The alarm on my mobile phone goes off at 4am. Deep in the heart of Ecuador's Mindo cloud forest, a fragile wilderness that cloaks the steep slopes of the Andes, its beep-beep echoes out from my snug eco-lodge like a warning to nature. I'm in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet: an ancient forest that appears to hover in the sky like a miracle, a land where new species continue to be discovered daily, orchids spring up like daisies and more than 330 species of birds have been recorded. Anything manmade feels like an intrusion here. A mobile phone becomes an absurdity.
Mind you, it does make a reliable clock, and unlike Mindo's birds, I need one. I get dressed and wander outside to watch a thin mist ascending with the dawn. Tanager finches, giant antpittas, nightjars – many more birds than I can identify – flutter past or land on the branches overhead to preen primary-coloured feathers. This is bird spotting without the spotting. All you need to do is stop, look and gasp. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous hummingbirds zoom and squabble around the reserve like naughty schoolchildren, pausing only to dip their beaks into feeders filled with sugared water. The air is thick with the buzz of their neon wings, a drone that becomes a soundtrack to my time in Mindo, as though someone were playing Flight of the Bumblebee on repeat.
It took just two hours to drive here from Quito, Ecuador's remarkable capital and the first city in the world to be granted UNESCO World Heritage Status. Oh, and the only capital to be directly menaced by an active volcano. Which is long overdue an eruption. Gulp.
Still, there's only so long I can spend contemplating my mortality in Ecuador. There just isn't time. The equatorial middle of the world, it turns out, is like the centre of a really good party. It's where all the great stuff happens. Travel two hours in any direction from Quito and you will find pretty much everything the planet has to offer. In ten dizzying days (literally: altitude sickness in Ecuador is so common that many restaurants and hotels offer a side order of oxygen with your ceviche), I see the Amazon Basin, the Andes, the Pacific coast, one of the world's most spectacular rail journeys and more active volcanoes than my travel insurance company needs to know about.
And yet all this tends to be neglected by your average visitor to Ecuador. The drill is still to touch down in Quito then head six hundred miles west to the Galápagos Islands, home of Darwin's Theory of Evolution, a bunch of extremely elderly tortoises, some of the most beautiful and rare flora and fauna found on earth, and, tragically, more and more human waste and pollution, as 160,000 tourists continue to pitch up every year in search of the last great wilderness. So I've decided to do something weird. I've come to Ecuador to stay on the mainland.
And frankly, why would you want to leave? A hike at dawn in Ecuadorian cloud forest is like sleepwalking in the sky. Everywhere is mist, moisture, the earth's breath. Outlines of trees emerge like spectres through giant banks of cloud. Cottony wisps get caught in king-sized bromeliads. I frequently find myself walking through cloud and not realising until I look back and see it drifting behind me. And all the time there is water: dripping, burbling and collecting somewhere unseen, with a persistence that only nature can truly boast.
Two days later, I'm on horseback in the foothills of the Andes, 2800m above sea level. It's a brisk morning and the air smells of pasture and woodsmoke from our nearby hacienda, a colonial farm dating back to 1691 that contains the country's history of Spanish colonisation, pre-Columbian and Ecuadorian tradition in its weathered wooden walls. I travelled here along a spectacular 300km stretch of road known as the “Avenue of the Volcanoes”, where mountains take the place of houses and active volcanoes stand in for lamp-posts. My Andalusian horse knows she has a novice on her back and keeps wandering off-path to tug at the grass. Now and then, a local in traditional dress passes by, nodding solemnly from atop his steed.
A few blissful miles later, we arrive at our destination. A great green valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains, sloping native forest, and vast shifting skies. The hacienda's owner, as dapper a farmer as they come, points up. A mile high, circling first and then soaring on the thinnest of air, is an Andean condor. Everyone who comes to Ecuador hopes to see one of these rare giants of the sky who, when fully grown, has a wingspan of up to five metres. And here at Hacienda Zuleta, where the family runs a rehabilitation programme, there are eight condors. If I saw all of them today – though one is quite enough – I would have seen a fifth of all the population in Ecuador. We watch in silence as this exquisite young male lands bumptiously on top of a high fence and fans his enormous wings in the breeze. It's a perfect Ecuadorian moment, and the Galápagos never seemed so far away.
Need To Know
For more information about Ecuador's Mindo cloud forest and the Bellavista reserve and eco-lodges, visit www.bellavista.com. For more on Hacienda Zuleta, the Andes and the Condor Huasi Project, visit www.zuleta.com. See www.quito.com.ec/en to find out more about Quito. Explore more of Ecuador with the Rough Guide to Ecuador. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.