Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Mindo a go go

After sending Mom off back in Quito, we spent a couple of days there to do a little kid-centric exploration before heading to the cloud forest of Mindo.

Quito is a cosmopolitan and beautiful city (UNESCO's very first World Heritage Site) with all the standard city amenities of a big city, such as "staring tubes."

Please wander aimlessly on designated paths only

And maybe someday I'll do a post on it. but eventually it is just a city, as any other city, and unless you're a shopper (none here) you may find yourself just wandering aimlessly around. So we continued onto Mindo, less Teddy who wandered aimlessly back home to Cuenca.

Due to conflicting information about available buses to Mindo, we missed the morning bus and so used the time to explore the middle of the world (La Mitad del Mundo), where the actual equator passes through nearby. It's a massive, though kitschily entertaining village built around the massive monument constructed at the site of the original survey of the equator. That they missed the mark by a few hundred yards is still an exceptional achievement for the time and hardly relevant to any touristy pursuits. And we learned some things:
  • Did you know you weigh less at the equator? (But only about 0.25% less, rather than the 5-7 lbs they tout).
  • Did you know you can balance an egg on end here on the equinox...just as well as you can at any other time or place on the earth?

But there are great museums on insects, Ecuador, geology, and such, and great playgrounds for the kids. So our money was well spent.

The relatively short 2-hour bus ride to Mindo was remarkable for the fact that just after beginning a long descent from Quito we plunged into the cloud forest like driving off a pier into the ocean. And so we swam through clouds the next few days, but with the pleasant warmth and lush surroundings, we never felt the urge to come up for sun.

Mindo was almost other-wordly (or at least other-Ecuadoriany) in its cleanliness and openness. Signs declaring the town's pride in its waste reduction and respect for the enveloping natural beauty are everywhere, as are...trash cans! (what a clever and novel idea for reducing stray trash.) And nowhere do you see barbed wire, walls around houses topped with broken glass, shuttered glass windows at night. There is apparently almost no crime here and--more importantly, I think--no pervasive fear of crime as exists everywhere else in Ecuador.

And it's a low-key tourist paradise. There are the standard touristy things (ziplines, rafting, tubing, overpriced food), but there are loads of more locally-relevant options as well. It's a bird watcher's paradise, though you have to get out of town for the good stuff (I saw a toucan!). Butterflies, on the other hand, are much easier to wrangle and show off. Though still a little ways out of town, you can't beat the pure, concentrated, butteriffic experience of being swarmed by giant and beautiful mariposas.

Chrysalises, and we watched some hatch
Now why there are two chocolate makers in Mindo is probably the same answer as why there is even one. Ecuador has some of the finest cocoa in the world, but it don't grow in Mindo. But it turns out there are special alkaloids in pure chocolate that make you not care why it's there.

This is the whole cocoa pod. You can suck on the beans straight out, as they are covered in a sweet, white skin. But since it feels like sucking on a big tick, probably you'll go for making the beans into chocolate instead.

That's not chocolate!

Once the beans are dried you can just eat them, but they are very strong and fairly bitter. The kids, knowing at this point that a chocolate treat awaited the end of this tour and that this clearly was not it (wrinkled noses and looks like I just tried to poison them), began to get a bit impatient with this intellectual pursuit. At each stage of the production process as it began to look more like chocolate but continued to not taste like chocolate (which, given their dramatic outward disgust, would have made a better plot device for Tantalus, I think). However, the final product--several grades of chocolate with sides of sugar, pepper flakes, and agave nectar; and a near-molten brownie--did not disappoint, ruining the tragic value of the story, but saving the next two days for the parents (the true protagonists of our story).

Well, it's no chocolate river, but...

That night we attended a "frog concert" around a private lake created specifically for frog and toad and other other storybook character habitat. It was really just a guided walk through the surround wood, but since I couldn't take pictures, here's what we saw:
  • Bullfrogs the size of a grown man's hand
  • Wee frogs the size of giant bullfrog's hand (no, smaller than that actually)
  • Poison dart frog (just one, but we were very lucky to see that at night)
  • Glowing log (no kidding, and with an amazing bacterial story that funny looks from my wife tell me is interesting only to me, so I won't share)
  • Fireflies
  • Mock fireflies that use the light to attract fireflies and eat them.
  • Several other indescribably freaky looking insects
We wrapped up Mindo with a hike through the cloud forest above town on the Ruta de Cascadas (or Waterfall Trail). There are about ten waterfalls like this one along the trail, all with people swimming in their pools...in jeans. But these people have grown up surrounded by stunning natural beauty.

Ooooh, preciosos!
What's more rare and fascinating is spotting a couple of glowing white little gringos. What's more alluring is spotting a pair of rare and reclusive Glowing White Little Gringos. Teenagers, who hunt in packs, are the best at cornering these elusive fledgelings.

And so we ended our Mindo visit and hopped our first overnight bus to Puerto Lopez. But that is another story...


  1. Hi there,
    So glad to find your blog! We just moved to Ecuador from MN with our 6 and 9 year old kids. Living in Cotacachi this month (I'm actually in Quito this week though), but moving to Cuenca in November. It would be fun to cross paths, although I get if you're trying to steer away from expats and more into local connections!
    Derk, Niko, and Kaia (and pooch we picked up in Quilotoa last week...).

  2. We live in Minnesota and we r from Ecuador. It is nice to hear all your adventure to our loved land.