Mindo Vol. 1: Gypsy Wagons & Tropical Birds

We’d heard and read that Mindo, about two hours northwest of Quito, was an excellent place to visit to enjoy the cloud forest and see birds. See lots of birds. When we looked into it, we found that it’s a bit of a resort area, with loads of ecolodges on the outskirts of town, and lots of activities. We were still looking for a nice weekend getaway to celebrate my birthday, and Mindo sounded perfect.

Alina performed her usual wizardry, and we ended up at La Roulotte, a gorgeous ecolodge about 2 km outside of Mindo. Their distinguishing feature is that all the guest cabins are actually gypsy wagons!

When we arrived our super friendly and helpful host Ignacio showed us to our wagon, perfectly outfitted with its own bathroom, wood floors and walls, and double bunks. It was so cute, and would be perfect for families with kids.

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The common area was beautiful as well, a giant wooden dining hall, with peaked ceiling, and glass walls to better watch the birds in the jungle outside.

There were feeders set up in lots of trees, and as we sat at breakfast, we were stunned at all the hummingbirds coming in for a snack.

Speaking of breakfast, it was just amazing here. Probably the best we’ve had on our trip, or at the very least, since we left Chiang Mai. Homemade, warm and crisp bread, huge bowls of fruit with granola and yogurt, and our favorite, fried eggs.

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Having chosen to visit Mindo partially because of the relaxing cloud forest and lodges, but also because of its fame as a birding locale, we signed up for a guided walk. The only downside was that we had to get up early enough to eat and be ready to start walking by 6 AM.

Listen to the Birds

But it was definitely worth it! Our guide Javier was a storehouse of knowledge, constantly calling out bird names as he spotted or heard them. It’s quite impressive as about 460 of Ecuador’s 1663 species live in the Mindo area, and he must have been able to identify them all.

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Each time he’d spot a bird (and sometimes we had no idea how he did it), he’d whip the spotting scope around and get it settled on the tripod and aimed within seconds. Then it was “Scope!” and we’d scurry up to see whatever he’d found. We had to be quick as a lot of the birds would be flitting from branch to branch, tree to tree, as they searched out breakfast.

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The variety was incredible, and I can’t remember almost any of the species. But I know we saw a lot of different tanagers, flycatchers, creepers, wrens, and some clouds of flying swifts.  Sometimes he’d hear a distant call, and start calling himself, tracking down the bird, or luring it in closer with repeated chirps.

Every so often, something unusual or especially interesting would come up in the scope, and Javier was kind enough to try to get pictures for us, mating our little camera with the lens. Tricky work, but it paid off a few times. The first big find was a Ringed Kingfisher, common in the area, but much bigger than the little songbirds we’d been seeing so far.

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As we crossed the Rio Mindo, heading up further into the cloud forest, Javier excitedly pointed out a variety of Sandpiper, bobbing its butt as it walked in the river. Apparently these are quite rare, and it was a pleasure to spot one, though we didn’t get a picture, as he kept hiding behind rocks.

Much of the reason for Mindo’s incredible diversity of bird species is the equally diverse range of habitats and micro climates. The area lies on the western shoulders of the Andes, so within a 25 mile range, the elevation can range from 800 m, all the way up to 4000 m, going from jungle to cloud forest, to high mountain. Obviously this leads to a lot of different species being in the area, both local birds, and those migrating from North America.

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In order to see some of this diversity, we climbed the road leading higher. Javier told us that this was, in fact, the best single road for birding in the world. During the Christmas Bird Count, he’d once spotted over 150 species along this road personally within the 24 hour period. And Mindo has ‘won’ the bird count for something like 8 of the past ten years, with counts of over 450 species within a 25 mile radius of town. Javier was quick to point out that the years Mindo didn’t win, other Ecuadorean areas did.

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We were certainly rewarded as we continued along this road of birds, first spotting a mated pair of Crimson-Rumped Toucanets. At first, we saw only the female. But then a male joined her on the branch, and we got a little bit of a show, as they started to get amorous.

Another highlight was a variety of woodpecker, which Javier methodically tracked down from in the thick woods from repeated listening to its pecking. In the same area we saw a hummingbird flitting from tree to tree, and amazingly it stopped long enough to get a shot.

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Small earthen cliffs lined the road, and we were shown where one species made their nests in holes they had dug. Some of these holes extended up to 2 m into the cliff face, winding and turning to provide protection for the chicks.

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After about four hours of constantly viewing new birds, we finally headed back towards our lodge. All of a sudden, Javier stopped and pointed to the top of a distant, sparse tree.

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He was very excited as he pointed out the Gray-Headed Kite perched there, searching for food. He told us this was our special bird for the day, a species he hadn’t spotted for the past 2.5 years! We got several good looks as we moved around its perch, until it finally flew off, perhaps to catch breakfast.

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The whole experience was really quite wonderful. I never had much enthusiasm for bird-watching growing up, even though my mom loves it, and tried to take us a few times. Perhaps it was being in a more exotic environment, perhaps it’s something that comes with age, or perhaps it’s that we had all the birds spoon-fed to us without needing to spot or identify anything ourselves. Whatever the reason, both Alina and I really enjoyed ourselves, and it’s something I would definitely do again.

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