Although relatively small in size, Ecuador has an incredible diversity of landscapes ranging from coastal plains to rainforests to the geological spectacle of the Avenue of Volcanoes in the Andes mountains. It is also one of the most biodiverse countries in the world – covering only 1.6% of South America, it’s home to almost 50% of the bird species on the continent. While many visitors come here as a jumping-off point for the Galapagos Islands, those who spend more time on the mainland can have the opportunity to explore Ecuador’s other wildlife haven: cloud forests, which are subtropical forests cloaking the Andean slopes from 900m to 2,500m.
Ecuador’s cloud forests are considered the single richest biodiversity hotspot on the planet, as it’s home to iconic species such as sloths, howler monkeys, jaguars, pumas, coati, tayra, and the last remaining short-faced ursine, the spectacled bear. It also contains approximately 15-17% of the world’s plant species and nearly 20% of its bird diversity – the reason both amateur twitchers and expert ornithologists alike make their way to Ecuador’s cloud forests.
The Chocó-Andean Corridor, located northwest of Ecuador, sits on the biodiversity hotspot of the Tumbes-Chocó-Darién, which extends along the western foothills of the Andes (there are only 28 of these hotspots worldwide, spread over 164 countries). Comprising about 125,000 hectares, only
about 2% of its original forest is preserved today, but it’s one of the earth’s top three biodiversity
hotspots. Various cloud forest reserves lie just a couple of hours north from Quito, including Maquipucuna, Mindo, Mashpi and Bellavista. These cloud forests are cool and damp, with dense forest covering the Andean mountain slopes.
Nestled in the lush cloud forest, Mindo started as a small outpost of scientific researchers, and while it remains a small community, it now features a variety of excellent accommodation options for visitors.
At about 2.5 hours from Quito, the cloud forest of Mindo is one of the best birdwatching spots in Ecuador, and even South America – it’s home to well over 400 colourful species, including trogons, toucans, tanagers, cock-of-the-rocks, and of course, up to 120species of hummingbirds (it’s considered a hummingbird haven).
Mindo consistently ranks within the top three highest bird counts in the world, and the best time to spot the birds is very early in the morning. You can hire a birding guide to help spot these elusive forest denizens. In addition to birdlife, the forest is also home to very rare reptiles like the Pinocchio lizard (anolis proboscis) that live in the forest canopy and found only in Mindo. The cloud forest is also home to a huge variety of orchids, which you can see on trees, moss-covered rocks, and on the ground. What’s amazing is the variety of scents they emit, which range from sweet vanilla to spicy cinnamon. In Ecuador, one out of every four plants is an orchid – with around 4,200 varieties
in total. A popular site in Mindo is the Santuario de Cascadas, which is located at the top of a mountain with six different waterfalls that you can access via a hiking trail through the gorgeous cloud forest.
It’s a 7km uphill walk to the entrance followed by a tarabita (cable car) which carries a small group of passengers up across the treetops and over the Nambillo River. The hiking route takes about 5 hours to see all the waterfalls and takes in the aerial view of Mindo’s cloud forest – as you hike, the damp soil loosens beneath your feet and the mist rolls around you. You should also keep a lookout for birds. In addition to hiking, you can also go for a swim at the popular Cascada Nambillo which has a natural water slide that drops into smaller pools. There is also tubing (a popular activity here) down 3kms of the Río Mindo, which can range from a leisurely float during the dry season to a more heart-pumping experience during the wet season due to the bigger rapids. Plenty of tour operators in town offer excursions, which involves six or more tubes tied together to make one big raft and each person sits toward the middle of the raft, grabbing onto ropes for safety (guides are there to assist in the navigation of the rafts down the river).
You can also ride in the clouds on a mountain biking trip through the forest; there are bike rentals as well as guided MTB tours. Tours range from short rides to longer routes like the 52km (6 hours) trip that takes you from Nono to Mindo where you’ll get to cycle through various ecosystems, or longer rides like Mindo from Quito, which takes 3 days. At night, there is the ‘frog concert’ which is organised by the Mindo Lago Lodge. It’s basically an introduction to the flora and fauna of the cloud forest, with an hour-long guided walk through the woods where you can hear the chirping of various frog species. At a considerably lower altitude than Quito, Mindo’s climate is milder, with temperatures ranging from 15 °C – 24 °C all year, with no real rainy or dry seasons, although it tends to be driest from May through September. Bear in mind that to access Mindo is chargeable, as are all the activities within it, including hiking and birdwatching. However, Mindo town itself makes for a convenient base to explore the cloud forest region. If you’re looking for a more intimate setting, a number of private reserves – with their own eco lodges – are spread across this entire region.
BELLAVISTA CLOUD FOREST RESERVE
Located around 20 minutes uphill from Mindo, Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve is a private reserve with its own research station for students and scientists to study the cloud forest system.
The Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge, located at 2,200m in the Tandayapa Valley, is on the slopes of a mountain and boasts wonderful views. There are 16 varieties of hummingbirds close to the lodge, and more can be found along the 10kms of trails nearby, which range from easy to adventurous; there are also four waterfalls in the area. Situated further from Mindo town, this private reserve is a bit more isolated, and tends to attract serious birders.
Set in the cloud forest at elevations between 900m to 2,700m, the private Maquipucuna Cloud Forest Reserve boasts 6,000 hectares of pristine Andean rainforest, complete with an ecolodge
that hosts both tourists and scientists. It’s set up as a conservation initiative to protect the Chocó Andes Corridor. In addition to the 400 bird species and 50 mammal species found here, it’s also where the Hyloxalus maquipucuna frog was discovered. Maquipucuna is also the only reserve in Ecuador where you can spot the incredibly rare spectacled bear during the fruiting season of the ‘pacce’ trees which sprout wild avocado-like fruits that attract the bears. The fruiting season lasts between 4 and 10 weeks from November through December, and the bears can be spotted just minutes from the lodge. Guests of the lodge can go on guided nature hikes in the cloud forest, join
conservation efforts, or visit nearby community projects. On site, you can learn to prepare local products like coffee and cocoa. In addition to nature, there are remains – pathways, burial mounds, and ceramics – of a pre-Incan tribe of the Yumbos people who once inhabited this area. The area was also an important area as a source of salt for the tribal chiefs of Quito circa 1,500BC.
It takes over 1 day to fly to Quito from Singapore; the fastest route is via Amsterdam on KLM which requires only 1 stopover. Situated at an elevation of 2,800m, the UNESCO-listed Quito is actually the highest official capital city in the world, and it’s worth spending extra time here to acclimatise while visiting its iconic Old City.
Located 3 hours from Quito, Mashpi is a private wilderness retreat set in 1,300 hectares of cloud forest ranging in altitude from 500m to 1,200m. The Mashpi Lodge (950m) is situated between rainforest and cloud forests, where plenty of wildlife thrive; in addition to 36 endemic birds, monkeys and even pumas, it’s also home to myriad amphibians like the recently discovered white-green Mashpi Frog which is endemic to this very forest. The reserve is criss-crossed with waterfalls, accessible via a network of hiking trails that range from easy to hard.
There are also plenty of biologist-guided trips into the forest, which can be done as muddy hikes or from high up in the tree canopy on board the ‘Dragonfly’ – an innovative gondola system that traverses the treetops via a series of cables and towers. This 2km, 40-minute
tour allows for a bird’s-eye view of the
ecosystem. Another unique way to explore the treetops is via the Sky Bike, which is designed for 2 riders; one person pedals the ‘bike’ along a cable stretched over a beautiful gorge. At only 200m long, a return ride takes 20 minutes. Constructed from a disused saw mill, Mashpi Lodge is a luxury eco lodge recognised as one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World.