Northern Highlands -- Mindo and Quito, Ecuador

July 23-31, 2007








A two hour bus ride northwest from Quito took us to Mindo, a small town that serves as a weekend get-away for Quitanos. To our delight, we discovered that this region has a lot of intact (mostly second-growth) cloud forest. We have been very surprised and saddened in our travels through the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Andes that it is almost entirely deforested -- the land cleared to make room for farms, houses, and extensive pastureland. So it was a welcome change to spend a few days walking through the brilliant green forests around Mindo. This area has a reputation as a birding hotspot, and we were mesmerized by the clouds of hummingbirds -- twenty-four species -- zooming around the many flowers and feeders. They buzz and chatter, ferociously guard their treasured food source, levitate in mid-air, and pirouette before our eyes. The tiniest one -- just a bit bigger than a dragonfly -- has wings that whir so fast they are just a blur, and it sounds like a bee, not a bird.



In the dark before dawn, with the sound of dripping fog dew drumming on our tin roof, we heard the soft voice of our guide, Hugolino, outside our room at 4:50am asking if we were ready to go -- todo bien! A thirty-minute drive, splashing down the muddy road and fording a couple of small streams, took us to a privately owned ranch and a mountain covered in cloud forest. We emerged from the pick-up truck in the dim glow of our headlamps and followed Hugolino, hiking up a steep slippery trail in total darkness. Our destination was a tiny observation platform twenty minutes up the mountain, a short distance from a lek where, supposedly, we were certain to see the strange Gallo de Peña (the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock) competing with other males for territory and females. We sat in the darkness on a bamboo bench, listening to the whine of unseen mosquitoes, as a faint sunrise glow far above the tree canopy brightened and slowly spread across the eastern sky. Amazingly, right on cue we heard a strange squawk, then another and another, until the forest was filled with a screeching cacophony, and we were tantalized by brief views through the dense foliage of six or seven of these brilliant red, black and white crested birds performing their morning ritual.

Sound Recording: Cock-of-the-Rock (1:34).



Frog concert, 6:30 pm, glass of wine included. We had no idea what we had signed up for, but early one evening we walked up the hill leading out of Mindo, took a seat in the front row on a veranda overlooking a series of ponds, and waited. Soon others joined us, mostly Ecuadorian tourists, and the small crowd hushed when Bernardo, the "conductor", came out to greet us. He had a twinkle in his eye as he explained that every night was a different concert, and right on cue the chorus began. He turned off all the lights and led us on a flashlight tour of the ponds. We walked single file on a narrow boardwalk past one pond filled with light green cabbage-like floating vegetation, home to five species of tree frogs who click and quack like ducks, then past another pond, a much larger and deeper pond, home to giant Buffo frogs who provide a deep contra bass. It was a magic evening under drizzly tropical Andean skies.

Sound Recording: Frog Concierto (4:05)







Dating back to the sixteenth century, Quito's World Heritage old town is a beautiful city perched at 9200 feet in the tropical Andes, surrounded by volcanoes and verdant mountains. In a classic South American "anything goes" adventure, we joined an Ecuadorian family and climbed to the top of the tallest tower of La Basilica, crossing under the roof on a rickety wooden plank, then up a series of vertical steel ladders on the outside of the tower for an incredible view of the church's clock towers and the city sprawling beneath us.




Sound Recording: The streets of Quito (3:38).


After hearing some scary stories told by fellow travelers, and reading the tales of mugging, robbery, and kidnapping in South America (particularly Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador), we felt a sense of relief boarding the plane out of Quito after five and a half months of South American travel without incident. The closest we came to a problem (that we know of) was getting treated to the first half of the usual street scam: Someone sneaks up behind you and sprays a substance on your pack or clothes, then an accomplice approaches to alert you and "help" clean your belongings. You become distracted by the mess, and before you know it the guy makes off with your goods! One day, just outside our hotel in Quito, a nice man walks up to us pointing and says, your pack, your pack! Sure enough yellow mustard is dripping off both our packs and pants. After a moment's hesitation, we suddenly knew what was up, kept a good grip on our gear, and walked briskly away from our would be assailant...




We had been to the Fin del Mundo at the southern tip of Argentina, so we couldn't pass up the opportunity to see the Mitad del Mundo, showcasing Ecuador's eponymous claim to fame. The elaborate monument isn't actually on the equator (modern instruments show the equator is a few hundred meters away), but we did weigh a few ounces less than we ordinarily do.

Puerto Lopez (bus)Manta (plane)Quito (bus)Mindo (bus)Quito