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 at the Quito airport, giving ourselves a couple of hours leeway to allow time to navigate COVID tests and get our results (required to return to the US). We had plenty of time to spare, so we bought coffees and balons and took a welcome internet break on the airport’s 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…
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 tanagers 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 far below. What an awesome introduction to the cloud forest.
Spoiler: Our goodbye to the cloud forest was even awesomer. Earlier in our trip, my daughter Mia 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 tracking 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 subsequently dried up, that location remains fairly secret.
He offered to pick us up a few hours early on the day he was taking us back to the airport to show us 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?
When we told him we planned to attend the evening Frog Concert at the Mindo Lago hotel, he told us he knew of a better night walk. As we arrived in Mindo, he turned right at a bird statue near the downtown’s entrance and took us to an ornitologico. He spoke with the owner, who said we could buy our tickets then and come back later when the program started, but we were tired from our travels and didn’t want to commit. So, Roberto dropped us at our hostel with a promise to see us again in two days at 2pm.
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 kicked back with a bottle of wine at night, chatting with fellow travelers. Throughout our time there, in proof of the relaxed vibe, 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, quiet second night (a Monday). I’m guessing that’s the difference between staying there on a weekend versus a weeknight.
(Note: a recent glance at the booking website indicates that Cinnamon House may have gone all in on the backpacker vibe—all that appears to be available are beds in mixed dorms.)
After settling into our room, we headed down the long road from our hostel toward town in search of a sort of Food Patio that Roberto had told us about. He said it served good local food for less than other restaurants in this town that’s become pretty touristy. We think we found the right place on Sixto Duran between Sucre y Quito (one block northwest of main square), where a bunch of restaurants were serving on one giant patio. Women stood about, handing menus to passersby. We took the first one handed to us and had a satisfying, economical meal with giant beers—pasta for Mia and alitas barbecue for me.
We realized we had just enough time to get to the ornitologico for the night walk, so Mia fired up her Google map, and we were off. Self-navigating with a tight timeframe in a town we’d just set foot in for the first time is not my bag, especially when I’d just downed an enormous botella de cerveza. I was no help at all when Mia kept trying to show me the map to get my input. All I could contribute was, “I remember a bird statue.”
Unfortunately, remembering it and seeing it as we walked right past it did not equate. But after getting turned around and asking friendly locals if they knew where the ornitologico was (most did not), we circled back and saw the damned bird. Westward, ho!
We followed the dirt road heading away from the downtown, and as the area became more desolate, the sky grew darker—a good thing when doing a night walk, but not so great when you’re still not entirely sure you’re going the right way, and absolutely terrible when two tough-looking dogs start growling as you approach.
Luckily, the dogs were fenced in, but still, our thirst for adventure was zapped for the day, and we were no longer in the mood to go on a hunt for nocturnal creepy crawlies. We turned around, and after getting turned away at the famous El Quetzel because they said they were closing (at 7pm), we bought a bottle of wine at a local grocery and enjoyed it in the coziness of the Cinnamon House open-air living room, where a backpacker from Germany chided us for our planny ways, and a guy from Galena compared Mindo to…Galena.
Ziplining & Tarzan Swing
Our day-tour guides in Quito recommended the zipline outfit “with the bird on the sign.” So, when we were back in our room, we did some internet recon (don’t tell the German backpacker) and identified Mindo Canopy Adventure as the place. We decided to get the Ziplining/Tarzan Swing/Tarabita combo ticket ($23.50 when purchased on site). The next morning, after breakfast and big delicious jugos at La Hueca in town, we paid a few dollars to take a taxi to Mindo Canopy as it was all uphill.
Ziplining was a blast! Our ticket included 10 lines, and we each got the chance to do a special position on one of the lines—Superman or Mariposa. Mia was the first to volunteer and was surprised when she realized it required getting into a rather intimate position with one of the guides. I’m sure it made his day. I didn’t want to make him get so cozy with me, but after the other three zipliners did their specials, I didn’t want to be left out, so I Supermanned.
There’s a lot of hiking uphill throughout the course, so it was a good workout as well as an adrenaline rush. 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. Mia encouraged me to go first so I wouldn’t witness exactly what I was in for. Not going to lie, it was terrifying standing on the edge of platform and leaning forward to grip the rope, knowing the motion would send me free falling. But I’d screamed “Just do it!” at Amazing Race contestants on my TV too many times to chicken out now. I dropped and swung and screamed “Pachamama!” and it was A-W-E-S-O-M-E. A guide was there at the bottom with a ladder to safely lower me to the ground when it was time.
I got to stay at the bottom to watch the others take flight. The guide came over to point out that the next person in line was backing out of it. Next, Mia came swinging and screaming, and it was so, so fun to watch her. The lone male in our group came next, and afterward, he squatted on the ground next to us, literally shaking. When the final jumper declined to actually jump, we became slightly more impressed with ourselves for doing it. And on the way up from the tiny canyon, the guide stepped up beside us to say what translated to, “Only for the brave.”
Tarabita and Nambilla Cascadas
After our adventures at Mindo Canopy, we hiked the rest of the way up the road to the tarabita (cable car) that crosses over a big gorge to a path to waterfalls. The walk along the road 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 a spectacular view. The ticket is normally $5 if purchased 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. Next time I’d bring a pair of water shoes with for walking over the sharp rocks. After another fun tarabita ride back to the other side, we followed the road downhill toward town, picking up a little dog friend along the way.
Pizza and Chocolate
One of those “things” we wanted to do back in town after the waterfalls was to get a pizza at Fuere de Babilonia, which we’d noticed the night before when the friendly chef waved to us as he slid pizzas into the pizza oven at this open-air restaurant. We loved this place. We had the Babilonia specialty pizza, and it was fantastic. It seems to be a family run business with different family members 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. Her adorable younger sister stayed nearby us as she devoured a mug of chocolate powder.
Looking to stuff our own faces with chocolate, we headed up the hill to try our luck again at El Quetzal, and this time we got in. Well, more like we got out—on the front porch, where we enjoyed wine and an amazing gooey brownie with coffee ice cream.
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.
And then there are the other kinds of dogs…
After our El Quetzal success, we continued to roll the dice and headed back to the ornitologico that had thwarted us the night before. This time, we easily found our way back to the dirt road that goes west at the bird statue. We passed the snarling dogs that were fenced in and weren’t as freaked out by them as we had been the night before. Next, we came upon a friendly looking dog just sitting outside his house. I greeted him, as one does, with a friendly “Hola, perro,” which apparently alerted another dog—that was NOT fenced in or otherwise held back. It came around the side of the house snarling and barking.
“Keep walking,” Mia warned as the dog charged us. We needed to show strength, not fear. As we moved forward at a steady pace and resisted the urge to break into full run, I unsnapped my metal water bottle from my backpack and slowly waved it between me and the dog like a weapon. The snapping and snarling continued, but the dog stopped following us as we walked out of range of the property it 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 the only option 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 Sir Growlsalot. 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 how to stop that from happening. 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 advice to get a rabies shot.
The snarlers behind the fence got a whiff of us as we reapproached their house and started barking their fool heads off. They were our saviors. Sir G kept growling, but he stopped walking, no doubt warned off by the threat of other dogs. We kept moving at a steady pace, and for the rest of that long, dusty road, all I could do was imitate my adorable niece after she emerged from her first Haunted Mansion experience: “That was so scary.”
Mindo Lago is walkable from town and if we kept up a good pace, we had enough time to get there for the Frog Concert, but as we’d just had that scare with the dog, we went straight to Mindo’s main square and caught a taxi ($2). Once at the hotel resort, we followed a path and came upon a hut/kiosk where we were able to get our names in and pay for our tickets ($6).
We heard the frogs from the veranda where we waited for the night walk to begin. We hadn’t made reservations (See, German backpacker? We can be spontaneous) and got lucky that a large family was also there for the Frog Concert, otherwise it may have gotten cancelled. It was also lucky because the family was a lot of fun and proactive in locating critters when our guide showed up and led us on a walk around the lovely pond and garden paths.
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. After the walk, we asked the woman at the kiosk to call us a taxi back to town.
On our final day in Mindo (and Ecuador), we had a delicious breakfast at 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. We also perused a nice little gift shop inside where we picked up some souvenirs.
We headed back to Cinnamon House to pack our bags and store them at the desk. Then we hit the town for more last-minute souvenir shopping. That task accomplished, we moseyed over to Crepes-Art, a grass roofed outdoor bar that had caught our eye the day before as we emerged from the waterfalls road. It perfectly encapsulates the chillaxed Mindo vibe. My michelada was extra good because they made it with tangy orange tree tomatoes.
We figured we’d just hang in the awesome Cinnamon House common area until Roberto arrived, but as we approached our hostel, we saw that he’d gotten there early and was taking a nap in his car. We grabbed our bags and were off on our next adventure.
Back to the Birds
Along the route to the Cock of the Rock viewing spot, we stopped at El Colorado Paradero Y Restaurante along highway 28 from Mindo to Quito— a true local hangout. It has a huge interior and a menu filled with authentic Ecuadorian cuisine, complete with almuerzos. Mia and I each 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!”
A little further along, the three of us met up with the owner of the private property, and we hiked 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 the 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?
After about an hour of avian magic, the fog thickened, and it was time to go. A short hike back through the jungle brought us to Roberto’s car, and in a few hours, we were at the Quito airport. We gave Roberto a hug and a big tip for making our final day in Ecuador extra amazing.
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.