Unforgettable Quito add-on: Mindo cloud forest retreat
Teeming with orchids, hummingbirds, tanagers, toucans and butterflies, a few days in a Mindo cloud forest lodge is a wonderful addition to any Galapagos itinerary.
The Mindo cloud forest is two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Quito, on the outer slopes of the western Andes. It's located at a pleasant altitude of around 4,200ft (compared to 9,200ft in Quito). The drive there is remarkably scenic, along winding roads with great forest views. The cloud forest itself is an enchanting world of tumbling waterfalls, crystalline rivers, endemic orchids, colorful hummingbirds and thick, verdant forests packed full of wildlife.
Option #1: Mashpi Lodge is a 5-star establishment with gorgeous rooms, fine dining and professional service - it's been the recipient of numerous accolades and was also featured on the Netflix "Beyond the Lobby" series. That being said, Mashpi is also a notably eco-friendly lodge and is located in an extremely pristine section of forest which is home to a staggering 500 species of birds. Check out this video of their incredible ‘Dragon Fly’ cable car through the canopy.
Option #2: El Monte is a 3-star property which always receives rave reviews, run by Tom from Texas and his wife Mariela. Accessed via a cable swing across a roaring river, El Monte is beautiful, chic and sustainable. Tom and Mariela personally attend to their guests, and dinnertime is a communal affair where everyone sits together and enjoys a delicious homemade veggie feast.
Forest walks (or hikes, depending on your fitness) are a great way to experience the gem of biodiversity that is the cloud forest. Early mornings and late afternoons are best for bird-watching (although you can see birds all day long in the cloud forest) and there is an incredible array of species, including more than 30 endemics.
Adventure activities include canopy zip-lining and tubing along the local river, and there’s a great mountain-biking route that replaces part of the drive from Quito to Mindo. Our guests usually visit the nearby butterfly farm and a local cafe which offers chocolate tours to learn about the elaboration of artisan chocolate, from bean to bar... And of course, you'll get to sample plenty of it at the end of the tour.
Fauna and flora
The cloud forest truly is home to "all creatures great and small," but here are a few of our favorites.
- The Cock of the Rock doesn’t just have incredible plumage, it also engages in exuberant courtship displays. Although these birds can be spotted on a normal hike, we’d highly recommend visiting a lek (a ‘singles bar for birds’) for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
- The Andean Spectacled Bear is supremely difficult to see, but this is where they live and at certain times of the year you can spot them at a nearby reserve called Maquipucuna (day trips can be arranged) where they feed voraciously on a small avocado-like fruit. This is the very same bear species that served as inspiration for Paddington, if you've heard about him!
- There are quite a few sub-species of the striking Postman Butterfly, a poisonous species with long, large wings. Adults roost in groups, returning to the same location each night – hence the name "postman."
- The Sangre de Drago (Dragon’s Blood) tree is famous for its red sap and incredible healing properties. The local guides love telling guests about the medicinal uses of the plants and trees in the forest.
The cloud forest is extremely popular for families with children of all ages. A lot of this is to do with the gorgeous lodges and the wonderful staff, but we’ve also received high praise about the following activities.
- The butterfly garden is a real hit: not only are the butterflies beautiful, but their life cycle is fascinating.
- The visit to the chocolate factory is amazing (and the end product is delicious).
- Having to take a pulley-car across a roaring river to get to El Monte is exciting and unforgettable.
- Basket or bracelet weaving with leaves found in the forest and face painting with achiote seeds are both highlights.
- Night walks are a perennial favorite with youngsters - these entail going out with torches looking for creepy crawlies and frogs.
The nitty gritty
Most SA Expeditions guests spend two nights in the Mindo Cloud Forest, but if time allows, you definitely won’t regret spending three or even four nights in this otherworldly paradise.
You can visit the cloud forest all year around. Some weeks can be rainier than others but it is difficult to predict when these will be. Even when it is rainy generally you get clear mornings and the rain comes in the afternoon, so there’s still plenty of chance of exploring each day before taking to your hammock!
You do have to be prepared for mosquitoes and other biting insects in the cloud forest, but don't worry, there is no malaria because of the slight altitude. Pack quick-dry clothes, layers, maybe a light fleece for the evenings, a waterproof (it’s basically a rain-forest at altitude), sun-screen, a hat, insect repellent...and of course your camera and binoculars.
What our clients say
“When we left the Galapagos, our mood and energy levels dimmed noticeably, and the kids were certain that the rest of the trip could never compare to what we had experienced in the Galapagos. But that was BEFORE we arrived at El Monte, which really is indescribable in its natural and unique beauty. We have never entered a resort via a cable-pulled swing across a roaring river, and probably never will again!
Once we crossed the river, we felt like we had arrived in paradise! Tom and his beautiful wife were so hospitable and so interesting to talk with. As they dined with us at every meal, we truly felt like guests in their gorgeous home. Our guide and driver, Jose and Francisco, in the Cloud Forest were awesome as well, managing to satiate the kids’ gigantic appetite for adventure, while also accommodating our desire for a post-hike siesta. With Jose’s encouragement, we all experienced the thrill of soaring through the canopy of the Cloud Forest on a zip wire! And, we saw two toucans – a rare occurrence, apparently.”
Credit to Mashpi Lodge and Emma Morgan for all but two of the pictures used in this blog. Credit to Peter Hart for the photo of the Andean Cock of the Rock, and credit to Mathew Williams-Ellis for the cloud forest waterfall. Originally published February 2017.