Instead of sending my characters off to exciting places, I decided to have an adventure for myself. COVID be damned, I went out to see the world. First stop: Ecuador. This is part 3 in a series of 4 posts recapping that trip along with any helpful tips I can offer to others planning an adventure.
(I’m not affiliated with any of the linked businesses below – just linking for your convenience and mine when I return to Ecuador.)
Mindo (September 5-7, 2021)
Through Let’s Go to Ecuador, we pre-arranged for a private driver to pick us up just over two hours after our flight was to arrive at the Quito airport to give us time to navigate the COVID test and get our results. We had plenty of spare time, so we bought coffees and balons and took a welcome Internet break on the fabulous terrace overlooking the mountains/volcanoes, including a perfect view of Pichincha.
I’m glad we chose to end our trip in Mindo because the chill atmosphere was exactly what we were ready for after a week of non-stop activity. Though there was still plenty of activity to be had there…
We stayed 2 nights at Cinnamon House. It has a gorgeous two-story open-air reception and common area where we saw hummingbirds in the morning and chilled with a bottle of wine chatting with fellow travelers at night. Throughout our time there, we saw many of our housemates taking naps in the hammocks strung about.
The clientele has a definite youthful backpacker vibe, which isn’t my demographic, but I was comfortable there—except for when the jerks in the room next door blasted terrible music well into the wee hours on our first night there (a Sunday). There’s no soundproofing between rooms, and we heard everything. But they cleared out the next day and we had a nice, quite second night (a Monday). I’m guessing that’s the difference between staying there on a weekend versus a weeknight.
It turns out that our driver from and to the airport, Roberto, is an expert birder and animal tracker, so he told us lots of great stories about finding and observing Andean bears and pumas in the wild. He asked if we’d like to make a stop to see birds on our way into Mindo, and we said heck yeah. By the way, Roberto has his own tour company called Great Horned Owl Adventures & Tours.
Roberto brought us to San Tadeo Birding ($5 entrance), where we saw tons of colorful birds, which I’ve forgotten the name of (I’m sorry, Roberto!) and all kinds of hummingbirds, including a magnificent long-tailed one. Feeders and bananas were everywhere, so we saw the birds up close, and Roberto brought his telescope and binoculars so we could get even closer looks. He took amazing photos on our phones through the telescope. The whole time, we had a cool overlook onto Mindo below. What an awesome introduction to the cloud forest.
Our goodbye to the cloud forest was even awesomer. Earlier in the trip, my daughter became amused when I told her of a difficult-to-spot bird in the Mindo area called Cock of the Rock. When she learned of Roberto’s expertise, she asked if he knew where to find them, and we hit the jackpot. He did, indeed, know where—and when—to find a whole bunch of them, and since he’d only discovered the place a short while before COVID and then tourism dried up, that location is still a secret to most people.
He offered to pick us up a few hours early on the day he was taking us back to the airport and take us to this super-secret Cock of the Rock playground. After brief hesitation on my part because I was loathe to abandon the half day hands-on coffee tour I’d hoped to go on, we said, HECK YEAH. How could we pass up such an opportunity?
About an hourish away from Mindo, the three of us met up with the owner of the private property, and we hiked in single file along with two dogs into the misty jungle. After about 15 minutes, we heard eerie calls, like vibrations from some strange kind of wind instrument. Before I could ask what it was, we came upon screening along the bend in the path. We were at the lookout point. And the trees were loaded with Cocks of Rock!
It didn’t take long to spot the bright red plumage of a few of them with our bare eyes. But there were more out there, as we could tell by quick flashes of red from one tree to another and by the volume and density of their strange calls. Roberto handed us binoculars and set up his telescope, and for the next hour we were mesmerized by the sights and sounds of these elusive and magnificent birds.
You want Roberto’s website again, don’t you?
Ziplining & Tarzan Swing
On the recommendation of our tour guides in Quito, we went with Mindo Canopy Adventure (the one with the bird on the sign) and it was a blast. We took a taxi there as its all up hill and asked for the Ziplining/Tarzan Swing/Tarabita combo ticket ($23.50 when purchased on site). That included 10 lines of ziplining and we each got the chance to do a special position on one of the lines—Superman or Mariposa. There’s a lot of hiking uphill throughout the course.
The guides were excellent and made very clear how to hold yourself in the proper position. They took care of hooking and unhooking all of the equipment each time, so there’s no need to think at all. You don’t even need to worry about slowing down at the end as they have a stopper in place. It all felt very safe.
I didn’t expect to do the Tarzan Swing, but with adrenalin pumping, I gave it a go. Not going to lie, it was terrifying standing on the edge of platform and leaning forward to grip the rope, knowing I’d be free falling in a matter of seconds. But I’d screamed “Just do it!” at Amazing Race players on my TV too many times to chicken out now. I dropped and swung and screamed “Pachamama!” and it was AWESOME. A guide was there at the bottom with a ladder to safely lower me to the ground when it was time.
Tarabita and Nambilla Cascadas
We hiked from Mindo Canopy to the tarabita (cable car) that crosses over a big gorge to the path to the waterfalls. The walk was pretty with giant junglelike plants all around and not strenuous at all. Once we arrived at the tarabita, we were able to hop into the car as soon as it arrived from the other side. It moved faster than I expected and was a fun ride with spectacular view. $5 if purchases separately, but it was part of our combo ticket at Mindo Canopy.
Since we had things we wanted to do back in town, we only hiked to two or three of the waterfalls (not sure if the first trickle counted as a waterfall). We enjoyed the walk—a bit steep in parts, but there are steps. I put my feet in at one pool, my daughter took a full dip, and it was COLD but refreshing. Wish I would’ve brought a pair of water shoes with for walking over the painful rocks. It was a nice little excursion. After tarabitaing back to the other side, we followed the road downhill back into town, picking up a little dog friend along the way.
In the evenings at the Mindo Lago hotel, a guide leads a walk around the lovely lake and garden paths to find frogs and creepy crawlies of the night ($6 admission). At the time of our visit, they said to be there by 6:45pm. We didn’t make reservations and got lucky having a large family also there for the walk, otherwise it may have been cancelled. It was also lucky because the family was a lot of fun and proactive in locating critters.
You can hear the frogs before you even set foot in the garden. It’s a lovely atmosphere. In addition to the cutie cute tiny frogs, our group also spotted big spiders, a cockroach bigger than my fist (the group scream when la cucaracha skittered was hilarious), and a beautiful tree snake. The tour was all in Spanish, but even without my daughter there to interpret for me, it would’ve been an enjoyable experience.
Mindo Lago is walkable from town, but we’d just had a scare with a dog (keep reading for that), so we went to Mindo’s main square and took a taxi ($2). Follow the path up toward the resort and you will come upon a hut/kiosk where you can sign up for and pay for the walk. After the walk, the woman at the kiosk can call you a taxi back to town.
Here’s a rundown of where we ate in Mindo.
“Food Patio” on Sixto Duran between Sucre y Quito (one block northwest of main square) – this is like a food court with lots of restaurants serving on one giant patio. As you walk by, someone will most likely hand you a menu. We took the first one handed to us and had a satisfying, economical meal with giant beers.
La Hueca – BIG, delicious jugos
Fuere de Babilonia – We loved this place. An open, woody atmosphere with delicious fire oven pizza. We had the Babilonia specialty pizza, and it was fantastic. Seems to be a family run business with family coming in and out during a slow time in mid-afternoon—and every single one of them smiled and greeted us. One of the kids turned out to be a most darling, responsible, and delightful waitress.
El Quetzal – We struck out here twice because at 7pm we were told they were closing, and then in the morning, they weren’t open yet for breakfast. But we finally got there at the right time (about 5pm) and enjoyed wine and an amazing gooey brownie with coffee ice cream on their front porch.
Mindo Coffee House – We enjoyed sitting at the big picnic tables outside while feasting on the breakfast special—two eggs & bacon on a fluffy waffle with coffee & jugo. Yummy. Nice little gift shop inside where we picked up some souvenirs.
Crepes-Art – Two for one micheladas. Need I say more? Well, I will. We stopped by this grass-roofed outdoor bar to soak in the chillaxed Mindo vibe. My michelada was extra good because they made it with tangy orange tree tomatoes. Crepes-Art is located right near the end of the road down from the waterfalls & adventure sports, so it makes a perfect reward after expending all that adrenalin.
El Colorado Paradero Y Restaurante along highway 28 from Mindo to Quito – a true place for locals. Huge interior and a menu filled with authentic Ecuadorian cuisine, complete with almuerzos. We both got one last Seco de Pollo, and our beers were so huge we insisted Roberto help us drink them. He didn’t decline, and we exchanged a festive “Salud!”
Dogs are everywhere in Mindo, and they’re a different lot than city dogs. In Quito and Cuenca, the dogs went about their business and did not give a *bleep* about the humans. In Mindo, they mostly leave you alone, but we were lucky enough to have three different dogs attach themselves to us at different times. We’d just be walking along, and they’d start walking along beside us. We might give them a scratch behind the ears, and then they’d follow us everywhere. Twice we they fell asleep under our chairs when we were dining outside. And never once did they beg for tablescraps. So sweet.
But then there was the dog that wanted to tear my throat out. It was dusk and we were walking along a dirt road trying to get to the ornitologico at the end of the dirt road that heads west by the bird statue as you enter town. We passed snarling dogs that were fenced in and then got to a friendly looking dog just sitting outside his house. I greeted him, as one does, with a friendly “Hola, perro,” which alerted another dog—which was NOT fenced in or otherwise held back—to come around the side of the house snarling and barking.
“Keep walking,” Mia warned as the dog charged us. As we moved forward at a steady pace and stopped ourselves from breaking out into full run, I unsnapped my waterbottle from my backpack and slowly waved it in front of me like a weapon. The snapping and snarling continued, but he stopped following us as we walked out of range of the property he was protecting.
Our destination was almost right next door, which was great. What was not so great was that the gate was closed and nobody was there. We didn’t have time to dilly dally because if this night walk wasn’t happening, we had limited time to get to the Frog Concert at Mindo Lago clear past the other side of town. We were at a dead end, so it’s not like we could’ve kept walking that way, anyhow. The only way was to turn around and cross that dog again.
Yes—the dog that was still standing in the center of the street staring at us.
We took a deep breath and headed back that way, staying off the far edge of the road so as not to antagonize him. But I’m sure in his eyes we were a couple of punks daring to cross his territory again so soon. The barking and snarling resumed. I kept him in my peripheral vision and waved the terrifying water bottle behind me, hoping to keep him at bay.
He followed, and the gap between us narrowed inch by inch. That dog was going to bite me. And I wasn’t sure what to do. Mia was ahead of me, and I wanted to tell her to scoop up some rocks and throw them at the dog, but I was afraid that would be the excuse he was looking for to attack. We kept walking, and he kept closing in. One leap and his jaws would be clamped around my ankle. And I’d ignored the advice to get a rabies shot.
The snarlers behind the fence got a whiff of us and started barking their fool heads off. They were our saviors. Guard Dog kept growling, but he stopped walking, no doubt warned off by the threat of other dogs. We kept walking at a steady pace, and for the rest of that long, dusty road, all I could think and say was, “That was so scary.” The moral of the story is, if you want to go to the ornitologico at the end of the road, cough up the buck or two and get a taxi.
Thus ends my 2021 Ecuadorian memoirs. As you see, the only moment that caused more than an ounce of anxiety was the single mean dog we came across. I hope you were pleasantly surprised by the variety Ecuador has to offer—and my posts only cover three cities. Factor in the Amazon, the coast, and the Galapagos Islands, and this small, underrated country has everything you need for a lifetime of adventure.