The journey back from Cuyabeno is long. After spending another night in Lago Agrio - out of necessity rather than choice! - we return to Quito after another six hours in a bus and a total climb of 2,300 metres, up and over the mountains. A bit of good luck with bus connections - not easy in Quito, with its two bus terminals located at opposite ends of this long, thin city, nearly 30km apart - means we manage to get to our next destination, the tiny town of Mindo, the same day. For a 350km journey over the Andes and across Quito, it's not bad going. The transport sequence for the last two days - these get quite comical at times - has been longboat-minivan-taxi-bus-bus-taxi-bus-minivan. Small wonder we arrive in Mindo shattered.
Mindo, located a couple of hours from Quito in the cloud forest of Pichincha province, is cute but not much to look at at first glance: one main street, a small square, and not much else. When it comes to birds, however, Mindo is a whopping great dot on the map. And not just of Ecuador - Mindo is a world-famous biodiversity hot-spot for birds - well
over 500 species - and people come here from a very long way to watch them. Despite not being excessively obsessive twitchers ourselves, the chance to see some exotic species leads us to arrange an early morning walk (6am start, there's dedication for you!) in the forests high above Mindo with a local birdwatching guide. Equipped with binoculars and a very fancy telescope-like contraption, we head out into the cool morning. Spotting birds, even somewhere as rich in species as Mindo, is no easy task. Thanks to our guide Julia's scope, which she can helpfully point in exactly the right direction for us, we get to see dozens of difference species, from sparrowhawks to woodpeckers to psychedelic toucans whose colours are barely believable.
Birds aren't the only animals to be observed in astonishing variety in Mindo. The area is particularly rich in butterfly species - many of them endangered - which are much more easily appreciated in one of the town's several special mariposario
enclosures. Huge owl butterflies, delicate Heliconius butterflies, electric blue Morpho butterflies - the mariposarios
breed the insects in huge numbers, releasing many back into the wild, and the array of colourful and extraordinarily-shaped chrysalides
A type of small hawk
is particularly fascinating. Amphibians are also big in Mindo, every evening resonating with the musical chorus of thousands of frogs and toads of a dozen or more species, easily observed on night-time walks armed with a torch.
Mindo is also home to some small-scale cocoa production, which a couple of tiny places in town turn into small batches of delicious Ecuadorian chocolate. For a couple of dollars, one particular café will let you make your own chocolate fondue starting absolutely from scratch with raw, fermented cocoa beans, cane sugar and milk. Melted chocolate always
tastes good, but it's so much better when you've actually made it yourself. And, since you eat it with lots of lovely local fruit like bananas and pineapples, the calories don't count!
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