Mucking around in Mindo, Ecuador

After our experiences and my disappointment in Baños, I was ready to repent and pay my penance. I would make up for my attitude, accept the powers of Mother Nature, and prove I was worthy of the title ‘nomad.’ I would show Danielle and my readers that I could grow — if only a little — and learn to accept travel in all of its aspects. In essence, that I was worthy of the gift of traveling. After publishing my last post, Lucy from justourpassports.com, left a comment about a dismal travel experience she and her husband were suffering in the Philippines. Her words not only justified my purpose in writing that post, but also showed me that many travelers all over the world were having the same experience that I was. I wasn’t alone. However, the most important aspect of the commentary would take place a couple of days later when she informed me that she and her husband changed their travel plans and decided to visit Cebu instead (Lucy, if you’re reading this, I hope all went well!).

For hardcore, life-long, through-and-through travelers, this action represents the underlying tenet of a philosophy you have to obey: when your plans don’t work out, change them! If you don’t, you won’t be traveling very long (or you will be a very miserable traveler with a very miserable life). And in some ways, changing your plans means accepting your situation. It’s a simple tenet that can be applied to any situation, person, or life. However, traveling seems to magnify this problem: you have allocated a specific amount of money and time based on your preconceived notion of what your activities will be. Therefore the moment your plans become frustrated, your options are limited by where you are and the amount of money you have available. Moreover, you don’t want to waste the limited time you have. Thus, the importance of making quick decisions, changing plans, and accepting the situation become tantamount to how your experience will be perceived once it’s over.

For me, this change had to occur internally. I had to change my attitude. Our travel style has changed since coming to Ecuador. In Ecuador, I am making every effort to travel every weekend and to explore as much of the country as I can. The scope of my research into activities, lodging, transportation, weather patterns, and places has had to shrink to accommodate the increased frequency of our trips, so Danielle and I have had to rely on and develop a new set of skills. Interaction and improvisation have become more important than knowledge. Attitude is more important than picking the optimum period of time to travel. Logically, if my travel style has changed, my attitude and perception of the experience are required to change as well. Thus, I am learning to denude expectations and take the experience as it comes.


Mindo is the cloud forest region in Ecuador among the many cloud forests which exist throughout Ecuador and South America. It is a watershed region on the western slopes of the Andes, known as a biodiversity hot-spot with thousands of endemic plant and animal species. As storms rise from the coastal plains in the west to meet the Andes range in central Ecuador, the trees on the tops of the mountains strip the storm clouds of their water molecules which causes them to condensate and drip onto the plants below them.

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Some strange plant life grows in the forests of Ecuador…
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I tried to capture this exotic plant without flash but it was too dark by the time I took the picture.

The term cloud forest is defined as an area that is generally tropical or subtropical, characterized by frequent and persistent low-level cloud cover. When I informed Danielle that I was interested in traveling to Mindo that weekend, she gave me a look. I can’t blame her. After the little sprinkle and cloud cover we experienced in Baños, Mindo would be an inundation. I knew what to expect, both from Mindo and Danielle, so I was steeled with a response, “It will be a test to see if I’ve really changed my attitude.” Moreover, it was practical to choose Mindo since it was so close to Quito and didn’t require a lot of effort to execute a trip there.

I can’t say that Danielle was convinced by my response. She knows me too well to know that I can always change so quickly. She voiced her beliefs about my obstinacy (empirically known), but also had faith in my willpower to overcome any challenge I choose to accept (also empirically known). Therefore, that Friday at 7:30 in the morning, we boarded the bus for Mindo.

After a two hour bus ride, we were dropped off near the central square in Mindo. Danielle and I stood there in the middle of town, unsure what we should do with ourselves and our gear until we could check in at our hostel at 1:00 p.m. The day was beautiful and it was only mid-morning. The main avenue was dominated by restaurants, adventure agencies, souvenir shops, and a couple of small stores. All of the adventure agencies advertised the same experiences for the same prices so I entered the agency with a big ‘We Speak English’ sign above their entrance. Assuming that the sign’s truth value equaled ‘T’, I entered and immediately began speaking English to the lady behind the desk. Three words into my first sentence and her face was already telling me that the sign’s truth value equaled ‘F’. Switching back to Spanish, I inquired if Danielle and I could do the ‘Zip-Line Canopy Adventure’ immediately. For a moment, she was surprised by my abruptness, but then phoned her driver and told me he would be there in five minutes. We unslung our packs from our backs, took out the sunscreen, and began lathering it on our bodies. The little girl sitting at the computer gawked at us as we covered our skin until I asked her name. “Alexandria,” she replied. After exchanging pleasantries our camioneta arrived, and leaving our packs in the office, we piled into the truck.

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The main avenue and church in Mindo.

“Do you have your camera?” I asked Danielle.

“No.”

We had been in such a hurry to get going that Danielle had left her camera in her pack. I hopped out of the truck to grab it for her.  When I glanced around, I saw the truck starting to drive off. Danielle yelled for the driver to stop, I grabbed the camera, and then returned. Off we went!

Zip-lining with Mindo Canopy Adventure

There are two zip-line operators in Mindo. We went with Mindo Canopy Adventure since I was quite familiar with the company, its two hour canopy tour, and safety certificates. I didn’t find out about the other operator until later that day when our camioneta dropped off some other passengers there.

Once we arrived at Mindo Canopy Adventure’s site, we were immediately geared up and paired with another group of adventurers who were about to begin. Our group consisted of an Indian couple from California, a late-forties Ecuadorian couple, and us. For the next two hours, we zipped around, down, through, and above the tree canopy that blankets the mountains in every direction as far as the eye can see. It was a blast and everyone knew enough Spanish or English to be able to communicate and share in a couple of laughs.

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Jumping on the zip-line.

While there are a lot of zip-line adventures throughout Ecuador, I found Mindo to offer the best experience for its price. We paid $20 each for a two-hour tour that included a variety of zip-line cables–some were fast, some were slow, some were high, some were low, but they were all fun. In other parts of Ecuador, you pay $10-$15 for a quick ride across a valley or river and that’s it. A lot of backpackers at our hostel passed up the experience to do the zip-line because the cost was too much but I honestly believe they missed out. I’ve done a lot of zip-lines in my life and none were like that–gliding 200 hundred feet over valleys and mountains covered in thick, vibrant forest with no sign of human civilization is worth the $10 an hour for me.

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Riding the zip-line.

After finishing our zip-lining escapade, we returned to the agency office, retrieved our packs, and set off on our next adventure–finding our hostel, La Casa de Cecilia. Now, this hostel shouldn’t have been that hard to find since Mindo is not a very big town and I had directions; however, our directions were wrong so we ended up on the other side of town for the next 45 minutes (I suggest using the directions on the hostel’s website, not the directions from hostelworld.com). It wasn’t until we were returning back to the central square that I spotted El Quetzal, a chocolate house at the top of a hill on the other side of the town. The directions mentioned that La Casa de Cecilia was next to this infamous house which manufactures all their chocolate products, from bean to bar, in-house.

We turned left at El Quetzal and walked down a cobbled path which was flanked by rows of beautiful flowers. This path passed by two large, raised, wooden houses and led to the open office area of La Casa de Cecilia. We checked in and the hostess led us to the back of the property. What I thought would be a small, double bed room turned out to be an awesome cabin which was nestled in the tree forest that extended out behind the property to Rio Canchupi. For $25 a night, I was ecstatic. Disconcertingly though, after unpacking all our belongings, we realized that the windows didn’t close or have locks on them so we put all of our valuables into Danielle’s day pack and headed out for the rest of the evening.  After we returned later that night, we discovered that the staff had installed locks on all the windows while we were gone.

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Our cabin at la Casa de Cecilia.

Casacada Nambillo

Unbeknownst to me, I was about to be tested in multiple ways. Deciding to hike to the waterfalls, we began our trek down the road. We took the main road out of Mindo which leads to most of the attractions on the eastern side of the town. While walking down the road, a camioneta pulled up beside us and offered us a ride to the falls. Looking at all the other people in the back of the truck, we decided it would be a great deal for us (~$1 per person) and would save us the time of having to hike all the way to the tarabita — a primitive cable car about 150 meters off the ground — which takes you across the valley to the waterfall trails.

As the truck sped up the dirt road which wound its way around the mountain, we, along with all the other passengers standing in the back with us, had to dodge and duck around hanging tree limbs. It turned into a sort of game, especially as many of us were talking to each other, looking over the valley that dropped out below us, or trying to film (me). Twenty minutes into the journey (I was glad at this point that we had taken the camioneta), we came upon the tarabita and P-A-S-S-E-D it. My worst fears had been confirmed. Before leaving our cabin, I had been doing some research about the falls — which trails to take, how to get there, what to visit, etc. — and many people had reported that recently the tarabita had been closed. Later, I would hear many stories about why, but no one seemed to corroborate anyone else’s story–it was undergoing maintenance, someone hadn’t paid their taxes, or that it was too dangerous now. Whatever the reason, it was closed. My heart sank a little, but the truck trucked on and I was still looking forward to the hike.

Five minutes later we came upon a clearing filled with taxis, cars, trucks, vans, and people clamoring about as they tried to maneuver amid the chaos. Our camioneta backed into the clearing, the driver got out and dropped the tailgate, then bid us adieu after we had paid. To get to the waterfall area, which is part of the Mindo-Nambillo Eco-reserve, you have to pay a $3 fee and trek approximately 1 kilometer into the forest. For Danielle and I, this would be easy but as we entered the trail (which was basically a tunnel due to the overgrowth), many of the people who were hiking back up seemed exhausted, out-of-breath, and ready to keel over. We exchanged glances and wondered what we were in for.

After hiking for ten minutes, we came upon a clearing next to the trail that opened over the canopy of trees and river valley below us. We snapped about twenty pictures trying to get a selfie — our selfie game is not strong — then continued down the mountain. Another ten minutes later and we met the first river crossing. An older group of Ecuadorians were playing around in the water next to the bank and another was relaxing under the trickling waterfall a little ways up the river from the crossing. Under the bridge, the water condensed to a 5-foot aperture and gushed through. Looking around for a bit and kicking a couple of rocks, we left the Ecuadorians and continued on the trail.

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The most successful selfie we took at the clearing.
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A small waterfall at the first river crossing.

Twenty minutes later, we walked around a bend in the trail to be confronted with a steep drop to the river thirty feet below us. Off the trail and to our right, three people were standing on a platform–two were in life vests. Immediately, the two in life-vests disappeared only to be heard screaming seconds later, and then a splash. Curious and intrigued, we walked forward and finally saw the waterslide that snaked along the edge of the cliff to the water below. To the left and below us was a clearing with couple of dilapidated rock buildings, a man-made pool, and a rocky bank. As we walked out from under the canopy and into the clearing, we were hit by the first rain drops of the afternoon. Once we made our way to the bottom of the cliff near the river bank, an Ecuadorian came up to us and inquired if we spoke English. I nodded my head and he proceeded to inform us about the activities in the area, if we were interested in taking the waterslide, or jumping into the waterfall that was just down the river from us. We replied that we were only interested in seeing the waterfalls — we had left our swim suits back at the hostel — so there was no need to instruct us on the correct way of diving into the 30-foot waterfall. He pointed out the path that would connect back with the trail, then turned and walked away. Five minutes later we were standing on a rickety, metal platform above Nambillo Cascada, wondering about the integrity of the creaking ledge. Further down the path, there was another cliff that led down to the bridge for the second river crossing. I scrambled down the cliff using the ropes provided, took a perilous set of stairs (it would have been safer to continue scrambling), then turned left to explore the trail that led to the other beautiful and bigger waterfalls. As I half-ran, half-jogged to the bridge, I was jolted to life when I noticed a barbed gate across the path.

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Nambillo Cascada from the diving platform.
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The second river crossing. I’ll never know what is beyond those trees…

I was dismayed. Strike two. First the tarabita, and now we were barred from seeing the most popular waterfalls in Mindo. I returned down the path back to Danielle who was exploring the river bank just below Nambillo Cascada. Unperturbed yet resigned to our fate, we started our journey back up the mountain after playing around at the river bank. As we walked, bigger and bigger rain drops pelted us until we finally decided to don our raincoats or face the fact that we would get soaked. In my head, I thought, “Strike three.” That’s the game, folks. However, successive to that thought, came another one. Internally, there were no feelings of anger, malice, or perturbation. Moreover, I didn’t have to will or force myself to accept the situation or tolerate it. Rather than forcing myself to be content, I was content. I was neither attached to my former modality or pursuing another modality. I was free and had passed my test. Hiking down the trail, I smiled and patted myself mentally on the back.

Our return trip was interesting, as well as rainy. We had to keep taking off and putting on our rain coats because the humidity, combined with the hiking, was burning us up yet we were trying to avoid getting soaked. We met a family of Ecuadorians who were snapping pictures of Nambillo Cascada when the mother asked me if there were any toilets nearby. I replied, “Sí,” and pointed, and she immediately sprinted down the path in front of us. We never saw her again. I still chuckle a bit when I think about it–not at her misfortune, but at the fact that I have been her situation many times in Ecuador. Further along the trail we met up with a gigantic fly — about the size of a quarter — which would follow us all the way back to where the trail met the road to Mindo. We kept trying to shake him, swat at him, and destroy him, but he was quite persistent.

Lastly, if you ever find yourself hiking on the trail to or from Nambillo, you should definitely take a moment to explore the rope swing that dangles from the tree canopy about mid-way through the hike. The swing is actually a root that drops from one of the plants that grows in the tree top above the trail.

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The root swing. Not really a swing but more of a seat.

Once we arrived back at the entrance to the hike, we were a little bit dumbfounded. No one was there except for one of the couples which had ridden out with us on the camioneta. Abandoned, we sat down on one of the benches and waited, along with the couple, for a taxi or camioneta that would take us back to Mindo. Forty minutes later the couple stood up, told us they were walking back to Mindo, and left. Wanting to get back to Mindo before sunset, we decided that we should start walking as well. We figured that if we walked, we would return on time (although it would probably be a two or three hour hike)–at the least, we would come upon someone who was willing to give us a ride. Just as we started to walk down the road, one of the workers from the waterfalls had finished his shift and was headed back to town. The three of us piled onto his motorbike and sped down the road, turning a horribly long trek into a tolerable twenty-minute jaunt.

It was approximately 5:00 p.m. when we arrived back in town. We were tired, but ready to eat so we made our way down the main avenue until we came across a open-air pizzeria called, El Tigrillo. The place was cozy and warm, offering a relaxed atmosphere after a long day of being outdoors. We ordered the familiar which is a 16-inch pizza (∼$13) and proceeded to devour it all by ourselves. The pizza was delicious and fresh, made artisanally in a masonry oven. If you are in Mindo, you should drop by the Tigrillo. Once we finished the pizza, we headed back to our hostel, climbed into bed, and crashed at about 7:00 p.m.

Hostería Mariposas de Mindo

Since our plan had been to visit the waterfalls for two days (due to the distance between each sanctuary), we didn’t know what to do on Sunday after discovering that access to the falls was restricted. We finished breakfast and began perusing all of the pamphlets and advertisements at the hostel office, coming to the decision that we would check out the mariposario at Hostería Mariposas de Mindo, a butterfly garden which featured and displayed the full, metamorphic cycle of butterflies. Moreover, we also had the luck of meeting up with some other travelers–an English-literature teacher who was attending Boston University and finishing up his internship in Cumbayá, a Swedish couple, and two more Americans. We all agreed that we would take a camioneta to the mariposario together to save money. During the ride, we all learned a little more about each other, sharing travel stories and countries previously visited. While Danielle and I are usually not ones for interacting with complete strangers, it was nice to share a ride with someone we could actually communicate with effectively.

Once we arrived at the mariposario (~$6 per person), we snapped some pictures in front of the sign then headed inside. While Danielle and I had visited a butterfly garden before in the Philippines, this one was definitely more impressive. As you enter, you cross a bridge with trellises covered in beautiful orchids. Among the vegetation, hummingbird feeders attracted their namesake which flitted in and around us, trying to pick off the nectar before their competitors did.

Since living in Ecuador, I have seen so many different types of hummingbirds that it is difficult to describe them, let alone catalogue and record which ones I’ve seen. Some have curved bills, some appear luminescent, some have extremely long wings, and some have short bills. The variety is astounding and they can be found almost anywhere–the front garden at our workplace in the city constantly attracts them in the afternoon.

Before entering the sanctuary, our group was given a quick tour about the metamorphic process of the butterflies which informed us that some of the butterflies in the garden only lived for a day or two before they died, while other species were released back into the wild as part of the hostería’s conservation efforts.

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Butterflies, butterflies everywhere!
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Another species of ‘owl’ butterfly.

Immediately after entering, we were surrounded by butterflies. They were so numerous that you had to watch where you were stepping because many of them rested on the ground. Often, they would land on your pant leg or swat you in the face as they flew by to their next destination. The most prevalent species in the garden was the owl butterfly whose ventral side has a big ‘iris’ on each wing and is cryptic which allows them to camouflage using either background matching or disruptive coloration. Their dorsal side is a bright, metallic blue outlined in black.

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The dorsal side of an ‘owl’ butterfly.
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Creepy…

On one wall were display cases and a glass enclosure which housed caterpillar larva. Inside the cases hung many different types of pupa in different stages of growth. Some butterflies had recently emerged from their chrysalis while others were hanging there silently, slowly metamorphosing within. At the bottom of the case were caterpillars which had just started to molt and enter their pupa stage.

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Display cases featuring all sorts of chrysalides.
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Two caterpillars molting.
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A butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

We spent approximately an hour at the mariposario before we decided to leave and go back to our hostel–we needed to check out soon or we would be charged for another day of occupancy. We spent the rest of our time in Mindo hiking around the forest while waiting for our departure bus at 4:00 in the afternoon. During our hike, we found a great overlook of the Mindo valley and some strange, bamboo-like trees whose trunks were about a foot-and-a-half in diameter. Although they looked like bamboo, they weren’t. After touching one because it looked slightly furry, I was surprised when I pulled my hands away to discover that it wasn’t fur, but barbed hair. Seconds later, my hands started tingling and a cruel thought popped into my head–what if I’ve just exposed myself to some neurotoxin. Ten minutes later, Danielle was wiping my hands with baby wipes and scolding me for touching the tree. In the end, I survived and nothing ever came of the tingling feeling in my hands. However, those bamboo-like, single-stalked trees still stand ominous in my mind. On our return hike, we finally stopped at the Rio Mindo and took a quick dip before having to change and get to the bus station on time to return to Quito.

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The bamboo-like trees that hurt me…
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Hiking on the roads and trails outside of Mindo. You can see Mindo in the valley behind Danielle.

Although we missed a lot of the main attractions in Mindo, I never once felt angry or upset. I fully enjoyed the experience without having to convince myself that I should be enjoying the experience, regardless of the circumstances. In retrospect, it was nice to enjoy the trip without the burden of failed expectations. Moreover, if we had gone to the falls on the second day of our trip, I would have missed out on the mariposario which turned out to be a more memorable event for us, especially for an insect enthusiast such as myself. Hopefully, this attitude will continue into the future and stay with me until the next time I need to evolve and elevate my psyche.

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Traveling all the time can be rough but it’s always worth the struggle in the end.

How to get there:

To get there by public bus from Quito, take the MetroBus line north all the way to Ofelia station (or take a taxi to Terminal Ofelia). Once you are at Ofelia station, head to the eastern part of the station and look for a sign that says ‘Intracantonal’ or ‘Intranational’. If you take a taxi and it drops you off inside the station area, you are already in the correct part of the station so just walk toward the buses. Once you are there, just look for the bus with the placard marked ‘Mindo’ and buy your tickets at the office. Tickets are approximately $2.50 per person.

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