t hesitate to wander around the town, explore everything that the tour operators have, and take your pick or activities! After a day of trekking through the forest, you can visit a delectable chocolate factory, where guests can learn about how the company’s delicious squares of brownies are made. Or why not walk around a lake while being serenaded by frogs? The list of things to do in Mindo goes on and on, but don’t worry-since the town is so close to Quito, you can always come back for a second visit without breaking the bank!