Ecuador in Green
Amazonian forest covers nearly half of Ecuador, but in this country with the highest concentration of biological diversity per square mile on the planet, even more jungles and landscapes dazzle visitors.
Text: Jorge Riveros-Cayo @JRiverosCayo photos: ila coronel
The route descends along a winding road. The heat makes me drowsy, and the smell of fresh earth fills my nose. Despite the temperature, the fog envelops us like a silent phantom. Our van zigzags between mountains covered in leafy forest on the road from Quito, the capital of Ecuador and the second highest altitude city in South America after La Paz.
Here’s where I’ll start my explorations of this compact country, where every destination is no more than an hour’s flight away or a few hours by car or bus. I leave the dry cold of the capital behind for the temperate humidity typical of the Amazon jungle to the east. But my destination lies in the opposite direction.
The World Bird Capital
Some 40 miles northwest of Quito, you’ll find the humid cloud forests of the selva alta (high jungle) that cover the heights of the Valle de Mindo. This rich, green land is home to an infinite variety of flora and fauna in the Bosque Protector Mindo Nambillo. Established in 1988, this conservation area occupies nearly 50,000 acres on the western slope of the Pichincha volcano and boasts the highest degree of biodiversity not only in Ecuador but on the planet.
Local guide Irman Arias tells me that, thousands of years ago, these lands were populated by waves of migration from the coast to the high-altitude area. “The Yumbo peoples were merchants and traders who focused on the exchange of products between the inhabitants of coast and the sierra. They made journeys on long, narrow and dangerous roads that crossed the dense vegetation on this side of the mountains,” he explains, pointing to the selva alta perched atop the Andes. “The Yumbos lived in this area between 800 and 1600, but the nearby volcanic eruptions caused them to flee to calmer lands,” he explains.
The Río Nambillo, the main tributary of this ecological reserve, begins at an altitude of nearly 15,750 feet and descends through the jungle to 5,900 feet above sea level. Along the way, there are about 15 waterfalls. The protected semi-tropical forests are home to roughly 500 species of bird, including toucans, macaws, tanagers, owls, wild ducks, quetzals, blackbirds, hummingbirds and caciques, which is why this zone became the first Area of Importance for the Conservation of Birds (AICA) in South America in 1997.
The initiative was spearheaded by BirdLife International, which was founded in 1985 to protect conservation areas with a high concentration of birds and diversity in bird species. “We’re proud of this forest,” says Arias about Mindo Nambillo. “We call it the World Bird Capital,” he declares, beaming.
This burgeoning nature reserve also shelters some 2,000 species of plants and trees, as well as roughly 170 kinds of orchid. There are also 90 species of butterfly and an endless variety of insects. Entering along the few existing paths to the most remote parts of the forest, you may be lucky enough to see mammals like the spectacled bear, which is often found this ecosystem, or anteaters and even porcupines.
Pumas and jaguars are seen less often. The abundance of water draws vibrant wildlife to this eco-region, which in turn attracts nature enthusiasts who will go out of their way to find one species or another in this dense jungle that seems to swallow everything.
The Triumph of Cacao
If you’re not keen on getting up at three in the morning – as is the habit of birdwatchers – or you don’t have a particular fondness for orchids and butterflies, there’s another option that appeals to the senses in a sweeter way: guided tours that let you see how chocolate is made using the cacao that grows in the forest, a booming and relatively new industry. Local producers with land near Mindo grow the cacao that later becomes some of the best chocolate in Ecuador or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Visitors get to see the entire process, from the fermentation, drying and roasting of the beans to the subsequent chocolate making. There are stories like that of José Meza, an Ecuadorian born in Riobamba, and Barbara Wilson, from Ann Arbor, Michigan. They owned a car repair shop in the United States, but after 41 years, Meza decided to return to Ecuador with his sweetheart, and they both fell in love with Mindo’s climate and scenery.
The couple bought a piece of land, but there was a problem: access to the Internet was difficult, practically non-existent. So they decided to open up a café where folks could get online, although at first the connection was both expensive and slow. Wilson also served her much-lauded brownies, and every time she visited the United States, she’d bring chocolate back for the recipe.
It was a paradox: you couldn’t get good chocolate in Ecuador even though the country has been a major producer of cacao since the early 20th century. The competition from British and French colonies in Africa and Asia, respectively, had convinced Ecuador that growing more profitable products –like bananas and coffee– was a better option.
So Meza and Wilson decided to get involved in the cacao industry in a wider context, with Ecuadorian producers dedicated to the rebirth of the industry and to making Ecuadorian cacao some of the best in the world. In turn, cacao production and chocolate consumption increased the business at their café in Mindo, and in 2009, these entrepreneurs opened Mindo Chocolate Makers in Michigan. Back home in Mindo, they offer daily tours and two-week chocolate-making courses for visitors looking to make their lives a little sweeter.
A View of the Volcano
Mitad del Mundo translates as “Halfway Point of the World,” but it’s actually a small town 14 miles north of Quito. In 1736, Charles Marie de la Condamine and his French expedition traced the equator near this settlement, all under the jealous watch of spying scientists employed by the Spanish crown. To mark the line that divides the globe, a 100-foot-tall monument was built centuries later, but it’s about 220 yards south of the true equator, when measured with GPS precision.
Regardless, I plan to fulfill the classic desire of all visitors to this part of the world: to walk along the line that divides the planet in two.
Two and a half miles north of this landmark, you’ll find the Reserva Geobotánica Pululahua near the crater of the volcano of the same name. Pululahua doesn’t boast the classic conical volcano shape, but rather a series of domes.
The last eruption dates back 2,300 years.
A paved road leads me with a group of tourists to the edge of the volcano, where we admire the inner walls, covered in vegetation that includes wild orchids, bromeliads, ferns, moss and lichens. It’s a small, high-altitude jungle in the middle of the mountains. There are also dozens of hummingbirds and small mammals, including the Andean fox. Inside the crater, you can see three elevations: the Pondoña (a volcanic dome formed by a late eruption), Chivo and Pan de Azúcar.
When travelers and explorers describe Ecuador as a land filled with fantastic animals, icy-peaked volcanoes, impenetrable Amazonian jungles and a cultural diversity only matched
by its varied geographic characteristics, they aren’t exaggerating.
It’s a country of many colors, but happily, green predominates. in
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Lodging in Quito
Bolívar Oe6-41 & Cuenca, Centro Histórico
Hotel Patio Andaluz
García Moreno N6 52, entre Olmedo & Mejía, Centro Histórico
Lodging near Mindo
San Jorge de Milpe
Eco Lodge and Bird Reserve
El Abrazo del Árbol
Farm Eco Lodge
Km 7 camino a to Cunuco
Hotel Cabañas del Pino Lodge
9 de octubre & Las Tangaras, Mindo
Dining in Quito
Bolívar Oe6-41 & Cuenca, Centro Histórico
República de El Salvador N34-107 & Suiza
Mariano Aguilera 331 & La Pradera
Restaurantes en Mindo
Inti & Killa
Los Olivos, Barrio Virgen Del Cisne