“I was lucky that the weather had defied the forecast (& the fact that it was cloud forest). The day was clear & bright, perfect for a hike! As I had left early, I was pretty much alone the whole way.”
Mindo Cloud Forest, Ecuador
As part of my 50th year celebrations, I am aiming to tick off some of the more iconic trips on my Life List. One of these is the Galapagos Islands. I felt a trip to Ecuador deserved a little bit more exploration so I took 2 weeks ahead of my tour to discover what this fascinating country has to offer. My first stop was the Mindo Cloud Forest & here are my Top 6 Picks of the activities on offer.
What do you need to know?
I spent 3 nights in Mindo & was determined to experience as many unique things as the area had to offer. Here is my pick of my Top 6. All costs are quoted in US$ which is the currency used in Ecuador.
1. Chocolate Tour with Cacao Mindo
I had read that there are a number of chocolate producers in the area so one of my first goals was to try some artisan chocolate. I asked at a tourist information office & categorically their recommendation was Cacao Mindo. It is a very local & family run business.
“It turned out I was the only one on the tour. It was a Monday afternoon & Mindo was very quiet. The weekends are always hectic as many people from across Ecuador visit at this time. It was perfect for me, my own personal tour!”
Juan Carlos was my guide & an expert in making excellent, homegrown, organic chocolate. He taught me about the difference in the way the 2 species of cacao plants are grown. The red fruit is mass produced but here they only use the organic yellow fruit in their hand made production. I took the opportunity to taste the sweet fruit & discovered that, ironically, the seeds (which make the chocolate) are toxic in their natural state if you eat too many of them.
How To Make Chocolate
Here, they first ferment the beans, to produce wine which piqued my interest! Chocolate wine? Then they dry the seeds for a total of 7 days. Nothing is wasted here with the husks becoming tea & the shells ashtrays! I had the chance to help with the roasting process (over an open fire), ground the beans & then my favourite part, tasting!
The ground product was mixed with a series of homemade syrups of lemongrass, ginger & cacao itself before I was presented with a delicious fondue & hot chocolate. All for just $7 per person! Definitely, a must do for any visiting chocoholic.
2. Hosteria de Mariposa (Butterfly Farm)
For my second day in Mindo, the sun was shining so I decided to make the most of it. 1st on the list was the butterfly farm. The butterflies are apparently at their most active in the morning & when there is no rain, ideally between 9-11am.
The visit costs $7.50 & ideally should take 45 minutes to an hour. At the start of the visit, I got a brief introduction to the lifecycle of the butterflies. The most important things I learnt were:
- You can feed them if you put some banana on your finger & scoop them up by the legs.
- NEVER touch their wings.
- You may be lucky to see some hatching out of their cocoons. It takes 3 hours for their wings to dry enough to use them.
- In the butterfly stage, they can last as little as 3 weeks. When you see their wings getting tatty, this is because they are getting old.
I was blown away as soon as I entered the room. The sheer volume of butterflies up the walls, on the plants & flying around, was impressive. Not to mention the amazing colours on display!
“I managed to get a huge one on my finger & it loved me so much it stayed for a full tour.”
As I wrestled to take photos while trying not to disturb my new friend, my phone screen got a bit messy with the mashed up banana!
I was lucky to witness some recently hatched creatures & then took up the opportunity to go for a walk in the gardens. Here you can admire the hummingbirds. Well worth a visit!
3. The Tarabita (Cable Car…kind of!)
Another “not to be missed” Mindo experience is the Tarabita. This is a dodgy looking cable car across the valley which leads you to highlight Number 4 – the Waterfall Hike. Further along the road out of town, you will find this yellow crate, strung to a cable. It costs $5 & takes less than a scary minute to cross the ravine.
“If you are afraid of heights then be warned, this is not for the faint-hearted.”
On the way over I was on my own as I glided above the trees. On my return, I discovered that the Tarabita holds 6 people, 2 of whom are standing. I drew the short straw & it was a lot more frightening & unsteady when ridden this way! The Tarabita was great fun though so I would recommend the trip & as far as I know it’s the only way to reach Number 4.
4. Waterfall Hike
Once you get to the other side of the valley via the Tarabita, you will be greeted by a map of the waterfalls. There are 7 in total. The main waterfall is Cascada Nambillo which is a 15-minute walk from the Tarabita. It is mainly downhill & I was lucky that the weather had defied the forecast (& the fact that it was cloud forest). The day was clear & bright, perfect for a hike! Nambillo is a beautiful waterfall & has changing rooms & surprisingly well-supplied bathrooms should you fancy a dip. As far as I was concerned, the water was moving fast & had a lot of power. I felt the need to press on with my hike. I would not have felt safe swimming alone.
Back up the hill, there is a fork in the path. One way takes you back to the Tarabita, so you can just come for a short walk, swim & waterfall if you wish. If you take the right-hand path it leads to 5 further waterfalls. Cascada Ondinas is a 30-minute walk in total from the Tarabita & the first waterfall you will encounter.
“The hike was stunning & as I had left early, I was pretty much alone the whole way. The sun continued to shine & the path was well marked with handrails & steps as required.”
Once you hit Cascada Ondinas, then the waterfalls come in quick succession. The first is small & my butterfly theme continued with several species enjoying sunning themselves on the rocks.
Next was Cascada Guarumos, a much better prospect for swimming, judging by the number of fellow hikers in various stages of undress when I arrived! Then, Cascada Colibries, a gentle stream, followed by the more impressive (if the volume of water is your thing) Cascada Madre. Again, Madre looked like a good spot for a dip.
Knowing When To Turn Back
Once I reached Madre, I decided that this was the end of my journey.
“The rocks were slippery & as a clumsy person, I didn’t want to push my luck. The path continued steeply up some steps, on the other side of the river.”
Most other people appeared to stop here but a few hardy souls continued. I will never know what Cascada De Los Maderos looks like, but I’m happy with that too!
If you’re wondering about the extra waterfall, Cascada Reina is a 50-minute walk in the opposite direction from the Tarabita & appears to be the less popular route.
I have been fortunate to do several night walks on my travels (Borneo, Costa Rica, the Amazon in Peru). I always enjoy seeing the forest from a different perspective & hoped that Mindo would deliver in a similar way. This one was with Eric at Mindo Night Walk & cost $15.
I was picked up by taxi outside my hotel at 7pm & joined by a Dutch couple. Eric met us & offered ponchos & boots. We declined (if I’m honest I didn’t really hear him, or I would have accepted the boots!). Just as we started to walk, the heavens opened & the rain began.
In the first section we saw a millipede, then some wandering spiders (so-called as they don’t produce webs) & a caterpillar which is highly toxic. If you touch the spines, it’s like a bee sting & will be painful for the next 6 hours. Eventually, it turns into a moth.
Too Much Rain?
By this time the rain was torrential.
“To quote Eric “This is bad, even for the wet season”. He offered us the chance to abort & come back tomorrow (which he has to do about 10 times/year).”
The couple were leaving so that wasn’t an option they wanted to explore. However, we did decide to head back to his garage until it died down a bit. By the time we got there my feet were soaked & my trousers so wet they were struggling to stay up! I took up the offer of boots.
“Would You Like To See A Snake?”
While we waited, Eric announced that he had collected a baby snake on his walk yesterday, if we wanted to see it. He had brought it back for study & planned to return the creature tomorrow. We agreed & next thing he appeared with a small snake, harmless but initially looking threatening with long tongue whipping & mouth open, appearing ready to attack. Once the snake had calmed down, we all tried holding it.
“With the guy, it was totally still, posing beautifully for photos & seeming very content. By the time I took it, it just wanted to slither up my arms & make a beeline for my face which was a little disconcerting.”
Searching for Mammals
Finally, the rain subsided & we made our way back out. I felt much more comfortable & secure with my boots! We headed straight for the tree where Eric had placed some bananas as bait for the mammals, only to find they had beaten us to it & the bananas had all gone!
Our final treat for the night was when Eric spotted a Kinkajou (also known as the Honey Bear). Clearly, this was the banana thief, running up the tree to make its escape. Apparently, they are only seen once a week so it made our soggy persistence well worth it!
By the time we made it back to my squelchy trainers, the taxi was waiting. He didn’t want us in his car as we were so wet! Many taxis in Mindo are 4-wheel drive trucks so we unceremoniously climbed into the back & headed into town. Wet, cold, tired, but well worth the effort!
6. Bird Watching with Mindo Bird Paradise Tours
I found Sandra in one of the many Tourist Information offices in Mindo & couldn’t recommend her highly enough. Her English is excellent, she is an expert in the local area & more importantly an exceptional bird watching guide!
Travelling alone has disadvantages, especially when the number of tourists is low, as was the case for my visit to Mindo (wet season & during the week). They quoted $75 for a bird watching tour. Mindo is bird watcher’s paradise, but I am no expert. It would be a shame to miss out, but I also needed to watch my budget. I asked if there was anyone else & instantly Sandra was on the phone, confirmed another couple & the cost was now $30! Well worth the inquiry.
An Early Start
So, at 6am I was squelching my way back into my still soaked trainers for my pick up to see the birds. When I realised that the people coming with me were the same Dutch couple as last night, I knew we had a certain understanding! We were each given a pair of binoculars & Sandra had a telescope which she set up to show us the various birds she spotted & photographed for us through the lens.
Throughout the 3 ½ hours we were together, Sandra really showed us her knowledge & expertise.
“She has an unbelievably keen eye & ear to hear, spot & get the most amazing shots of these feathered creatures which I couldn’t even see for the most part.”
When I asked how long she had been doing this her answer said it all – 23 years but “only 19 years showing tourists”. Her enthusiasm was incredible, as was the breakfast she provided (fresh bread, homemade marmalade & cheese directly from the farm).
Fortune Favours The Early Risers!
We were lucky that morning to spot flycatchers, parrots, hawks, Bay Wren (tiny but with a hell of a loud sound!) & the icing the cake, a toucan & a very busy woodpecker! Following this, we headed back to the location of our Night Walk to spend some time watching the hummingbirds, before Sandra spotted a turkey flying past & we followed her loyally into the bushes, retracing our (slightly drier) steps from last night’s walk.
We finished our morning with another ride on the back of the truck, this time more to satisfy our enthusiasm for any final offerings Sandra would spot for us (namely an owl & a couple of hawks). An amazing morning all round & by the time I got back my hotel, it was 9.45am, just in time for my 2nd breakfast!
Where Next Time?
There are lots more activities that Mindo has to offer, but I am satisfied that I made the most of my time in the town. The Zipline Tour, River Tubing & Canyoning are apparently great fun. I left with a full heart for my first stop in Ecuador, a huge dose of satisfaction for my hiking & wildlife achievements & (still very) soggy shoes!
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