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Wednesday 25 Dec 2013
Mindo, Ecuador

Christmas in the Cloud Forest

It was a funny thing to wake up in a hotel room on Christmas morning - I've never done that before.  Breakfast was a very subdued affair as the hotel staff were all hungover from their celebrations the night before.  Andreas picked us up at 7.00am for the drive down to Mindo.  Quito was deserted as everyone slept off the excesses of last night.  Andreas himself hadn’t had more than a few hours of sleep. 

It’s not often that you can spend 2-hour going downhill to reach a cloud forest, which by its definition is found high in the mountains, but we did.  The road was windy, wrapping around the contours of the valley as we went.  The hillsides were covered in lush green vegetation, which changed as we dropped in altitude.  The trees in the Quito area can only grow to a certain height.  When their taproots grow too far down, they hit a toxic layer in the ground (a result of the volcanic activity in the area) and poison themselves, so only trees of a certain height survive.  The trees here got progressively taller as we descended.

When we reached Mindo, we parked the car at the edge of the reserve.  The plan was to walk 5km up a forest road and look for birds.  Mum, Ailsa and I all needed the loo before we set off, so walked a short way up another branch of the road and squatted in a row, a little way apart from each other.  This was silly enough, making us all giggle when I called out 'Merry Christmas!', but it got sillier still.  While we were out of sight of the men, we were unfortunately exposed to anyone driving that way, which of course somebody did!  I managed to get my trousers back up in time, but Mum and Ailsa got a knowing grin from the woman driving the car as she went past them.  Merry Christmas indeed!

It took us around 90 minutes to walk up the track.  We heard a lot of birds, but they were hiding well and we didn’t see very many, so I still haven’t seen a toucan.  Andreas started out well, pointing things out to us and chatting as we walked, but he seemed to lose interest as he got more tired and gave up completely in the end, walking off ahead and leaving us to catch him up 15 minutes later.  We weren’t very impressed with that. 

The road led us to a cable car across the valley to a waterfall, or so we believed.  The cable car turned out to be a small open carriage with two seats, which shuttled back and forth, powered by a converted car engine.  A guy sat in a cabin operating the motor with foot pedals and waiting for the painted marker in the middle of the cable to indicate the carriage had reached the other side.  When he got a signal from the man the other side, he brought the carriage back again.  It took less than two minutes to cross the valley, which was great fun, but we then discovered we had a long steep walk downhill to the waterfall.  I was quite cross with Andreas for not telling us about this in the first place, as it was hard on Ailsa’s knees and my Dad was concerned about getting back up again.  It was only their second day here and they had yet to acclimatise to the altitude.  When we reached the waterfall, it was pretty, but not really worth such a long climb down.  Andreas had broken a fallen branch to make Ailsa a walking pole, which helped, but I asked him if he could go ahead and bring the car up to meet us by the cable car, so we wouldn’t have another hour’s walk back down.  It was already after noon and we hadn’t eaten since our very early breakfast.  As it happened, the climb back up was a lot quicker than the way down had been and we found Andreas waiting for us on the other side.  He’d arranged a pick up truck to take us back down.  Dad and I stood in the bed of the truck and held on for a rollercoaster ride down the bumpy track.  This turned out to be one of the best parts of the day.  Ailsa and Mum spotted a few more birds from inside the cab, as the driver was also a guide.

We were all hoping we’d have lunch next, but Andreas took us to the chocolate plantation instead.  We joined a short tour around the property, seeing where the cacao beans were dried, roasted, ground and processed through various stages to create chocolate.  We then had a tasting session with the very bitter pure chocolate paste, mixing it with sugar, chili flakes and ginger syrup.  The ginger was definitely my favourite.  We bought several bars of chocolate and some crystalised ginger, then sat down (at last) for a mug of fresh ginger beer.

We finally reached our lunch stop at nearly 2pm and had a big meal of beef soup, followed by chicken, rice and vegetables.  Andreas wandered off again after we’d eaten, but redeemed himself fully by returning with skewers of huge strawberries coated in chocolate!  Ailsa volunteered to sit in the front and keep Andreas awake on the drive back to Quito, while the rest of us dozed off quickly in the back.

We got back late afternoon and rang my brother to wish him a Merry Christmas.  Cath’s parents were there too and we saw them all sitting round the table through the magic of FaceTime.  The boys were already in bed, but Sam said Daniel loved the Thomas calendar, which had arrived on Christmas Eve after all.  (I’ll have to think of something else to do with the next set of Thomas pictures…) We then had our own little Christmas celebration.  Ailsa had picked up a bottle of Cava on her way through Madrid, so we enjoyed that while Mum passed out the presents she’d arranged under their roses.  Mum and Dad were pleased with their alpaca scarves and Ailsa with the chocolate I bought her today.  Mum had brought us both Chocolate Oranges from home – well, it wouldn’t be Christmas without an orange of some sort!  We still couldn’t manage the Christmas menu, so settled for soup and ceviche instead.

A cloud forest, a cable car, a chocolate visit and Christmas roses - definitely unconventional, but I had a great Christmas! 


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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #3 Ecuador and Galapagos Islands

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This is the big highlight of the year. Joined by my parents and reunited with Ailsa, we'll spend Christmas in Quito, then travel to Galápagos for New Year, celebrating in style with a week on the Queen Beatriz catamaran visiting the southern islands.

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