Text and Photos: Miguel Ángel Pérez
Large cloth screens rise above the slopes of the Pululahua Volcano to literally hunt clouds. At noon they emerge from the crater like souls escaping from the bowels of the earth. Later, the water is collected in channels for human consumption. From the tourist gazebo we observe the magnitude of this colossus, nearly 2.5 miles in in diameter, with three domes (small hills) in the background covered in tropical vegetation bursting with orchids and ferns.
The Sendero de las Ventanillas trail leads us inside this still-active volcano, the last eruption of which occurred 2,200 years ago. The crater plain is carpeted with small green and brown fields of crops and the small houses of some fifty families who earn their living from agriculture and livestock. “We have everything here: fertile land that feeds us with none of the evils of the big city,” says Rodrigo Ortiz, one of the inhabitants.
Horseback riding and visits to natural pools are among the other attractions on this mass of lava and stone, just twelve miles from Quito. El Cráter Hotel is one of two accommodation options on the planet offering the unique experience of sleeping inside a volcano. Aside from its beauty and uniqueness, Pululahua (meaning “cloud of water” in Quichua) is a gateway to the Cloud Forest, a must-see destination in 2017 according to the prestigious National Geographic.
The best way to discover this region is by car. After our first stop, our journey continues along the Calacalí-La Independencia Highway, which takes us deep into the Cloud Forest. Just after Calacalí, we take the turn-off for the Yunguilla Reserve, the country’s first community-run tourism center, founded in 1995. The 300 people who live in the Reserve decided to stop logging the forest and adhere to strict conservationist policies. Visitors live with local families, helping out in eco-orchards or enjoying long walks along the many trails. There is also a small artisanal factory that produces cheeses and jams.
It’s easy to spot at least a few of the 120 species of cataloged birds and listen to their songs resounding through the foliage of this sixty-six-acre reserve. With a little luck we’ll see the famous sword hummingbird and it’s magestic green plumage, or the Andean toucan. We’ll be less likely to encounter any of the forty-four spectacled bears spotted within the boundaries of the reserve, but one can always hope.
We continue our hike along a winding road bordered by thick vegetation that seems to engulf us. Waterfalls spring from the hillsides. It is quite common for a rainbow to appear after a sudden cloudburst and, of course, there are the ever-present clouds, with textures that transform throughout the day.
The Cloud Forest is located in the Chocó biogeographic region, which extends from Panama, through Colombia and Ecuador, and down into northwestern Perú, covering a total area of 72,000 square miles.
The vast natural riches in this region, which is considered one of the planet’s biodiversity hot spots, are due to extreme humidity, high rainfall, warm temperatures, and different climatic “floors.” A total of 542 species of birds, 113 species of mammals, and 21,490 different plants —including 400 different orchids— can be found in this Ecuadorian region.
We continue along the Calacalí-La Independencia Highway until we reach Nanegalito, about forty-three miles from Quito, which is a must-visit for your taste buds. According to those in the know, this is the place to get Ecuador’s best fritadas, a typical dish from the Andean region and a perfect example of cultural syncretism, blending traditional Spanish and indigenous cuisines. It is made from small pieces of pork seasoned and fried in its own fat and served with mote (a variety of white corn), ripe plantain, and avocado.
On our way out of this small town, we see a sign for the Tulipe Ceremonial Center, which features the archaeological remains of the Yumbo civilization that inhabited these lands from 600 A.D. until the end of the 16th century. Here, seven pools have been dug into the earth, six in the shape of the lunar phases and one more shaped like the silhouette of a jaguar. These pools are lined with stones packed together without mortar. The guide explained that a reservoir with a complex system of channels once controlled the flow of water, which rose only 15-20 inches high. The Yumbos used these pools as a mirror for astronomical observation and for ceremonial purposes during initiation, purification, and fertility rites.
The Tulipe Highway continues past hills, pre-Columbian “tolas,” sugar cane crops, and tropical forests. Clearly, we are approaching the Mashpi region, the Cloud Forest’s purest and most biodiverse area. Although only seventy miles from Quito, it feels like we’re in the middle of the jungle. This is where you’ll find Mashpi Lodge, an authentic natural sanctuary listed by National Geographic as one of the world’s twenty-four most unique lodges.
The huge wooden entrance gate is reminiscent of the movie Jurassic Park. After traveling for about twenty minutes along a dirt trail that is crossed by rivers and adorned by ferns with three-foot leaves, we spot the main building surrounded by lush vegetation. This exquisite boutique hotel is run in keeping with strict ecological principles. It is made primarily of metal and glass to keep visitors in constant visual contact with the wild surroundings, creating a feeling of being inside a glass bubble in the middle of the Cloud Forest.
The man behind this project is environmentalist and businessman Roque Sevilla, former director of the Charles Darwin Foundation of Galapagos and the World Wildlife Fund. “In 2001,” says Sevilla, “I joined with other investors to purchase approximately 3,000 acres, in order to protect them. For many years I came here with my family and friends to camp, with all the inconveniences of sleeping in the jungle. Then I came up with the idea of building a hotel with all the comforts, but without giving up the natural environment.”
The lodge is also a research center. It has a resident biologist and a laboratory where students from international universities come to conduct research. More than 500 species of birds, thirty-four of which are endemic, and a large number of mammals, including monkeys, deer, sloths, and pumas, have been spotted on the 3,000-acre reserve. Recently, new species of frog, magnolia, and orchid were discovered.
There is plenty to do in the surrounding area: explore trails leading to waterfalls and Edenic rivers; visit the butterfly garden or hummingbird area; pedal through the tree tops, 130 feet up, on the Sky Bike; or ride the mile-long cable up 525 feet and into the clouds.
Now it’s time to make our way back. Once again on the familiar Calacalí-La Independencia Highway, we travel twenty-five miles north until we reach Mindo, a destination for adrenaline lovers. Although the town is filled with hotels, it has held onto its hippie charm, with Pachamama graffiti on the walls, vegan shops, and dreadlocked artisans selling bracelets and necklaces.
In the main street of this village of about 2,500 inhabitants there are many restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, and companies specializing in adventure sports.
The most popular activities are the canopy zip line (glide through the air above overgrown creeks in a harness attached to a steel cable); tubing (riding down a river on a group of tethered inner tubes); mountain biking; and rafting. For the more sedate, there are cocoa plantation tours, nocturnal frog concerts, or a visit to the Santuario de las Cascadas, where you can take a refreshing swim in any number of waterfalls.
And just when we thought our journey was over, we begin another. In just two hours we’re on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, bidding farewell to our day as we enjoy a delicious ceviche and watch the sunset from the beach. If we travelled the same distance in the opposite direction we could be drinking hot chocolate at the foot of a glacier. That’s the beauty of touring Ecuador: a small country, but with the most diversity per square mile in the world!