Fifty Shades of Green: Mindo’s Cloud Forest

When in Mindo, you notice two things right away. The ever-present clouds that drop and lift over Mindo’s valley; a persistent cover that loosens a steady stream of fine droplets (not quite rain), creating one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Birds, butterflies, orchids – many of them endemic to this corner of Ecuador.

The other thing you notice is the by-product of that mist/drizzle/rain: green, green, green – every shade of green imaginable.

This is some of the glorious scenery in and around the tiny town of Mindo. The cloud forest can feel oppressive at times, so dense and earthy and vegetative, but there are very few days of solid rain. Usually there will be a break in the clouds for an hour or several hours, and the mood changes again.

We are here during the rainy season, which brings cool temperatures (high teens to low 20s) and fresh, oxygenated air; perfect for hiking and exploring.

Mindo is a town of about 3000 inhabitants, many of whom appear to be part of the bird-watching/ river rafting/zip-lining/restaurant/hospitality tourist industry. This is the cabin we stayed in for our memorable four-day visit.

It was completely private, as the other cabin on the property remained empty during our stay. Surrounded by lush garden, a little creek and dozens of birds and hummingbirds, this was exactly what we were hoping to find. We went to sleep listening to the creek and woke up to intense birdsong.

We also had this guy as a regular visitor – the capybara. Our property provides this South American rodent with everything he needs – water, grasses, fallen fruit and an absence of predators.

Our host, Julia, has lived in Mindo for several years and in addition to operating the cabins, she has been a bird-watching guide for over 20 years.

Bird-watching is huge in Mindo – there are over 550 species and bird-watchers come from all over the world to see them. (This became quite apparent to us shortly after our arrival as we noticed a large number of tourists our age and older and figured they weren’t here for the zip-lining.)

We booked a tour with Julia for this morning; three hours of bird-watching that began at 6:30 a.m. We began with rather disappointing weather – foggy, drizzly and poor light, and at first we weren’t seeing very much at all.

Julia was undaunted. She brought a telescope and two good sets of binoculars and she not only had a terrific personal arsenal of birdcalls, she also had an unerring eye. We all stared at the same background of trees and leaves, but Julia could hone right in and see what was invisible to us.

Our luck (and the weather) began to turn and before long, we saw this: the yellow-throated toucan. This bird has extremely distinctive vocal sounds – croaks and yelps that we soon began to hear everywhere.

This photo (and all the rest of the birds) was taken through the telescope by Julia, using our cellphone. This was our very first proper bird-watching tour, with a guide with a telescope. We’ve seen lots of birds close-up before, but somehow I thought going birdwatching meant strolling down a path and there they would be: posing prettily on fenceposts until we got our money shot.

But no, birds are elusive and they often fly maddeningly away just as you focus your telephoto lens. I did get one photo with my camera – the Squirrel Cuckoo. We caught him eating breakfast, so we had plenty of opportunity for photos.

This was the shot that Julia got of the same bird.

The Collared Aracari.

The Red-headed Barbet.

Crimson-rumped Toucanet.

Swallowtailed Kite. We saw three or four of these magnificent birds flying overhead and this one thoughtfully landed on a palm tree for a photo op.

This is a poor image of the Red-billed Parrot we were so excited to see. The sky was still so dull when we spotted him, so you can’t see his colours well, but we watched him for about 10 minutes as he rested on a treetop.

Our first bird-watching tour was a big success for us, but we’ve clearly got a long way to go. As exciting as it was to see these exotic birds, after a couple of hours I was thinking about coffee and breakfast and my eyes were going buggy from staring through binoculars.

Although I believe that having a guide is essential, we managed to spot a number of birds on our own around town.

Based on photos from our Mindo bird-watching booklet, I think this is an Orange-bellied Euphonia.

A Lemon-rumped Tanager.

Mindo’s main square serves the same purpose as all central squares: a meeting place, shade, gardens, benches, and…entertainment.

The town is small, very walkable and at this point, is not yet all gussied up for tourists. Produce, clothing, flowers – small stands are set up along this photogenic wall.

Restaurants can be quite organic in appearance. This one housed a number of bar stools; most of them warmed by gringo backsides, lured in by 2×1 Micheladas.

Beer is good, but chocolate rules in Ecuador, which produces the best cacao beans in the world. Only five percent of cacao in the world is classified as “Fine Aroma”, and Ecuador produces 63% of that.

A chocolate tour? Yes please – El Quetzal is a small farm right in town with “bean-to-bar” production, and our guide Miguel took us and another guest, through a one-hour demonstration.

We learned a great deal. For starters, I had imagined cacao beans to be similar to coffee beans in size, but they are large pods, that when cut into, reveal the mucilage-covered beans inside. Miguel invited us to suck on the beans (sweet and gooey), but not bite into them. Much like coffee, the mucilage provides a sort of fermentation to the beans as they dry.

Every flavour that is added to the chocolate is grown on the farm – all organic, including macadamia nuts, coffee, oranges and lemon grass.

The best was saved for the last – the tastings. Miguel asked us to start with the strongest chocolate first, then down to 67% – anything under that is not considered worthwhile. After the plain chocolate, we then tasted all the flavoured varieties, and finished off the tasting with an unbelievably rich brownie, paired with a dark, bitter, granular sauce.

Next up was a visit to the Mariposas de Mindo, 2 km. out of town. This is a butterfly garden dedicated to the exhibition, reproduction and conservation of butterflies that are found in the Mindo cloud forest. The garden has both a large indoor solarium and an extensive outdoor area that is fully netted.

After a quick explanation about the life cycle of butterflies, we were invited to go into the garden and just enjoy. There were a few other people there and interestingly, everyone was either silent or whispering.

Trays with pineapple and mashed banana were laid out, with the invitation to pick up a bit of fruit to encourage the butterflies to land on your hand. These big-eyed butterflies were the most agreeable to doing this – most of the other butterflies just wanted to fly and land on flowers and do their own thing.

A variety of species; most of them unfamiliar to me.

Butterflies that were in the process of emerging from their chrysalis. We waited for a few moments, hoping to see one emerge, but no luck.

We left the garden after an hour or so, and came into the lobby to be greeted by this sight.
Ramon – the Mariposa mascot.

People are allowed to bring their dogs into the butterfly garden, which confounded me. We only saw one small dog while we were in there, but it seems that dogs could be a disruptive force for butterflies.

Ramon looks as though he doesn’t move if he doesn’t have to.

There’s more to Mindo that birds and butterflies. You can go ATV-ing, zip-lining and river rafting. The Mindo River is very fast-flowing, full of rocks and appears quite shallow. An ordinary tube would not be safe and a raft would be too inflexible. Sports operators have come up with the idea of tying inner tubes together to create a “raft” that is then steered by someone who is supposed to avoid hitting the rocks.
You – the participant – sit on one of the tubes and hang on for dear life. Not for us, but here is the set-up.

This is the river.

We did venture a ride on the Tarabitha cable car. These open carriages, powered by a car engine, are found in the Colombian, Venezuelan and Ecuadorian Andes, as a means of zipping people and goods across valleys.

And zip is the operative word. This little beast flew 150 metres high over the jungle in about a minute to cover the 560 metre trip. The return ticket was just $5.

The prize on the other side was waterfalls, with three options – Route 1 – two hours to go in and out to one huge waterfall. Route 2 – roughly 45 minutes to go in and out to a small waterfall. Route 3 – either go to the Route 2 waterfall first, or bypass and carry on for 40 minutes to the first waterfall, followed by another six waterfalls, 10 minutes apart from one another.

Our plan was to to Route 2 and Route 3 – first to one waterfall, then hop on the path to the other seven waterfalls. Didn’t happen. We walked along the path for about 20 minutes, then climbed down and down and down, until finally we heard the roar of the Nambillo Waterfall.

As waterfalls go, it was alright, but the volume of water was huge and it was fun to join other people as they waded into the calm pool to get their photos.

We then began the climb up, and up and up, until we reached the crossroads and sat to catch our breath. Do we take on the other Route, with its ups and downs and seven waterfalls? We tried – we hiked along for about 20 minutes and then looked at each other and turned around. Mindo sits at 4200 feet and when we climbed off the Tarabitha, we were at 4900 feet. That meant we had already done a climb down…and then up again of 700 feet, and would be repeating that several times more.

After about 40 minutes, we were back at the top, sat with a cool drink and enjoyed the beautiful view. Back on the Tarabitha for home and the end of a great day.

And that is what Mindo has been – four great days, filled with excitement, calm, new experiences, and lovely people. More to come as we leave tomorrow for Banos.

19 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Green: Mindo’s Cloud Forest

  1. love it I would have taken the river tubing as I am afraid of heights and would have missed the beautiful waterfall
    So glad you are having a wonderful trip.


    1. We are having such a good time Anne, and honestly that Tarabitha looks scarier than it is. It just zoomed across the valley and landed softly. The other one we took in Colombia was way scarier – it took a while and stopped and started, and then banged into the gate at the end.


  2. Well, this is the first time I’ve felt well and truly envious of your amazing travels. The birds! the cloud forest! Everything you’ve described about Mindo has me wanting to be there. Just, WOW!


    1. How good to hear from you, Jennifer! We could have stayed longer in Mindo, for sure – it was quite unlike any place we’ve been before. I’ve been wondering if you were able to get back to Melaque this winter – I’m sure you’ve been missing it. I see Laura is now living in La Manzanilla.
      Hope to see you this spring or summer.


  3. Birds, butterflies, and chocolate, three of my favorite things. As someone who usually sees sparrows and chickadees, you photos of exotic birds are a sight to behold! Your
    Description of the chocolate tour had me salivating!


    1. Seeing those birds was such a thrill, even if we didn’t see most of them with our naked eye.It was like whale-watching – you’re hoping for breaching whales and great numbers and often you get a few tails and fins – but it’s still exciting. And I always get excited about chocolate!


  4. It’s wonderful wandering with the both of you into the Mindo Cloud forest area together with he ecosystem that it supports. We really enjoyed each the amazing photos of birds, butterflies, orchids, waterfalls, and adventure available you can choose from. You captured a lot about the area n a four-day visit. The description of the mist, drizzle, moisture that comes with the tropical cloud cover triggered a memory of the California Redwoods situation which get 40% of their moisture from the coast clouds coming in from the Pacific.


    1. It’s interesting that you mention the California Redwoods – being in Mindo reminded me of Tofino/Ucluelet, and that weather system. I loved the moody atmosphere of Mindo, but I think the rain and grey would get to me.


  5. Spectacular birds, butterflies and……. chocolate! I don’t think it can get any better…..even Ramon is chill. I know I will probably never see this place in person, but your beautiful photos and narrative are the next best thing. Thank you!


      1. We had quite a bit of snow in Qualicum the past week and I put the snow shovel to some good use that’s for sure. Mum is doing good 🙂


    1. Honestly, every trip we take now feels like the trip of a lifetime! We love the Ecuadorians – they are so curious and friendly and welcoming. Anad almost every time we tell people we are from Canada, they say the same thing and in the same tone, “Ah, Ca-na-da!” I’m taking that in a good way.


  6. Awesome! What a fabulous exploration you are on!
    Chocolate, well, wondered if you might send a few bits home? And other places? LOL
    Birds, butterflies, peaceful wilderness and still so much to experience in the calm. Such a sweet cabin with its own four legged host.
    Good memory collections! Thank you for sharing!


  7. Love all the birds you saw! I know a little boy who would have loved the chocolate tour! Slowly catching up on the posts. Looks like you’re both having a great time on your adventures. Cheers!


    1. Alanna, that little boy comes to mind a lot. He would have loved having a butterfly land on him as well. Or riding in a chiva, with the music blasting. Or hanging on the tarabita, looking far down below. You’re both travellers, I’m sure you will soon be joined by two more.


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