In Ecuador, you’re never too old to be a ‘bat out of hell’ or just an ‘accidental tourist’

Jul 26, 2022 | 5 comments

Laguna de Cuicocha near Cotacachi, a 12km rim walk

By John Keeble

The world is a wonderful place, especially Ecuador – but it does look strange when you are hanging upside down on a zipline high above the jungle canopy. Everything is in the wrong place, including most of your blood, as you race face-first towards the solid end of the wires.

Such solo fun is called The Bat, an aerial ‘dance’ I learned recently in Mindo cloud forest in northern Ecuador. The zipline guide, Fabricio, hooked my harness and extra safety lead onto the wires, I lay back with joints and soft spots protesting, crossed my ankles and folded my legs, and then the jungle world started racing towards me while I was hanging upside down like a bat.

Reina falls, high above Mindo village

That might seem a tad difficult but it wasn’t. You need to be a bit batty to try it. So it felt natural to me as I headed a few hundred metres to the end of the ride at a speed that felt like I was emerging from hell.

Next, a short hike to another zipline. There, it was The Butterfly. Not solo this time. Young Austin, the other guide, hooked on with me. I did the lying back in my harness prep, then put my legs over Austin’s shoulders. As Fabricio shoved us into space, Austin raised and spread my muddy butterfly legs – and I was hanging upside down, arms stretched out and down to embrace the green space below, and eyes wide watching the jungle whiz past.

Mariposas de Mindo butterfly park

The third ‘dance’ was The Kangaroo. Easy. I just rode along while Fabricio stayed at the start point working the wire in his best efforts to heave my breakfast into the next world. Tremendous fun.

Later, several people saw reports and photos of my hiking buddy Bob Itami and me enjoying our age-defying high wire acts. One said: “You look like 13-year-olds.” Which was fine with us, given we had a combined age of 146. Another said: “You are completely bonkers.” Can’t argue with that, I guess. A third commented: “You guys are just a couple of Accidental (on purpose) tourists out for thrills and spills!” Damn. I thought no one knew.

Bob Itami on the edge

One of the other high-wire options was playing Superman, though trying this did not achieve the sleek appeal of Clark Kent… more like a sack of spuds slung under a delivery wire heading for market. A very nice Californian woman and her husband joined us. Her Superwoman technicolor yawn was quite spectacular.

Mindo Ziplines charges $20 for a tour taking in all 10 of its double-cable ziplines, less for three or seven lines. Fabricio and Austin were tremendous as our experts. The safety practices were meticulous, the equipment good and solid, and the whole experience was the best.

We came upon the ziplines during a 12-kilometre hike during which past and future clashed, confused us and failed: old-fashioned signposting did not help us find our target destination, a waterfalls area, and our Google Maps phone app was misleading where it was not blank.

It took human calculation and determination (do you remember when that was the norm?) to adjust, adapt and morphe into butterflies and bats.

Our Google-free ingenuity failed to find the waterfalls but, serendipity and a shaky sense of direction led us to jungle cervesa and pizza before another star attraction, the serene Mariposas de Mindo butterfly park, very much part of the Mindo family-friendly ethos.

Batman Keeble in flight. (Photo by Bob Itami)

Several dozen butterfly species — a tiny but fascinating sample of Ecuador’s 4,000 butterfly species — kept our phone cams busy before we hiked back down to Mindo village to reward ourselves with more cervesa.

Not to be defeated in our quest to see the waterfalls, we returned to the fray on the following morning, eschewing modern technology and old-fashioned signposts alike. We took a taxi.

The driver, a local expert on finding places, let us out at the right spot and we crossed a deep ravine in a mini cable car to begin a walk through the dense cloud forest to the area’s headline waterfall attraction.

A silence, pinpricked only by the sound of insects, enveloped us as we made our muddy way towards the Reina cascada. Dense greens and primary-colour flowers celebrated a profusion of vibrant life amid the browns and blacks of decaying afterlife debris… a smell of a world constantly regenerating over thousands of years.

On the trail: (r-l) Bob Itami, Roberto Castelo, and John Keeble. (Photo by Bob Itami)

On our way back along the path, our own world reasserted itself with a chance meeting with amigo Roberto Castelo, our guide when we biked down Cotopaxi volcano a few months earlier. He was taking two German women on a tour and later, as we hiked towards Mindo village, he caught up with us and gave us a lift ‘home’ in his tour van.

Bob Itami and John Keeble dressed and ready to go. (Photo by Fabricio)

Next day, just when I was feeling extra relaxed, I met Dracula. Then his family chum, Smiley Face Dracula. In fact, there were at least a dozen, maybe more, Draculas just hanging about waiting for us – they are a beautiful species of orchid, one of 250 orchids to see and photograph on a $4 tour at Jardin de Orquideas in the edge of Mindo village.

‘Home’ for the week was the River House, part of Hacienda San Vicente/Yellow House complex in the cloud forest a few hundred metres from the village. Quiet, soothing with the subtle rumble of the mountain river, old wood and modern plumbing, excellent kitchen and outside seating that doubled as a dining area and my writing retreat. All for just $130 per person per week (nightly rate: $27).

Smiley Face Dracula

Mindo is known worldwide to birders and the Yellow House complex has its own trails. For amateurs like us, spotting a bright and noisy toucan was a lot easier that finding a lesser fantailed spotted something hiding in the foliage. In fact, we met more birders than birds, but that’s life on our overcrowded planet.

All the same, we trekked up the most difficult and dense trail to see if we could find the local avian star attraction, the Cock of the Rock. We couldn’t. We did see two busy woodpeckers, half a dozen chickens, and the most beautiful primary rain forest that anyone could hope to experience. Not bad for four hours and nine kilometres of effort. It satisfied us.

Mindo village reclines at a comfortable 1,300m (about 4,000ft) elevation and has a pleasant climate during the dry months of June to August but a long, varying rainy season from September to May. It is a two-hour $80 car ride northwest of Quito.

Before going to Mindo, we had hiked with chums at Cotacachi about four hours to the northeast. Our good friend and Cajas mountain guide Esteban Arévalo drove us north from our natural habitat in Cuenca, and our hiking buddy Janet Engel organised some great outings in Cotacachi.

Bob Itami on the bird spotting trail

First full day, first full hike — 12km around the rim of Laguna de Cuicocha, a 3 km wide caldera and crater lake at the foot of Cotacachi Volcano. Its name comes from the Kichwa indigenous language and means Guinea Pig Lake.

Second full day, a walk in the woods… a grove of 1,000-year-old polylepis trees (aka Paper Trees) at El Angeles Reserve some 90 minutes’ drive from Cotacachi . We usually see polylepis high in the Cajas, our magic forests with trees bent and gnarled into what look like a witches’ dens.

On that walk, we had a guide from Polylepis Lodge, which owns the land, and offers upscale accommodation and meals. Our 2hr hike cost $15 each and included comfortable wellies to get through mud that would have defeated our hiking boots.

I’m often amazed at how much interest and fun we can find in Ecuador – and this trip was no exception. Do you need to be a bit batty and ignore ageing to enjoy it? Not really, but it worked for us.

(See more photos below)
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Tatiana Oñate shows an orchid at the Jardin de Orquideas

(r-l) Bob Itami, Janet Engel, Esteban Arévalo and John Keeble at Laguna de Cuicocha  (Photo by Bob Itami)

Relaxing after hiking – (r-l) Janet Engel, John Keeble, Esteban Arévalo, Bob Itami  (Photo by Bob Itami)

Photos by John Keeble unless otherwise marked

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