We took a couple of other noteworthy excursions whilst in Ecuador to the towns of Mindo and Montecristi.
Mindo is situated in the Ecuadorian cloud forest and, much like the Cuyabeno Reserve, is incredibly biodiverse. Whilst the town is small, it is a magnet for outdoorsy-types in search of birds, butterflies and orchids, or extreme sports like rafting, tubing, climbing and ziplining.
Ecuador has more orchid species than any other country on Earth. We visited an ‘orquideario’ (orchid garden) with over 200 species. Incredibly, all of them are native to this region. The owner has been collecting these plants for years and is certain more species are still to be discovered as this area largely unexplored by botanists.
Another highlight of Mindo was the butterfly farm. We learnt about the various stages of growth, from caterpillar to chrysalis to mature butterfly, before visiting an enclosure to see them up close. The colouration and patterns of the butterflies were extraordinary, with some having spectacular ‘false eyes’. The chrysalises were as varied as the butterflies. Particularly impressive where those belonging to species that live near water. They have a metallic appearance, which acts as a camouflage.
To regain our strength from this nature-fest we visited an artisanal chocolate factory. Here, we were shown the cocoa plants and guided through the whole process, and finished with the obligatory sampling of the product. Ecuador produces some of the finest cocoa in the world. Of all the cocoa grown worldwide only 5% of it is considered ‘premium’, of which Ecuador produces 60%. You will not be surprised to learn that 0% of this premium chocolate finds its way into a bar of Dairy Milk!
With Lucy’s sister, we hired a car for a couple of weeks and drove along the Ecuadorian coast. One of the highlights was a day trip to Montecristi, which is curiously the home to the ‘Panama hat’. In the mid-nineteenth century, straw hats from Montecristi, Ecuador were traded in Panama along with vast quantities of other goods and quickly became a favourite with gold prospectors and labourers on the Panama Canal. Slowly, these straw hats became associated with their point of international sale, rather than their country of origin.
Woven by master craftsmen, Panama hats come in various grades of quality depending on the number of weaves per square inch. The making of the highest grade, a ‘superfino’, takes several months, and has between 1600/2500 weaves per square inch. These hats can hold water and pass through a wedding ring when folded.
All in all, we’ve seen some fantastic things in Ecuador. It is an extraordinarily biodiverse and naturally beautiful country. And, of course, we can’t forget the Galápagos Islands, which for this trip were just too expensive for us, but which, by all accounts, live up to expectations. However, it’s not a country we’d go back to. In our opinion, there’s something missing; the infectious Latino spirit…and in it’s place is something much more American and distinctly less charming.