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Hola from Mindo, Ecuador

This update was originally written in Ecuador in late August,2009.
I spent last week in a town called Mindo, in Ecuador, a place famed for its cloud forests. This has got to be one of prettiest places on earth.

Originally I had intended on doing a month of volunteer work, but my first volunteer stint on the coast of Ecuador, in Punta Blanca, took more time than I expected so I cancelled my Mindo volunteer stint. Instead, after taking 10 extra days at Punta Blanca,  I took a long weekend holiday in Ayampe (my second visit there), then went off for a week long writing and photography course based out of Cotacachi, Ecuador. After that I went to Quito, where my new boyfriend, Henry, traveled to meet me. He had just finished his job at Ayampe so we could go traveling together for awhile. After spending a few days in Quito, we went to Mindo for a week.

‘So who is Henry?’ you are probably asking. He’s a Chilean I met while staying at a beachside resort in  Ayampe. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about him in future updates.

So Henry and I traveled to Mindo for a week as tourists, and to my surprise, despite cancelling m volunteer placement in that area, I ended up doing some volunteer work anyway. We wound up staying at a volunteer house owned and run by a really interesting Cuban artchitect  turned expert organic farmer, Osmanys Broche. I learned a lot about gardening and gardening cycles while I was there.  The moon was at a full point in the cycle, and swinging very close to the earth while we were there, so it wasn’t a good time to do intensive gardening work, so we did a lot of relaxing. Lucky us!

Everyday we helped water the garden, and I saw more and more each day that I hadn’t noticed the day before. The plants were there the whole time, but it was just that I didn’t really ‘see’ them. Funny how you can look at something and not really see it until things are pointed out to you. This garden was bursting with variety – Broche had planted far more than the typical Ecuadorian gardener – and all of it, every single plant, was healthy, green and perfect, growing like crazy, in perfect harmony with everything else around it.

One day, as we were planting basil, Broche motioned us over. He pointed to the  ground. After I blinked, I saw what he was pointing at. A squadron of  tiny ants were walking in lines, many lines, all over the place. Covering the ground. As I watched the soil looked to be writhing as if alive, there were so many ants. But none of them were on the delicate lettuce leaves directly above. I asked why. Broche said that it was only because none of the lettuce leaves was bruised or broken so there was no smell to attract the ants to climb up. When he harvests lettuce , or any vegetable in his garden, he makes sure not to break off half or damage any of the surrounding leaves. He takes the whole lettuce plant, not just some of it. And so, the ants leave his growing produce completely alone. Makes perfect sense, but seemed like magic to me.

We helped around the house and a bit in the garden and one day we hacked back the jungle and fortified a walking bridge.  Wielding a machete brings out the primal side of you. You feel so powerful. And quickly tired since it’s such hard work to chop down drown trees and bamboo. Mostly we had a lot of time to relax in a beautiful setting, with mist shrouded mountaintops cloaked in lush green jungles of towering trees, fed by pristine rivers and waterfalls.

We were lucky, I think. I had heard others complain that their weekend in Mindo was a wash – literally- as a deluge of rain prevented them from doing anything. But we had excellent weather almost the whole time. Despite the downpour when we first arrived in Mindo, it cleared up and we saw blue skies every day, with only scant showers, until the last day when we left Rio Bravo in the Mindo Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve up the mountain. Then we got soaked to the bone. But by then we had done almost everything we wanted to do, and so were content to sit the afternoon out indoors.

There is a lot to see in this area – it´s a hot spot for butterfly and bird watching in particular. There are over 170 species of colibri (hummingbirds) in the area, as well as rare birds like Cock of the Rock, famous for their inability to survive in captivity. That’s right, they actually die if kept in a cage or if you attempt to domesticate them. Flowers like ‘Bird of Paradise’ and hundreds of types of wild orchids bloom all year round in the treetops. The forest is alive with the sound of frogs, chirping insects and all manner of creatures at all times of the day and night.
One afternoon we went with Broche´s and his friend, Claudia, who owns a guesthouse down the road, and some of her guests to spend the afternoon at a cascada (waterfall) only the locals know about. We scaled the high cliffs all around and went right up inside the waterfall. When the cold water pounds on your back it feels like a miracle massage. The high cliffs all around were perfect for jumping into the deep pool of cool water below the falls too. The weather cooperated for a picture perfect day.
On another particularly gorgeous, sunny day, Henry and I went Ziplining.
This is the name for a sport where you clip a waist harness to a thick cable strung between trees in the forest canopy, and zoom down and across deep ravines to get to the far side. As you zip along at an increasingly exhilarating clip, the pulley wheel zinging along like an angry insect, cool air rushing past your face, you suddenly realize that the ground has completely dropped away from beneath you. You are hanging suspended, hundreds of feet above solid ground. As you fly along, you are level with the surrounding treetops and mountain summits in the near distance.  A trip cord acts as a brake, slowing your descent, allowing you to stop almost gracefully on the raised wooden platform at the end of the line. It’s a real adrenaline rush even though all you really have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

This zipline company has 13 ziplines, some short and fast, others long, and some set up just for stunting. My favorite stunt was ‘The Superman’: you clip the harness cable to your back instead of your waist, and let go of the cable with your hands, zipping along with free arms out like superman, your legs wrapped around the guide behind you for support. It feels a bit like freefalling. Completely exhilarating.
Near the end of the week, Henry and I were invited by Claudia and Broche to go with them and some others for an overnight trip up to Rio Bravo, a massive cloud forest reserve (6500 hectares) of undeveloped wilderness. Rio Bravo is a place only the locals know about since there isn´t much advertising for the place in Spanish or English. It was cheap, too. Just $15.00 a night including 3 meals a day. What a lucky break to get this invitation.

We all split the cost to rent a camionetta (a truck as sturdy as a tank with an open wooden box in back where you stand while driving – no luxury bench seating in this mode of transport) to get up the road to Rio Bravo. I can see why it took 2 and a half years to build this 11 km stretch of road up the mountainsides into the heart of the reserve. It’s very steep, with slippery hairpin corners. It felt like we had voyaged into another world even though it was only 30 minutes out of town.

Half way up the mountain is the headquarters for the Rio Bravo reserve. It has a surprisingly roomy, comfortable and clean guest house in a level clearing in an elevated valley. There is a separate cook house with a massive covered patio. Sparkling cold waterfalls plummet from the cliff sides within easy walking distance, some as high as 96 meters. The night we were there, the bright full moon turned the night sky a shade of soft velvet blue and the stars came out in full force. For the first time of my life I saw fireflies glowing in the treetops, slowly brightening and dimming like tiny clear Christmas lights above the meadow between the buildings. It was like living inside a fairy tale story. We listened to deafening choruses of frogs and chirping insects in the background as we feasted on a big BBQ dinner on the patio. Rio Bravo is a very special place.

It was hard to leave, but the descent of dark rainclouds on the last day helped the decision along. When it rains, it really pours, like a tap turned on full.

On our last day in Mindo, we went to a Mariposarium – a butterfly greenhouse. There were displays showing the different stages of butterfly development and a wooden cabinet filled with cocoons of all shapes and sizes. Some looked like jade pendants with gold filigree. Others looked like curled dead leaves and tiny wasp nests. Right before our eyes some cocoons wiggled, jiggled and came apart with a poke of  a long spidery black leg thrust out from inside the cocoon. We had the good luck to arrive at the best hour in the day to watch hatchings, as it turned out – 11 a.m. You wouldn’t believe the large butterflies, some as big as your palm, that unfolded themselves from their tiny inner cocoon chamber like magicians. They stayed put for about an hour, occasionally flapping their delicate wet wings until they were dry, posing for our pictures like models.

Elsewhere  in the mariposarium, ashtray-like stands filled with mashed bananas coaxed previously hatched butterflies out of their hiding places in the trees around the periphery of the greenhouse. Many were as big as birds. The Blue Morpho butterflies with their sapphire hues were my favorite.

Our time in Mindo wasn’t all nature walks. One night we walked into town for a street festival. An oddly shaped, spindly looking tower decorated like a glittering parade float had been erected on one of the main streets, right near a stage with a DJ. After a religious ceremony outside a church nearby, people of all ages gathered around the tower, snacking on deep fried treats, meat on a stick slathered in mayo, plantain chips and sweet buns. Some plastic cartons of cheap wine and other alcoholic drinks were passed around certain circles of people. There was an air of excited anticipation, but I didn’t know what they were expecting would happen.

At around 11 a man took over the limelight in front of the tower like a circus master. He lit a big long stick on fire, and poked it into the tower at various spots. Then fireworks started to pop and explode and fly upwards into the sky. It felt like fireworks could explode in any direction at any moment, and the kids loved every moment of the dangerous situation, some running awayfrom their parents to dash around the clearing to get even closer, in a screaming excited frenzy.

When the show was over, the dancing on the street began. There was a lot of Cumbia music from Columbia and  tired pop tunes from the 80s (think Cindi Lauper). I didn’t like much of the music so it wasn’t as fun as I had hoped. But it was certainly a spectacle to behold to see people of all ages covering every available square inch with dancing bodies. After an hour, we left, and ended off the night dancing to the wee hours on a crowded dancefloor in a discoteca. What a fun night.

So what’s next? Henry and I decided to go through Peru and Chile on our way to Bolivia since he had family we could stay with all along the way.  This should be interesting. It’s very soon to be meeting his family, but it is rather convenient.

Bye for now,


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