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Ecuador's cloud-forested wonderland

An armchair naturalist explores the area around Mindo and discovers an exotic world full of orchid and bird species, all framed by spectacular Andean scenery.

April 16, 2010|By Chris Kraul, Special to The Los Angeles Times

Part of Mindo's charm is that it is preternaturally quiet, broken only by bird calls. It helps that a road built 20 years ago that connects Quito with the coast bypassed Mindo. The old road, which runs through town, has become a rarely traveled byway that serves as a path for nature-loving bikers or sightseers in vans.

A good guide is essential to a successful trip because he or she will see and hear things, particularly in dense, foggy forest, that inexperienced interlopers would miss. Thanks to a recommendation from a friend in Quito's tourism industry, I got a great one: Kurt Beate, a multilingual German-Ecuadorean who has led tours throughout the country.

Even as a 34-year veteran, Beate is still passionate about his country and its embarrassment of natural riches and is generous with his knowledge of Ecuadorean flora and fauna. During my two days with him, I was treated to a nonstop flow of fascinating digressions, including how to identify certain birds by their calls, including hummingbirds (a strange clicking sound); quetzals (a descending trill); umbrella birds (a moo-ing sound, which is why Ecuadoreans call them bull birds) and toucans (a call in which they seem to be telling us, "Dios te de" or, in English, "God will provide.")

On the way to Mindo from Quito, Kurt insisted that we make two stops, both of which proved unforgettable. The first was at Pululahua Crater, the innards of an extinct volcano 17 miles northwest of Quito that is now a national park. From a parking lot, we walked a couple hundred yards up to the crest of the crater to see the floor, its miles spread out before us, 1,000 feet below. Apart from a few houses and the crater floor's green carpeted pastureland, it looked as though it might have erupted yesterday.

The other stop was at the privately owned 700-acre Pahuma Orchid Reserve (admission $4), about midway on the drive. We took an hourlong hike through the mists to Pahuma's summit, passing several trailside orchids along the way, before descending to feast our eyes on more than 100 orchids and bromeliads growing in an outside nursery.

"Every plant is a surprise," Kurt said smiling, after he photographed a blazingly pink epidendrum orchid. Its myriad tiny blooms reminded me of a pomegranate turned inside out.

It wasn't all beauty during my two days in Mindo. The hike at Pahuma was a beast, straight up into dense tropical forest and thick cloud and dampness that tends to come on after 1 or 2 in the afternoon. We gained more than 800 feet of altitude in less than an hour. I was glad I had a plastic poncho and good weatherproof hiking boots. The mist and darkness made spotting orchids and other plants difficult. Fortunately, Kurt was adept at that.

But the rest of the time, I was back in my laid-back explorer mode, including my drive with Kurt up the abandoned Mindo-Quito road, where thanks to his telescopic "view-scope," we saw several roadside orchids and the cock-of-the-rock. There was also my morning stroll through Seventh Heaven's 800-acre reserve, with its flocks of clicking hummingbirds, and my pleasant walk around Cabañas Armonía's orchid garden, where I encountered the colorful and mysterious geometry of a dracula orchid. It was just the right blend of education and enlightenment for the lazy man.

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