Mindo, Land of Butterflies and Chocolate

Tuesday, February 18

This morning, I accomplished the real task which drew me to Quito: I submitted the paperwork to apply for my Ecuadorian visa! I woke up before sunrise and hired a taxi to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Movilidad Humana. I was so anxious to be on time that I arrived almost an hour early. It was like magic when Gaby, the assistant to the lawyer with whom I have been e-mailing for months, showed up with my paperwork. I wanted to give her a bear hug! The transaction was uneventful, and Gaby advised me to meet her at the same place on Friday afternoon. Smoother sailing than expected. Now I was free from Quito for two days. The question was, what to do?

First off, a huge $2.00 lunch of yapingacho and a $0.50 coconut smoothie with my British friends at the Mercado Central. Then, soccer and frisbee in the park. I was happy, tired, grassy, and soaking wet by the time I returned to the hostel that evening. It was an afternoon of happy freedom. With that mindset, I decided how I will spend tomorrow. I’m hopping a bus to Mindo, the bird-watcher’s heaven in the cloud forest!

The more I research Mindo, the more giddy I become. There’s even a nine-day luxury bird tour put on my a Mindo birding company. Not in my time-frame or budget now, but it’s something to dream about for the future. Maybe I can take my mom on that tour for her 60th birthday!

For tonight, I will contain my thoughts to the next two days I plan to spend in the steamy, rainy, high-altitude forest of Mindo. I’m all packed and paid up. The only thing left to do it read my Birds of Ecuador book and dream of toucans, motmots, flycatchers and trogons. Goodnight!

Wednesday, February 19

Welcome to Mindo, land of butterflies and chocolate! And, of course, birds. I just learned that Mindo is the third best birding hot-spot in South America. How lucky am I?

I took the 9:00am bus from Quito’s northern bus station to Mindo for a whopping $2.00. The bus system charges roughly a dollar an hour. If only Seattle’s public transit was that cheap! When I got off the bus on a sleepy dirt road, I noticed two other foreigners putting on their backpacks and looking around uncertainly.

“What hostel are you looking for?” asked a middle-aged woman with thick brown bangs.

“Hostal Cecilia?” I replied, having read good reviews of it last night.

“That’s where I’m going!” both of the other travelers said at once. I guess it’s a good place!

We all walked a few blocks through the misty fog to a clean, simple, cheap hostel on the river. The second traveler, a young Dutch guy named Daan, and I headed up the ladder to the open-air dormitory. As we unpacked, Daan asked what I had planned. “I think I’ll join you on everything you do for the next couple days,” he proclaimed. It’s the luck of the backpacker – you meet perfect travel companions everywhere you go.

So I wrote up a list of all the sites I hoped to explore, and we set off immediately to La Mariposeria, the butterfly house. The walk took longer than expected, especially because we would come across one sign that said “1 km” and then a while later, the next sign would say “2.7 km.” We were never sure if the distances were listed to the actual destination, or just until the next sign.

The trek was well worth it, because the butterflies were spectacular. I tried to match my photos with the informational signs around the butterfly house, but they weren't all easy to tell. So here are my pictures and possible names for the butterflies in them!

Heliconius cydno 

Metona grandiosa 

Siproeta epaphus

Heliconius ismenius 

Morpho elenor 

The same species with its wings closed!

Papilio something... amazing placement!

Heliconius erato 

Heliconius sara 

Heliconius athis 

Heliconius melpomene

I didn't catch the name of the gorgeous orange insect.
My favorite parts were allowing the giant brown Caligo memnon butterflies to lap up rotten banana while standing on my finger and examining the diverse chrysalis collection.

You just had to prompt them a little bit and they hopped right on.

Those stripey gel eyes...

The chrysalises tend to be camouflaged based on where that species lays its eggs. These look like flower buds.

I couldn't find any chrysalises within this display of dried leaves.

Butterflies that lay their eggs near water often have metallic pupae like these.

It's hard to imagine this golden jewel blending in anywhere!

I'm not sure what these pupae are trying to mimic.

Outside the Mariposaria, a couple hummingbird feeders attracted the glittering, hovering, buzzing birds. I could have sat and watched the white-necked jacobins, green-crowned woodnypmphs, and white-whiskered hermits all day, but our 4:00pm appointment for the Mindo Chocolate Factory tour was approaching.

A green-crowned woodnymph.
We hurried back through a torrential rainstorm to the small, artisan chocolate factory in the forest.

The tour began with a walk through the factory's garden, where many of the additives are grown.

I never knew what ginger looked like in the ground!

CACAO!!!! (Any Portlandia fans out there?)

Lemongrass after a haircut -- I mean harvest.

Drying racks of cacao beans.

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A fermenting cacao bean is bright purple inside! Purple chocolate, anyone?

The low-tech blower machine which separates the nib from the husk.
Overall, the tour was interesting, but I was really just looking forward to samples. We each got a little cup of bitter chocolate sauce and added sugar, ginger, sour honey "barbecue" sauce, and other flavorings to our own taste. It was delicious, but definitely not enough! Daan and I had to buy some chocolate bars to try as well. It was interesting to compare this factory to Theo, the chocolate factory in my neighborhood of Seattle. A lot of the concepts were the same -- pure dark unadulterated chocolate, fair-trade ingredients, handmade products, crazy new flavor combinations -- but the main difference was scale. Theo is turning into a national favorite, whereas I don't see Mindo Chocolate Factory venturing out of the clouds anytime soon.

We were supposed to attend a third tourist event tonight, the Frog Concert night walk, but the heavy drizzle and our tired bodies prompted us to spend the night in.

My first night under the princess-canopy of a mosquito net.

My awesome spontaneous traveling companion, Daan the Dutchman.

Before bed, I found myself in pajamas at 8:00pm with nothing to do. I hadn’t brought my computer or any novels to read. Sometimes I love that uncertainty of what to do with my time, a feeling that reminds me of childhood days before homework and internship applications and Facebook. It forces you to be creative.

I pulled out my bird book, my journal, and my red plastic case of colored pencils. I started sketching Mindo’s myriad hummingbird species in hopes that I might learn to identify a few.

I only got through six before the consistent dripping of rain on the aluminum roof put me to sleep.