So today (Sunday) we were headed north and west to Mindo to visit the cloud forest, an area in Andes lowlands. The two hour drive took us back across the equator and then through the Andes hills. As we drove, the scenery changed from dry scrub brush to lush mountain hillsides covered in ferns and jungle like plants (lots of agave).
The road was incredibly windy and it was easy to see why so many people become sick on the drive. Not for those prone to motion sickness.
Shortly before Mindo, we stopped at Sachatamia Lodge to view the hummingbirds. The area near Mindo is teaming with dozens of varieties of hummingbirds, and the site did not disappoint. With hummingbird feeders everywhere, the fastest bird on the planet was easy to spot. And these were not like any hummingbirds I have seen back home. There were hummingbirds with long beaks and long tails. The sizes varied and the colours, including iridescent colours, were magnificent. I could have spent hours just watching the little guys flit back and forth.
After about a half hour at the site, we got back int he car and finished the drive to Mindo. (We were going to stop again on the drive back to Quito.)
Now Mindo sits in a valley surround by lush green mountain vegetation. There are a myriad of rivers and streams in the area and the little town (with a backpackers vibe) was quaint, clean and quite pretty).
Our first stop was going to be on the other side of Mindo where I was going to zip line through the tree canopy. The little drive to the site was interesting to say the least. We crossed a very narrow rickety bridge and passed numerous folks going tubing on a very rough and rocky looking river. Uh … no thanks.
Anyway, once at the zip line site, I was told I had the option of doing 2, 3 or 10 zip lines. And since it was not likely I would be back any time soon, I choose 10.
Once harnessed up, and introduced to my guide, I leaned back, lifted my legs and with a slight push, I was off flying through the tree canopy. It was absolutely exhilarating to be so high up in the forest.
Now unfortunately, one thing I was not aware of was the hike between launch points. The first hike to site number two was a b*tch. Straight up a rock and mud trail for about 10 minutes. Ugh. Good thing no one mentioned this part of the adventure, but on the plus side, we were in a valley at “only” 4,000 feet. Sheesh.
Anyway, for the next hour I zipped from platform to platform over trees and hillsides. Each zip line was slightly different with some longer than others and some faster than others. And bonus. There was no rain, which was unusual for a cloud forest. It was great fun.
Now near the end of zip lines, one of the guides spotted a group of Pava de Monte high up in the trees feeding on peppers. (A Pava de Monte is akin to a wild turkey with a massive wing span … but in this case “as God is my witness turkeys can fly” – perhaps they should have tosssed Pave de Monte from the airplane on WKRP.)
Anyway, after finishing up the zip line course and towling off (it was mega hot in the forest with all the hiking up the hills), we doubled back towards Mindo for our second stop of the day, the Hosteria Mariposas de Mindo (Butterfly House) to take in some of the butterflies that populate the area.
After showing my vacccine certificate and having a quick lesson on the life of a butterfly, we made our way into a greenhouse of sorts and were overwhelmed by the butterflies flitting here and there. There were all different sizes and colours with the most prevalent being the owl butterfly (so named because of its brown spotted markings).
Angela and I wandered around for a bit, sat by the koi pond and watched the butterflies hover over the water and then took a lap around the entire area. The whole experience was so relaxing and lovely. Another place I could have simply hung out for a while.
By now, it was time for lunch so we drove back into Mindo with its array of restaurants, ice cream shops, bars and food stands. We opted for lunch at the Beehive, a restaurant and hostel combination with an upstairs patio where we could eat outside.
I ended up having the pan fried trout (caught that morning) along with some chicken soup and lemonade. All homemade and delicious.
After lunch we headed up the street to Mindo Chocolate where we were going to see the chocolate making process. Unfortunately, we ended up having to wait almost an hour for the tour as we just missed the prior tour. No matter, the tour turned out to be well worth the wait.
Once the tour started, we were given an overview of the cacao nut (similar to what I had seen at the chocolate store in Quito). However, this time, we actually got to taste the nut prior to fermention. The outer layer is a jelly like substance that was slightly sweet. We then broke open the dried nut and tasted the inside contents – bitter but definitely chocolate.
After the tasting and “nut” lesson, we headed outdoors to see the cacao pods growing on the trees. The trees at this location were only for show as the majority of cacao trees are closer to the coast.
Anyway, interesting factoid. There are 40-60 beans per cacao pod and it takes 120 beans to make 100 grams of chocolate. Yikes. That’s a lot of beans.
After viewing the cacao trees, we wandered through the garden and saw the various plants that were used to flavor the chocolate. There were cardamom plants, pepper plants, lemongrass, mangos, and limes. Lovely.
Next we went into the greenhouse where the beans are placed in banana leaves and left to ferment. Once the fermenting process is complete, it’s time to dry the beans. After the beans have shriveled and hardened, the beans are roasted, ground up, and separated using a wind machine. At this point you are left with cacao nibs (pure chocolate). The nibs are turned into paste and eventually churned into chocolate liquid which is then flavored, put into molds and viola … chocolate bars!
After the chocolate lesson, we were given a tasting consisting of pure chocolate, chocolate tea and a brownie. We tasted the pure chocolate (rather bitter) and then added flavors to it including ginger spread, sugar, brown sugar and honey. My favorite was the ginger. Really nice.
At the end of the tour, I purchased the sal y pimienta (salt and pepper) chocolate bars, the chocolate tea and the ginger. And while I really liked the sal y pimeienta bars, I actually preferred the chocolate I tasted in Quito.
Anyway, by now it had started to rain and it was closing in on 4:00. We still had a drive ahead of us and by the looks of it, we would be driving through fog, which had begun to envelope the area.
So, we left the lovely little town of Mindo and made our way back to the main road where we made another stop at Sachatamia Lodge to view the hummingbirds.
And again, these little beauties did not disappoint. We spent about a half hour wandering through the the trees and hanging around the patio watching the hummingbirds flit and buzz all around us. And bonus, we spotted two agouti, which look like beavers without a tail. It was magical.
Unfortunately, we had to call it a day and began the LOOOOOOOONG journey back to Quito. The two lane road was packed with cars and trucks heading east to Quito and what was originally a two hour pleasant journey became a three hour slog. I felt so bad for Jamie having to endure the drive. Fortunately, the fog lifted for most of the drive and the rains let up. We finally pulled into Quito around 7 and I was at my hotel by 7:45. It had been a wonderful trip to the Cloud Forest.