Saturday, May 8, 2010


Leaving Pichincha

I have been eagerly awaiting my first trip to Mindo, a small town in the midst of the cloudforest on the west side of the Andes. Everyone who visits the area raves about the amazing birds and the beauty of the forest and the laid back energy of the town, which is very friendly to tourists. Last night, Vladimir the taxi driver called out of the blue and I took that as a sign that we would ride in a car instead of taking a bus early in the morning. Maya does not do well in buses, so this turned out to be the right decision. We left the apartment early and joined Vladimir and his six year old son Joel, who came along for the ride. It was a sunny clear morning, and we whizzed through the sun to the Mitad del Mundo and turned up to Calicali and took the same road Eric and I had been on to get to Tulipe. The thick lush cloudforest suddenly appears after driving through the desert landscape of the north of Quito, and it is spectacularly beautiful. The turnoff to Mindo is a sharp left down a narrow road to the town, which appears undeveloped and simple and hardly a tourist mecca. There is evidence of tourist activities at a few establishments on the small main street, withe ziplines and tubing the most popular items. We were to meet Maya' s friends Lucia and Nick at the 'Casa Bambu', and I did not know how to get there. We asked a few people where it was, the first of whom shrugged his shoulders, the next few were able to guide us a little, but as we left the main plaza and off the paved road, it became confusing, and Vladimir was upset, because the roads were not meant for his small hatchback. Trucks and four wheel drives were more appropriate for the muddy roads, and we soon became lost. When we doubled back and finally arrived at the Casa Bambu, Vladimir asked for more money than we agreed on. Originally he had asked for $50, but after a second and third phonecall had changed his price to $80, then $75, then $o, then $80 again. He claimed that there were five tolls on the road, so I agreed to pay for the tolls (there turned out to be one costing 80 cents!). I had stuck to the $50, which was generous for Ecuadorian standards, but when we finally found Casa Bambu, he asked for more again for his struggles. I did give him an extra $5. Eric tells me it is not unusual (he has negotiated prices for the student course many times over the years) for Ecuadorians to bargain upward rather than downward!

Rain and Flowers

We met Helen, Jeff, Lucia and Nick and their grandfather having breakfast, and were able to get into our little cabin. We were asked to take our shoes off outside, and were delighted to find a clean and neat little two room cabin with more than enough space and a bathroom! I had originally booked a treehouse at a resort for six times the cost for a one night two day stay, so I was not expecting much and was pleasantly surprised. We were introduced to 'Leo', who took care of the property and made breakfast and answered every question with 'tranquilo, tranquilo...'

Powerful Women

Emily had originally wanted to join the group on the zipline through the canopy, but was worried that it was far too dangerous for me. I explained my circumstances to the guides at 'Mindo Canopy Tours', and was reassured that I would be fine and that the guide would personally take me with him to ensure that I would have a smooth ride and soft landings. Despite Emily's concerns, I was able to complete the circuit without incident. Pedro hooked me up with him each time and controlled the speed and prevented any jolting, and I was able to enjoy whizzing through the sky hundreds of feet above the canopy. We flew with turkey vultures and swallow tailed kites, and the adrenaline was pumping. The children tried different positions such as 'superman' (arms and legs out to side, body at horizontal) and 'mariposa' (upside down with legs up and arms down), but the adults stayed right side up. We all survived without incident and were very excited!

The sun did not last. Rain started to fall at the beginning of the zipline experience and never let up for the rest of the day. Emily and I tasted the local trout at a small establishment which Jeff chose because of the $2.50 three course meal offered. The trout was double the cost but many times better than the 'menu' of the day. Our friends were leaving for another cloudforest resort nearby, so Emily, Maya and I decided to visit the local chocolate factory. It is called 'El Queztal' and owned and run by Americans. The story was that to make the brownies in the restaurant, the chef had to import chocolate from the USA, which did not make sense, since the chocolate fruit is an Ecuadorian export, so somewhere along the way, the owners decided to make their own chocolate, and are having such success, they are exporting their chocolate to delis in the USA.

Emily's son Nathan is crazy about chocolate, and Maya has been interested in chocolate making since she saved all the chocolate seeds during our trip to Cuyabeno. We came for the 'chocolate tour' and learned all there was to know about making chocolate. There are three types of chocolate fruit, and one is hardier (forestal), one is tastier (?) and the 'nacional' variety is both hardier and tastier. The fruit is selected and the seeds, which are covered with a white gooey fruit, are fermented for a week or so before they are dried, roasted in a hand driven roasting device, and then ground down to smaller sized 'nibs' their skins are peeled off. The Mayans used to peel off the skins by hand, but on the top of the three story hostal/restaurant/factory, a fan is set up to blow off the skins after the seeds are ground. The 'nibs' are then further ground up in a juicer to make a chocolate 'liquer', which is sold to local establishments. The 'liquer' is then mixed with sugar and melted cocoa butter (they take their own cocoa butter by using a pressure device to squeeze out the solid fat from the 'liquor') in a jerry rigged mixing machine, which was opened up to show its insides. Evidently something was not working, and efforts were being made to fix the machine, while it was mixing the chocolate. We all tasted the 60% chocolate mixture. When ready, the chocolate is 'tempered' as its temperature goes from 120 to 80 or so degrees, and poured into molds, tapped a few times to get rid of bubbles, and refrigerated. These efforts are necessary to ensure that although solid, the chocolate will melt in your mouth when you eat it.

Yummmmm Chocolate!

We were fascinated! Our short tour extended to a two hour extravaganza, with brownies and coffee ice cream (they roast their own coffee too) and cappuccinos all around, and a discussion about the need for good cheese in Ecuador. Ecuadorian cheese is mild and generally uninteresting, although they love their cheese and do not want it any other way. I am not sure there is a market for parmesan and gorgonzola and brie and camembert, but I do wish someone would try to make good cheese!

We wandered through the town, surprisingly simple and nontouristy. I was curious that it was not more developed, but I understand that the townspeople do not want to change much. There are many hostals and restaurants, so clearly they are prepared for many more tourists than they had this weekend, but they want to keep their town sleepy and unfinished, which is charming and has worked for them. We were trying to decide whether we wanted a guide for a morning hike. To really see birds, a guide is necessary. I was interested in seeing the 'cock of the rock', but we learned that the local 'lek' (male birds strut about and try to attract a female with mating dances and noises), but it was closed to visitors and we would have to travel over an hour away early in the morning at great expense to see the nearest 'lek'. By not deciding, we made a decision to walk on our own the next morning.

Main Street

Our afternoon was lazy and uneventful in the drizzling rain. Maya discovered ping pong and we all tried to play pool. We walked back to town in the dark without a flashlight and tried to take a 'shortcut' which Jeff had described. We were entirely unsuccessful and got lost and retraced our steps in the mud and the blackness and took an inordinate time to arrive at our destination without falling into the rushing river. We did find a tiny suspension bridge, which we crossed with great trepidation, but realized that the 'long' way would have been much shorter and easier and less nerve wracking.


Hammock and Reading

Dinner was surprisingly good pizza made a 'leƱa' in a traditional pizza oven. Good cheese would have made it even better! Our walk back to Casa Bambu was well lit and well marked and we arrived safely. I set our alarm to 5:30 for an early morning walk to find birds. Maya crawled into bed first and jumped up almost immediately claiming to have felt a cockroach under the covers. I was not so sure and pulled all the sheets and blankets off and searched for evidence but found none. It took a while to calm her down and urge her to sleep. We all needed to be well rested for our adventure tomorrow!

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