The northern lowlands
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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.
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.
Getting to and from the major transport hub of SANTO DOMINGO DE LOS COLORADOS is far easier than finding anything to do once you’re there. The city is encircled by a ring road linking a number of fast radial roads – east to Quito, north to Esmeraldas, west to Pedernales, southwest to Manta, Bahía de Caráquez and Portoviejo and south to Guayaquil via Quevedo.
When the road from Quito was completed almost fifty years ago, the door was unlocked to large tracts of forest, which were rapidly felled to make way for intensive agriculture, notably the enormous banana and oil-palm plantations that contribute a significant chunk to the national economy. Since then, Santo Domingo has grown at a phenomenal rate and is by far the most important commercial centre in the northern coastal interior. Its narrow, crowded and polluted streets – although recently improved after an injection of civic cash on being made the capital of the new Santo Domingo province – hold few attractions to sightseers, though the town does make a serviceable base for seeing nearby forest reserves, the last remaining pockets of coastal tropical wet forest, most of which have accommodation, guides and trails.
Birdwatchers on their way to these reserves might consider taking the old road from Quito to Santo Domingo via Chiriboga. It’s a little-used dirt track (4WD recommended) servicing the Trans-Ecuadorian Oil Pipeline and passes through various transitional forests containing hundreds of bird species as it plunges from an altitude of 3000m before joining the main road from Alóag near La Unión del Toachi at 1200m. There are few facilities on this road, but you can stay at the rustic Bosque Protector Río Guajalito scientific station set amid five square kilometres of forest, home to the rarely seen hoary puffleg hummingbird (t09/5872237, email@example.com; reservations required). There’s a thirty-person dorm ($15 per person including meals) or you can camp for $5 per tent.
The only thing really worth a look here is the market along Avenida 3 de Julio, west of the main square of Parque Zaracay; it’s busiest on Sunday, but bustles all week with locals buying food, clothes and other goods – though the covered section, thronged with butchers, isn’t for the squeamish. The streets get even more crowded during the July 3 fiesta for Santo Domingo’s cantonization, when an agricultural fair packs the recinto ferial exhibition hangar opposite the Zaracay hotel.
In the 1960s, tourists began coming to Santo Domingo to see the Tsáchila people, whom the Spanish labelled Los Colorados, meaning “coloured” or “redheads”, due to their bowl haircuts pasted down with bright-red achiote dye. Although the city takes part of its name from this Spanish moniker, these days you’re unlikely to see any urban Tsáchila wearing traditional dress or sporting their celebrated hairstyles – except for the stereotypes on local billboards and statues. The destruction of the forests around Santo Domingo has had a deep effect on the Tsáchila, the majority of whom have been forced to abandon their traditional way of life. The seven remaining Tsáchila communities are in the environs of the city. You’ll see roadside signs for Tsáchila curanderos, shaman healers who now offer their services to outsiders, along the way to Quevedo, and the Ecomuseo Etnográfico Shino Pi Tsáchila, a museum explaining the culture and history of the people, is in the Búa community, 15km from Santo Domingo on the Chone road. You can visit some communities with tour agencies in Santo Domingo, such as Turismo Zaracay, 29 de Mayo and Cocaniguas (t02/2750546), and at the Zaracay hotel, which also offers tours to local forest reserves and an oil-palm plantation.
Although a huge amount of lowland forest around Santo Domingo has been flattened for farming, pockets remain within striking distance of the city. Pressure to develop “unproductive” land – a euphemism for forests – has been considerable since the late 1950s, as colonists eyed more space for banana, palm and cacao plantations. Under government statute such undeveloped areas were up for grabs to anyone who intended to make them “productive”, a policy that led to the destruction of more than ninety percent of Ecuador’s northwestern forests. A handful of conservationists were nimble enough to buy forestland and set up their own private reserves, which are now among Ecuador’s last coastal tropical wet forests in the Chocó bioregion.
Nurturing astounding wildlife diversity, these forest reserves are located in several areas: between Alóag and Santo Domingo; at the Bosque Protector La Perla, on the road to Quinindé; at the private Reserva Biológica Bilsa, adjoining the little-explored, state-run Reserva Ecológica Mache-Chindul, west of Quinindé; and at the Bosque Protector Río Palenque, on the Quevedo road.
At the western edge of the Bilsa reserve, 700 square kilometres of coastal tropical wet forest are protected as the Reserva Ecológica Mache-Chindul. It’s characterized by extraordinary biodiversity and an unusually high level of endemism – more than ten percent of all its species are thought to be unique, though research is still in its early stages. Covering the northern half of the Mache-Chindul coastal mountains, which reach 800m in altitude, this remote area is one of the least-visited places in the country and has been inhabited for centuries by only a few small groups of Chachi and Afro-Ecuadorian peoples, who were largely overlooked until a road was built between Santo Domingo and Quinindé in 1948. Colonists have since slowly been encroaching, chopping down trees and selling Chachi lands illegally to lumber companies – hence the creation of this reserve in 1996.
With no tourist infrastructure inside the reserve, the easiest access is through the Reserva Biológica Bilsa, whose forests blend into those of Mache-Chindul. All other access points are quite remote and involve making long hikes, hauling food and camping gear, and hiring a guide or possibly even a mule ($10–15 per day, $20 for both). You can do so at the village of Boca de Tazones, 15km south of Atacames, the communities southeast of El Salto, 15km east of Muisne and 23km south of Tonchigüe, and San José de Chamanga, halfway between Muisne and Pedernales.
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.