Rarely found on travel itineraries, major towns in the northern lowlands such as Santo Domingo and Quevedo tend to be sweaty commercial centres enveloped by acres of agricultural land. Still, a few small fragments of tropical coastal wet forest do survive nearby in a handful of reserves, while at higher elevations on the western flank of the Andes there are a number of sizeable and enchanting cloudforests – misty worlds of dense, mossy and vine-draped vegetation coloured by orchids, heliconia, birds and neon butterflies. The coastal and mountain forests make up part of the Chocó and Tropical Andes bioregions, respectively – regarded as the richest and most diverse places on earth. Species here were cut off from the Amazon rainforests to the east by the uplift of the Andes mountains 100 million years ago. Since that time, they have evolved quite differently from their eastern counterparts and the result is an amazing degree of biodiversity and endemism. But with logging, agriculture and human encroachment taking a substantial toll, only seven percent of Ecuador’s original western forests remain. The area has been classified by Conservation International as one of the world’s biodiversity “hot spots” – among the planet’s most ecologically important and threatened regions.
Serviced by a near-constant stream of buses, the main route to the northern lowlands begins south of Quito and starts its descent of the western Andes at Alóag, heading down towards Santo Domingo de los Colorados – around which you can see tropical wet forests at Tinalandia, Bosque Protector La Perla and Reserva Biológica Bilsa – from where there are highways to all the major coastal centres. Leaving aside the soon-to-be-completed Otavalo–Quinindé road which passes through the remote Intag region, the attractive and peaceful Calacalí– La Independencia road is the alternative to the main route; leaving north of Quito, it passes close to some excellent private cloudforest reserves as well as the birding centre of Mindo before descending into farmland, where it joins the main highway between Santo Domingo de los Colorados and Esmeraldas. Fewer buses travel this road and most cloudforest reserves are not accessible by public transit alone anyway; contact their offices in Quito before setting out, both to reserve a room and to sort out travel arrangements.Read More
- Santo Domingo de los Colorados and around
Set at 1250m on the forested western slopes of Volcán Pichincha, MINDO resembles an Alpine village transplanted to the tropics, with steep-roofed, chalet-like farmhouses punctuating its lush and beautiful landscape. Its pleasant subtropical climate attracts an increasing number of visitors seeking to spend a few days hiking, horseriding, “canopying” (zipping over the forest canopy on wires) or taking part in regatas – floating down rivers on inflatable tubes. But above all, the town is most renowned as a base for birdwatching in the surrounding hills, part of the biologically diverse Chocó Endemic Bird Area, which BirdLife International has officially designated an “Important Bird Area”, the first in South America.
Mindo has been held in high regard among birdwatchers ever since ornithologist Frank M. Chapman described the local avifauna in his seminal 1926 book, The Distribution of Bird-Life in Ecuador. One reason for Mindo’s prolific biodiversity is its location in a transitional area between higher-altitude temperate zones and the lower humid tropical forests. This sector encompasses several habitats and harbours some 370 bird species, many of them endemic, including the velvet-purple coronet (one of 33 hummingbirds), yellow-collared chlorophonia and the endangered long-wattled umbrella bird – resembling a crow with an unmistakeable, dangling black wattle and a large Elvis quiff for a crest. With a good guide, you may see at least thirty endemic species and many dozens of other birds on a three- to four-day tour of Mindo’s forests, which also hold several leks (courting grounds) for the Andean cock-of-the-rock and the club-winged manakin.
There are also several hundred types of butterflies and a wealth of orchids here. There are between 25 and 32 species of colourful lepidoptera at Mariposas de Mindo, about 2.5km along the signposted track from the southwest corner of the town square, bred for export around the world. The best orquideario ($2), at the Armonía hotel, cultivates around 200 orchid varieties, which can grow up to 5m, though many are so small they require a magnifying glass to be seen in any detail. A block from the park on 9 de Octubre, Jardín Nathaly ($3) exhibits a smaller assemblage of both orchids and butterflies.
The Calacalí– La Independencia road
The Calacalí– La Independencia road
The Calacalí– La Independencia road provides access to some of the last pristine cloudforests in the western Andes, largely protected by private reserves that offer good lodging and excellent birdwatching. After leaving Quito to the north, the road meets the equator at La Mitad del Mundo before it sweeps west to bypass Calacalí, home to its own small equator monument, and begins a dramatic descent from scrubby hillsides (at 2800m) to thickly matted forests carpeting steep ridges and hills – the rich greenery broken only by curling wisps of clouds. Most of the reserves lie within transitional zones from 1000m to 2500m, where the humid air adds high levels of moisture to the forests.
Sixty kilometres from Quito around the village of Nanegalito are several private reserves, among them Maquipucuna, Yunguilla, Santa Lucía and Urcu Puyujunda; beyond them to the northwest, the Bosque Protector Los Cedros; and around the Tandayapa valley, the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve and Tandayapa Lodge. Some 25km further west from Nanegalito, the road passes the turn-off for Mindo, a pleasant village renowned for its birdlife and set in the verdant hills of the Mindo-Nambillo protected forest. The road continues its descent into rich agricultural land, passing small farming towns such as San Miguel de los Bancos and Puerto Quito before meeting the highway linking Santo Domingo to the coast at Esmeraldas.