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.