The Costa Rican rain forests, now largely co-opted by foreign tour operators, have less- than-pristine environments. Ecuador’s Mindo-Nambillo cloud forest is the real thing
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION The Mindo-Nambillo Cloud Forest is about 24 miles (40 km) northwest of Ecuador’s capital, Quito
VISITORS PER YEAR Around 12,000
DAYTIME TEMPERATURES Jan: 77°F (25°C); Apr: 79°F (26°C); Jul: 82°F (28°C); Oct: 80°F (27°C)
Tucked away in the sloping hills northwest of Quito, and no more than a 90-minute drive from the capital, lies the extraordinary Mindo-Nambillo Cloud Forest or, to use its official title, the Bosque Protector Mindo-Nambillo.
It’s one of those places that will leave you doubly astonished – by its beauty and by the fact that it isn’t more widely known, although that’s changing fast.
Covering nearly 49,000 acres (20,000 hectares), the reserve has a spectacular wealth of native-environment flora, including some of the world’s rarest orchids, as well as fauna, especially tropical butterflies and birds – many of which were once thought to be extinct but actually manage to survive here.
The cloud forest is a truly magical place, filled with the sights and sounds of an ecosystem that still flourishes in this corner of Ecuador, free from 21st-century cares. In fact, to say that Mindo- Nambillo is a rejuvenating place is a huge understatement.
For years a well-kept secret, or a largely ignored paradise, depending on who you ask, Mindo-Nambillo has come into its own only since 1982 and now falls under the protection of the Ecuadoran government. Unlike rain forests in Costa Rica and elsewhere, there are stringent regulations regarding who gets in and the purpose for the visit.
You won’t find tour guides hawking their services, nor five-star luxury hotels that undermine the forest’s ecology. What you will find are increasingly rare flora and more than 500 species of birds in a pristine, natural environment. For those interested in outdoor activities, there are trails for walking and bird- watching, and if you’re scrupulously careful, you may even be able to go rafting or rappel the beautiful La Isla Waterfalls.
The government wisely established a buffer zone within the park, the first of its kind in South America, where visitors can lodge or camp and stock up on supplies. Guides are allowed to set up shop only if they pass extensive tests.
Mindo-Nambillo also takes its commitment to family education seriously, so if you have the kids along, there’s plenty for all to do and see, as much of the preserve is accessible to children.
FORGET THE COSTA RICAN RAIN FORESTS?
THE BUILD-UP For years the rain forests of Costa Rica have been the destination of choice for travelers wishing to see and interact with Mother Nature on her own terms. Tall trees soar higher than the eye can see, tropical birds flit about with bright plumage, and the sights and sounds of a pristine ecosystem are everywhere.
THE LETDOWN And so it was…but not so much anymore. What used to be a nearly intact rain forest has been splintered and chopped into small parcels throughout the country, many with little or no regulation. Now approaching the level of a mass tourism destination, these forests are crowded with vendors selling everything from Spanish- language instruction books to mass-produced souvenirs.
GOING ANYWAY? Rather than book a tour, visit one of the national parks and enlist one of the certified guides there. It will be much cheaper, and you’ll have less competition from other tourists.
Getting There and Around
Getting to Mindo-Nambillo couldn’t be easier. It’s less than a 2-hour drive over paved roads from Quito. There’s a lot to do in the area, so renting a car is recommended.
Where to Eat
On the way to the cloud forest, take the road to Calacalí and stop off at Pululahua to try El Cráter (www.elcrater.com), on the outskirts of town. It has excellent food and outstanding views of a volcanic crater and the surrounding landscape.
Where to Stay
In Mindo itself, the comfortable Mindo Garden (www. mindogardens.com) – situated in what may be the region’s prettiest setting – has excellent cabins and plenty of bird-watching opportunities of its own.
When to Go
June through September is the most pleasant period to visit. Avoid the rainy season from October to May. It is better to visit on weekdays as there are fewer tourists; weekends can be very busy with families.
Budget per Day for Two
Roughly US$40 should do nicely, especially considering the lack of vendors and tour promoters. Bring a bit more money if you plan to stay the night in Mindo.