By Julie Harper
There is nothing quite like piling into a minibus with a dozen or so buddies and striking out on a seven hour road trip. We had been planning this journey to Mindo, Ecuador for some time but had no idea that the date we chose happened to coincide with the official annual bird count, when all of the birders and professional wildlife photographers converge in this lovely piece of paradise nestled in this spectacular rain cloud jungle. This is the migratory season, and they were expecting some beautifully feathered and rare visitors, including the great horned owl which happened to arrive at the Mindo River the same day we did. This owl comes to the river for just one day before going deep into the “selva.” How lucky were we to see it?
After checking into our lodging, we met with one of the many local tour guides to begin planning our adventure. There is so much to do in Mindo and there are an incredible amount of very cool restaurants. It has completely changed from my visit there five or six years ago, when all they seemed to have was one pizza restaurant and a concrete block structure for typical Ecuadorian food. Not much else. But now the dining options are abundant to say the least, featuring even a few French restaurants. There is also an Argentinian Steak House which was a crowd favorite.
But first things first! I signed up for birding, anxious to see my favorite bird, the toucan. If you are unfamiliar, think Fruit Loops.
Dawn was just breaking the next morning as we scrambled down the hill to meet our guide to go bird watching. Our guide handed out binoculars and set up a type of telescope called a spotting scope for fixed viewing. Mind you, our hotel was in the middle of the jungle so we were already in birding territory. She almost immediately began pointing out different bird species, their nests, explaining their habits, parenting, feeding, etc. She was brilliant. Nothing got past her. She carried a laser pointer to help us locate the area we needed to look at. We oohed and aahed, then back in the truck for a different location. Up the road we would go, then wham! Brakes on and out of the truck. She would once again pull out her laser pointer and set up her spotting scope to help us novices, as we had some difficulty in the beginning. As we ascended up the hill, the bounty became greater. We were in toucan and parrot country, and it was amazing. There were flocks of them, and different species as well, not just an elusive one or two. We concluded by having a breakfast of fresh bread, marmalade, fruit and coffee served on the open bed of the pickup truck. It was delightful.
That afternoon, some of our gang made it to an incredible open outlook point to feed hummingbirds in the wild. We held tiny red bottle caps in our hands which were filled with sugar water. We sat patiently and were almost immediately rewarded as dozens of hummingbirds came and sipped the sweet concoction. Secretly I was thinking, “Pick me. Pick me!” There were so many different varieties. We were all mesmerized. Every time one of these tiny creatures came and sat on my fingers, I couldn’t help but feel a special bond. I sat with fellow bird watchers and understood what only other bird watchers can understand about this beautiful and ever so quiet hobby of birding.
Next, of course, we went to a Mariposario to see the 25 species of butterflies that are in the region. There are a few different mariposarios in Mindo. The particular one we chose is the Mariposa Café which has been around for years. Not only do they have a butterfly park, but they also have a beautiful restaurant with spacious windows that overlooks the gorgeous fauna on the property. They also have a delightful gift shop for anything and everything butterflies, except for t-shirts. They didn’t have t-shirts.
Four or five years ago when I visited this location, there were many hummingbird feeders that surrounded the property. And there were hundreds of hummingbirds, all different varieties as well as many different butterflies looking to share the same feeders. It was breathtaking. However, I noticed that the hummingbirds were battling large bees at the feeders. The bees were very aggressive and were winning the war as the hummingbirds would retreat. Upon my recent return visit, all of the feeders had been taken down. There was a reason for it. Come to find out, those bees weren’t just any bees. They were an invasive and aggressive species of African bees which had built a huge colony behind the Mariposa Café property and it developed into a horrible problem. But everything turned out OK. The feeders were taken down, the hive was destroyed and the hummingbirds have found a safe place to feed. The butterflies also scattered throughout the jungle the way nature intended and hopefully the bees went back to Africa.
You pay a small admission fee to enter the Mariposario. We were given a short introduction as to what we were going to see inside of this sweet butterfly park and there were also lovely guides. Some of them are dressed up in butterfly costumes, so they are easy to spot if you have a question. It is absolutely lovely in this land of 1000 Kodak moments! Afterward, our entire group sat down to a beautiful lunch in the Mariposa Café. The service was impeccable. All of the windows were wide open and occasionally a hummingbird or butterfly would fly through the dining area. Magical!
The waterfalls in Mindo are beautiful and plentiful. Some of the trails are pretty strenuous for the inexperienced hiker. When you reach your destination, the rewards are sensationally satisfying in the invigorating pools of clear water, and standing under the rush of a waterfall is a delightful way to cool off after your journey. You are suddenly suspended back to your childhood, wanting to frolic and splash all day.
Another activity is zip lining, which is inexpensive and thrilling, but be aware that the hike up can be slippery and a bit tricky lacking ropes, rails or actual steps. It’s more like ruts in the dirt. But man, oh man! What a thrill to zip over ravines as Superman, arms and legs suspended, screaming like a fool! The zip guides are helpful and lots of fun. If you like zip lining, this is the best deal in the jungle.
There is also horseback riding, tubing, night walks, frog concerts, cocoa farms, chocolate tours and even a vineyard.
We refrained from tubing as the water is quite low this time of year but we’re encouraged to return in December or January to participate in this joy-ride.
Just about two hours from Quito and about six to seven hours from Manta, Mindo is perfect for a long weekend. I recommend staying at least three nights because after all the things to do, it is also the perfect place to lay in a hammock, read a book, or, what I enjoy doing more than anything, daydreaming! Dress is super casual. Wear good shoes, just like your mama told you! It can be wet and a bit chilly at night but for the most part, I think it’s one of the most beautiful climates I’ve ever been in. Might be a good idea to pack a flash light and don’t forget mosquito repellent. But most of all, don’t forget to go!