In the cloud forests of Ecuador water is king. It hangs on the moss-covered trees like a thick wet coat. It drips light-footed from the canopy and gathers in globules, like prisms, that stick to upturned palm leaves and blades of sheer grass. Its noise is ever present, in rivers and waterfalls, in the soft squelch of mud and the torrent of sudden rain.
And where this water lands, life springs upwards. Clamouring forms of sparkling diversity erupt everywhere like explosions in slow motion. Perhaps nowhere else on Earth can one feel evolution’s infinite imagination so profoundly.
I am in the Mindo cloud forests of northern Ecuador, part of the Tumbez-Chocó-Magdalena region, an area that stretches from Panama to Peru and is considered one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots. It is here that Pacific Ocean clouds, trapped on the steep slopes of the Andes, create a genesis of life so diverse that discoveries of new species are still regularly being made. In this small region alone there exists a staggering 500 varieties of birds (about half the total for all of Europe), thousands of rare orchids and innumerable varieties of flora and fauna.
My guide David Yunes and I are in wellies squelching through muddy trails cut between towering parallel bars of thick forest. We pass endemic Toucans, Dracula Orchids and Owl Butterflies with wings like snakeskin. We hear Howler Monkeys bark like a low wind across the valley and Tree Frogs call like a plop of water. We find millipedes long enough to wear as a necklace, giant warrior ants with toxic blue dots on their back and a (baby) tarantula as big as my palm. At one point we even discover a thick hanging vine and take turns swinging out, Tarzan style, 60-feet above the jungle abyss.
David explains how there is a rhythm to the forest. In the morning mixed flocks of birds chirp past us in vast numbers, working different levels of the canopy as one organism. Then as the heat of the day increases green leaves are briefly dotted with dazzling spots of butterfly colour, only for them to retreat silently to the shade again before dusk falls. At night we go out with torches and the world has changed again. Surrounded in thick humidity, and lit up by beams of disappearing light and the sudden spark of fireflies, we find king toads, enormous stick insects and mushrooms that glow in the dark. Walking here is like nothing I’ve ever done before, a kind of little game safari, in which the microscopic universe of the forest is suddenly brought into focus. Just before we leave we find a rare beetle who warns off predators by activating two yellow bioluminescent eyes on its back – “the whole day would be worth it,” David says, his eyes wide with amazement, “just to see this one beetle.”
The next morning we climb up to a viewpoint to watch the sun rise. As I look out I realise that what had been an undifferentiated expanse of rolling green trees has now become a layered network of interconnected organic entities, each one somehow supporting a vast synergy of polyphonic life, and somehow connected to each other. David sees me and smiles, “Being here is like going back to your origins,” he says. “It’s easy to feel that everything around you is alive.”
My cloud forest safari was part of 3-night stay at Mashpi Lodge – a new eco-lodge set in it’s own 2,600 acre conservation reserve. It’s wonderful, but quite pricey. A good deal of the money goes to supporting local people and preserving the forest so if you can afford it, go – you’ll love it.
For a less costly option that’s not as remote but just as beautiful (albeit far more rustic), try El Monte Cloud Forest Lodge, on the outskirts of Mindo. The relaxed atmosphere is infectious and owners Todd & Mariella are fabulous hosts and storytellers. Another good option is Bella Vista Cloud Forest Lodge – at over 2000m the views are fabulous, as are the dozens of hummingbirds who have made this little tree house hideaway their home.
Mindo is a good base from which to explore the cloud forest, but the town itself has become relatively touristy and can be crowded. There are some fun adventure activities to do in the area (zip wires, rafting etc.) but I preferred getting out to the remoteness of the forest lodges. Buses run regularly from the capital and take about 2.5 hours, alternatively many of the lodges arrange private transfers directly to and from Quito, or between destinations in the forest.